Machine translation (MT) is not the new kid on the block. It dates back to to about ~1950. But though translators have (somewhat hopelessly) been arguing about the pros and cons of MT for quite some time, it wasn’t until recently (when literally millions were poured into MT by Microsoft and other IT giants) that the general public also joined in the debate and marketing turned MT into the greatest human invention after the wheel.
Meanwhile, for quite some time, linguists have been observing a trend: more and more agencies are selling human edited MT to end clients, which means more and more linguists are shifting from translators to “MT post-editors” or other colorful terms used to describe them. The human vs. machine debate is fascinating from a linguistic point of view; and humans win every single time. But money speaks louder than words and MT saves millions; therefore, despite well-founded warnings from the bleeding hearts of the translation world, the market continues to shift toward MT with human post-editors. However, the fact that we can’t stop this train, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to hop aboard without at least asking ourselves where it’s going.
THE CONFIDENTIALITY ISSUE
Confidentiality suits cost the world millions every year, especially in the developed world. The potential legal implications of MT in regards to confidentiality have been analyzed in several papers and blogs. However, Matthew Blake summarizes it best in layman’s terms: “According to many legal experts, the actual sensitivity of confidential information and the ongoing efforts to keep it undisclosed are necessary to keeping information confidential. If the owner of the confidential information is reckless with the information, is it truly confidential?” What I would add to Matthew’s question is what happens when the person being reckless with the information is the translator or agency entrusted with it?
THE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ISSUE
When using MT, such as Google Translate or similar technologies, you may find things like this in your service agreement:
“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”
This obviously does not play well with intellectual property rights; and because this is a huge issue, I will address it in a separate post.
THE ETHICAL ISSUE
MT raises an array of ethical questions from several different perspectives.
1) Affecting clients: Are clients being told that MT is used? If so, are clients aware of the confidentiality issue? Are they aware of the intellectual property issue? Is the rate they are paying consistent with the translation quality they are receiving? Do they fully comprehend the implications of machine vs. human translation? In other words, are clients giving informed consent to the use of MT or are key potential issues being withheld or concealed behind pricing strategies?
2) Affecting agencies: Who is ultimately responsible for any breaches to confidentiality or intellectual property? Can agencies keep their client’s information safe? What does that duty imply and to what extent are agencies expected to take measures to ensure such rights? How far can agencies go to control their translators? What is a legitimate business practice in the MT framework and what borders on abusive? What are the implications of having inexperienced or unprofessional translators post-edit what is already low quality MT language?
3) Affecting translators: What about translators’ intellectual property rights? How much are translators willing to waive? Are they actually required to do so? How does the new MT-based business model affect their income? What happens to translators in developing parts of the world that are already more vulnerable to abusive practices and have limited access to necessary tools for competing in the current market?
These are just some questions off the top of my head that I believe we should probably think about before submitting anything to MT. Needless to say, these are not easy questions and it may take us some time to find the answers. In the meantime, I wonder what my readers think…