Angst in a Time of Change

New, more capable technologies continuously replace perfectly functional old ones. This isn’t new for translators or anyone else. What is new? The migration of translators to freelancers who don’t have bosses forcing them to change. As new technologies open opportunities for those willing to learn, doors are closing on those who cling to the past.

I’m not a translator and I don’t pretend to be one. I’ve never worked at a translation agency or LSP. I don’t come from computational linguistics academia. I’m not particularly skilled in languages. I struggle with American and I’m barely fluent in English. I have no interest in learning another language to any competent proficiency.

Why would a non-translator like me create software intended for translators who aren’t asking for it?

Tom Hoar – Entrepreneur

Given all that, how did I start my life-long career serving translators with language technologies? Please note that for brevity, I’m using the word “translator” to mean a language enabled person who is trained in a linguistics skill and professionally engages in written document translation, spoken translation (interpretation), cross-lingual transcription (listens to one language and types in another without intermediate written form).

A Translation Services Consumer At 12 Years Old
Self-reflection reveals our blind spots.

I first encountered translation services as a consumer when I was 12 years old. My family moved to Tehran, Iran and Dad’s office provided a translator/interpreter for the family to adjust during relocation.

On self-reflection, I was a typical, arrogant bratty American dependent. That is, I refused to learn Persian just like all my American junior high school classmates.

I relied on translators during my entire 4 years in Tehran. With these experiences, my professional relationship with translators started long before many of you who read this article were born.

Years later at the University of Arizona, I majored in Political Science with an Oriental Studies minor. Persian language was in the Oriental Studies department. I wasn’t excited about Persian. I was excited to apply the credits both my language and minor requirements. To my surprise after graduation, I scored 5 (speaking) and 4 (reading) in the State Department proficiency tests.

Yet, I wasn’t even lukewarm about a career tied to a language. I was really good with speech and language technologies! Those skills got me an exciting job with the CIA. My career ambitions pulled me in a new and exciting direction.

First Professional Support

I started my CIA career in 1985 supporting translators with technology. The translators were full-time CIA employees working in Washington, DC at an office dedicated to translation. They used IBM Selectric II typewriters with an OCR-A font ball.

Keyboard perfection as a comfort zone.

It was a masterpiece of a typewriter. The keyboard was perfection. The platen easily accepted 5 layers of onionskin paper with carbons. Typed pages were scanned into a mini-computer. Optical character recognition (OCR) converted the scans to computer text for transmission around the world.

These translators were not looking for new technology. They were fat, dumb and happy in their personal comfort zones with the IBM Selectric II typewriter.

Before getting all bent out of shape, “fat, dumb and happy” is an old idiom. I’m not saying these former colleagues were obese and stupid. “Fat” refers to their lack of want for anything. They weren’t hungry. “Dumb” simply means they were not searching for new knowledge because they knew everything they needed to competently perform their jobs. “Happy” refers to their contentment. Everything in their lives was complete.

From their perspective, there was absolutely no reason to change anything in their jobs. Everything worked. Nothing was broken. Nothing needed fixing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Want it or not. Like it or not however, change was coming.

Unwanted, Unwelcome Change

Their managers decided to replace their IBM typewriters with WANG word-processors. They did not like it at all! I was assigned the task to take away their typewriters with that glorious keyboard. I think my seniors dumped the task on me because they didn’t want to be caught in the cross-fire that ensued.

I took away their beloved keyboard. In one swift blow, I became the devil, not the managers who set the policy.

The translators didn’t care that the WANG eliminated the OCR processing. They didn’t care that the WANG unified their work with the departments they served. They were not the type to “win one for the Gipper.” Their beloved keyboards were gone. They had to get used to the WANG. Their personal comfort zone had been violated and they complained!

Until…

A couple weeks later, the translators started formal training with the WANG instructor. Of course, they learned how to create, save, open, edit and send new documents. It was a time before PCs. These were all new skills and they learned quickly.

But they didn’t like the keyboard. The keyboard was their comfort zone. They didn’t like being forced out of their comfort zone. Then all of a sudden, to my surprise and almost instantly, their attitudes changed.

Our blind spots conceal what we don’t
know that we don’t know.

On the 3rd day of training, the instructor taught the translators some unexpected new skills. They learned they could save templates that create pre-formatted documents instantly. They learned to record macros for repetitive key strokes. They didn’t have to type the same things over and over and over, again and again and again.

