This articles contains an overview of translation over the past 100 years, attributing the current global translation market to widespread technology, improved literacy rates, the current emphasis on international exchange of goods, services and ideas, and new means of communication. It also briefly discusses the potential impact of machine translation tools on the future of translation.

Advances in technology has brought many sweet fruits for the translator, including a computer-aided translation environment, advanced means of communication, the Internet and an ever expanding global economy (consider the present recession as a minor distraction).

Just a hundred years ago, the best equipped translator could only rely on their rather cumbersome QWERTY typewriter, their own pool of reference books, manuals and dictionaries carefully maintained and updated at home, access to external public and private libraries and advice kindly provided by fellow translators (who, anyway, had to live within reasonable, preferably walking, distance as telephone sets were rare).

Experience gained over years of hard work had to be kept in the not always reliable neural network. Its useful application was occasionally frustrated by the failure to retrieve the data contained (at best, it would come as close as the tip of your tongue).

To add insult to injury, the market was essentially local, exchange of goods and services was limited, and tourism was nearly non-existent and largely confined to a trickle of idle have-alls and revolutionaries haunting Europe. Anyway, both groups normally exhibited a fair command of at least one or several major languages (that is French, English or German then).

Literacy was another source of vexation for the translator. Large minorities (or small majorities?) of people remained dangerously illiterate, exposing themselves to the oratorical charms of loudmouths, and, more importantly for the translator’s lot, further shrinking the translation market.

That was the frame of the world just 100 years ago. It doesn’t really invite you to the profession, does it? Things began to change at an ever faster pace of a snowball rolling downhill.

First, governments world wide launched sweeping reforms seeking to eradicate illiteracy once and for all. This expectedly created a higher demand for books and other printed materials. Second, the beneficial effects of a better educated public were further complemented by a generally more affluent post-WWII world less bent on wars and more disposed to place greater emphasis on international contacts and a more global exchange of ideas, services and commodities.

Third, the improved ability of the means of transport to take you anywhere faster and safer served as a harbinger of orderly Japanese groups roaming European and American museums. In a broader perspective, tourism became an important sustainable industry opening up new opportunities for us.

Fourth, the advent of radio, television and eventually the Internet provided a further impetus by creating a full-blown information-based society and contributing, among other things, to the explosive growth of the translation market.

All those factors together acted to bring forth a golden age for translators. Translation transformed from an elite occupation into a craft routinely taught at numerous language teaching schools. New techniques and equipment became available, most notably, computers and later specialized software.

So, where do we stand now? The translator no longer uses the hassling ink-to-paper method, at best, assisted by a typewriter, but wields the power of their PC, and office and translation software. Their experience is stored in a neat format of translation memories. They can often access a remote library, staying comfortably in the warmth of their home. The pool of available resources has also expanded to include click-away knowledge bases on the Internet. They welcome and enjoy the global market as it produces both goods and an important collateral product — an ever increasing workload for the translator.

The fact is we, translators, are now blissfully married to the widespread technology and global economy. Or is it still the honeymoon and we must wait until marriage begins? Can these sweet fruits contain seeds of destruction? Let’s consider the future.

First and foremost, can the ever smarter machine translation tools eventually reduce the translator to the role of a supervising operator? My informed guess is, not in our lifetime (unless modern medicine extends our life expectancies substantially beyond evolutionary limits). At best, machine translation will come to dominate some technical segments. Mind you, however, most technical writing will continue to be done by people and therefore will continue to require, at least, HAT (human-assisted translation). Furthermore, marketing speak and fiction will remain insuperable obstacles, true bastions of human resourcefulness and frustration for machines.

Another consideration: people are now prepared to tweak up their bodies for a better sex appeal, why think translators will not take one step further and implant enhancements allowing them to think and work faster, and capitalize on the synergy of innate ability and inbuilt capacity.

In conclusion, I must say the past is behind, the present is now and the future is uncertain. But I have a profound belief in the translator species' ability to evolve and meet the new challenges. So I believe that we will not let machines overpower us.

Contributed by Arkadi Burkov, English into Russian translator.

Copyright, 1999-2006. All rights reserved. -
A Recent History and Prospects of Translation
Author: Arkadi Burkov
English to Russian translator 
By Arkadi Burkov
Published on 06/22/2009
Sign in to your account...

Your current localization setting


Select a language

All of
  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search