Post-editing and the Post-human.

Rafaël Newman writes for 3 Quarks Daily about the brave new world of (corporate) translation, beginning with some interesting remarks about Switzerland:

Notwithstanding the spread of English as a global lingua franca, translation continues to be a vital component of international relations, whether political, commercial, or cultural. In certain cases, translation is also necessary nationally, for instance in countries comprising more than one significant linguistic group. This is so in Switzerland, which voted by an overwhelming majority in 1938 to add a fourth national tongue to thwart the irredentist aspirations of its Italian neighbor, and which in certain contexts is obliged to use a Latin version of its own name (Confoederatio Helvetica) to avoid favoring one language group over another.

With its four languages, three of them national and official – German, French, and Italian – and the fourth, Romansh, “merely” national, Switzerland is indeed obliged to do a great deal of translation, especially at the level of its federal ministries and law courts. Its commercial enterprises, too, typically depend on communication in at least one other language region than their own immediate location; and naturally, many Swiss businesses have a linguistically diverse national presence in any case, and thus require a polyglot corporate identity.

Culturally, although Switzerland’s linguistic regions tend to look to the “motherland” of their respective language in matters of tradition, the country’s creative class is by necessity international in its outlook, given the limited size of its domestic market; while its chief cultural funding agency, Pro Helvetia (bearer of a similarly non-partisan Latin appellation), spends a great deal of its resources on representation and “localization” abroad. And finally, since Switzerland’s economy is strongly geared to export, and because its lack of natural resources means that it has come to specialize in services and end manufacturing, those sectors, particularly the financial and pharmaceutical branches, are positively ravenous consumers of translation services, especially into the global tongues: Chinese, Spanish, and of course, above all, English.

No surprise, then, that those same sectors are presently lured by the cost-cutting Siren song of translation “solutions” based on artificial intelligence, whether for their in-house language services or from the agencies to which they outsource their translation orders.

There follows a detailed discussion of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools which makes me shudder (“The text is further analysed into ‘source segments’, sentences or fragments terminating in variously predefined marks (periods, colons, paragraph breaks), arrayed vertically down the left-hand side of the program window, with blanks in a corresponding column to the right, ready to receive ‘target segments’) but which I will leave you to discover at the link; I’ll jump ahead to the following paragraph:

It is these last – the “mistakes” made by NMT – that give post-editing, which is otherwise drudgery, a certain philosophical interest: because the errors generated by NMT are qualitatively different from those made by the “repair” function built into the statistical database linked to the standard CAT tool, which routinely attempts to make up for a deficiency of 5 percentage points in a potential source-target match by helpfully suggesting absurd inclusions (such as “hat trick” or “DAS Automotive Insurance” for English translations of German sentences containing novel uses of the third person singular of the verb “to have”, or a subordinate clause involving a neuter noun). Mistakes made by NMT are often subtle, involving omissions or reduplications reminiscent of the errors made by medieval scribes, for which scholars have evolved a specialized vocabulary: these moments of inattention are known as “haplographies” and “diplographies”. NMT errors may also display ostensibly cunning inventiveness, as when an English product name in a German context is translated, in an English target segment, into a third language, learned apparently by cross-pollination from a parallel linguistic pair. Or they may go off the rails altogether, resisting interpretation by producing Dadaist sequences of nonsense syllables when confronted by an ambiguous or un-analysable construction – “Zinseszins”, the otherwise common-or-garden German term for compound interest, unaccountably mutating to resemble the name of a disgraced French footballer: Zinazinadinadina

Newman then soars off into the wild blue yonder — the next paragraph alone name-drops Joyce, Chomsky, Freud, Lacan, “the Marxist philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro,” George Steiner, Hegel, and Olga Tokarczuk — but comes to earth at the end with a nice bit about the name “Geronimo”; I leave you to click through if you so desire. One of those mixed bags which both annoy and educate me.


  1. Bathrobe says

    Yes, I read it and found it annoying and vapid. I couldn’t even understand her explanation of what this kind of assisted translation entails, not having used Trados or similar software. If you’re writing for an outsider, surely it behoves you to make it clear.

