House Taken Over: Displacing the Machines

In this post, “House Taken Over” is not in reference to the famous story by the renowned writer and translator Julio Cortázar. Rather, it refers to the feeling experienced by human translators in the age of machines.

Just as the characters in Cortázar’s story feel displaced by an invading entity, human translators feel displaced by the advancement of the so-called “machine translation” in the translation industry. This post looks at the development of a human invention resulting from the need to solve a problem: how to speed up the translation process to humanly impossible levels.

Human beings have always tried to overcome pre-established limits, and, indeed, their own limits. At the zenith of this desire lies a truth of equal importance as success itself: those who exceed their own limits give way to superior results in the future, which must be re-challenged in a struggle for survival of sorts. However, we would be wise to stop viewing these developments as creations that have turned against their own creators.

In fact, machine translation has not displaced human translators as the invading entity did in “House Taken Over.” In our case, machines have advanced to the benefit of translators and translation agencies. The important thing here is to discern when to use this tool and when to avoid it. This is not the responsibility of the client, but, rather, of the professionals that use machine translation to meet their clients’ demands. A client goes to a translation agency or a freelance translator for a result that, by him or herself, they cannot achieve. It is therefore fair that the client demand a quality translation with an urgent deadline without realizing the limits of human capabilities. In such cases, machine translation facilitates the translator’s ability to gain time while the machine “pre-translates” the content for the human translator to correct, shape, and style, a process known as post-editing.

What I am trying to do with this post is to highlight the other side of machine translation and its main function: to shorten the translation process. In this way, it is important for translation agencies and freelance translators to determine in which cases is appropriate to use the machine, and for clients to be advised that the machine is only used to the benefit of the human translator, who provides what machines, so far, have not been able to: quality.

To conclude, I propose then that we see the duo of “machine translation and human post-editing” as a vital relationship for two essential constants in the translation industry: speed and quality.