Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Is speech technology unstoppable?

View of meeting room table from above all hands on different types of technology
Too many like-minded techies around the TAUS table?

What do you call a huge, powerful and overwhelming force? A juggernaut. This afternoon TAUS ran a webinar entitled: TAUS New Year’s Reception 2017. The TAUS tagline is Enabling Better Translation. The webinar carried out a self-congratulatory review of TAUS ‘achievements’. The TAUS website claims to support the whole translation industry. Does it?

Alarm Bells
TAUS CEO Jaap van der Meer is very pally with all the IT companies. IT Companies think TAUS is a wonderful organisation. Freelance translators don’t trust TAUS. Hardly surprising, judging by the flippant and dismissive tone adopted towards some of their key concerns. TAUS has become a juggernaut in hock* to the major, largely US IT companies. It’s another classic case of too many like-minded people continuing regardless of alarm bells. And the alarm bells were ringing very loudly. They just ignored them.

They were all so excited about the latest technological developments in speech technology, machine translation and machine learning. They touched on robots putting translators and project managers out of jobs. Oh, something else would come up for them. It was so exciting.

Dismissive of human aspects
Jaap van der Meer raised a major concern. Yet, he didn’t seem to fully appreciate its human significance and repercussions. He mentioned universities’ difficulties in obtaining software licences for students. He felt bad about it. Never mind, Mr van der Meer predicts that post-editing will be dead in the next 5 years. They need to move on to new challenges.

It’s all very well for the TAUS juggernaut and IT pals to move on, but it isn’t so simple for the universities - or past and present students trained in a soon-to-be obsolete technology. And of course, the fact that the technology will die means that he can dismiss trying to resolve post-editing pricing controversies. They will simply recur more urgently with the next technology. Wait and see.

A university curriculum cannot change at the drop of a hat. How do course leaders explain wasting so much time, money and effort on an obsolete technology? How do they explain to university administrators that the old stuff is useless? Will they trust TAUS and IT developers before making new purchases? Not one iota.

EU Linguistic Expertise v. US Isolationism
An EU Quality Manager made an interesting point. An EU survey revealed that quality is 6 times more important than cost efficiency. It seemed to fall on deaf ears. You can’t get more experienced than the EU in procuring multilingual translations. It's difficult for TAUS to listen because its advisors are largely American. They only really worry about English and Spanish. They dismiss valid European concerns as ‘scepticism’. We can’t hope for any enlightened leadership on linguistic matters from the US over the next 4 years. Hell, the President-elect wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico.


Pic of man with digital swirl of communications at his fingertips

Not good enough
And what of all the translators working in the market who were trained to meet post-editing ‘good enough’ standards? How do they suddenly learn the creativity required by the increasing demand for transcreation? How do course leaders find enough trainers? The older generation learnt to translate literally. The younger generation were told that ‘good enough’ was ‘good enough’. You can change technology, but it isn’t easy to unlearn what will now be regarded as bad practices for transcreation.

Raw deal for the young
I feel for the younger generation. They endured successive, unpaid internships. Then, they got cheated out of 50% of their potential earnings. So how are they now supposed to finance their retraining and buy new software?

No answers to society’s challenges
To be fair to TAUS: Technology is transforming other industries too. Digital transformation threatens many jobs. No-one has the economic answers on how society supports a workforce for whom there are no jobs. People need to feel valued and productive to maintain good mental and physical health. Those who feel excluded can wreak havoc on society - as we have already seen with terrorist attacks. If a section of the population is left ill-informed and poorly educated, they can vote extremist political parties into power to exact vengeance.

Property prices in my London borough have increased 71% over 10 years. How do you deal with that, a reduction in earnings and a need to retrain? The UK population has the consequences of Brexit to deal with too.

Speech technology and cultural incompetents
How many other industries could start an apocalypse? TAUS says nothing on the importance of cultural competence to translation and interpreting. The lack of cultural understanding coming from the US, IT companies and the future President is alarming. Speech technology could start a nuclear war in their hands. The scientists who made atomic bombs no doubt found their technology oh so exciting too.

Pic of 3 soldiers with guns in the field, middle one on laptop communications
Implications for military applications in the field? 

It’s time to stop the TAUS juggernaut and take stock of the human implications. We need a powerful European organisation to consider the ethical, societal and human elements of current directions. TAUS is patently not representing the whole industry.

* in hock to - (meaning 3) if you are in hock to someone, you feel that you have to do things for them because they have given you money or support.
Usage example: It is almost impossible for the prime minster to stand above the factions. He always seems in hock to one or the other
Collins Cobuild Advanced English Learners' Dictionary

Karen Andrews is a freelance French to English translator, transcreator, content writer and editor. She has a strong background in global marketing.

Email Karen for further information via karenanglicityen@gmail.com in French, German or English.
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