Replaced by Machines

“The pilot is the last line of defence when things go catastrophically wrong. In January 2009 an Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese over New York City. With no power, the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, had to weigh up a number of options and act quickly. Using his extensive flying experience and knowledge of the plane’s handling qualities he elected to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River. The 150 passengers were not saved by computers or any other automated system. They were saved by the two pilots – the very components that techno-enthusiasts claim can be replaced by computers and ground controllers.”

You see, the claim that humans can be replaced by machines is not made only in the T&I industry. I recently went to Panera Bread (a fast-food chain, though much more healthful than McDonald’s) and placed my order on a tablet that was docked not too far from the entrance. The sign by the tablets claimed that this would expedite my order. A little further inside were actual people taking orders behind a counter, for those customers unable or unwilling to use the tablet. I felt guilty for using the tablet and promised myself to place my order with a person next time, even if that means having to wait in line. I refuse to use a machine and contribute to making a person lose his/her job just to save a couple of minutes.
Last year on a trip to Boston I had to rent a car at a very late hour because my flight had arrived late. Most rental car desks at the airport were closed. I saw that in a couple of them there were machines which you could use to rent a car, without the help of a person. In fact I saw something similar on TV a few weeks ago, in a commercial claiming that now you can rent a car even if you don’t feel like talking to a person. So not only was that ad discouraging human contact (all right, maybe one is anti-social and really doesn’t want to talk to anyone; fine) but it was also suggesting that it’s OK to replace a human being with a machine.
However, when that machine breaks, who are you going to call? You are going to call the specialists, the ones that know how to rent you a car, the ones that know how to land a plane even when things go wrong, and the ones that can recognize immediately why a machine translation may be nonsensical and even deadly (numerous are the examples we’ve seen of bad medical translations produced by a machine, such as incorrectly translated directions for taking medication; and don’t even get me started on how many translation errors I’ve corrected in aircraft specs and assembly instructions).
So those that still think they can save money with machine translation should probably do a more detailed cost analysis and take into account the cost of fixing what will be broken. Because chances are, something—or many things—will be broken. One of the most important things that will be broken—and that will be really difficult to fix—is the reader’s/user’s trust. The other day I was reading an article in Deleátur (the journal published by the Union of Spanish Editors) on the importance of proofreaders and editors and on the negative impact of language errors found on websites ( The article referenced another article, published on the BBC website, which claimed that bad spelling on English websites costs the UK millions of pounds and that errors on websites can reduce online sales by up to 50% (the author went on to explain how this was measured). So we are making people all the more redundant, and for what? For the better? Are we really saving money or are we wasting more money and time? Because when I saw that the order wizard on that tablet at Panera Bread did not ask me whether I wanted chips or bread or an apple with my sandwich (you have to pick one of the three to get with your order), I realized that I had to go talk to a person, for which I’d have to wait in line, which of course would defeat the purpose of the tablet. And I was afraid to use the machine to rent a car at the airport in Boston because what would happen if it charged my credit card but didn’t give me a key? So I chose to go to the only desk that was open at that hour and where someone capable of a meaningful dialogue was present (well, as meaningful as a dialogue can be at 2 a.m.).
But are humans useful only for debugging and fixing what’s broken, used only as a safety measure? Numerous articles have been written on why humans cannot be replaced; many of them by translators, explaining why translations should be done by humans and giving innumerable examples of bad translations and the damage that they have caused companies and individuals. Many articles have also been written by business people claiming that a company can save money by using machine translation. In fact I recently read one on the IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters) LinkedIn group. Think about it: somebody who isn’t a translator published a blog post in a translators’ group, claiming that it’s a good idea to use machine translation instead of a real translator. It’s not the first time I see this. In fact a few years ago in one of my talks at a translators’ conference I talked about “infiltrators”, who come to our conferences and our online groups and try to sell us the idea that machines are better/more productive/more cost-effective for translation, that machines are preferable to us translators, and that the smart thing for us to do is embrace post-editing because allegedly it’s the future and it’s inevitable. The nerve!
In any case, I don’t mean to go on and on about why translation must be done by professional translators and not by machine pseudo-translation. Like I said, a lot has been written already. This is a more general reflection on the “evolution” of several professions and the tendency to modernize them by reducing or eliminating human interaction and involvement. No, I am not a Luddite nor do I know of any engineers-Luddites; I am very much in favor of technology but only when it is appropriate and actually contributes to progress and quality, without causing harm.

