The Sky’s the Translating Limit

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #13)

I am reading the New York Times Magazine while squeezed in the middle seat of an airplane between a Brazilian and an Italian as a flight attendant uncreatively drones on about air-travel protocol in French and English and a middle-aged couple in front quietly deliberates in what I guess to be Korean about where to store the lady’s handbag: an intriguing assemblage of anonymous globetrotters so unassumingly and perfectly representative our this last half century. As the captain stultifies passengers with weather conditions in the Canadian plains, I flip open the magazine to drown out the monotony and the buzz. “Is Translation an Art or Math Problem” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus contends that Google’s mission is arguably to make language superfluous. The word lover, language nerd and avid reader in me feels the conspicuous vein in my neck protrude. The initial paragraphs of the article are treading rather carelessly on my sacred translator ground, and I, now visibly nervous, imagine I am about to read yet another auger of the death of my profession swathed in wistful pity. But I plow on.

And thankfully too. Because the article does not ultimately portend the demise of this millennial profession. Nor does not it claim some covert Google agenda to usurp the need for human translators per se. In fact, without over-romanticizing or over-criticizing, it astutely argues in favor of both man and machine as necessary contenders for delivering words from one language into another by acknowledging that the purpose of each of these two forms of translation is patently separate: machines, where time must essentially trump contextual aims; humans, where subtle, sympathetic purpose ranks foremost. And it most notably argues the need for both types of translation working in tandem. To the sentimentalists who cry out that machine translation is mere snake oil prettily packaged for an undiscerning, fast-paced market, it is time we recognize the countless benefits that rapidly improving, lightening-fast, computer-coded rendering affords humanity. To the staunch defenders of the supremacy of ones, zeros and blurred lines between science fiction and reality, we cannot but acquiesce to the emotionless limitations of code and to our unique human skill of imbuing words with empathetic and historical purpose that will fall forever outside the the realm of computed bits.

Granted, you already implicitly understand this fine balance, sensitively pondering these reflections in English as you call upon Google Translate for the occasional unfamiliar term.

Happy words,

— all as used in the article “Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?”

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