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

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.