More post-truth content = more disobedient translations?
I know I tend to spend a large part of my time in the company of language technologies, but at the end of the day, they are quite predictable and tame. What is not, however, is the content that is localised using them. The quality (and, dare I say it, the truthfulness) of the content is a topic which I find much more intriguing and fun (because it actually has a very dark side worth thinking about). I imagine that pretty soon the Big Questions will make room for stuff like the underlying reasons for the emergence of the Post-truth world (except that for some parts of the world it’s no new thing; oh, well, we just have to offer our shoulders to our Anglo-Saxon friends who thought that their politicians were always honest, had any interest in their people’s well-being, and that the wealth of their nations is a result of ethical trading, capacity-building and pink unicorns) and the ease with which some entrepreneurial authors successfully reinforce other people’s false beliefs (so that we can all cry at the death of critical thinking and remember many other moments in history when good content manipulation enforced by a willing crowd of non-critical thinkers in a period of economic crisis ended very badly indeed).
Anyway, on a less apocalyptic note, I have been thinking, as I said, about translatable content. How will they feel translating larger-than-life BS (or is this another unfortunate application of machine translation (MT) and a reason to step up funding and research on it)? It’s easy now to turn down a translation job for a missile launcher user manual (not that freelancers see an awful much of this kind of work, but ponder this for a minute); what about a text in which the author is clearly manipulating the truth and inciting hatred? or maybe just targeting a group of people who are different from ‘us’ anyway… you know, a bit of harmless fun? Where will we draw the line and how much will a group of people feel in a position to draw the line (take into account that translators are not generally renowned for their self-organisation and lobbying qualities and they routinely see themselves as overworked and underpaid)? Or will a localisation workflow be designed just for Major BS, which will include translating into the second language (because it seems our morality changes when we speak a second language), shortening the deadlines and increasing the rates just to give freelancers a reason to see this as a ‘job’ and therefore not their responsibility to do much about it as long as their managers don’t (on the other hand, keeping rates low may turn the tasks into one-off ‘assignments’, reduce the loyalty to the proverbial hand that feeds, and increase the chances of whistle-blowing)?
It will be fascinating to see whether, after decades of talk about and training of the translator’s professionalism, impartiality, invisibility and faithfulness to the source message, we will see more examples of disobedience and guerilla translations which tip the BS scale onto the other extreme. In that context, a fun topic of research will be how do you preserve disobedience in a workflow which (at least in theory) has professionals checking the work of other professionals? How effective will the current practices of spot-checking instead of full revision (which most clients deem too expensive to pay for) be at identifying examples of guerilla translations? Can we have a few research studies into revisers’ practices, please (preferably with eye-tracking + key-logging and other research methods that can’t be gamed – unlike think-aloud protocols or reflective journals), so that we can write a reliable manual for disobedient translators? What will be the responsibilities and involvement of Language Service Providers in this redefined translation space? Will the fact that the bigger ones are being acquired by venture capital funds help or hinder disobedience to the client?
Is there a need for disobedience in other areas besides means of killing each other? Some may say yes, particularly if, like me, they’ve just started Zygmunt Banuman’s “Consuming Life” and read this thought from Eugène Enriquez near its beginning:
what was previously invisible – everybody’s share of the intimate, everybody’s inner life – is now called on to be exposed on the public stage (principally on TV screens but also on the literary stage), one will comprehend that those who care for their invisibility are bound to be rejected, pushed aside, or suspected of a crime. Physical, social and psychical nudity is the order of the day.
Are the quality and overall themes of the content we have to work with changing the way we can view and talk about translation? Do we still have reasons to call it “art” and “craft” when we set our beliefs aside and put up with the various moral and financial inconveniences of the “job”? I realise many translators are addicted to the mental-puzzle-solving part of the task, but how much of the puzzle are we *actually* solving? How big a role does the linguistic wrapper play and how much of the puzzle is still obscure to us and others? Why are we still (at least mildly) shamed by anyone who remembers to drop the “lost in translation” stock phrase? Has it ever been an “art” or is it something we tell ourselves instinctively, just like “when I was younger, things were better” (btw, statistically they were not). Imagine how fun talking about all of these is!
Of course, disobedient translation is not a new thing, but it has not happened at scale before (I am not talking about involuntary disobedient translation which some clients get by assigning the wrong people to the task). It is also not a major part of the curriculum of any translation degree I have seen; if the course does include discussions of ethics, they still stop short of providing many usable pointers because at least some translation studies academics are just as weary of getting into how water as the next person (and coming up with a new classification of … whatever is always much safer in a publishing metrics world than trying to fix an actual problem).
In a way, all this can be viewed as very exciting: translators’ rates may go up so that their eyelids go down on the validity of the source text information (they can then use the spare cash to sponsor NGOs set up to fix those actual problems and they can train as disobedient translators in their spare time); MT will continue to improve and, in addition to fake news spreading more quickly, communities speaking lesser-known languages will be easier to assist should natural or man-made disasters occur; people may become aware of how easy it is to play to their confirmation biases and will develop a healthier dose of scepticism; more reliable BS-spotting tools will be developed; together with content, people may stop taking themselves so seriously, and the governments they elect will finally create all the necessary conditions to just leave people in peace to get on with their education until post-university; diving youngsters into those who are only fit to hold a hammer in the fresh air and those who are free to make universities their homes will stop and most people will be allowed to do both in a work week not too dissimilar to the one envisioned by John Maynard Keynes 75 years ago; ultimately, well-established publishers will win the curation race and their good old-fashioned books will be once again the ultimate source of reliable information (now we just need to make reading books cool again). The sceptical, confident, humble, chillaxed and intrinsically-motivated disobedient translators will have saved the world!