By Vijayalaxmi Hegde

By and large, those of us in the localization industry are multi-cultural and multilingual, traveling the world, celebrating the diversity and power of language. We are interested in languages, culture, and language technology, and how they influence and shape our lives. Many of us also cross over from linguistics and language to the technical side of things.

Jost Zetzsche, a localization professional with nearly 20 years of experience, is a thought leader in these areas. He put his expertise into his latest book, Translation Matters. Comprised of 81 essays collected over the past 15 years, Jost’s book describes a world of translation where technology changes rapidly, but where the translator remains the central figure, ever-savvier in using the tools of the trade.

I had the chance to sit down with him and talk about these ideas.

Viju: One very hot topic on the minds of translators today is Machine Translation (MT).

Jost: In part, my book deals with the identity of translators at a time when MT has clearly become important. It’s critical as translators to define who we are and, on the basis of that self-perception, understand our role in the world and our role in relation to things like machine translation. That’s what the book is about to a certain extent.

The way we translators usually approach MT is either we reject it and say, “I don’t want to deal with machine translation,” or we say, “Okay, then I guess I have to do what I’m told to do with machine translation.” And that’s typically post-editing. And while in some situations, post-editing is the right choice, more often than not there are better ways of dealing with machine translation than to not use it at all or only post-edit. For example, translators can greatly benefit from data that is being suggested by machine translation engines without actually “post-editing” complete segments.

Viju: When I think about MT, I also think about another industry hot topic: AI. What are your thoughts on that?

Jost: I just read an article that talked about artificial intelligence, and it said that translators are kind of the canary in the coal mine. If translators become extinct, then we have truly reached a point of no return, where everything has completely changed, where everything has been turned upside down, and where artificial intelligence has essentially taken over.

Translators have a very secure job for a long time to come. If their job becomes insecure, if artificial intelligence, machine translation, is truly able to take over from translators, society will have changed so much that we will not recognize it anymore. Then, essentially, we’re all out of a job. We’ll have to redefine what it means to be productive, what it means to be a human being, what it means to work in the industry, etc.

At that time, there will be what Ray Kurzweil and others are calling this moment of singularity where we don’t need to work in the kinds of professions that we work in today. But, I think translators will be among the last to go.

What translators do is very close to what it means to be human: to be able to communicate in a complex and multi-layered manner. That’s something that computers can’t do unless we reach that point of singularity.

But don’t misunderstand me—it’s not as if we’re not impacted. But our job is NOT being taken away by it.

Viju: What happens to a translator who’s not inclined to learn about the whole range of tools available? Is there space for such a translator anymore?

Jost: Absolutely. You don’t have to be a tech geek to be a translator. My background is the opposite of technical. But I find joy in making technology work for me in a way that is productive and thinking of new ways of making it even more productive. And I think that’s something that translators should have. So that’s not geeky—it’s just looking at what’s out there and finding the right tools that work for you. I don’t think translators need to know all the tools. They just have to have an idea of what is out there and then make intelligent decisions on which tools to use.