  2. Rafaël Newman is a guy. Were you reading it as “Rachel”?

  3. Or perhaps you’ve decided to épater le patriarcat by using feminine pronouns for everyone!

  4. Bathrobe says

    Haha. Misread it. Life is too short to read each word carefully. I just skim.

    Even worse if it’s a man. And he should cut his hair.

  5. In practical terms, Trados software divides the text into sentences in a form of a table with two columns, original and empty column to be filled by translator.

    Some sentences for which translation already exists come with translation column already filled, marked 100% and don’t require translation (and translator doesn’t get paid for this segment).

    For some sentences, the software suggests translation which is similar, but not identical, it is marked as fuzzy and translator must fix it and gets paid, but less than for full translation.

    The software also has searchable dictionaries, translation memories where you can look up examples of how the word was translated by others and lots of editing tools.

    In short, Trados software makes life easier for translation agency, allows them to pay less to translators and save money.

    For translator, it mostly means headache and more time and effort for less money.

  6. In a previous life, I was global manager of technical translations (about 20 languages, a few thousand pages a day usually) for a publicly listed US corporation. CAT is absolutely essential, not just for cost control, but for quality control: managing consistent use of vocabulary and the corporate style sheet.
    In my world, CAT was to be used as a way of avoiding the “post-it notes on my monitor” approach to remembering what they did 276 pages ago (this was highly-structured, repetitive text).

    A project manager who thinks that “mistakes made by NMT” require “post-editing by professional human translators” is trying to take too many shortcuts. I had monolingual domain experts post edit, after a similarly-credentialed (and much more expensive) translator had done his work.
    Maybe I should consider myself lucky that I was able to do it this way, and come to think of it, a large part of my time was indeed spent defending my budget and cajoling domain experts within the organization to help me.

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Even worse if it’s a man. And he should cut his hair.

    Long hair often (but not always) looks silly on a man. One of the most prolific scientists in the world is Didier Raoult, who publishes about two papers a week, and a professor here in Marseilles. We’ve seen him twice on television in the past week talking about combatting Coronavirus with chloroquine. He used to look quite respectable, but now he looks like an elderly hippy from Haight-Ashbury.

    Sometimes long hair looks silly on a woman. Nicole Biloubet is the French Minister of Justice: she has sleek flowing locks below her shoulders that would look great on a 25 year old, but she’s 40 years older than that, and her hair looks ridiculous.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    How can I reply to this ageist, sexist and anti-Celtic diatribe? Viva Gallia Comata! A better target would be untidy facial hair on the over 50s. When I first saw Graham Norton’s new look, I thought he had been replaced by a homeless man☺

  9. Nicole Belloubet [spelling] looks totally gorgeous, you sexist/ageist pig. If I had luxuriant locks like that, I’d be prouding them.

    Of course I defend to the death everybody’s right to choose their looks.

    OTOH gotta agree re Graham Norton; also Stephen Fry’s facial hair (if he’s still got it) doesn’t become him.

  10. AJP Crown says

    to resemble the name of a disgraced French footballer: Zinazinadinadina…
    That’s Michel Platini. There’s nothing disgraced about Zinédine Zidane.

    Nicole Belloubet has kind of an interesting look, I think. Many older women rather like the idea of long hair but won’t try it (everyone’s hair thins out a bit during middle age). What really looks vile & hideous on a justice official is the long grey English wigs – maybe they’ve stopped wearing them (JC will know).

    Yul Brynner would be 100 y.o. this year.

  11. David Marjanović says

    I’d be prouding them

    *yanks thread back to language*

    Huh. When was proud verbed? I don’t think I’ve encountered that before.

  12. AJP Crown says

    I’d be prouding them

    I like it. It may have originated at the time of ‘gay pride’.

  13. Andrew Dunbar says

    Can we please instigate a policy here where each contributor declares their age, sex, and hair length please?

    How on earth can I possibly know which of you to respect? I was previously silly enough to apportion respect based on the merits of what you had to say. And please dress properly when posting. I can’t believe people lazily attend the discussions in their bathrobe!

  14. I’d be prouding them

    Huh. When was proud verbed? I don’t think I’ve encountered that before.

    I don’t think I’ve encountered it either. But it seemed the only way to say it. In the heat of the moment, and even now, I can’t think of an adequate replacement.

    I take it you got my meaning?

