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A translator’s story: past, present, and future

Some become translators because of an innate aptitude or enthusiasm for languages. Others take a more tortuous path but arrive at the same destination. What made me choose to become a translator? What do I like about the profession? And is it time to give up on it?

Why should you become a translator?

You don’t often hear children enthusiastically say they want to be translators when they grow up, and I was no different.

However, growing up in different parts of the world makes one a translator by circumstance. These circumstances first made me bilingual, and later, because I’m always curious about different cultures and how they express themselves, I became interested in language as a field of study. During my undergraduate years, I came in contact with the professional world of translation. I developed a passion for it and decided to pursue a career in the industry.

What do I like about translation?

There are mainly three aspects that captivate me:

1) Word choice

As a university student, I was always fascinated by how the meaning of a Latin word changed in the Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish) derived from that ancient language.

The same word may become informal in one language while evolving differently in another, where it’s used in very formal contexts. As a translator, it’s essential to correctly distinguish these instances so as not to cause confusion or estrangement in the translation’s reading.

2) Cultural appreciation

Another intriguing aspect of translation is how a culture’s way of thinking can be revealed by the words people use to describe the world around them. In this case, a Chinese proverb comes to mind: ‘To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.’

Being a translator is having the ability to reproduce what you see through that window and sharing it with others who can’t see it.

3) Untranslatability

I have always been fascinated by the concept of untranslatable words, which many scholars and writers have explored. A good translator, however, must always be able to convey the meaning of a text, even when a single word may cause difficulties.

Is it time to give up on being or becoming a translator?

The technical side

As technology has advanced and translation has become more easily accessible to most, many were (and some still are) quick to cry wolf and announce the end of the profession. History has shown, however, that it wasn’t the case. It‘s no different with the development and proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI), whose translation capabilities corroborate this conclusion.

Although Google Translate, DeepL, ChatGPT and others have evolved since their respective inceptions and are powerful tools, they can’t match a human translator’s linguistic ability, especially in contextual analysis, humour, and wordplay.

AI is also filled with issues of security and confidentiality because everything we put into these tools as ‘free’ users is easily accessible by third parties. In addition, there are potential inconsistencies and biases due to the material used to train AI, as it may distribute wrong information found on the internet and perpetuate stereotypes. When it comes to translation, the human eye is essential in verifying the text and its nuances.

That’s not to say AI as a translation tool only has negative side effects. Used correctly by people with the proper training, i.e., translators and similar professionals, it can facilitate the process and increase productivity. Neither people nor machines alone are perfect, and there is fertile soil full of potential in the place where human translators and technology meet.

Simply put, translators must adapt. Our profession isn’t at its end, as the more pessimistic say, but it’s changing.

That’s the beauty of the industry ─ really, when has it not been changing? From pen and paper to typewriters to computers in various forms, translators have always had to keep up with the times, particularly regarding technology.

We shall also take on the algorithms; some of us are ahead of the curve in this aspect. Those who don’t already have specific skill sets will need to learn, especially skills related to computer sciences, programming, data analysis, and computational linguistics. Translators will be needed as long as there is more than one language in the world.

The future of translation

So, as I see it, we have a bright future. Collaboration rather than substitution is the path forward in the translation industry. Collaboration between the makers of new or well-established AI tools, translators, and language service providers like SwissGlobal, who can integrate these tools into the translation process securely to ensure our confidential information isn’t published online.