Technological Overdependence: A Cautionary Tale

Recent news about the massive computer outage that caused the world’s largest airline to cancel over 4,000 flights should make everyone reconsider the role of information systems and computer tools in their daily work, lest they receive this cruel kind of reminder.

We often take for granted the systems we use on a daily basis, and thus fail to see their purpose, and how much we rely on them.

Recently, while working as a volunteer at a school in a low-income part of my city, I encountered the following contradiction: I asked a parent to write some information down on a piece of paper, to which she responded, “I don’t know how to write.” The funny thing is that all the while, she was typing away on her smartphone and barely looked up from the screen to talk to me. She had apparently lost, or never acquired, the ability to draw characters by hand. I think of the quality of my own handwriting and worry I may suffer the same ill as she.

So where do translators stand on technological dependence? How does technology affect the quality of a translation? Are translators losing sight of what’s apropos within a tangible context?

Translators use carefully constructed terminology databases and other information systems to facilitate the best translations possible. However, when these are not available for a certain project, it is very tempting for translators to look up online publications related to its topics. The problem is that these publicatoins may be poorly edited, poorly written, or just plain wrong. Anyone can publish online, and most of the content found on a site may be copied from another. In the best of cases, the people publishing online may be experts in their fields, but they may not be accustomed to documenting their sources and using correct terminology, not to mention good grammar, style, and usage.

The best reference materials are the documents produced by writers and checked by editors, such as the material found in print media: e. g., magazines, academic journals, books, and newspapers, just to name a few.

Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tools speed up the translation process by keeping the best terms and usages at hand at all times. As translators work, CAT tools acquire massive amounts of reference materials and organize them into virtual memories and libraries. The better the sources, the better the tool’s ability to promote excellence in translation.

It is up to the translator not to be lead into temptation, and to preserve the linguistic heritage of traditional media moving forward, using it to enrich translation memories. In the end, the aforementioned airline resorted to writing tickets by hand. Does this mean translators will eventually go back to transcribing their work by hand, as was done in XII century monasteries? Certainly not! But they should keep in mind the role of information systems in their work, so they may improve these resources, and also so they may be ready in case they ever have to do without.