A translator is a prime example of an expert-in-the-loop: a human professional who interacts with a machine, transforming its output from something useful into something usable.
Familiar with working in the gaps between languages and cultures, translators now work in the gap between what technology can do with language, and what we need language to do for us.
Here, we turn the spotlight on a selection of mission-critical scenarios in which translators are the true experts in the loop.
1. Translators as decision-makers
Subtitlers bring TV series and movies in foreign languages to global audiences. Their work is often invisible but has recently come under the media’s glare thanks to Squid Game, Netflix’s hit series made in Korea. The subtitles in English were over-simplified, according to some viewers, and drained the show of its nuance and impact.
The attention was welcomed by subtitlers. Suddenly, viewers and the media are grappling with their key challenge; how to retain the meaning of original dialog while sticking to length restrictions. Plus, cultural differences render some expressions and concepts untranslatable. Compromises, inevitably, must be made.
A wealth of subtitling technology exists to support the process — from automated quality check and automatic speech recognition (ASR) to machine translation (MT) and subtitle simplification. Using them may be helpful, or not. In Spain, for instance, ATRAE issued a statement claiming the mediocre Spanish subtitles for Squid Game were the result of a post-edited MT workflow.
Whether or not they are supported by tech, subtitlers must perform a balancing act: achieving readability while providing a rich, authentic viewing experience.
2. Translators as creators
The role of translators as creative experts comes to the fore with brand and marketing content. A freer, more inventive approach — transcreation — is called for.
Translators aim to take the original copy’s underlying idea to land the same emotional punch on a target market. Take the strapline for German confectionery company Haribo. In German, it literally says, “Haribo makes children happy and adults too.” In French, it is “Haribo, life is beautiful for grown-ups and children.” While divergent, the central idea and jingle-quality is retained in both.
MT is not particularly useful here. Adherence to the source is optional. In fact, among the translator’s first creative decisions will be whether to stick to the source or make something new.
The task requires copywriting ability, cultural knowledge, a mastery of multiple languages, and understanding of a target market and brand. With the explosion in marketing content, the need for creative translators is clear.
3. Translators as world changers
Linguists play a critical role in international diplomacy and politics, facilitating communication and decision-making. “Dancing on Ropes,” a book by Anna Aslanyan, highlights the role of translators and interpreters at critical moments in history, with examples ranging from America’s atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 to Brexit.
On the UN website, a translator for the United Nations, Antonio, said the job is unique: “The political nature of many texts requires that translators exercise special care when choosing their words, since nuances and overtones are particularly important and might have a huge impact.”
Interpreters also play a crucial role in conflict zones, working with humanitarian organizations, journalists, and armed forces. Speaking on SlatorPod in September, Rebecca Petras, spokesperson for non-profit Red T, said of interpreters in Afghanistan: “The interpreter must always be very aware. They spend time trying to deal with the cultural issue of that day. Each linguist is always trying to keep up their skills as well. There’s jargon that changes depending on where you are in the country. If you were to talk to an interpreter, you would be shocked at how many different roles they play within one day.”
4. Translators as consultants and testers
As machine translation picks up high-volume, repetitive tasks, translators — so the theory goes — are freer to take on more creative and fulfilling tasks.
Indeed, translators are performing increasingly diverse roles within language service providers (LSPs) and enterprises; testing and benchmarking localized products and product descriptions, maintaining brand consistency, and executing copy-tuning exercises. Internal translators may also serve as consultants on workflows and the use of MT as well as content strategists.
And does the use of MT mean less actual translation work for translators? Not necessarily, according to Alex Katsambas, Head of Linguistic Services at Farfetch. “The areas that you always wanted to increase the quality of content [for], you are actually increasing by allowing the engines to backfill all the capacity constraints that, otherwise, you would stretch your teams to be able to cover,” he told SlatorPod in March. He pointed out, “We are always going to need more and more writers and translators.”
5. Translators in law
Legal firms love raw machine translation. It is a quick, cheap solution for sifting through thousands of emails and PDFs in half a dozen languages, identifying evidence for litigation cases. The MT output may be rough, but it is good enough for the purpose.
Other legal documentation — contracts, marriage certificates, court documentation — are a different matter. A specialized legal translator is needed to bridge the gap between what MT produces and what courts and institutions need.
The point was neatly illustrated earlier this month, when a US court ruled that Google Translate was inadequate for soliciting consent during a vehicle search. While it was a “useful tool,” the court said, the app had “an alarming capacity for miscommunication and error.”
Beyond ensuring the quality of translations and verifying MT output, legal translators may also take on the formal status of “certified”; that is, qualified according to country-specific laws to produce translations for formal proceedings. The very human nature of the work is summed up in the deliverable. Along with a digital version, the translation may be printed out and physically signed or stamped on each page.
6. Translators at the start of the loop
Let’s rewind for a moment. The role of translator as a human-in-the-loop starts much earlier than post-editing MT to create usable content. Translators are the source of MT data: parallel texts.
Although the use of synthetic data is being explored, we still rely on humans for seed translations, and it is the translator’s intelligence that MT aims to replicate. As human knowledge and business is always expanding and changing, there will be a continuous need for human translations as a data source.
7. Translators as terminologists
New technology and novel concepts require new terminology, and translators play a key role. In sectors driven by innovation — such as medical devices, engineering, and science — translators collaborate with product designers, researchers, and experts to identify or coin target terms or, just as importantly, decide to leave terms untranslated.
The (SBRN) Terminology Consensus Project, for instance, brought together physicians and translators to reach consensus on key terms in 12 languages for terms relating to physical activity in clinical practice. In Spain, the Committee on Legal Terminology established a group of legal experts, linguists, and terminologists to promote the development of Catalan terminology in the legal field.
8. Translators transforming literature
Literary translation sits far outside MT’s sphere of influence. While MT can take a decent stab at individual sentences, it falls well short of mastering novels and poetry.
The challenge of literary translation was summed up by Deborah Smith, a translator who won the International Booker Prize in 2018. “Because languages function differently, much of translation is about achieving a similar effect by different means; not only are difference, change, and interpretation completely normal, but they are in fact an integral part of faithfulness,” she said upon winning the prize.
Undervalued in the past, translation in literature is becoming increasingly popular. The UK market grew by 5.5% in 2019, according to Nielsen BookScan. Moreover, awards such as the International Booker Prize , which splits GBP 50,000 in prize money between author and translator, have increased the profiles of literary translators.
9. Translators closing the loop
Translators not only open the MT training loop, they also close it. The virtuous circle of machine learning depends on translators refining MT output and feeding it back into the system. Developers also depend on translators to evaluate output, whether directly or through the production of reference translations. Insights from translators indeed power the improvement of MT engines.
10. Translators as researchers
A distance has always existed between MT researchers and translators — but it is closing. Researchers are recognizing translators’ importance as MT’s biggest set of users.
Andy Way, Deputy Director of ADAPT and MT researcher with over 25 years of experience, told Slator in September 2021, “It’s only by listening to the human experts — the translators who actually use the system — that developers can improve it. If people don’t tell you how good the system is and what sorts of mistakes it makes, how can we ever go back and build a better system?”
The introduction of a dedicated translator track at the annual summit of the European Association for MT in 2018 saw translators and researchers on more equal footing, working more closely than ever before to advance MT technology.