BARRY'S BLOG: Man vs. Machine...Translation


By Barry S. Olsen

Published: 26 June 2013


Technology is permeating every nook and cranny of the language services space, with mixed results.


For those familiar with American folklore, the name John Henry will surely ring a bell. He worked as a steel driver—a laborer responsible for driving steel drill bits into solid rock with a sledgehammer to make holes for explosives used to blast rock for the construction of railroad tunnels in the late 1900s in the eastern United States. His prowess and productivity were known far and wide and became the stuff of legend.


Until one day, when John Henry came face to face with the latest technological invention of his day—the steam-powered drill, brought to the railroad construction site by a salesman, who then challenged any man to prove he could drill faster than this newfangled contraption.


So why am I recounting a tall tale from American folklore? It’s a fair enough question. Well, it just so happens that the 20th World Congress of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) will take place in Berlin, Germany, August 4-6, 2014. The topic chosen for the latest installment of this triennial international gathering of language professionals is “Man vs. Machine? The Future of Translators, Interpreters and Terminologists.” A prescient title, to be sure, given the flurry of technological innovation surrounding language services and the general sense of uneasiness this innovation is causing among translators and interpreters.


Technology is permeating every nook and cranny of the language services space, with mixed results from the different platforms and solutions being created and with varied reactions from translators and interpreters. The FIT Congress will be an ideal venue for translators, interpreters and terminologists to tackle this existential question for our professions.


The deadline for submitting proposals for presentations, panel discussions and workshops for next year’s FIT Congress is just over a month away on July 31st. There is still time to contribute to this vital conversation that is literally shaping the future of human communication. So, mark your calendars and make your travel plans to attend what is sure to be a landmark discussion for the language professions.


Some of you may be wondering what happened to John Henry. Well, he took the salesman up on his offer to go head to head with the steam drill in a race to see who could drill faster and farther. It was man vs. machine, plain and simple. When the dust settled, John Henry had drilled with his two 20 lb. hammers 14 inches into solid rock, while the steam-powered drill, only nine. John Henry had defeated the machine, but as the crowd cheered, he fell to the ground lifeless. The greatest steel driver the C&O Railroad had ever known was dead.


As far as I can tell, translation and interpreting are in the midst of their own “John Henry” moment, but the outcome of this race will depend on how each of us decides to work in the coming years.

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