by James Nolan
Head of Linguistic Services, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ret).
Mr. Nolan was our Translator of the Month in May 2013. He is the author of "Interpretation. Techniques and Exercises”, published by Multilingual Matters; (October 2012) and "Spanish-English/English-Spanish Pocket Legal Dictionary", Bilingual Edition, published by Hippocrene Books, (October 2008).
For the benefit of our readers, Mr. Nolan has summarized an oral presentation he made to the Twenty-Sixth Annual Conference of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI), at Cape Fear Community College - Wilmington, North Carolina - April 27, 2013. The summary follows.
Digitalization is dramatically shaping human communications and the media used to carry them, including communication across language barriers. But when language barriers are bridged by translation and interpretation, the cultural impacts go beyond the communication of messages because interpretation is not merely a communicative function potentially replaceable by technology but an art which plays a key role in human history by fostering inter-cultural understanding, transparency and tolerance.
Until recently, all translation was human translation because there was no other kind. Now, situations arise in which the need is felt to specify that we are talking about "human translation"  because verbally encoded outputs of computer algorithms are being produced and marketed as translations. Some of these products of artificial intelligence can be made to mimic self-conscious human thought and expression so convincingly that the effect is like finding a genie in a magic lantern and we could almost forget that what we are hearing is synthesized verbalization rather than articulated thought.
Globalization brought about a global village, making contacts between cultures ever more frequent and intense, creating pressure to resort to automated means of coping with the growing volume of communications. Now, with the digital revolution and advances in artificial intelligence, we seem to be moving towards a digital global village --automating or computerizing a growing number of human activities and through the use of programs or "apps" that mimic human faculties and cultural features, often without regard to whether the human element of the activity constitutes its essence and makes it a suitable or unsuitable candidate for automation.
In times when inter-cultural frictions and conflicts lead to acts of mass violence and terror, the human factor deserves more respect. While no one would deny, for example, that the process of packaging pharmaceuticals in a sterile robotic environment "untouched by human hands" is a technically sound way to perform the task, the question we now face is whether the process of transferring ideas, beliefs and feelings between human cultures can or should be done "untouched by human minds." I appreciate the practical uses of my smart-phone, but I have to ask myself how smart it would be to allow a device to begin doing my thinking for me. The human brain is still the most powerful computer, and the repository of some 300,000 years of evolutionary and historical experience, and it is the awareness of that cultural heritage that enables a translator or interpreter to extract the correct meaning from the context of an utterance in ways that eludes even the most advanced Machine Translation programs.
What recent machine translation developments have in common is a failure to recognize that the activity they propose to automate is not an amateur pastime or a computer game but the world's oldest profession, one whose traceable origins in recorded history go back to about 3000 BC in Egypt, 2600 B.C. in Mesopotamia and 165 B.C. in China.
INTERPRETER: Egypt, 3000 BC
More importantly, it is a profession based on mental processes that have been at the core of how civilizations grow and develop as far back as human memory can reach, longer in fact than some other professions that would not have developed as they have if language and communication had not developed ahead of them or in parallel with them. Cultures often grow through cultural borrowing --which is another way of saying translation-- and translators and interpreters, as agents of that change, have often been the ones who built the bridges that enabled something new or useful to enter their cultures from abroad. A good example is medicine, which from its earliest times has owed many of its advances to underlying cultural processes of translation.  Yet, a recent article about European regulations that was discussed on a US translation agency blog reported that the pharmaceutical industry sees some translations as "a waste of paper."  One has to ask: If artificial intelligence and robotics developed to the point where it became possible to computerize medical practices, should we allow that to happen or would we be expunging the Hippocratic Oath and neutralizing the capacity for innovation that the history of medicine illustrates? And if computerization drains the vigor of translation and interpretation as a profession, such dehumanization may have a similar effect over time on medicine, law, education and other professions and disciplines that translation supports by providing links, forging connections and fostering cross-fertilization. The best translation (written or oral) draws on a deep understanding of human experience and the human condition from which insights and intuitions arise that shape the translation process in a creative way. We should take care to preserve those human insights and intuitions as an essential part of the craft of translation.
 See, e.g.: “The fact that translation is a largely invisible activity is not a problem per se; firms and administrations working in an international context still use it daily. On the other hand, the Directorate General of Translation (DGT) at the European Commission (and many experts and professionals that we contacted for this study), believe that by constantly remaining in the background, translation and especially human and professional translation may eventually be perceived as a superfluous activity, a cost that is not necessarily justified. If this perception were to spread among the citizens of Europe it could rapidly become a threat to European multilingualism, for which the translation activities in European institutions provide a solid base.” Directorate-General for Translation. Studies on translation and multilingualism. Contribution of translation to the multilingual society in the EU (English summary) http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/translation/publications/studies/index_en.htm
[3 By estimation, the brain has about 100 million MIPS worth of processing power while recent super-computers only have a few million MIPS worth of processor speed.
 Roland, Ruth A. Interpreters as Diplomats: A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics (Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1999, 209 p.)
“Through long contact with Greek culture, and their eventual conquest of Greece, the Romans absorbed many of the Greek ideas on medicine. (…) This acceptance led to the spread of Greek medical theories throughout the Roman Empire, and thus a large portion of the West. The most influential Roman scholar to continue and expand on the Hippocratic tradition was Galen (d. c. 207). Study of Hippocratic and Galenic texts, however, all but disappeared in the Latin West in the Early Middle Ages, following the collapse of the Western Empire, (…) After 750 AD, Muslim Arabs also had Galen's works in particular translated, and thereafter assimilated the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition, eventually making some of their own expansions upon this tradition, with the most influential being Avicenna. Beginning in the late eleventh century, the Hippocratic-Galenic tradition returned to the Latin West, with a series of translations of the Galenic and Hippocratic texts, mainly from Arabic translations but occasionally from the original Greek. In the Renaissance, more translations of Galen and Hippocrates directly from the Greek were made from newly available Byzantine manuscripts.” (bold font added)