  15. I’m in my bathrobe right now. And I like “I’d be prouding them”; well done AntC!

  16. And (checking the OED) the verb exists but is “rare after Middle English”; there are citations from OE to 1612:

    OE tr. Chrodegang of Metz Regula Canonicorum (Corpus Cambr. 191) viii. 191 Gif ma..þone ærcediacon oððe þone prauost agyte þæt hi wyllon modiggan oððe prutian,..styre him ma æne oððe tuwa.
    1612 J. Sylvester tr. Tropheis sig. Cccv, in E. Grimeston tr. P. Matthieu Heroyk Life Henry IV There prowdeth Power, Heer Prowesse brighter shines.

    And then an isolated Nigerian usage:

    1985 K. Saro-Wiwa Sozaboy ix. 72 Oh how I am prouding because of this uniform! Look how it is strong and can stand by itself. And when I wear it, it fits me helele.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s my opinion that “Rafael Newman” is in fact a Lacanbot. They’re everywhere.


    Zinazinadinadina BATMAN!

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Age: sufficient
    Hair: sufficient
    Sex: sufficient
    Beard: sufficient (bonus answer)

  19. January First-of-May says

    Age: I’d rather prefer it be less (though it’s probably on the lower end as LH regulars go)
    Hair: I’d rather prefer to have more (though it’s probably on the higher end as LH regulars go)
    Sex: exactly as little as I want (i.e. mildly asexual and have no problem with it)
    Beard: yes, fortunately

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I have always been 93, as my children will confirm. I plan to remain so.
    It’s time I had a haircut.
    My sex is a mystery both to myself and to others. I am ideologically committed to the Bantuist position that there are somewhere between eight and fourteen genders. I incline to the 3/4 gender: trees and gods.
    Naturally, I have a beard. Who doesn’t?

  21. Who doesn’t?

    I grew a beard once. Or tried to. It looked ridiculous. Unfortunately, it took me several months to realize that it was never not going to look ridiculous, no matter how long I waited. I sincerely hope all photographs of me in that phase are lost to history.

  22. SFReader says

    For some time now I was thinking how to resolve the problem of gray hair.

    I don’t like to have gray hair, it contradicts my internal age.

    However, just dyeing my hair to look younger represents a problem – it would be unmanly and ridiculous, I used to make fun of men who did that, so absolutely out of question.

    Of course, I didn’t even consider shaving my head. I hated and distrusted bald people since I was five, not gonna stop now.

    So now I am toying with idea of radical makeover.

    Dyeing my hair pink or blue.

    Getting some outrageous tattoo.

    Start wearing leather jacket etc.

    I am a freelancer now, I don’t have to go to the office.

    I can totally look like an aging rock musician.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The solution is to dye it grey. Show old age that you just don’t care.

  24. AJP Crown says

    I have always been 93, as my children will confirm
    That’s because children see no difference between 30 and 93.

    I have an idea for the pandemic. I dislike the appearance of those hospital masks and anyway they’ve run out of them. How about papier-maché plague masks. They (the masks) were invented in 1619 (for the Thirty Years’ War: everyone dresses up as crows to frighten the enemy?) They have room in the beak or bill (Schnabel) for dried flowers. You can grab these from the potpourri vase in your grandmother’s hall. They’re stylish, some industrious hat designer could make a killing.

    Dr Schnabel von Rom

  25. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Age: more than I’d like (76, soon to be 77)

    Hair: plenty

    Sex: that came to an end when I had my prostatectomy. It bothers me less than I expected (but maybe more than it bothers Stu).

    Beard: none at the moment. I grew a beard during the 1972 Olympics, and shaved it off during the 1976 Olympics. As far as I recall there was no particular reason for coinciding with the Olympics. I had one for a while in the 1980s because my youngest daughter (born 1983) wanted to see what I’d look like with a beard.

  26. John Cowan says

    In order to belong to the Eric Conspiracy, you have to be named Eric (or an obvious variant thereof, including feminine forms), you have to be a Unix system mangler (or at least mangle some kind of Unix, definitely including all Posix-compliant systems), and you have to have or fake a mustache (Ericas etc. are encouraged to fake it). The conspiracy is not speciesist. Eric Conspirators call each other “Bruce” (obviously) and collect Coolness Points (which are rather uncool, but there it is).

