Give me that old-time Luddite love

by Translation Guy on March 31, 2010

In the translation struggle between man and machine, it is love that will conquer, proclaimed Z, the translator formerly known as Jost Zetzsche, at the keynote speech of the American Translators Association Translation Company Division (ATA-TCD), held in Phoenix the weekend before last.

Jost, I mean Z, is the author of the Tool Kit, an online newsletter that is a must-read for any translator or language service provider concerned about the interface between translation technology and their paycheck. And while I’m plugging this guy, also check out Translator Training, a handy summary of available technology. When you do, my advice is to place a window over that GIF of a swinging Jeromobot to avoid hypnosis-driven purchases of translation technology tools.

Which was kind of the point of Z‘s presentation. Machine translation to the right, swarm translation to the left, on rides our trade into the valley of human translation death. The speed of technological development in the translation business is scraping at the ceiling of the technological singularity associated with Ray Kurzweil (a big MT too, BTW). Certainly, improvements in machine translation are coming fast and furious and, combined with other translation technologies, appear to be multiplying like grey goo. But Z argued passionately that “development itself is not a positive value, usefulness is. We need to look at existing (and future) technologies and evaluate what is useful.”

The technologist can pursue his/her technology, but the industry’s competitive advantage will come from using those same technologies to leverage the relationships we have with one another (like helping vendors, particularly the free-lancers who are the backbone of the industry, to easily access those technologies); from fostering relationships with clients who do not always understand the nature of translation; and from cooperation between translation firms in the face of the omniscient and omnipresent power of the massed servers of Google and others “too big to fail,” who seek to bend us to their will.  In other words, a little of that old-time Luddite love, where technology is not always the answer, but technology with a human face is.

I think there is a great fundamental truth here. Our vendors, many who’ve worked with us from the very beginning, are willing to go the extra mile to help out a project manager in a jam. The quality of the relationship between our project managers and our clients is absolutely critical to our success. Our clients rely on us, and failure is a betrayal of that trust, whereas exceeding expectations gets everyone pumped up, both giver and gifted. Relative to other industries, our customer satisfaction scores are 25 points higher than Apple and Amazon. That’s mostly because it’s our key performance indicator, and we measure and train relentlessly, but I think we start from the basis of generally high service ethic among a large subset of translators in our field.

We’ve all had those sleepless nights when a job is going South, and a spring in our step when we get a “job well done” from a happy client. Joy of service, the human bond, love, call it what you will ― it’s what makes this business what it is, and what makes it fun (if nerve-wracking at times!).

And a final note on the Z thing: Jost has not issued a press release on this, but has promised to use it in the spelling of his last name. I’m pushing it because even though I’ve known him for more than a decade, I still can’t remember how to pronounce his name, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else at the conference could either.


  1. Rina Ne'eman says:

    Well stated! And I join you in your inability to pronounce Jost’s last name – we seem to be in good company.

  2. Ryley says:

    Machine translation is a very interesting topic. Who could forget the reference to MT in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a creature called a Babel fish that enables humans to understand and speak any language on earth. You simply stick the device in your ear and voila! you’re multilingual. No more need for flash cards, language labs, or grammar books. Babelfish is a real live MT software now, kind of crazy…

  3. MT sucks, idiomatic texts do not lend themselves well to machine translation. As Digital and SYSTRAN put it: “The technology works best when the text is grammatically correct and does not use too many idioms; however, users can usually understand the meaning of even a poorly written document.” This you can judge for yourself… even at this blog…I see Ken has installed the new Microsoft Translator. Just change the blog post language and see if you can fully comprehend…I think not…

  4. Carly says:

    Still a lot of bugs, when I use the Microsoft Translator to translate the following words from English to French, they still come back in English:
    happy, ugly, pretty, incorrect, skinny, crash, big, shiver, etc.

  5. His name is not that hard to pronounce … at least if you can speak Wendish (or Lusatian or Sorbian depending on which name you prefer). I’m happy to go with Ƶ though.

  6. Leah Aharoni says:

    Good point Ken. Without discounting the importance of technology, ours is first and foremost a SERVICE industry, which means relationships, relationships, relationships.

    • Ken says:

      Leah, the older I get, the more it seems that everything is about relationships, releationships, relationships. Thank God!

  7. Milatova says:

    Cherish the love and the industry will thrive :-)

    @Riley, I believe that if MT were already widespread in Douglas Adams’ day, the Babel fish would have displayed some of their bugs anf given us a few good laughs from mistranslations.

    The day the real Babelfish will jump out of the Hitchhiker’s aquarium, translation industry will die, regardless of the amount of love of a job well done it pours fourth.

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