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The Human Touch
Industry leader shares his thoughts on the future of translation
 NO. 51 DECEMBER 21, 2017
The opening ceremony of the 2017 TAC Conference and the Forum on Language Services for the Belt and Road Initiative, in Beijing on December 1 (COURTESY PHOTO)
The translation and interpreting industry is thriving as the world's nations are more connected than ever before. In an exclusive interview with Beijing Review, Kevin Quirk, President of the International Federation of Translators (FIT), talked about the role of translation in promoting communication among nations in a new age. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:

Beijing Review: The 71st Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing the role of professional translation in "connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development." What does this resolution mean to the translation industry?

Kevin Quirk: For the translation industry and for the translation community, it's a huge thing. It is recognition of the fact that translators play a key role in fostering peace and connecting nations, and in recognizing cultural diversity and bringing it to people as well, throughout the world.

International Translation Day (ITD) 2017 was celebrated under the theme of Translation and Diversity. Could you elaborate on how translation helps language serve as an expression of diversity and humanity?

The FIT proposed ITD in the 1990s and it's been celebrated by us as an international translation day on September 30, the day of the feast of St. Jerome, but of course not every country has a Christian basis. So we're very happy that in the same resolution, the UN General Assembly formally recognized the day and the important role played by translators and interpreters throughout the world.

Translation is important in promoting and fostering the ideas of people in different nations, and from different cultures inside those different nations as well. The UN and the European Union (EU) are very keen on multilingualism. We don't just speak one language, but we are allowed to express ourselves in the language that we have at some other time. The UN recognizes six official languages, the EU 24, soon to become 26, which means that everybody is allowed to speak the language of their choosing, one that is preferably the language of their own culture and diversity.

Good translators will then be able to render this into another language in a fully understandable way. I think that's the key to recognizing diversity. We can see how other people, who essentially aren't very different to us, live their lives, understand various concepts and get about their everyday life. That's one of the things I think that translation embraces. This resolution also embraces that we are different but also very similar, and through translation, we're able to see that. I think that's the key to what the UN is saying about translation fostering peace throughout the world.

I've just spent the last three months traveling the world and I see now so much that we have in common such as a sense of humor. There are things that make people laugh and cry throughout the world, but at the same time, we have small differences in our cultures and those are visible through our language because that's the way humanity expresses itself. I think that's really what translation, especially human translation, can do for us at the moment, to help us understand people in different countries, to relate to them, to understand that we are so similar.

Kevin Quirk, President of the International Federation of Translators

We all know that artificial intelligence (AI) is rising at a very fast pace. What do you think this will bring to translators and interpreters, as well as the entire industry in the future? Do you see it as more of a challenge or more of an opportunity?

I think it's a bit of both, to be quite fair. I have heard disturbing news that within the next five years we will no longer be able to call ourselves translators, because that job will be completely taken by machines. Some pundits and some people say that's true. I'm not quite convinced because five years ago we had very similar stories as well, but things haven't changed tremendously.

But I have seen some compelling evidence of good machine translation, neural machine translation and that AI is making great steps forward. However, I think we should not forget the human factor, and that's an essential thing in translation. People have said that we can't call ourselves translators and that we may have to create a new term for ourselves, maybe call ourselves post-editors, revisers, reviewers and somebody has even suggested cleaners who are cleaning up a text. As the president of the FIT, I would not like to be called "President of the International Federation of Cleaners" at some stage during my mandate. I believe that the human element is so important in every phase of translation, and even if machines can provide a raw translation, it still needs to be tidied and cleaned up if you will. That's something that we can certainly do.

And then there is high-end translation. For example, would you accept having your leg amputated because somebody read that from your medical notes which have been translated by a machine? You wouldn't trust whether it was correct or not, and I think the essential thing to keep in mind with machines is that their work will need to be read by humans and so you will still need the human element for a long time to come. I think there's no way that machines can actually assure the quality of the translations they themselves provide. So human translators will need to be involved in some way or other.

I can't predict the future and I don't think the people who are predicting the future at the moment are doing a particularly good job either. But I think we need to be positive. We also need to embrace technology as we have done so for many years, so all this is nothing new, but the pace in which AI is developing is certainly very quick.

Are there any other aspects in which machine translators cannot compare with human?

The emotional aspect. I think computers can be "trained" to translate word for word, or to find the same concepts, but I think human understanding is infinitely clever. We can actually do a lot more than machines at present, and I certainly believe that emotions, ambiguity and expressions of love will be hard to replicate. I'm not sure whether I want to hear all these from a computer, and I think ambiguity really is where we can shine as humans. For this reason I think that literary translation will be one of the last bastions to fall. A computer capable of translating the works of Shakespeare into perfect Chinese, for example, I think we've still got a long way to go before that happens.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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