Tech age a help to translators

  • Globalisation and connected economies worldwide mean a greater demand for high-calibre language professionals with digital skills
PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 9:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 9:24am

The fast pace with which the technological solutions of our age develop usually fills industry practitioners with dread. They envisage robots taking over jobs while people lose their employment, and how they will lack the expertise needed for the new jobs created, making these positions impossible to fill.

Not people working in translation, however. In spite of the widespread use of Google Translate by people who want to know the rough meaning of a text, and despite computer-aided (CAT) and machine translation already being a reality, translators are highly confident in the future of their profession.

“Translation technology is a help, not a threat,” says Professor Olivia Kwong Oi-yee, acting programme director, MA in translation, and associate professor in department of translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). “It is extremely important for students to develop the proper attitude towards translation technology, realise the abilities and limitations of the tools and resources available to translators, and make appropriate and effective use of them in translation tasks.”

CAT classes are an important part of teaching at CUHK. Students are taught the latest developments in translation technology, such as computer-aided, terminology management and machine translation, and their applications in various tasks. They are trained to use the latest tools and resources.

Lingnan University translation graduate Lin Qingyang, who is continuing her studies for a doctorate, supports this opinion. “I don’t see this as an imminent ‘takeover’. The advance of technology will give translators and interpreters better access to information and improve their work environment. They will thus be able to work with greater efficiency and competence,” she says, adding that translation and interpreting is a deeply “human” practice that requires cross-cultural knowledge and sensitivity to the communicative situation, making it difficult for machines to replace people.

But Lingnan also sees the importance of staying updated on the latest trends, and will introduce a new course on computer-aided translation next year for the MA and BA programmes.

CUHK graduate Flora Chung, who is working for the M+ museum as a translator, points out that “there are obviously things that AI is yet to achieve in the realm of translation”. These include translating commercials where a lot of creativity is needed, as well as adjusting their tone and style, and being diplomatic as necessary. “Besides, language is always changing. Unless machines are smart enough to identify all cultural references, slang and idioms, and apply them in the right political, social or cultural context, I remain quite optimistic about the future of a career in interpreting,” she says.

“Technology, far from being a threat, is being utilised to benefit teaching and learning,” says Dr Richard Sheung Shing-yue, programme leader, MA in language studies, City University of Hong Kong (CityU). He says CityU ensures it stays properly updated on the latest technology.

It boasts state-of-the-art computer terminal rooms where students get hands-on training in computer knowledge, a simultaneous interpretation laboratory, and a multimedia room for videoconferencing and training in interpreting.

“Students are free to enrol in courses such as human-machine interactive translation and computational lexicography,” he says.

The optimism with which the profession treats technology extends to the employability of master’s in translation and interpretation graduates. Figures show that the need for translators and interpreters is growing around the world in line with globalisation, while in Hong Kong the “Belt and Road Initiative” is expected to boost the market for translators.

“For graduates from arespected esteemed university with good grades and practical skills, yes, it is quite easy to get a job,” says Ma Jinshen, a translation graduate who works at CityU as a research assistant.

According to a Lingnan survey of its department of translation, 55 per cent of graduates went on to work in the commercial and industrial fields, while 15 per cent took up education-related jobs.

Every year a few graduates set up their own companies, and they find the training in language and communication skills they received useful, according to Professor Rachel Lung Wai-chu, head of the department of translation at Lingnan.

Lingnan’s programme emphasises research, and the study of translation in its cultural context, to offer a quality MA programme in translation studies. Chinese-English translation is a required practical course, focusing on translating texts of different genres. Elective courses include business, journalistic, and literary translation, among others.

“Offering small-class quality teaching, with an emphasis on translation research and Chinese-English translation, makes our MA programme stand out. We offer our students a quality bicultural education and vigorous academic training in translation and research,” says Lung, adding that tutorials have a maximum of 25 students while those doing the translation project have individual face-to-face supervision.

Lin graduated with an MPhil in translation from Lingnan and is studying for her PhD in the department of translation. Working on a thesis for her two-year research degree, she remembers the support and guidance she received from her teachers in the department.

“During my study, I met and discussed my project with my supervisors, attended reading groups, seminars, workshops and academic conferences,” she says.

Lung adds that the translation department’s overall course evaluation and overall teaching evaluation scores have been consistently above university means, and that the external academic adviser recommended the programme last year.

Part of this success is due to a close teacher-student relationship in the department, which allows students to discuss topics from different perspectives.

Translation studies by nature are interdisciplinary and provide students with a broad intellectual outlook. The solid bilingual skills make graduates competitive when looking for a job, and they can branch out easily into other professions. “Our graduates are not restricted to working in the translation, language or publishing fields,” says CUHK’s Kwong.

“Bilingual and multilingual talent is much sought-after in all kinds of business, and competent translators possessing strong knowledge and skills in legal, financial, PR, and journalistic translation can branch out into the legal field, banking, marketing, or mass media. Many of them find jobs as teachers, administrators, research assistants, or HR personnel, since people who are competent in languages are popular in many other industries as well.”

Chung, a graduate of CUHK, which has the longest history of all such programmes in Hong Kong, is happy to remember her days learning simultaneous interpreting. The reputable programme offered flexible course choices, an internationally varied staff, and a diverse student group. Her interpreting classmates worked closely together to achieve success, and spent some memorable times practising and motivating each other, enhancing their skills through peer review and writing self-reflection journals.

The highlight was her school trip to the United Nations offices in Vienna to learn from professional interpreters at actual international conferences and acquire real hands-on experience.

CUHK’s programme emphasises theory and practice. It offers a comprehensive curriculum in translation and interpreting, while deepening students’ understanding of theory and related cultural topics. Flexible course choices allow students to specialise in translation, practical translation, CAT or interpreting.

CityU offers four streams in its MA in language studies (MALS), with translation and interpretation (TI) the most popular. TI students have a wide range of electables, as they can choose courses from all four streams. The study modes are also flexible, from one year to up to five.

“I believe that almost all the courses that I participated in were very useful, challenging as well as enjoyable. They had a friendly and inclusive atmosphere,” says CityU graduate Ma. “Personally, I am really fond of corpus linguistics.

The course was very practical and contained basic natural language processing and statistics analysis to meet the needs of the age of big data.”

She says the interpreting course was also enjoyable and useful. Students interpreted speeches from different fields, such as medicine, Chinese classics, politics, tourism, science and technology. Under the lecturers’ guidance, they practised interpreting by compiling a glossary and a databank of talks in formal and informal style by native speakers, and practised note-taking. They also learned how to do self-evaluation. Students were free to discuss their problems and ideas in an open atmosphere.

“We were not just systematically trained to be professional interpreters, but our vision was expanded too,” Ma adds.

She and the other interviewees encourage those who are interested in languages to study translation and interpretation.

“Translation itself is sort of a communication of different cultures, ideas and souls. Language reflects our humanity and is a tool of cultural transmission. The translator is like the mediator of languages. The globalised world requires more and more professional competent translators,” Ma says