Rise of the Machines

Will Computers Make Human Translators Obsolete?

By Philologos

Published July 01, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
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The question I sometimes think about, though, is this: Given the current rate of progress in computer programming in general, and in translation programs in particular, is it theoretically conceivable that someday, computers will outperform human translators, just as they can outperform human chess players? Will human translators one day become as obsolete as human telephone operators?

In many fields, they undoubtedly will. Already today, computers can translate the average newspaper article adequately, if not perfectly, and it’s just a matter of time before they’re as good at it as any of us and incredibly faster. There’s no reason that it won’t eventually be possible to put the whole Sunday Times into idiomatic French or German in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Most areas of translation will be automated; some already have been.

But high-quality literary translation is something else. It’s not enough for a literary translator to know unerringly what certain words mean and to render that meaning accurately in another language. He or she must also know what those words feel like; what their precise tone and music are; what sensations, thoughts, memories and associations they invoke or are likely to invoke in a reader, and what the best way is to convey all this in another language. The literary translator needs more than the kind of linguistic information that can be crammed into a computer. He or she needs, one is tempted to say, to have lived a human life.

The other day, I was reading the first page of what may be my favorite novel in the world, James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It begins:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

No doubt an intelligent computer can be taught that “Once upon a time” is a formula from fairy tales; that “moocow” and “nicens” are the language of an adult trying to talk baby-talk; that “a glass” is a small child’s way of expressing the idea of eyeglasses, and that other languages have their equivalents for these things. But can a computer have had a childhood itself? Can it know the feeling of being told a bedtime story? Can it, even theoretically, understand that “and a very good time it was” may be either the words of the father telling the story or of the son remembering it long afterward, and that it is crucial to preserve this ambiguity in a translation? It’s unlikely. And if it can’t recognize such things in Joyce’s English, it’s certainly not going to be able to convey them fully in French, German or Russian.

And this is “A Portrait of the Artist” at its simplest! From here on, as the novel’s protagonist grows older, its language gets progressively more complex. Good literary translators needn’t fear for their jobs anytime soon.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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