Futurebound: Are We There Yet?

The 3rd edition of the International Summer School for Translation Technology, organized by the prestigious Belgian university KU Leuven, took place from Sep. 3 to Sep. 7, 2018.  I was invited to hold a workshop together with Iulianna van der Lek, research associate and CAT tools trainer. The title of the workshop was Futurebound: A Matrix for Translation Professionals and was held on the opening day.

The premises

In his book “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (1999), the futurist Ray Kurzweil stated that spoken language translation would be common by the year 2019. Six years later, in his book “The Singularity is Near”, Kurzweil predicted that machines will have a human-level knowledge of language and will be able to pass a Turing-test-level task by 2029. Both statements were repeated in Kurzweil’s interview with Nataly Kelly in 2011.

Technology is changing all aspects of everyone’s everyday life. Translation technology is no exception. Up to now, digital technologies have simplified and sped-up translation work.

Kurzweil’s statements have often been debated, but his predictions have been completely correct 80% of the times and partially correct 15% of the times, which makes for an impressive record. Language services today stand on the cusp of a disruptive transformation that will redefine translation work. What will this translation work look like in 2029? Translation will possibly continue to exist, but translators will have to adapt to new approaches.

Education and training are vital to prepare the next generation of professionals. The success – and survival – of any innovation depends, after all, entirely on the people who are going to nurture, develop, and implement it.

In the workshop, participants were asked to share their ideas and visions on the future of translation. The goal was to encourage them to develop a matrix for the translation professionals of the future.

Inside the Matrix

We started by identifying four core activities:

  • Translation (in all its forms, from technical translation to post-editing)
  • Writing (from transcreation to controlled language, from technical writing to content management)
  • Terminology (both multilingual and monolingual, language engineering)
  • Other skills (project management, translators’ training, training the trainers)

Within this four activities, we proceeded to identify four essential aspects:

  • Language
  • Technology
  • Data
  • Collaboration

The forty participants were divided into 4 groups and each group was assigned one of the four core activities. Each group also nominated a rapporteur whose task was to summarize the discussion.

I took it upon myself to jumpstart the discussion in the “Other Skills” group, because I would have the chance to check my views and expectations.

Notes & Remarks

After some 40 minutes of discussion, we reconvened in the main room and listened to what the rapporteurs had to say. What follows are my notes with regard to the discussion that took place during the plenary session.

  • For all groups, language is – and will probably always be – one of the main elements of our profession. The participants talked about language not just as a deep knowledge of grammar and linguistic nuances, but also as a tool for cultural mediation. None of the participants talked about translation as being an art: They all agreed that translation is a skill. Yes, it requires a certain talent, but it still is a skill that can be taught and developed. Working with language for the Summer School participants also means mastering different styles and registers, as well as acquiring a good working knowledge of professional jargons.
  • Terminology is recognized as the foundation for both writing and translation. It has a prime spot when it comes to creating translatable content, but also for machine translation.
  • Translation technology is more than welcome: We all want tools that increase productivity and efficiency and that are, at the same time, user-friendly.
  • Collaboration should take place at various levels. With the various linguistic activities moving to the cloud, translators will need to learn how to work with requirements, standards and guidelines. But there should also be collaboration effort and knowledge exchange with other stakeholders, i.e. academics, LSPs, trainers, technology providers.
  • Data is still a sore topic. The Summer School participants are – at least for now – not convinced that the translation professional of the future should learn about (translation) data management. There is still very little awareness of the power of data.

Both the group discussion and the plenary session were a reality check. While translation industry experts make statements about the imminent disappearance of the translation industry and the implementation of futuristic technology, the people in the field doing the actual work have completely different views, needs and expectations. The river of the Absurd, as my colleague Nancy A. Locke very aptly called it back in 2012, is still difficult to navigate.

Unanswered Issue

Unfortunately, the two questions that were very close to my heart remained open: What goal should a university pursue when it comes to translators’ training?  Should newly graduated students have all the linguistic and technological skills of an experienced translator?

Innovation – especially technological innovation – is fast-paced. A student completing a translation degree will have acquired a certain amount of knowledge and skills, but this will only be a fraction of the total knowledge available at that given time. Quite soon new knowledge and technological tools will become available.

Translators at every level of experience will need keep their knowledge up-to-date during each phase of their careers. For this reason, I think that university curricula should not only focus on the present at hand but be designed to provide students with tools for life-long learning (i.e. learn how to learn and to gather knowledge) as well as offer opportunities for continuing education.