Letters to Editor

Transformation of the Translation Profession

At the risk of being terminally boring, and knowingly against the tide, I hope I’ll be allowed to express my feelings about what it used to mean to be a translator.

This is prompted by Yuri Balashov’s well-written and understandable article, “OPUS-CAT: A State-of-the-Art Neural Machine Translation Engine on Your Local Computer,” in the September/October 2021 issue.

What I realized first and foremost while reading it was that the transformation that has changed the essence of our calling has leached the joy out it. The joy arises from our immersion in language, not a machine’s immersion in it. The joy of translation is beyond pleasure. It is the gradual discovery of how a language works, and the challenge of applying those realizations to the complexities of a human text. My own discoveries (with no claim to mastery) have passed through my own language, English, and then through Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, a little bit of Welsh, Norwegian, and now Swedish. Each has been a joyous adventure.

I longed to be a translator, and to make a living from it, for as long as I can remember. I was extremely fortunate to have started to translate as a second career over 30 years ago. Under the present circumstances, I would have foregone that dream and never considered entering the profession. I wonder how many established translators have given up their dreams and left the profession, and how many potential linguists, seeing no joy in the new world of translation, simply turn away from the career.

Elliott B. Urdang
Providence, RI

The Joy of Translating Will Continue

Dear Dr. Urdang:

Thank you for putting it so nicely! Machine translation (MT) is here to stay, and it will continue to transform our work and our lives. But I tend to think that rather than taking the joy out of human translation, it transforms the nature of the joy by opening a whole new set of opportunities to both established and aspiring linguists, from producing premium human translations (MT will dry out without them) to high-quality terminology management to interacting with neural networks in real time. This remarkable symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence already produces results (including the rich complexities of language) that would otherwise be beyond our grasp. What could be more joyful than their discovery?

Yuri Balashov
Athens, GA


Yes, there’s no doubt that there are advantages to the client and to the middle-man agencies. Yet, I’m less convinced of the benefit to the “linguists, from producing premium human translations,” as opposed to the cost of transforming us into a kind of cyborg, like the Borg, the alien group that appear as recurring antagonists in the Star Trek fictional universe. The Borg are cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) linked in a hive mind called “the Collective.” If you’ve ever watched an episode where they appear, you might have noted that while they carry out their collective functions efficiently, they don’t seem to be experiencing anything we would recognize as joy.

Elliott B. Urdang
Providence, RI

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