AUSIT Conference 2019 Keynote Address

In October, I was in Hobart for the AUSIT Conference. It was my first time attending an event organised by our counterparts across the Tasman. Despite being held in the relatively ‘remote’ location, the 2019 National Conference was well-attended by delegates from all over Australia. The fact that the event was approved for 40 professional development points towards NAATI re-certification was probably a contributing factor in its popularity.

The keynote address delivered by Dr Marc Orlando of Monash University was entitled “Transience and Permanence in the World of 21st-century Translators and Interpreters”. After opening his presentation by framing the transience-permanence paradox within the canonical odes by renowned English poet John Keats, the speaker posed a series of teasers to question whether the seeming conflict between the passing and the enduring is actually something new for translators and interpreters of today. Dr Orlando then posited that the one constant in the translating and interpreting (T&I) profession is the ongoing adaptability and versatility required of its practitioners in the face of unending shifts and changes in the day-to-day working environment.

Research data and other indicators shared by Dr Orlando show that, globally, the language service industry is growing, with the uptrend projected to continue for the foreseeable future. In order to capitalise on the expected growth opportunities, the speaker stressed that the best way practitioners can prepare themselves is to become life-long learners: to continuously train and/or retrain oneself, to upskill and/or upgrade one’s capabilities, and to stay up-to-date with key research and developments affecting the market and the profession. I think this call resonated with many in the audience, myself included.

In connection with this, the speaker introduced the concept of ‘centaurs’ – human translators and interpreters whose performance is augmented with the support of technology – as the most effective T&I practitioners. Centaurs are mythical half-human half-horse creatures traditionally seen as wild and barbaric, and often associated with unbridled chaos, although some fantasy literature of more recent times, notably C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, depicts the centaur as wise, noble, gifted, valiant and loyal. That notwithstanding, the centaur analogy would probably not have been my personal choice for describing translators and interpreters, even though I do concede that its connotation of hybridity does have some degree of relevance: for, in many cases, output derived from human-machine cooperation is often better (and faster) than what humans or technology can achieve on their own.

In terms of current state-of-the-art technology that helps enhance the performance of translators and interpreters, Dr Orlando invoked the artificial intelligence (AI) phenomenon. For translators, the speaker cited neural machine translation, an increasingly popular yet complex AI-based computer program capable of self-learning as it ‘translates’ and which produces output that is faster, more accurate and more fluent than all previous automatic translation paradigms. Also mentioned was a related development – interactive translation prediction – which suggests target language output dynamically as the translator is typing in real time, akin to monolingual predictive writing functions available in mobile devices.   

For interpreters, Dr Orlando made a distinction between technology-mediated, technology-supported and technology-generated interpreting, emphasizing that remote simultaneous interpreting is set to become widespread. Among the AI-enhanced computer-assisted interpreting scenarios the speaker covered, I found the technology-enabled hybrid modality of respeaking (or voice writing in the US) very intriguing, and exciting. Conceptually, respeaking is live subtitling based on speech recognition. A person speaks in a source language, a respeaker interprets, speech recognition software transforms speech into text, the respeaker (either the same person or a second one) edits, and the edited subtitle in the target language is released, all practically simultaneously. To say that I can see this avenue offering a whole new world of limitless potential for accessing knowledge is a gross understatement.            

The keynote address concluded with another Keats quotation: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” from Endymion. In the poem, it actually goes on to say that the loveliness of the thing of beauty increases with time and never dies. As I got up to leave the room on my way to hear the next paper, I couldn’t help but wonder which thing of beauty the speaker had in mind when he spoke. Was Dr Orlando referring to the practitioner’s life-long learning, or the target language output the practitioner ‘creates’ each time an assignment is undertaken, or centaurs, or artificial intelligence, or something else?    

By May Fung   

Image by Gery Wibowo via Unsplash

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