Translation in the Digital Age

Michael Cronin. Translation in the Digital Age. Routledge, 2012. E-book.

Strangely, there is a shortage of full-length academic works dedicated to the implications and practice of translation in the age of near-ubiquitous computing. Michael Cronin’s is the only recently published book that focuses on the global interactions of digital technology and the techne of translation that I found so far. An essay by Cronin that outlines the main arguments of the book also appears in the last edition of Lawrence Venuti’s Routledge Translation Studies Reader in the much overdue “2000 and Beyond” section.

A work of this kind is, by default, interdisciplinary, and Cronin draws heavily from economic, political, and social theories. He is hardly a technophobe (see the bit on wiki-translation below), but nonetheless urges his readers to reexamine their (possibly) non-reflexive attitudes towards automated translation, especially its ostensibly seamless integration into the current business practices. These trends include localization, transferred codes, disintermediation and render the labor of translation invisible. In order to nurture a sense of global awareness, Cronin brings in the concept of entailment, which includes both the explicit and, most importantly, implicit factors that allow a tool or a process to come about). Translation, of course, is such a tool — arguably the most important tool in the digital age.

For Cronin, one of the antidotes to the disintermediative qualities of current automatic translation is wiki-translation, which both makes the effort invested in a labor of translation visible and draws on experience of large number of users that are both the consumers and the producers of translation. He outlines three key implications for such type of crowdsourcing:

  • translation prosumption (consumer becoming the active producer challenges the traditional distinction between “active translation agents and passive or unknowable translation recipients”
  • post-print translation literacy (due to the speed of information surfing, initial quality is no longer a priority)
  • translation and pluri-subjectivity (crowds collecting and challenging the conception of “machine-human interaction in translation as fundamentally dehumanizing” (100)

Cronin also tackles such thorny issues as “transparency” (problematic, since its iconic placement next to “ethical transparency” automatically presupposes a positive connotation) and “universal translatability” (which is proximal to “universal verifiability” and raises important privacy issues in translation). He highlights the importance of “digital nationalism” and “multilingual internationalism,” “national branding” by smaller, less powerful states and viability of “publicaly funded translation centers” in an era of “competition state” (112).

But ultimately Cronin’s argument returns to human use of translation tools (automated translation tools, in this case)  in order to find some sort of balance between quality and speed,  painstaking labor and breezy ease. He brings in Martin Kay’s proposal that the mechanical, boring parts be given to machines, and the rewarding ones to humans. Human ability to “think in details” (to use Jean-Claude Milner’s term) should be used against the prevalent “rhetoric of massiveness” (117). When it comes to using machines, the answer is not a definite “yae” or “nay,” but rather a sliding scale between source texts that can tolerate an “indicative translation” (Alan Melby’s term for not highly accurate, quickly produced translation) and those that require a high investment of human (whether individual, but more likely crowd-sourced effort). The real question, of course, is not whether the omission of details in “indicative translations” matters, but how much does it matter, and whether this sort of translation satisfies the demands of the audience (and not the other way around).

Although Cronin does not go in depth about the “aims” or “purposes” of translation, his argument does bring to mind Hans J. Vermeer’s skopos theory (1978), which proposes that we look at a translation not so much from the source, but from the target point of view. The criteria for translation’s success lies primarily in whether translator was able to meet the requirements set out by the commissioner (in some cases, translator him- or herself). There is no perfect translation, because every translation will be different based on the intended aim/purpose of the translated text. I wonder how skopos theory can be useful in discussing translation in the digital age, especially since the default skopos in the world of machine translation appears to be cost- and time-efficiency.

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2 Responses to Translation in the Digital Age

  1. Pingback: The line that goes out for a walk | Just Yoking!

  2. Pingback: The line that goes out for a walk | Just Yoking!

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