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Prof. Andy Way: Why are translators so aggressive in their criticism of Machine Translation?

Fairly recently, I reviewed David Bellos’ 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything for the Machine Translation journal. While you might be interested in the review (Way, 2012), you should definitely buy the book; it’s great!

I’ve been working on Machine Translation (MT) for 25 years now, mostly in academia, but for the past 18 months or so in the translation industry building statistical MT engines for bespoke clients. As I pointed out in my previous post, for pretty much all that time – and despite educating thousands of students as to what MT can and can’t do – MT protagonists have encountered the same old criticisms from translators, which still persist to this day.

In his book, Bellos – a translator of considerable standing himself, note – gives over a whole chapter (Chapter 30 “Sniping at Translation”) to show us how downright nasty translators can be to their colleagues.

Bellos notes that “Translation commentators lead the field in throwing most of its work in the direction of the garbage dump” (p. 329), and gives Ortega y Gasset’s (1937: 98) statement that “almost all translations done until now are bad ones” as being quite typical. He observes that “much translation commentary in Western languages contains unmistakable signs of anger and hurt. Schoolmasters, book critics, even theorists routinely disparage other translators”, especially “servile, mechanical, second-rate” translators (p. 328).

As Bellos notes in response, “It seems implausible that anyone would ever make such a statement about any other human skill or trade” (p.329). Part of this stems from the observation that “Translation cannot but be, in some measure, an appropriation of the source” (p. 328). So in the eyes of many, what translators produce is necessarily secondary to the original text.

As you’d expect, Bellos is of a different opinion: “It’s perfectly obvious that the view that a translation is no substitute for the original is wrong … yet it’s truly astounding how many people fall into the trap.” Instead, this is used as “spurious cover for the view that translation is a second-rate kind of thing” (p. 40, Ch. 4).

Note that “appropriation” is softened to “interpretation” six pages later … Having read all this, it came to me in a blinding flash that this might explain why translators are so critical of what we MT developers do ourselves; they are so inured to this level of talking about translation, that they use it quite naturally against what we do. Bellos doesn’t mention this in the book, so he may not have put two and two together himself, but it’s clear to me at least that finally, translators – or at any rate, those less enlightened than Bellos – have something else to pick on, namely MT! Go back two paragraphs and replace ‘translator’ with ‘MT’ and what you end up with is criticism that rings very true of what we have encountered ourselves; especially the comment about ‘mechanical’ translation being ‘second-rate’ hits home hard!

It’s worth pointing out that Bellos and many other translators are very much in favour of MT nowadays. MT today is undoubtedly at a level where it can be useful, and some translators have cottoned on to this fact and embrace MT as a useful productivity tool. We can hope that the fact that someone as influential as Bellos is so positive may encourage others from the translator community to soften their stance towards MT.

We in the MT community have to continue to engage with translators to demonstrate what MT can do, and how it can be helpful, rather than it being considered as a threat to their livelihoods. And we need to incorporate translators’ feedback if we want to continue to improve the engines we build and enhance the overall translator experience when it comes to post-editing MT output.

This book has the possibility of being an important step in bringing the two communities closer together, for the benefit of all. So if you haven’t already, go and buy it …


David Bellos. 2011. Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Particular Books, Penguin Group, London. ISBN 978-1-846-14464-6.

José Ortega y Gasset. 1937. La Miseria y et esplendor de la traducción. La Nación (Buenos Aires), transl. Elisabeth Gamble Miller, in J. Schulte and R. Biguenet (eds.) Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 98.

Andy Way. 2012. Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything – David Bellos, Book Review. Machine Translation 26(3): 255—269. DOI: 10.1007/s10590-012-9129-x.

Andy Way

Professor Andy Way is Lingo24’s Director of Machine Translation. He has more than 25 years’ experience in the field, building a world-leading research group at Dublin City University. He is currently President of the International Association for Machine Translation and the European Association for Machine Translation, as well as Editor of the Machine Translation Journal, the leading journal in the field.

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