Artificial intelligence: should we ignore it, fight it, flee from it, or tame it?*

It’s a given that artificial intelligence (AI) is entrenched in our world. It is already omnipresent in many industries, in the form of personal digital assistants, search engines that steer users toward targeted content, self-driving vehicles, or smart cameras that can perform visual inspections on an assembly line. Given that these technologies promise to save us time and money, and be more productive, it will be increasingly difficult to ignore the phenomenon.

Will we shortly be seeing jobs disappear in law, transportation, manufacturing, services and communications, to name just a few fields? What about professional translation? Will automated translation drive translators into extinction? According to researchers at Oxford and Yale, AI will exceed human performance in translation by 2024.[1] Has the time come to close translation schools?

Let’s put things into perspective. Not that long ago, translation was essentially done on paper, ideally close to a library that could be used for document and terminology research. Technology gradually emerged that made life a lot easier for translation professionals: word processing software, terminology databases, access to countless resources on the Internet, and computer assisted translation (CAT) systems. Those who adopted these tools agree that their productivity improved, enabling them to make a decent living even though rates were stagnating.

It may be otherwise with AI, a tool unlike the others. Time will tell, but we have to look at the evidence. There is no point in fighting it. On the contrary, we have to engage with it rather than leaving the technology’s development solely in the hands of the IT experts. Many translators find the prospect of spending their days doing post-editing unappealing, so it is up to us, the language professionals, to promote our expertise. While literary translation is less threatened by the dangers of automation, practical professional translation is not ready to become the prerogative of machines that do not “understand” the meaning of the texts they are processing. What these machines do is perform language transfers according to programming rules. They do not actually translate. This is where professional translators can come in, by becoming the experts who should know better than anyone how to use this technology.

In any event, artificial intelligence’s impact on professional translation is being felt in every part of the profession, including the teaching of translation: a post-editing course has been added to the curriculum at Université de Montréal. We can therefore hope that the profession is not dying out, but rather undergoing a change that will likely involve taming artificial intelligence.

*Text translated by Alison Newall.

[1] Grace, K. J. Salvatier, A. Dafoe, B. Zhang and O. Evans, When will AI exceed human performance? Evidence from AI Experts, 3 May 2018, page consulted on August 22, 2018

Localization: Redundant? Or a useful neologism?*

For many years now, we’ve been hearing the term “localization” bandied about to refer to the cultural adaptation of a translation, especially in the IT and video game fields. Why did the translation industry need this term?

According to the Larousse French dictionary, localization is defined as “the adaptation of a product, productive or commercial activity to a geographic area based on a variety of natural, technical, economic, cultural and social factors” [our translation]. At first glance, this definition does not directly refer to translation.

Also according to Larousse, translation means “the expression in a target language of what was stated in a source language, while maintaining semantic and stylistic equivalencies” [our translation].

The Wikipedia article on localization states that “language localization differs from translation activity because it involves a comprehensive study of the target culture in order to correctly adapt the product to local needs.” But isn’t this a flagrant misunderstanding of what translation is?

At university, I learned that translation was a global language transfer process characterized by faithfulness to the source text, respect for the author’s tone, mastery of the source and target languages, writing the target text idiomatically so that it can be understood by its target audience, and cultural adaptation. This process goes well beyond Larousse’s brief definition.

The term “language localization” seems to arise from market globalization. Perhaps this was an opportunity to create a niche.

Later in the same Wikipedia entry, it says this: “In addition to translation […], the localization process might include adapting graphics, adopting local currencies, using proper format for date and time, addresses, and phone numbers applicable to the location; the choices of colours; and many other details, including rethinking the physical structure of a product.” Yet aside from the choice of colour, translation professionals take all these precautions before sending the document to their client.

Creating the notion of localization seems to have bifurcated the translation process, dissociating it from the cultural adaptation implicit within it, rather than meeting a need. The question remains: is there a reason for the neologism? Or is the term redundant?

*Text translated by Alison Newall.

Pricing in translation*

In the big world of the liberal professions, pricing varies widely among the various fields and services. In Quebec, the 46 professional orders—whose mission is first and foremost to protect the public—have over 385,000 members, including architects, lawyers, chemists, chartered professional accountants, human resources counsellors, criminologists, dentists, engineers, doctors, notaries, pharmacists, psychologists, social workers and certified translators. To be accredited, all of these professionals have had to take recognized courses and meet the criteria of their respective orders. They are all subject to the same laws and regulations arising from the Professional Code that governs the practice of 54 professions in Quebec.

