30 Jan Language and Technology Evolve Only as Fast as the Humans who Speak it and Make It
Two questions: 1) Is technology going to replace us? (Ironically, the “age-old” one.) 2) Does language really evolve so fast? I want to bring perhaps a different perspective, which others may have evoked in other places.
As to technology, it is possible that AI becomes powerful enough to reproduce, with significant accuracy and using idiomatic constructions, what’s said in repetitive settings, e.g., a courtroom, or even many conferences. I don’t see that as an impossibility. But even if or when that happens, will robots entirely replace human beings?
The example I always bring back in conversation is that of airline pilots. The autopilot has existed since the early twentieth century in primitive form, and these professionals have often expressed worries that the human element would become obsolete. I don’t, on the other hand, see dozens, let alone hundreds, of passengers entrust their lives entirely to a computer without any kind of human agent. And if we think a conference or a court proceeding has repetitive elements, think of how repetitive and predictable a commercial flight is (takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, landing, all on carefully predetermined flight paths – this is a good thing, by the way). The third role in the cockpit, that of the flight engineer, may have disappeared due to technological advances, but that of the first officer is there to stay: one, because many flights are a long affair, and to entrust the entire duration of the flight to a single human being acting as a “check pilot” for the computer is extremely risky, and two, because even on short flights, two pairs of eyes and ears are always better than one.
You might say, “Alright, but an unchecked error by an automatic pilot can lead to death,” and that is true, but as we all know, something getting “lost in translation” can have serious implications in a person’s or in many people’s lives! Court or medical-consultation room aside, think of how serious the global situation could get with world leaders entrusting their communication to machines alone. Suffice it to say that something worse than a plane crash could result.
As disruptive as technological developments can be, translation and interpretation are as old as language itself, so as long as there are humans, the language profession will be here to stay. Today it enjoys more status and prestige than it ever has, and it should remain a well-respected profession provided that we can continue making a case for its usefulness – rather, necessity – better still, its simply being a permanent part of the human ecosystem, like agriculture, war, craftsmanship, homemaking, and everything else.
The other sell will be to convince the population that speaking and writing well is better than speaking and writing poorly. (Just think: if people are not convinced of this, then any “bilingual” with a really good “translation app” will steal our jobs in a few years.) But the population is already convinced of this truth. Observe the humility of those who know they have trouble expressing themselves properly. Those who use lower registers instantly recognize a higher one when they hear it, and regardless of people’s attitude about the proper use of language, it is universally agreed that speaking and writing well takes more effort and skill than doing so badly. So here, too, if translators and interpreters take their language skills seriously, it need not be difficult for the profession to maintain and even improve its ranking.
Which leads to the second question: does language really evolve so fast? I was privileged to study under world-renowned conference interpreters who – and they would readily admit this – were themselves privileged enough to enter the market at a very favorable time in history (the latter half of the 20th century). What’s more, they got to travel constantly, live in different places where their languages were spoken, heck, even grew up doing this, since they were the sons and daughters of diplomats and dignitaries. A lot of the literature written in the field puts forward this admittedly elitist ideal, namely that one ought to travel a great deal and spend significant amounts of time in the countries in which their languages are spoken.
While I will be the first to encourage this sort of thing and will even concede that those who do so have a better chance at being the best – nothing replaces living in your language of choice 24/7 – this also overlooks the very great number of language professionals whose parents were not diplomats and who do not have thousands of extra dollars or five weeks of free time per year to go live in an Airbnb in Guangzhou, Amman, Bucharest, or Rio de Janeiro. And yet those for whom finances or circumstances are an impediment to travelling far or for very long are still held to the same professional standards and must keep their language skills top notch.
To do this, we are told incessantly that this includes “keeping abreast of language developments.” For beginners, this is often daunting – especially if they have more than two working languages. Not only do they not have the time or money to travel, they are also told that to be good, they must know everything! Now, things do end up working out for people, and beginner’s trepidation is normal. I would like, nonetheless, to revisit this idea of the “speed at which language evolves.”
Well, it’s not the same across the board. If you mean information technology in English, then yes, language does evolve extremely fast, with neologisms coming out all the time, so much that other major languages that regularly interact with English often just calque or even borrow the word. But this is not the same by any means in other fields or in other languages. Is it really necessary to be anxious about this? By all means, work very hard, maximize your language exposure, and practice a lot. But does that mean you need to read all the cutting-edge literature in all your languages and spend three weeks per year in those countries where they are spoken? Does it mean you must try to make friends with fifteen-year-olds and learn their slang to stay “relevant” or “in”?
The truth is that we are human beings, and so are the people for whom and whom we interpret. Changes in our own lives, most of the time, come about very slowly and gradually; it is no different for the eight billion other people on this planet. If you listen to a recording from a hundred years ago, provided the audio quality is adequate, you will have no difficulty understanding the speaker. And a hundred years is longer than most people get to live. So again, here, just as with technology, I would say, “Don’t worry about it too much.” Chris Durban said that the best do keep their language skills very high anyway, regardless of where they live. Do everything you have to do, and do it well, but don’t panic about suddenly not understanding your language tomorrow because you weren’t up at two a.m. to catch some hot publication you should have read. Don’t be thinking that all your clients will simultaneously come to you and say, “We don’t need you; this software does it just fine.” The likelihood of either of those things happening is not worth losing sleep over.
Jules Lapprand grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and spent a significant part of his adult life in Montreal, Quebec. He completed a translation certificate from Spanish into English at McGill University (Montreal) in 2016 and a Master’s in Conference Interpreting at York University (Toronto) in 2019. He has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter since 2018. Outside of work, he enjoys literature and music, martial arts, and road trips. He lives in central Michigan with his family. E-mail Jules at TNO_editor@najit.org.
Main photo taken from Ética para robots by Antonio Orbe, at Sinapsis, under the CC BY 3.0 ES license. Body photo taken from QUÉ VER EN BUCAREST: EXPLORA LA CAPITAL DE RUMANÍA EN UNO O DOS DÍAS by Vero Boned at Sinmapa web de viajes, under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.