Dirigibles and airplanes

Translators Associations News: Steve Vitek Machine Translation v Human TranslatorIn an article posted on his blog, American translator Steve Vitek poses several questions about human translators and machine translation, using a very curious metaphor.

Vitek picks one of Jules Verne’s lesser known books, “Robur The Conqueror”, and uses the conflict set in the plot as an exercise to understand nowadays’ demanding world of translation. In the novel, there is a war between two types of technology which would allow humans to fly. They are lighter-than-air balloons (then called “dirigibles”) and heavier-than-air planes, something most of French scientists weren’t ready to accept as possible, back then.

The author asks himself if this sci-fi (think 19th century) battle can be compared to the way people see human translation (heavier than air, subjective technology) and machine translation (lighter than air, following the laws of physics).

“For one thing, I use machine translation about as much as I use dictionaries when I translate”, says Vitek, who specialises in translating patents. “It is simply much easier to print out an MT version of a Japanese, German or French patent in English and then just take a quick glance at the English words on the paper instead of having to look up a single word” in the dictionary.

On the other hand, the author wonders why on Earth do people pay a fee to a translator or a translation association when they know it’s so easy to use machine translation. The answer seems to be above our heads. “Just like a hot air balloon is a completely different product from an airplane, machine translation is a completely different product from human translation, which is also suitable only for a different purpose.”

Just like with any man-machine conflict, we find out that it would be nice if we could get the best of both worlds and get them to work together in harmony. Both MTs and human translators offer suggestions of what the real translation might be. The big difference is that men base themselves on years (decades) of work, research, life experience and creative thinking. Machines aggregate “the thinking that was done for them by humans”.

“Machines are lighter than air when it comes to thinking, much lighter, because machines can’t think at all. Humans are in this case much heavier than air because they always think, all the time, even in their sleep.”

According to Steve, there are many occasions when “lighter than air” is useful, whereas there are times when only humans, with their heavy luggage, can solve the problem. Most of the time, the ideal is to have them work together.

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