Peter Newmark

One of the pioneers in Translation Studies and translation training has just passed away. Peter Newmark was the author of “About Translation” and “A textbook of Translation”. Books well known to anybody who has taken a translation course. Watch an interview with him at JosTrans and read the beautiful obituary by Margaret Rogers at Notes on Translation Studies .
Brian Harris has also published a very nice post here.


Machine interpreting, will we ever get there?

For an interpreter, just as for a translator it is almost humiliating to suggest that a machine will ever be able to do your job, just as well as you do it. I guess many skilled worker have felt the same during the whole era of industrialization and digitalization. Computer Aided Interpreting is a different thing, it is already here. Bringing your computer and you internet key to the mission in order to use dictionaries or search the internet is a habit for many of my colleagues, both community and conference interpreters. But suggesting that you could actually put a computer in my place and that would be just as good is hard to swallow. Luckily, although many argue the difference, it will take some time before we get there. As Nataly Kelly says in an article in TCWorld: “Unfettered bidirectional speech-to-speech communication is still the Holy Grail in the automation space.”

A recent study made by Milam Aiken et. al. is reported in Translation Journal, an on line journal on translation. They claim that in their test between Korean and English there were a lot of errors but the result was still acceptable. The problem with their report is that they don’t qualify “acceptable”. Acceptable to whom, and does acceptable mean understandable?

The reason I believe that it will take some time to develop this is first of all the problems that machine translation tools has. I don’t deny that they are a very good tool, especially the ones you pay for (haven’t we all had a lot of fun with Google Translate?), but hardly as a human translator, especially when it comes to smaller or rarer languages.

Secondly, the problems with speech recognition software, OK, they are getting a lot better, especially for English, but just think about how difficult it is speaking to a speech recognition software over the phone: “Did you say “too”?”, “No, two”, “I don’t understand, did you mean “not”, and so forth. My own experience of these services is that in the end the computer decides for you and you get information that you do not want.

And finally, a gentleman points out on Proz that: “almost nobody, including most interpreters, really know how human interpretation functions. Thus, until now nobody has thought of modeling into a computer engine and replicate the mental processes applied and the information used by human interpreters (which, by the way, are only half-explored). This a huge task, but POSSIBLE.” I mean that this translator has not read the interpreting studies literature very well, there are not many interpreting researchers around but MANY of them have tried to model the mental process. Actually, the modeling of the mental process is the “shibboleth” of the interpreting studies research. See for instance, Moser-Mercer, Seleskovitch, Gile or Setton on that issue. The problem is that it is, just as the gentleman said, a huge task, but also a very difficult task.

So, I’m sure that people will continue to improve computer software and make wonderful tools for interpreters and translators, but I’m still not convinced that they will completely replace the interpreters.

Future career?

Thoughts on translation refers to an article of US News & World report, which tells us that translators and interpreters are one of the Top 50 careers in 2011. High time to become an interpreter :-). The article is good I think, but the sad story behind is that the interest for learning foreign languages, especially in the English speaking world is shrinking. Therefore fewer and fewer students have the necessary background to become translators or interpreters and hence the increasing need. So, high time to study languages and to become an interpreter. For those of you who have Swedish as mother tongue the Institute for Interpreting and Translation Studies in Stockholm will start their training again, you have to apply before April 15, 2001.

The meaning of a word

I really liked this article on words that are like icebergs. When you think about it you can peel off layer after layer, and it’s not even sure one word means the same to you as it does to me, in fact it probably doesn’t. I wrote about Sapir-Whorf here, who claimed that your language affects the way you think (I simplify the reasoning of course), and in some way I DO believe that language (together with cultural heritage of course) affects the way you think. That’s why it may be so extremely difficult to grasp everything that lies beneath the surface, just as with the iceberg.

History of interpreting

Interpreting is ancient. Maybe as ancient as languages or mankind. Interestingly enough there are references to interpreters in many different historical sources. Like the representation of an interpreter in General Horemhebs grave, Unprofessional translation has an interesting post on ancient Egypt and interpreters there.

Cicero in ancient Rome spoke highly of his interpreter and the services the interpreter did for him. In the Ottoman empire interpreters were called dragoman and their role was not just interpreting but also acting as guides, go-betweens and door-openers to the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire also had sworn court interpreters, as can be seen from old court records from the Ottoman empire. Update December 6, 2010: Another interesting post on dragomans and the history of interpreting by Unprofessional Translations

There were also sworn court interpreters in Spain in the 16th Century. And interpreters were also used by the conquistadors to communicate with the indigenous people in the Americas. Although the training those interpreters received were perhaps not to be envied. Natives were brought back to Spain where they worked as slaves and learnt the language. If they were judged good enough they were brought back to their origins to act as interpreters.

But interpreting hit the headlines with the Nüremberg Trials. Although interpreting was used at the international organisations before the Second World War, this was the first time that large scale simultaneous interpreting was used. Technology now allowed interpreters to listen to the original in head phones and interpret into a microphone that broadcasted the interpreting to listeners. Hardly any of the interpreters who interpreted at the Nüremberg Trials had any interpreting training. But most of the interpreters there then went on to a career in interpreting. These interpreters were the founding fathers and mothers of the profession. They were active in the professionalization of interpreters, they helped training new interpreters and they lay the foundations of aiic, the international association for conference interpreters.

Community interpreters are a different case. Community interpreting has not started its professionalization until the past 10 or 15 years. Community interpreters were typically friends and and family of the person needing community interpreting. However, thanks to researchers and very active community interpreters, and in particular thanks to the Critical link conference, community interpreting is slowly gaining professional standards in the same way as its big sister conference interpreting.