14 Nov Outed by AI? How to Right the Wrong
“Your Honor, why don’t we have the interpreter read the script generated by Zoom?” This was a question that came up in one of my latest remote hearing cases. If that was not enough to surprise many of us who are court interpreters, the judge’s answer might have done so: “Sure, let me ask her… madam interpreter, would you prefer reading the script generated by Zoom?”
In addition to surprise, I was taken aback, dumbfounded, and a little angry. In my experience, up until then, such a question had never arisen in a legal setting. As you can all imagine, I politely declined the offer, and I put my job description and ethical responsibility as a court interpreter on the record. I was prepared to be standing up to a challenge rather than doing injustice to the LEP by taking the easy road and reading the computer-generated script.
We cannot deny that we all benefit from the ingenuity and ease offered to us in the form of AI—self-driving vehicles, content creation, or even assistance with medical diagnosis. But let us not forget that AI is created by humans to assist, not to replace. However, a question such as this judge’s is the reason many of us are terrified that AI will soon be doing our work at a much cheaper rate.
With the promising age of AI, the world is set for a shift in how much can be done daily, with more ease and at a reduced cost. It seems that the interpreting field is no exception. Discussions are posted daily about how AI can improve our productivity. Yes, I get it. AI is wonderful. But is it really? And more pertinently, will I be replaced?
A recent post on LinkedIn by Julia Poger was a good reminder to us all that we should NOT be in competition with AI. In Poger’s words, AI is a cheap magic wand that (potential) clients are using as a solution to cut costs. The courtroom incident above may not fall into this category, but nonetheless, it was an idea that was entertained (I tend to think that the attorney was using the interpreter as collateral damage, but that is a topic for another day).
Personally, I see AI for now as a mediocre interpreter who can certainly provide word-for-word interpretation for clients. But what about context? AI can certainly do a better job than a bad interpreter. But is that good enough for certain clients? Some may say that it’s cheaper, but we all know that cheaper does not always mean better. You get what you pay for these days, and in my experience the interpreting field is no exception. Good interpreters invest a great deal into their career—this includes time and resources to acquire and maintain or improve their skills, or to travel… and often there is significant spillover into their personal lives.
Many of us are no strangers to Google Translate, including myself. I have used Google Translate to help me while travelling in a country where I cannot speak the language. I have used it out of curiosity, to compare it to my own translation. These experiences have shown me that AI often lacks context. It’s robotic. It’s mechanical. It’s rigid. What AI cannot offer, at least not yet, is the nuances that a human can have in interpreting.
For example, in early October, I was working at an insurance conference in Manhattan. The agency offered to pay me an additional $20 to put together a glossary of insurance terms for the event. It was an offer that both my booth partner and I politely declined. On the day of the event, a glossary was placed in the booth for us. It was quickly obvious to us that the glossary was machine translated. Don’t get me wrong: we must give credit where credit is due. AI did a wonderful job on technical terms like agent, premiums, insurance policy, etc.… But it failed miserably when it came to terms that needed to be in a context to get the appropriate meaning.
For example, “elite” was translated as ผู้ลากมากดี, which is equivalent to the term “aristocrat.” While it is the correct synonym in the English language, for this specific context, the word “elite” (in its English acceptance) is normally used to describe an elite group of customers. “Dynamic” was translated as เคลื่อนที่, which is equivalent to “moving around.” Again, an acceptable term, but not for that context.
Lastly, “adopting” was translated as รับบุตรบุญธรรม, which means “to adopt a child.” Need I say more?
Or consider a more down-to-earth instance: I was in a meeting with a blind individual who described the wonderful world of using assisted technology in mobile-application format on her smartphone to help her read a text out loud.
“It’s useful,” she said, “especially when I check in to hotel rooms. I get to know which bottle is shampoo and which one is conditioner. But that’s because I am aware that those products are placed in the bathroom. Otherwise, you cannot trust them!”
She went on to explain to me how once she was checked into an Air BnB she had never been to before; an unfamiliar environment.
“I found a tube in the owner’s junk drawer, and the darned application told me that it was face wash.” Fortunately, she used a secondary method/device to verify the reading to find out that it was, in fact, wood polish! Another AI blunder showing that it has a ways to go. Perhaps the new world is not here quite yet.
Poger’s post also reminded me about the changes that came about when Covid hit in 2020. The world went into lockdown, and Zoom became the hero of the day. Many of us had to re-strategize our marketing and adopt different service methods. But it worked, and here we are in 2023, offering both in-person and remote services. So, what makes this time around any different? Another challenge, another bump in the road.
It’s that time again, my friends. Rather than panic before the threat, we must adapt to this fast-changing environment that can make one feel like a character in a 90s sci-fi movie. While the choice lies in our clients’ hands, we can educate the client. We can switch our mindset and move away from the fear of competition to better adapt to the impending invasion of AI. Think about the ways that we can use AI as a tool to show our clients the value that we bring to the table. What we can offer as interpreters are human judgement, expertise, and personal relationships that are not possible with AI. Keep working hard and know your worth! Nosce quanti aestimanda sis.
Ann (Jiraporn) Heath-Huynh grew up in a bilingual Thai-English household, using both languages in day-to-day life. Having lived on four continents, she now calls the U.S. home. Following the birth of her daughter in 2010, the chance to work in the language field afforded her an opportunity to change career directions; what began as a part-time job became a career that she is passionate about. After being added to the Maryland Judiciary’s roster of interpreters in 2015, many opportunities opened up to her, eventually leading to Department of State Conference Interpretation for Thai and English. Although she works mostly as a conference interpreter, she has always considered Maryland courts to be her home. Whenever an assignment is offered, she is always pleased to accept it and proudly wear her first-ever interpreter’s badge as a Maryland Judiciary Court Interpreter. Contact: email@example.com
Featured photo: from “Así funciona el piloto automático de los aviones (y por qué ha tardado en llegar a los coches)” by author Ibáñez at Hablemos un poco de todo, under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 ES license. Text-body photos: from “Las posibilidades de Arduino en el mundo profesional” by Ruben Beiroa at VERMISLAB, under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license, and again from “Así funciona el piloto automático de los aviones (y por qué ha tardado en llegar a los coches)” by author Ibáñez at Hablemos un poco de todo, under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 ES license.