Who Am I and Why Translation?

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

Tom Hoar – Entrepreneur

My social media comments inspire a variety of feedback from translators. Some question my connection to translators with skepticism. Sometimes the exchanges have gotten personal.

  • Several translators have tried to explain “what translation is” as though I had never met a translator much less worked with many hundreds in challenging environments unrecognizable to today’s commercial translators. .
  • A translator recently questioned my motives. She explained that as a premium translator, she seeks subtext because it’s automatic. She believed she’s is incapable of stopping because it’s in her nature. Earlier in the same discussion, she adamantly declared that translators are not machines. The sense of irony was lost in exchange.
  • A couple of years ago, a translator accused me of doing things that were diametrically opposed to my values and which I’d never done. I lost my temper. I told her to pull her head out of her… well… I was way out of line. My rude out-lash inspired me to take a “timeout” from social media.

I’m not a translator and I don’t pretend to be one. I’ve never worked at a translation agency (aka LSP). I don’t come from computational linguistics academia. Furthermore, I’m not particularly skilled in languages. Dare I say, I’m minimally fluent in American. I struggle with English. I have no interest in learning another language to any competent proficiency, and I leave translation to professionals.

A Translation Services Consumer At 12 Years Old

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, trained in the field, who professionally engages in written document translation, spoken translation (interpretation), cross-lingual transcription (listens to one language and types in another without intermediate written form) and other linguists.

Self-reflection reveals our blind spots.

I was 12 years old when I first encountered translation services as a consumer. My family moved to Iran. Dad’s office provided a translator/interpreter for the family to adjust during relocation. On self-reflection, I was a typical, arrogant American dependent brat. That is, I refused to learn Persian just like all my American junior high school classmates. Instead, I relied on translators during my entire 4 years in Tehran. With these experiences, my connections to translators started long before many of you who are reading this were born.

Years later at the University of Arizona, I studied Political Science with a Persian language minor. To my own surprise, I scored 5 (speaking) and 4 (reading) in the State Department proficiency tests. I got an exciting job with Uncle Sam, and my career ambitions pulled me in a different direction. I was really good with speech and language technologies.

First Professional Support

In that career, I first supported translators with technology in 1985. The translators were full-time employees working in Washington, DC at an office dedicated to translation. They used the IBM Selectric II with an OCR-A font ball. It was a masterpiece of a typewriter. The keyboard was perfection. The platen easily accepted 5 layers of onionskin paper with carbons. Their typed pages were scanned into a mini-computer. Optical character recognition (OCR) converted the images 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. From their perspective, there was absolutely no reason to change. Want it or not, however, change was coming. Their managers decided to change to WANG word-processors. They did not like it! I was assigned the task to take away their keyboards. I think my seniors dumped the task on me because they didn’t want to be caught in the cross-fire that ensued.

Keyboard perfection as a comfort zone.

I took away their beloved keyboard. In one swift blow, I, not the managers who set the policy, became the devil. The translators didn’t care that the WANG eliminated the OCR processing. They didn’t care that the WANG unified their work with everything surrounding them. Their personalities 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 the keyboard they didn’t like. The keyboard was their comfort zone and they didn’t like being forced out of their comfort zone. To my surprise, all of a sudden, almost instantly, their attitudes changed.

On the 3rd day of training, the instructor taught the translators some new skills. They learned to 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. Before the technology was thrust upon them, before the training, they did not know what they did not know about the new WANG that would give them a new, more comfortable comfort zone.

They learned new skills that were within their aptitude to learn. That is, no one asked them to add software engineer skills to their translator resumes. They learned what they didn’t know that they didn’t know. They shattered a blind spot. Their comfort zone was first pierced; then it shifted.

Angst Comes With New Technology
Our blind spots conceal what we don’t know that we don’t know.

They didn’t learn new technology because they were professionals seeking more efficient ways to do their work. It was quite the opposite. More capable technology became available, their environment changed and they learned. They adapted to the changing environment.

Again and again throughout the years since 1985, I’ve worked with translators, transforming their work habits with the technologies. The WANG gave way to the IBM PC-AT. Desktops became notebooks. Cassette tapes became digitally recorded wave files. Word processor applications became database-driven CAT tools. Paper dictionaries became software glossaries.

Each time we’re faced with new technology, we confront angst and resistance. It’s was something that we didn’t know that we didn’t know. New technology pulls us out of their comfort zones and demands we adapt and learn new skills. After we learn what we didn’t know that we didn’t know, we can see “what’s in this for me.” The angst fades. The resistance disappears. We establish a new comfort level. Then, we’re ready for the next cycle.

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 forwarded audio transcripts/translations to policymakers. Technology transformations and skills adaptations were bidirectional. Translators, inside their new comfort zones with new PC skills, opened opportunities for new collection technologies. It’s a never-ending feedback loop. Here’s an example.

In the early 1990’s, the “multimedia PC” was only 2 years old. I created new digital audio recording (dictation) software for MS Windows. It was groundbreaking in its day because my bosses didn’t expect a future where every computing device had a sound card.

At the time, my bosses were skeptical. They insisted cassette tape recorders worked fine and translators weren’t demanding anything new. Unlike the technology-centric innovations in my managers’ comfort zones, my new software leveraged the translators’ new PC skills. Translators again stretched their comfort zone to listen to the new digital recordings, but they also reused many skills they had already learned and they enjoyed new benefits. That strategy was the foundation for a next-generation translator workstation.

Those who create the corpora are the winners.

After 12 years in government, I moved to the private sector in 1997. For two decades, I’ve continued my career supporting translators, at first with speech recognition technologies. Ten years ago, I transitioned to machine translation technology. I saw its potential as a translator’s tool. After all, who benefits the most from learning corpus-based translation technology? I concluded those who create the corpora, i.e. the translators. I built a business around a user-friendly technology that challenges your comfort zone and offers benefits not available elsewhere.

I’ve lived, eaten and breathed translation services all my life. Starting with Iran, I’ve lived and worked in 57 countries including every country in Latin America. Hayama, Japan was my home for 2 years. I’ve been an American expatriate in Bangkok, Thailand for 17 years. I’m not a translator. I don’t pretend to be one. Yet, my intimacy with translation and translator gives me a perspective to see what’s in translators’ blind spots.

If you’ve doubted my motives or qualifications through social media discussions, I hope this helps.

If you’re a translator or you represent a small translation team or small agency, I’ll leave you with one parting question. Is is possible that there are things about machine translation that you don’t know that you don’t know? If you’re open to that possibility, please post a comment or ask a questions.

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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