by Érika Nogueira de Andrade Stupiello (São Paulo State University) in Translation Journal


Technology has been reshaping the concept and practice of translation in many aspects. Until some time ago, translators were expected to be able to work solely on definite source texts with the exclusive aid of dictionaries. Specialists were called upon where research references failed or left holes, but, even in such cases, translators had the chance to develop familiarity with their source texts, becoming, in many cases, experts themselves in some fields. Textual material to be translated was basically conceptualized as having a beginning and an end, thus making contextualization of meaning easier.

The process of globalization and the technological revolution that came along with it have dramatically changed the way information is conceived and produced. According to Craciunescu et al. (2004), advances in communication have brought about a "screen culture" that increasingly tends to replace the use of printed materials, since digital information can be easily accessed and relayed through computers and allows greater flexibility for processing. 

In addition to the growing tendency to adopt the digital format for textual production, a large part of the material translators deal with in their daily routines consists of large translation projects, whether web-based or not. Such work is usually carried out with the use of computerized tools, such as automatic translation systems and translation memory databases. These applications require the development of a new range of technical competences, from learning how to manipulate different software programs to being able to manage the translated content, whether to achieve terminological consistence (machine translation databases) or to reuse solutions to translation problems in subsequent projects (translation memory databases). As Biau Gil and Pym (2006:6) explain, in today's world,

Our translations might thus be expected to move away from the ideal of equivalence between fixed texts, becoming more like one set of revisions among many. In the fields of electronic technologies, translators are less commonly employed to translate whole texts, as one did for the books with concordances. Translation, like general text production, becomes more like work with databases, glossaries, and a set of electronic tools, rather than on complete definitive source texts.

Translation memory tools are being employed also by translators working with definitive texts, that is, materials that might be translated just once, mainly as a way to increase their database. There are many translators who work basically with web-based materials, so most part of their work might involve updating and adaptation of previously translated texts to other contexts (a common practice in localization). Whatever the situation technology might be employed, there is no denial that translators have been able to reap great benefits by achieving greater work speed and efficiency.

Nonetheless, the same tools designed to assist translators are also affecting many aspects of how their work is regarded. This is mainly due to the fact that the design of these applications seems to be based on some of the traditionally-held concepts of translation as a transfer operation of pre-established contents stored in the source text and of the translator as the one in charge of retrieving the contents the machine has failed to recover. 

While seeking to investigate the basis of machine translation and translation memory programs, this work aims to analyze both the contributions and transformations arising from the contemporary concept of the translation profession through the use of those tools. The ideas presented are divided into two sections. In section one I shall examine the concept of the original text and the translation in the domain of machine translation. My attention will then turn towards the extension of the translator's responsibility in producing the final text, by examining the translator's role in the translation post-editing process. Section two looks into the application of translation memories, with focus on the extension of the translator's responsibility in creating translation databases and re-using identical or similar segments from previous translations stored in memory programs. Ultimately, I shall conclude by attempting to draw attention to the scenario posed by these technologies which, in my view, seems to raise urgent ethical questions regarding the translator's image as re-creator or editor of the final translated material. 

Machine translation: the illusion of access to the source

The pace of the contemporary world calls for translators to deliver their work in shorter and shorter turnaround cycles. This fact, coupled with the search for cost reduction, seems to be one of the strongest reasons supporting the use of machines in translation. Through the perspective of the current demand for readily-done translations, the applications of machine translation programs are not seen as a break with the tradition, but as an inevitable further step in the development of the practice.

However, the growing demand for application of machine translation programs as a means to speed up translation and reduce its costs is changing the way texts are read and conceived. As Cronin (2003:22) aptly observes, "if the pressure in an informational and global economy is to get information as rapidly as possible, then the 'gisting' function becomes paramount in translation, a tendency which can be encouraged by the 'weightlessness' of the words on the screen with their evanescent existence." The generally low threshold of translation acceptability shown by many users is often justified by the argument that getting access to the informational content of a text is all that matters and that some translation, however poor, is better than no translation at all.

The prevailing idea among users is that meaning may be transported from one language to another and that machine translation programs never fail to convey a general and stable content, even though such operation may result in a roughly intelligible text. The current urgency to communicate seems endorse the notion that the content of a textual material is solidified in the source and that machine translation may provide access to the origin. As Hutchins (1999:4) claims, machine translation represents an "ideal solution" for the translation of texts for assimilation of information, that is, direct and quick access to the source, since

human translators are not prepared (and resent being asked) to produce 'rough' translations of scientific and technical documents that may be read by only one person who wants to merely find out the general content and information and is unconcerned whether everything is intelligible or not, and who is certainly not deterred by stylistic awkwardness or grammatical errors (Hutchins, 1999, p. 4).

According to this view, if the machine is in charge of recovering the content, although "awkward" and imperfect, the translator's role would be restricted to editing and stylistically adapting the translated material. As often quoted by machine translation scholars, automation should not be seen as a replacement for human translators, but as way to magnify human productivity (Kay, 1997), to supplement human translation (Melby, 1997) or even create more work for human translators (Biau Gil & Pym, 2006).

The issues regarding machine translation seem always to revolve around the descriptive views of its possible uses and the constant reminder that its applications can never supersede the abilities of human translators. However, nothing seems to be said about the extent of the translator's function in the construction of the final text that was initially translated by machine. Since original meaning recovery by the machine is often taken for granted by users, the translator's work is limited to filling out some gaps left out by the machine and stylistically adapting the translated text to the target language.

Even if the message seems to be incoherent in the "draft version" automatically prepared, there is a strong belief that the source has been recovered and adjustments are all that are left for the human translator to do.

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