Sam Berner on the ethics of machine translation

The rise of technology is always a hot topic at translation conferences, and the AUSIT National Conference 2018 in Adelaide was no exception – Sam Berner, a legal translator based in Queensland, gave a thought-provoking talk entitled: “Ethical Questions for the Age of Intelligent Machines”.

Most such discussions revolve around the question of whether MT will ever replace human translators – which Ms Berner boldly asserted is fundamentally the wrong question, her premise being that we do not, and cannot, know what will happen and how technology will develop in the future. While I don’t personally fully agree with this statement, Ms Berner instead posed a set of questions which are worth thinking about:

  • Is MT being funded? Why, and by whom?
  • Is it being used?
  • Is it a useful and convenient tool?
  • Is it affecting our clients?
  • Is it being hyped?
  • Who is doing the tech research?

While she did not claim to have answers to all of these questions, she did point out a few salient points – funding is being put into machine translation research, including by the very universities and education institutes that teach languages and translation – why? Has nobody considered the conflict of interests? In fact, this is against the backdrop of a widespread defunding of language courses at universities and other education institutions.

While translators are a diverse population of intercultural mediators, representing an ethnically and gender-diverse demographic, who are in the business of solving problems of human relations, Ms Berner pointed out that MT research and development is almost exclusively the domain of young white males with no actual knowledge of languages and cultures – which is alarming, to say the least.

Whether or not machine translation is being hyped is for all of us to judge for ourselves. Nevertheless, it is certainly being used, and its use is becoming more widespread.  And it is in the nature of the industry that freelance translators, as most of us are, have little ability to assert ourselves against the corporate forces that are driving the development of AI. In this context Sam Berner made another bold statement – that, while poor quality is not acceptable to us as translators, it is generally acceptable to the rest of the population. Clearly this is an overstatement, for if it were true, none of us would still be doing what we do. Yet there is an element of truth to it, and it does affect our ability to win over clients who are seduced by the faster and cheaper option – meaning that the onus really is on us to communicate to clients and to the world in general what it is we do, and why it matters.

Ms Berner also undertook a brief review of the existing literature, and pointed out a gaping hole – while much has been written about translation and the ethics of translation, and much has been written about machine translation and NLP (natural language processing), published literature on the ethics of NLP and machine translation is virtually non-existent.

Placing the question of ethics and AI in a broader context, Ms Berner referred to the much-covered case of software developer Ibrahim Diallo, who had the misfortune to be fired by the very system he had helped to develop. In short, the system erroneously identified him as no longer having a current contract, and locked him out. Staggeringly, while his superiors acknowledged that something was wrong with this situation, not one of them was prepared to step in and reverse the decision made by the software. Rather than a story of machines becoming intelligent, this seems to me to be a story of humans abdicating responsibility – which certainly does raise some ethical questions: are machines truly intelligent and capable of making ethical decisions? Clearly the answer is no. To bring this back to the context of translation, there are some ethical questions relating to postediting which are perhaps not adequately addressed in our current Code of Ethics. Who, after all, is ultimately responsible for a text produced by a machine? Especially considering the all-too-common scenario in which a translator is being paid minimum rates to merely “proofread” the document.

This was certainly a thought-provoking talk. And given the absence of the translator’s voice from the forces that are driving this technology and publishing the research on it, I for one hope that some of us will take up the challenge of probing further into the ethics and usability of machine translation, and adding our perspective to the tech discourse.

By Guthrun Love

Photo by Franck V via www.unsplash.com

Course review: Linguistic validation of patient-reported outcome instruments

(https://www.ecpdwebinars.co.uk)

In January 2017, I participated in the eCPD video course on Linguistic validation of patient-reported outcome instruments. The course was divided into three videos, the first two of about fifty minutes each, and the third of about forty minutes. Each video was accompanied by a downloadable handout, which was a pdf file of the presentation used onscreen in that video. The material was presented in a logical manner, which was clearly introduced at the beginning and easy to follow as the course progressed. Continue reading “Course review: Linguistic validation of patient-reported outcome instruments”

Welcoming the Wake-up Call

I recently had the great opportunity to attend Chris Durban’s presentation as part of the first edition of the “One Day in…” event organised by the ITI in the prestigious venue of Gray’s Inn in London last month. Chris Durban is a French to English translator based in Paris specialising in business and finance. She is the author of The Prosperous Translator and co-author of 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know. She is a popular speaker at translation conferences and is well known for giving business advice to translators. Continue reading “Welcoming the Wake-up Call”

“Language is who we are” – Indigeneity at FIT 2017 Congress

When Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dancers performed for us to launch the Congress, they explained things like the “throw-out-sound-through-a-hollow-log” instrument (digeridoo), which sounds like an emu. One man played, the others tapped their fingers and toes; I wondered how d/Deaf people would experience this music. The physicality of the stamping, blowing and percussion made me homesick for Aotearoa/New Zealand, where kapa haka expresses much that seems beyond language. People cried, and all 800+ delegates bodily enacted their response in a standing ovation. Continue reading ““Language is who we are” – Indigeneity at FIT 2017 Congress”

NZSTI Conference Communication & Superdiversity 2018 – Day 1

The 2018 NZSTI National Conference titled “Communication & Superdiversity” was held in Wellington from 26–27 May, at the Victoria University Pipitea Campus. It started with an evening reception on 25 May where the delegates were able to meet in a relaxed atmosphere with drinks and nibbles. The winners of the “Moving Words” secondary schools translation competition, for which NZSTI sponsored the prizes, were also announced at this event: Yuqian Huang for Chinese, Freya Baker for German, and Katie Piper and Margo Montes for French. The students had created subtitles for Taika Waititi’s 11-minute short film Two Cars, One Night. Continue reading “NZSTI Conference Communication & Superdiversity 2018 – Day 1”

Webinar Review: Spanish legal translation – a comparison of two different legal systems

Yesterday I attended a webinar entitled “Spanish legal translation – a comparison of two different legal systems” (eCPD webinars: https://www.ecpdwebinars.co.uk), presented by Sofia Brough-Aparicio, a Spanish translator who specialises in the legal field. What caught my attention was that the webinar dealt with my specific language pair and a field in which I work a lot, both as a translator and as an interpreter. Continue reading “Webinar Review: Spanish legal translation – a comparison of two different legal systems”

Can translators help save the Earth?

A report on Michael Cronin’s thought-provoking ideas on the role of translators in environmental sustainability.

Have you ever considered how translation may be contributing to climate change? How translation workflows exploit natural and human resources? Or how translators may be able to help humankind understand and interact with the natural environment? These were some of the questions that Professor Michael Cronin explored in his keynote presentation at the 2017 FIT Congress, entitled “Why Translation Should Not Cost the Earth – Towards Geocentric Translation Studies”. Continue reading “Can translators help save the Earth?”

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