    I don’t belong, but I do miss the days in which ESR was this reasonable.

    Oh yes: age 61 (one can be an old fart at any age), hair “a generous mop” (see I, Claudius), sex and gender both male, beard full with mustache (I get it cut when I get the mop cut, every few months, and Gale trims my mustache once in between just to keep it out of the soup).

  27. Age: There once was an official document that stated I was born in 1665.
    Hair: less and less
    Sex: Yes
    Beard: No. My wife threatens divorce if I’d ever try

  28. David Marjanović says

    Full beard, but including what would be an Islamist mustache in Turkey (i.e. cut so short it doesn’t get in the way of the lower lip).

    I take it you got my meaning?

    Yes. 🙂

    trees and gods


    I can totally look like an aging rock musician.

    Just don’t look like Udo Lindenberg, please.

  29. John Cowan says

    Beard: No. My wife threatens divorce if I’d ever try.

    My beard was my (not yet) wife’s idea, and I have no desire to push back. It means I never had to learn to shave.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    Age: 71
    Hair: sufficit diei
    Sex: at my age ??
    Beard: 5-day shadow

  31. Lars Mathiesen says

    There is a scurrilous rumour that the highest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is found in nursing homes. Not everybody agrees with Stu, it seems.

  32. Bathrobe says

    Perhaps Stu had such an active passionate, vibrant, no-holds-barred sex life that he’s all burnt out. The more prudent kept a bit for the end.

  33. CAT tools are far from being new and are also far from being a headache for most translators I know, corporate or not (what’s a pain is agencies trying to get huge discounts for matches between target and source in situations where they’re no help—or where they may be a little help, but the savings should go in the pocket of the person with the expertise to use them properly). I was forced to learn a simple CAT tool years ago when I did more repetitive and commercial stuff, and continue to use it now that translation memories are almost completely beside the point for most of the things I do, because it has all kinds of other advantages: it helps me avoid skipping lines, splits the text in a way that’s easier on the eyes, lets me automatically shift names into the target, recreates formatting, and so on. Some literary translators use them to keep track of key words throughout a long text; I’m too lazy to actively do that, but sometimes get a helpful reminder that such-and-such a sentence is identical to one fifty pages back. Nor is it unpleasant to avoid having to type “he said” for the fiftieth time in a row. So even in completely non-repetitive texts they can be a huge time-saver, and while I can understand why literary translators who have never had to use one for other purposes tend to be reluctant and skeptical, I don’t know a single commercial translator who thinks they turn her work into drudgery, quite the opposite. Try translating pages and pages of ingredient lists without a CAT and then tell me what drudgery means.
    What IS new is post-editing of NMT, and it’s a biggie, and likely to change the commercial market entirely in the next ten years. And I am so very glad to be out of it and am anxious for my friends who are in. But the author is muddying the waters by talking about it in the same breath as standard CAT tools.

  34. “….for English translations of German sentences containing novel uses of the third person singular of the verb “to have”….”

    This reminds me of my first English teacher when I was on exchange in Wolfsburg, who scoffed at my inability as a native “American” speaker to come up with the fourteen (canonical?) uses of the verb “to have” in English. I guffawed in derision when I found that they consisted mostly of a list of groups of idioms – some strictly British English.

    Poor thing hated boys, couldn’t stand me, and had a breakdown mid-year where she refused to teach us any longer. We were actually astonishingly well-behaved for a group of 15-17 year olds. Our second teacher was better, but even he had issues with students pushing the boundaries of authority.

  35. Oh, one CAT-related thing I don’t think is mentioned but which is indeed significant: the big CAT makers rolling out tools that incorporate NMT means the corpora are going to grow very fast in certain sectors, which in turn will make the tools better, and so on. But the data security concerns are huge, even though we’re talking about pricey, industry-specific services that supposedly guarantee confidentiality. Sure, the data they’re taking back is rendered anonymous and supposedly broken up into such tiny chunks that nothing sensitive should pop up on someone else’s screen… but I have my doubts. And that’s quite a gamble for many companies. For the agencies, too: can they really guarantee confidentiality when they’ve invested in a tool that takes it out of their own hands?