With regard to fees, professionals usually opt for a set hourly fee which applies to all actions done for the client. For example, a lawyer’s bill will state the time spent speaking on the phone with the client, searching for information, meetings, appearing in court, etc. Dentists, for their part, bill clients for services based on a set schedule for exams, cleaning, scaling, X-rays, etc. What about translators?

Translators in private practice mainly bill by the word, although there is a slight trend toward hourly billing. Whether by the word or hour, the price may vary based on the nature of the text, the amount of time allotted for doing the work, and any additional work required, such as layout or image processing, if any. Note that translation work first calls for a careful reading of the source text, contextual research into the topic, identifying terminology in the text, and finally rendering the message idiomatically in the target language. All of this work is based on one essential condition: the professional translator must also have an in depth knowledge of at least two languages and two cultures. More than “functionally bilingual,” the translator must have a mastery of the target language, and a thorough knowledge of the techniques of the craft, skills that are acquired with many years of training. Not just anybody can be a translator!

Translators, like their counterparts in other professions, are moving toward billing by the hour for the professional services they render. In the meantime, both billing styles coexist in perfect harmony.

*Text translated by Alison Newall.

Your translator is not just bilingual**

The first time a rookie client needs to have a text translated, he’ll often ask himself the following question: why don’t I get one of my bilingual salespeople (or engineers or secretaries) to translate this for me? The implication here is that translators are just bilingual people who charge more! However, the truth is that there is more to being a translator than being bilingual and even professional translators (who are, by definition, bilingual if not multilingual) are not qualified to translate in all fields of knowledge. Why is that? What is the difference between someone who is simply bilingual and a professional translator?

Here’s a short answer.* Bilingual people normally learn to speak two languages in two different contexts: one at home, the other at school or work, or they may have emigrated from or lived in a country in which another language is commonly spoken. Vocabulary, syntax and other linguistic subtleties apply to different languages, as well as different fields of knowledge. Flowers are my favourite example of this phenomenon. As a girl, I spent a great deal of time wandering around the marsh next to my French-speaking grandmother’s house. That grandmother taught me the names of the flowers, trees and berries that grew wild there. In town, with my English-speaking mother, these marvels of nature simply did not exist. It is only once I reached adulthood that I learned to name them in English, my mother’s language. I still need a dictionary to find the English names of flowers and these names evoke no fragrance or colour for me: they’re just words on paper. In other words, botanically speaking, I am unilingual.

Conversely, a French-speaking engineer who did his studies in English will not necessarily be able to translate a technical text into his mother tongue. Although he learned his profession’s English vocabulary and syntax at university or at work, no one spoke about “plans and specifications” around the kitchen table when he was young. As an ‘ordinary’ bilingual person, he knows the vocabulary for some things in one language and for others in his second language. He also sometimes slips English technical terms into conversations that are taking place in French …

Translators are bilingual people who have learned the grammatical details of (at least) two languages and who apply their knowledge to their work on a daily basis. They have acquired lexicons that are both complementary and parallel. When they are familiar with a field they are able speak about it in both languages without mixing them up. Another key difference that sets translators apart: when they are not familiar with all of the terms used in a given field, translators have the tools and skills to find many equivalencies quickly.

*Inspired by Parler plusieurs langues, Le monde des bilingues, an excellent book written by François Grosjean and published by Éditions Albin Michel in 2015. My post is intended as a quick overview of the issue. (website:, blog:

**Text translated by Sébastien St-François and Alison Newall

Your translator is asking questions? That’s a good sign*

Let’s start with the good news: rest assured, a translator who asks questions is usually a good one. He or she cares about your image and wants to make sure you get your message across. Translators don’t generally have questions about a text because they are unfamiliar with the text’s language or topic. Sometimes, an author may use a word that has several meanings (polysemy) … or assigns the wrong meaning to a word! A good translator will check with you to find out what you’re really trying to say.

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The Industrialization of Translation*

The race for the title of the planet’s largest language services provider is in full swing. A case in point: Lionbridge’s recent acquisition of CLS Communication (owned by Lexi-Tech). However, the mergers of such industry giants also speak to how industrialized the translation market is becoming, a process that has been underway for some time now.

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Professionalism Matters!*

The advantages of forming a long-term relationship with a language professional

Isn’t it great to have access to a trusted professional that you can consult as needed? Isn’t it reassuring to know that this person, who knows who you are and what you need, can provide customized solutions that will meet your expectations?

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