Saturday, May 18, 2013

Technology and the Expert Translator

In what follows, translating refers to written translation. Interpreting is another story.

Once upon a time, Expert Translators only needed two pieces of technology. One was the time-honoured paper dictionary, and the other was a typewriter (preferably an IBM Selectric with its interchangeable print balls). Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s I visited several countries where even Professional Translators were still writing out their translations in longhand. Perhaps the first really useful modern technological novelty was the photocopier.

Then came computers.

First came word processors. In the beginning only for English, but then extending (and still extending) to other languages. In the 80s I came across an Arabic processor (very clunky) for the first time in Amman, and an Inuktituk one in Canada. In the following decade, the world of communications was transformed by the internet.

The above, however, were universal tools that translators used along with other writers and office workers. How about more dedicated tools designed specifically for translators? The first breakthrough was the computer-stored multilingual term banks; in Canada and Europe from about 1970 onwards. Computer stored but still very labour intensive. The second wave was that of translation memories using bitext (see Terms below), which were invented at the end of the 1980s. Then people got the idea of linking them along with the above-mentioned universal tools into what we called translator workstations.
More recently, the workstation components have been fully integrated and marketed as computer-assisted translation (CAT) software suites. The best known of them is Trados ( It includes terminology management, translation memory building and other functions. Many employers now require their staff translators and freelance contractors to know how to use it.

Translation memory is also changing bilingual lexicography. Linguee ( is now the dictionary I most often turn to, and it‘s based on translation memory. Also it’s a dictionary that requires the judgement of an Expert or Advanced Native Translator.

For me, the turning point had come already in 1976. It was in that year that we introduced a Computers and Translation course into the undergraduate translation programme at the University of Ottawa. A Canadian first. My colleagues agreed to it only on condition that it be an optional course. But by 1980, at the request of the students themselves, it became compulsory.

Nowadays conferences and seminars on translation technology have become all the rage in translation studies. It’s impossible to keep up with the innovations and assess them all. That‘s why Jost Zetzsche‘s Tool Box Newsletter (see References) is so useful. He wrote recently,
“Someone asked me last week: Do you still always come up with enough material for your newsletter? The answer is I don't have to: the material comes to me. If there was enough to cover in translation technology 219 editions ago, there is certainly more than enough today.”
All this is leading up to the following:
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Expert Translator is knowledge of the technological tools available and how to use some of the most advanced ones. The Natural Translator doesn’t need them and may not even be aware they exist. The Advanced Native Translator is likely to have become acquainted with the most basic ones.
Notice that for once I'm saying something prescriptive; the reality is that Expert Translators, even Professional ones, often fall short of the ideal, especially the older ones.
  • Bitext: a computer-stored source text and its translation keyed to one another in such a way that retrieving a segment in either of them automatically retrieves also the corresponding segment in the other.
  • Translation memory: a collection of bitexts, typically compiled by computer. Some of them are augmented on the fly as the translator works.

  • Jost Zetzsche. The Tool Box Newsletter. Blog. The Basic Edition is free on the internet. The Premium Edition costs $25 a year. Website here. Jost is co-author of Found in Translation, reviewed a few weeks ago on this blog. To find the review, enter jost in the Search box on the right.
  • Brian Harris. Bi-text [sic], a new concept in translation theory. Language Monthly (Nottingham, UK) no. 54, pages 8-10, 1988. Language Monthly has long since ceased publication, but there are copies of it in the British Library and the Library of Congress.

96-character interchangeable type balls for IBM Selectric typewriters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. This post is a good piece of information...with the coming days, everything is getting advanced...there is a lot of difference in the methods of earlier language translations and now.

  2. Nowadays computers use translation programs when it comes to translation specific phrases but still nothing can replace humans when it comes to translation simply because humans are still best at it...

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  3. Yes, Eric, and we translatologists and computational linguists ought to consider more carefully what it is that still makes humans superior. Maybe I'll post about it soon.
    Thanks for the comment.

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