They did not know what they did not know before the technology was thrust upon them, before the training, before they learned. They did not know the new WANG would give them a new, even more comfortable comfort zone.

Furthermore, they learned new skills that were within their aptitude to learn. That is, no one asked them to become software engineer skills or brain surgeons or rocket scientists. They learned what they didn’t know that they didn’t know within the skills they already had. They shattered a blind spot. Their comfort zone was pierced; then it shifted.

Angst Comes With Change and Unknown

They were not professionals seeking more efficient ways to do their work. They learned the new, more capable technology because their environment changed. They were forced to adapt to a changing environment.

Again and again for over 35 years, I’ve worked with translators as colleagues. I’ve introduced new technologies that shattered their comfort zones and then transformed their work habits.

The IBM PC-AT replaced the WANG. Desktops became notebooks. Cassette tapes became digitally recorded wave files. Word processor applications became database-driven CAT tools. Paper dictionaries became software glossaries.

Confronting angst and unknowns

Each time we confront a new technology, we face something that we didn’t know that we didn’t know, about the technology and about themselves. Angst comes with the unknown. We resist. New technology pulls us out of their comfort zones. It demands we adapt and learn new skills.

After we learn what we didn’t know that we didn’t know, we see “what’s in this for me.” The angst fades. Resistance disappears. We establish a new comfort zone. Then, we’re ready for the next cycle of unknown, angst, resistance, learning and new comfort zone.

Technical Surveillance and Translators

My career evolved. I was a technical operations officer responsible for technical surveillance operation. I worked intimately with translators. I collected audio. They translated/transcribed. Together, we eavesdropped. We did some really cool and sexy things together. Ultimately, we forwarded audio transcripts and translations to policymakers.

Technology transformed and skills adapted but it wasn’t a one-way street. In their new comfort zone with new PC skills, translators had ideas that opened opportunities for new collection technologies. It was a never-ending feedback loop. Here’s an example.

In early 1990, the “multimedia PC” was only 2 years old. My bosses didn’t expect a future where every computing device had a sound card. They were skeptical and insisted cassette tape recorders were “good enough.”

Translators were happy and suggested improvements based on their new experiences with the PC. They were software innovation that leveraged their new PC skills. My managers’ comfort zones were in hardware-centric innovation, not in software.

I listened to the translators’ ideas. Contrary to my own managers’ objections, I created new digital audio recording (dictation) software for MS Windows. It was groundbreaking in its day.

Translators in their new PC-enabled comfort zones worked with the new digital recordings. They reused skills they had already learned and enjoyed new benefits. They contributed ideas to what became their next-generation translator workstation.

I moved to the private sector In 1997 after 12 years in government. For two decades, I’ve continued my career supporting translators, first with speech recognition technologies. Ten years ago, I transitioned to specialize in machine translation.

A New Career With Machine Translation
Those who create the corpora are the winners.

Today’s translation services environment is changing. New, more capable technologies are replacing perfectly functional old technologies. They open new opportunities for those willing to learn. They close doors on those who cling to the past.

In today’s freelance-driven market, managers aren’t forcing changes on the translators like they did in 1985. No one is forcing translators to change and learn. Clients and agencies expect their contractors to be independent and self-motivated learners.

Translators weren’t demanding new machine translation software in 2010 when I started this journey. I saw machine translation technology’s potential as a translator’s tool. After all, who benefits the most from learning how to use a corpus-based translation technology? I concluded the translators who create the corpus stand the most to gain.

I’ve lived, eaten and breathed translation services all my life. I’ve lived and worked in 57 countries. I started in Iran. I’ve worked in every country in Latin America. Japan was my home for 2 years. I’ve been an American expatriate in Bangkok, Thailand since 2002.

I’m not a translator. I don’t pretend to be one. I leave translation to translators. Yet, my intimacy with translation and respect for translators as my colleagues gives me a perspective to see what’s in their blind spots.

I built a business around a user-friendly technology that challenges a translators’ comfort zone and offers benefits not available anywhere else.

If you’re a translator or you represent a small translation team or small agency, I’ll leave you with one parting question. Is it possible that there are things about machine translation that you don’t know that you don’t know?

2 responses... add one

Impressive background, i have been following your posts and being a software developer doing translation part-time as a side gig i find your posts thought provoking! Totally agree with comfort zone and the angst that comes out of forced changes, whether good or bad!

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