Evolution of the profession and industry

It is useful to consider how translation has evolved as a profession, and as an industry. For centuries, translators worked in relative isolation, with a toolkit that essentially consisted of writing implements and printed reference materials. The typewriter, first manual, then electric, became an important tool, but any substantial revision required retyping. Even self-correcting models had obvious limitations in terms of efficiency. When available, translators took advantage of other technologies as well, for example, dictating translations on tape, and then paying for them to be transcribed, but efficiency was elusive. From today's perspective, it's hard to believe that any translated material meant for publication had to be typeset, essentially duplicating the translator's work!

Reference materials were often scarce, and difficult to find or acquire. Translators assembled their own libraries of printed monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, encyclopedias, and all manner of other reference materials (books on specific topics, instruction manuals, travel brochures, you name it, even phone books in the target language). Research meant spending time in libraries, photocopying or requesting materials. Everything was kept for reference, in printed form, and reusing past translations was scarcely viable, as it meant spending significant time locating the previous material and then retyping it, perhaps based on a carbon copy.

But since the mid-1980s, a real revolution has taken place. Translators first abandoned the typewriter for the word processor, and then, slowly at first, went on to very sophisticated tools and translation environments. Today, after roughly 30 years of computers being mainstream in translation, we have at our disposal a huge variety of tools that help us translate efficiently, manage projects flows, maintain databases of translated content, develop extensive, searchable and sortable glossaries. Translated materials can be searched, reused, reworked, and delivered instantly. Computers brought productivity to the translation industry.

Access to the internet expanded research possibilities beyond what any translator of the past could have imagined. We now have the means to research specialized subjects instantly and with ease from any computer. Instant communications across the globe allow translators to collaborate easily on projects, consult with colleagues, and even join groups of professionals who share glossaries, and discuss relevant topics of interest to members of the community.

Finally, machine or automated translation has come into play. Even as companies strive to improve the skill of machine translation (MT) systems, there is still much resistance among translators to the idea of incorporating MT output into their workflow. Having said that, it is also true that many are embracing the technology, shifting from being the producers of their own translations to being the producers of corrected MT, post-editors, as the industry calls them. While the effects of MT on the profession remain to be seen, it is clearly here to stay, and it will have profound impacts for the industry, and for producers and consumers of translations.

Not all of this change has been easy, or positive. Today, translators have to understand how their tools work, and keep up with the plethora of software that is available, at least to some degree. Not all translators are interested enough in technology to do this, and sometimes they may wonder just how far they have been removed from what should ultimately be the object of their labor: the text. Technology can have a very distracting effect, forcing the translator to focus on coding and formatting issues that can conspire to take back at least part of the efficiency that modern computers have brought to the industry.

Last modified: Wednesday, 1 March 2017, 8:31 AM