Confidentiality and Google Translate

Ethical principles, rules and conventions distinguish socially acceptable behaviour from that which is considered socially unacceptable. However, in social science research a few workers consider their work beyond scrutiny, presumably guided by a disinterested virtue which justifies any means to attain hoped for ends.

Ethical problems can relate to both the subject matter of the research as well as to its methods and procedures, and can go well beyond courtesy or etiquette regarding appropriate treatment of persons in a free society. Social scientists have often been criticized for lack of concern over the welfare of their subjects. The researcher often misinforms subjects about the nature of the investigation, and-or exposes them to embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. […] It was found in a survey by the British Psychological Society that the two major areas of dilemma for members were confidentiality and research. Issues reported in this later area included unethical procedures, informed consent, harm to participants, deception, and deliberate falsification of results. 

The above is from a textbook I used in my applied linguistics studies, “Introduction to Research Methods” by Robert B. Burns. It is a very useful manual for those who wish to conduct research in education and in the social sciences. When I had to interview some subjects for my research, this book was my bible.

I was recently talking to a fellow member of IAPTI about confidentiality issues in translation, and how disconcerting it is that many –for the most part inexperienced– translators use online automatic translation tools such as Google Translate without knowing that they are breaching confidentiality between themselves and their clients. The concept of confidentiality between a translator and his client made me think of confidentiality between a researcher and his subject. I went back to my old textbook. Please humor me and reread the above quoted passage, replacing “social science” with “translation”, “social scientist” and “researcher” with “translator”, “investigation” with “translation method”, and “subject” with “client”. It would go something like this:

Ethical principles, rules and conventions distinguish socially acceptable behaviour from that which is considered socially unacceptable. However, in translation a few translators consider their work beyond scrutiny, presumably guided by a disinterested virtue which justifies any means to attain hoped for ends.

Ethical problems can relate to both the subject matter of the text as well as to the methods and procedures used to translate it, and can go well beyond courtesy or etiquette regarding appropriate treatment of persons in a free society. Translators have often been criticized for lack of concern over the welfare of their clients. The translator often misinforms clients about the nature of the translation method, and-or exposes them to embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. […] 

Let’s look at that last sentence for a minute: Does the translator misinform clients about the nature of the translation method? One might argue that the translator doesn’t even discuss his translation method, he just agrees to do the translation. Well, we can play with words and use lawyers’ tricks but if we really want to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that when we say “I will do the translation” we are telling the client that “I will do the translation”; I, the translator. And before arguing that it’s not necessarily what we mean, let’s put ourselves in the client’s shoes. What does the client understand when we say that, and what does he expect?

The sentence mentions embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. Does this apply to us? Let me give just a couple of examples from personal experience:

Recently I translated some academic transcripts from Greek to English for a direct client, let’s call him “Yannis”. Along with the transcripts, I had to translate a long list of engineering course descriptions and a couple of cover letters. I had to rely on my own knowledge (I had taken many of those courses some years ago), on university websites, reliable engineering dictionaries, and my old textbooks. (Who would have thought that my 50000-lb thermodynamics book, also used as a very effective doorstopper, would come in handy after all these years?) What would have happened if I had used an online translation application, say Google Translate? If you think that a lousy translation is the only thing I would have gotten, think again. (And it would be lousy indeed! It turns out that before hiring me, Yannis had tried to do the translation himself, using Google Translate. I guess he didn’t get very far, so he decided to hire a professional. When I sent him my translation he took a quick look and immediately wrote back to thank me and tell me that now he understood why professional translators are so indispensable. I wanted to give Yannis a virtual hug.) Anyway, let’s say I had considered using Google Translate to do this job. First of all, I would have no right to put Yannis’ transcripts on a public domain. If Yannis wanted to do so, that would be his right, those were his grades. I would have no right to share Yannis’ grades with anyone, nor would I have the right to share his personal cover letter with people who are not the intended recipients. Maybe I could remove information that could be used to identify him… His name, address, title, affiliation, all the grades -I’m sure I’d miss something- maybe I should remove the name of the university as well, and the department, and the year of graduation, and the title of the degree. What’s left? Right, the list of courses. But then, would Google really be able to give me a good translation of the description of that specialized course on the dynamics of Diesel engines or the one on welding and soldering techniques? What else would be left? The main body of the cover letters. Again, I have no right to share a letter written by someone other than me with people to whom it is not addressed. Plus if Yannis wanted the letters to be translated by Google, he could have done that himself. If Yannis ever decided to do an online search for some terms or sentences appearing in those cover letters, he might have found the entire text online. Talk about an embarrassing and emotionally painful experience! And of course he’d feel cheated. And if he then mentioned it to me, the embarrassing experience would be all mine.  Now is that the kind of relationship we want to build with our clients? Does the use of an online automatic translation tool reflect the respect and confidentiality that they deserve and consider a given when they hire us? Is that how we make sure they are satisfied and would hire us again or recommend us to others?

