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Save your Soul, Computer!

Picture this:

A woman in her 60’s sitting at the reception desk of the dry cleaning shop, her fingers flying swiftly over a computer keyboard. She is hitting the function keys and arrow keys and number keys so quickly that your eye cannot keep up with the movements. On the screen are black and lime green tables with numbers and words: raw data being processed at lightning speed.

I was witness to this scene just a few days ago, and I must admit that my prejudice didn’t allow me to associate people of this fine lady’s demographic with computing. I have seen my older relatives struggle to complete even the simplest tasks on their tablet computers and smartphones, with their neat and simple looking graphical interfaces, so I would never have imagined them doing something so “computery” so well. I was wrong.

Recent changes in the use of computer technology have actually made computing tasks more difficult and more complex, despite the fact that interfaces and equipment look more simple than ever. Computer aided translation is no exception. We are also victims of what I call the end of the digital age.

Yes, welcome to the end of the digital age. Welcome to the demise of powerful machines that process data at incredible speeds. Welcome to the age of design.

The culprit of the computer’s demise may surprise you. I blame Steve Jobs and the Macintosh system. And before you go flying off the handle at me for criticizing such a saintly figure in the world of computing and design, hear me out:

The Macintosh system introduced something completely foreign to the world of computers: graphical user interfaces and decorative design. Before, the computer’s aesthetic was retro-futuristic and nerdy, basic, functional, and, in my humble opinion exquisite. It had nothing to do with Country Living Magazine or Paul Rand or a 5th Avenue clothing boutique. But, sometime in the 80’s, someone decided that it wasn’t enough to be efficient, computers had to be “beautiful” as well. That was Steve Jobs with his paradoxical vision of simple looking equipment and systems. Simple looking takes a lot of work. Some computers couldn’t even handle these new demands. If you remember the Apple III, you can recall the hyper cool aluminum casing… and also the warped motherboards, fly-away microchips and the complete lack of a cooling fan!

For translators, the complaint comes from Steve’s obsession with “beautiful fonts.” I say obsession because he went on and on about it in interviews. Beautiful fonts translates into the use of hundreds of adjustments that one can make to letters so they look prettier on the screen or in print. To give you an example, a font made to look good at a small size, will have uneven spacing if enlarged, so graphic designers will adjust the spacing of each letter manually. Translation tools see these changes as tags. It looks something like this: H{3>el<3}l W{3>o<3}r<4>ld! (it’s supposed to say, “Hello World!”).

This has translators everywhere exclaiming, “I’m a translator, damn it, not a graphic designer!” Really, it has the entire population of Earth exclaiming so. This day and age, we are all expected to be experts in design, and, frankly, most of us don’t have the knack. Admit it: you have typed up documents with hideous section breaks and line jumps, with inconsistent font attributes, low resolutions photos, impossible to handle column breaks, and more tabs on the ruler than there are ruler marks. I have seen you do it, and I don’t blame you. I do it too.

This trend in computing violates the very first tenet of design: that form should follow function. Computers therefore should look as wonky and yellowed as they have to, so they may process data quickly. There is no need for data to be beautiful, because beautiful takes much more time than actual work. All we wanted, after all, was to process some text.

So let there be neon green on darker green! Let there be blocky letters! Let there be beeps and bleeps and blinking lights! Because that is what computers are all about.