From Crank Phones to Smartphones: Babies and Bathwater

A skilled and well-regarded translator once told me that he created each translation on a typewriter, folded it into an envelope, and mailed it to the client. If we wanted to work with him, that’s the way it would be. I valued his expertise, but the speed of business today simply can no longer accommodate those methods.

Translation isn’t done the way it was 20 years ago, any more than a phone call is made today like it was made in 1945. The telephone industry has gone from crank phones with operator intervention to rotary dial phones to car phones to push button phones to smart mobile phones that are actually pocket-sized computers.

Today’s rapid acceleration in technology would have baffled earlier generations. Other than my mom’s old manual typewriter, my first experience with “high tech” was the mimeograph machine at the nursing home where I worked in high school.

Don’t know what a mimeograph machine is? It’s what was used before copiers and printers. The one I learned on was ancient even then. First, you used a typewriter to cut a stencil on a special type of paper. The stencil was then inked and attached to the drum of the machine, which you can see in the picture above. Put paper in the machine—it could be any color!—and then turn the crank, visible at the right of the picture. One turn equaled one copy as the drum rotated, picked up a sheet of paper, and imprinted the image. As you can imagine, as a teenage employee, I spent hours turning that crank.

I took a small manual typewriter to college. NCR (no carbon required) paper meant I could make seven copies of anything I typed all at once. What a time-saver for those classes where multiple copies were required! I typed slowly to avoid correcting all seven copies if I made an error. Though I also spent many hours in the computer lab, I wasn’t word-processing; my time there was spent in connection with language classes, learning correct pronunciation and memorizing sample conversations. A decade later, my family acquired our first desktop computer. I have wonderful memories of introducing it to my elderly aunt when she visited. I couldn’t wait to show off my new toy to her because she was a legal secretary. At first, she waved her hands in front of her and said she wouldn’t know what do to with such a thing. But then I convinced her to sit down and just start typing. When she reached the end of the first line, the machine went to the next line all by itself. She was delighted! She instantly wanted to know everything the computer could do, and we spent several happy hours exploring it together. I often think of her when I read that senior citizens can’t handle technology. She was in her 80s.

The technological advances of the past decades have shaped the translation industry as well. From the typewriter-dependent gentleman above to today’s globally linked translation teams using computers and high-speed internet connections, translation has evolved to incorporate many sophisticated technologies.

With any advance, people are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We read every day that translators will be replaced by computers within the next five years—as people have been saying since 1950. Indeed, today’s computers do much of the grunt work that lower-level linguists once did, but the translation industry is growing at an annual rate of 5.52 percent and is expected to reach $45 billion by 2020 (source: Common Sense Advisory). Industry-specific technology has also become an industry of its own.

I founded Tembua just as technology was entering the industry, and I’ve seen it grow from an unreliable nuisance—there were times when I was tempted to scrap the whole thing, buy a manual typewriter, and fold each translation into an envelope to mail to the client—to a valuable tool.

Today I feel we have the best of both worlds: the linguists work within the software, the perfect marriage of human and machine. The computer captures their work for later reuse, ensuring consistency and lowering prices. This improves the capability of the top-tier linguists and puts the bottom tier out of business.

Today’s language companies need full-time technical staff to evaluate new technologies, implement them into existing systems, train linguists and project managers, and, of course, maintain the software. It seems like every day a new end-all-be-all system is announced, and we follow these updates carefully so we adopt the tools that provide the most benefit for Tembua and our clients.

Anyone investigating translation for the first time runs into a veritable storm of initials: CAT, TMS, TM, MT, SMT, NMT. Each of these has a place in the modern translation industry. We have developed a handout for anyone interested in learning more about the technology specific to our industry. Check below to receive it!

Patricia May