Now if a simple document such as an academic transcript is confidential, think about medical records. Or press releases. Or private-meeting minutes.  Or advertising campaigns. Or private correspondence. And yet there are translators who use Google Translate, oblivious to the fact that Google is not Mother Teresa, doing your translation for you asking for nothing in return, out of the goodness of its silicon little heart. “I’m doing this for the common good,” you might say; “if other translators ever need that information, they can find it easily online thanks to me”. Well, the problem with this concept is that the data you are sharing is NOT yours to share!

This brings us to a fundamental difference between the researcher-subject scenario (case A) and the translator-client scenario (case B): In case A, the study is conducted by the researcher, it is his own work from beginning to end; he chooses the topic, he designs the study, he collects and analyzes the data, and he is the one to present the work, for his own benefit (and in the long term for the benefit of the scientific community or perhaps society in general). In case B, the case that concerns us translators, we are given temporary access to work that is not ours. The topic of the document we are to translate, the content, the layout and the presentation all belong to the client, not to the translator, and they are to be used for the client’s benefit. So if confidentiality is such an important concern in case A, think how important it is in case B, i.e. in translation.

To the embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences, as mentioned by Burns, add “professionally detrimental” ones. Here’s an example: I am often asked to translate research articles to be published in American scientific journals. Again, this is research, to be published. Sometimes these papers describe many years’ worth of research. The authors have chosen specific journals through which to make their work known to the scientific community. They have not chosen Google’s database, they have not chosen forums of online translation portals (where translators ask for term advice, and for context they give entire paragraphs that often include highly sensitive and confidential information), they have not chosen anything other than those journals, and it is those journals that will have copyright. Imagine how professionally detrimental it can be to an author of such a paper that describes his work if that paper –whether in its entirety or partially- appears online before the author even has the chance to submit it for publication.

In the same chapter about ethics, privacy, and confidentiality, Burns goes on to say:

The right to privacy is an important right enshrined now in international (UN Declaration of Human Rights) and national legislation.[…] Individuals should decide what aspects of their personal lives, attitudes, habits, eccentricities, fears and guilt are to be communicated to others. […] This does not mean that personal and private behavior cannot be observed ethically; it can, provided that the subjects volunteer to participate with full knowledge of the purposes and procedures involved.

The above applies to us as well. Our clients are the only ones who have the right to decide what aspects of their life or work are to be communicated to others, and they must have full knowledge of the procedures involved in the translation. If you plan to outsource the work or if you plan to use an online automatic translation tool or use any other method that might compromise privacy and confidentiality, you should tell your client and obtain his permission. If you are not telling your client because you think it doesn’t concern him, based on the above you’re wrong. If you’re not telling him because you might think he won’t hire you if you do, that means you are knowingly doing something wrong, i.e. you are aware that you are compromising privacy and confidentiality and still choose to proceed. You proceed until a client finds out and complains, or until a client takes legal action against you, or until the translators’ association you belong to tells you that you have violated its code of ethics, or until you simply realize that professionalism in our field of work goes well beyond delivering a good translation.

Ref: Burns, R.B. (2000). Introduction to Research Methods, 4th edition, Pearson Education Australia.