Translation Memory: A Blessing or a Curse?

As Érika Nogueira de Andrade Stupiello from São Paulo State University has noted in her article entitled “Ethical Implications of Translation Technologies” from Translation Journal in 2007, translation memory, a technological tool designed to help translators, presents certain ethical questions about the way translators work. Translation memory, or TM as it is commonly abbreviated in the translation world, is essentially a database that records units of text that have already been translated by a translator. Translation memories have been credited with increasing productivity and efficiency in the field of translation.

Yet, like Stupiello, translators and translation clients need to make sure that they not only look at the benefits that translation memories provide, but also the ethical questions that this technological tool presents for the translator. In order to fully understand this issue, it may be helpful to know that once a translation memory database has been created for a project or client, it is common practice that this database will be provided to the client along with the translation, and/or the memory will be used as input for the client’s future projects. After receiving this database, clients often expect compliance with the phrases in the database. Additionally, as also pointed out by Stupiello, it is generally the case that clients, whose main goal is often to reduce costs, will encourage translators to use “matches” from the translation memory as much as possible.

This is where the problem lies. While there are many instances where the terminology that has been stored in the translation memory can be appropriately and coherently used in future translations, there are other times that the exact translation cannot be used in a new context. As Stupiello says “The translator’s interpretation of the source material and personal choices made in the formulation of the translated text might interfere with content management and consistency even though the translator’s option may be at times more appropriate for some specific context than the pre-selected options offered by the database.” This can present a problem for the client who may only be willing to pay for segments that are new, or have not yet been translated. This also brings up the issue that consistency does not necessarily ensure coherence.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to maintain previously translated segments in new contexts is an issue faced by the translator. While it is often the case that the translator should and must maintain segments as they are kept in the translation memory, I, like Stupiello, must warn translators not to be “lulled” “into a false sense of belief that meaning is fixed and will not change or lead to new associations in the new contexts they have become part of.” After all, we must not loose sight of the human element that is so fundamental to the field of translation.