  36. Thanks, Biscia — that’s a very helpful alternate take.

  37. Stu Clayton says

    he’s all burnt out

    Voilà ! But I am not knocking on the door of the prudent ant, cap in hand.

  38. Whoops, though, I was writing in a rush and forgot to declare, so how can you tell if it’s actually helpful?
    Age: younger than most here, it seems.
    Sex: more female than most here, it seems.
    Hair: authoritative. (I originally wrote “unauthoritative,” but then my hair commanded me to change it.)
    Beard: not technically mine, but the bathroom sink is usually full of bits which I could scrape together if necessary. And in a pinch I also have a sister-in-law who is a drag king with great expertise in pasted-on facial hair.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    So this beard is alienably possessed?
    As we’re communicating in English, that will suffice. Nobody will be able to tell. And the sister-in-law is a clincher.

    Might your hair in fact be subtly authoritative?

  40. Stu Clayton says

    Let’s not mince words: the hair is passive-aggressive.

  41. the hair is passive-aggressive

    Oh my God, is it ever. It’s even taken umbrage and told me it wasn’t commanding, it was suggesting. Kind of like how, after I haven’t washed it in a day or two, it emphatically “suggests” that Eraserhead is a good look.

    Anyway, if you have a quibble about CAT tools, take it up with the hair.

  42. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s been quite some years since I’ve had occasion to see the name of Udo Lindenberg invoked, and now here’s David M. doing so in order to use poor Udo as a Bad Example. I haven’t the heart to google up a recent picture, but has Udo really aged so much less elegantly than other musicians of his generation as to be the stock example of how not to do it?

    For what I would consider a good example of how to look elegant with long gray hair playing rock music at the age of 73, here’s a clip of Lenny Kaye on stage this past weekend. (Earlier in the evening he had squeezed past me in the crowd en route to and from the bathrooms, and he looks in good shape close-up as well.)

  43. David Marjanović says

    the highest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is found in nursing homes

    If that’s true, it may have more to do with ignorance about contraception…

    the stock example

    Mind you, I know so few musicians he’s the stock example out of a sample of maybe 5. Anyway, the impression I get is that his personality consists of nothing but a desire to still be cool – he has reduced himself to his hat and maybe his sunglasses.

  44. There is a scurrilous rumour that the highest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is found in nursing homes.

    As well as all other diseases. But ICUs probably still win.

  45. John Cowan says

    It’s even taken umbrage

    At the Foreign Office:

    “I see the Americans have taken umbrage.”

    “They have? Where the deuce is that?”

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    I don’t know if he desires to be cool. He is trapped in an ethos which has no place for aging, maturation or nuance. Jazz or Classical music is a better bet. Compare Karl Lagerfeld in his last years with his ponytail.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    Compare Karl Lagerfeld in his last years with his ponytail.

    That’s an example of aging, but maturation or nuance ? He was a fashion designer with a motor-mouth. His nuances were seasonal. He got fat, then thin again.

  48. PlasticPaddy says

    You are right. I meant Lagerfeld’s industry is also one where a youthful appearance and an unsubtle presentation are de rigueur.

  49. De rigeur mortis.

  50. David Marjanović says

    He is trapped in an ethos which has no place for aging, maturation or nuance.

    “Trapped” is definitely a good way to put it.

  51. Stu Clayton says

    More pitiable victims ! On the contrary, anyone can go off and become a hippie. Lagerfeld had enough money, I imagine Udo does too. If not, he can always wash dishes.

    They’re not trapped, but merely spoiled by former fame. Plenty of people get by without a ponytail, a hat and audiences.

  52. David Marjanović says

    “Trapped” in the sense of boxing himself in.

  53. Stu Clayton says

    I had forgotten about the Eierlikör revival ! He is being financed now by grannies. He won’t need to wash dishes, he probably has an oma to do that.

    Vulgar but lucrative. No wonder people box themselves in.

  54. David Marjanović says

    Admittedly a better use for eggnog than ingesting it.

  55. J.W. Brewer says

    I will have to remember (and file away for potential use in the right situation) the useful phrase “Hey Honey, keine Panik.”

  56. David Marjanović says

    It’s not widespread, though. Other than him, the only person to call anyone honey while speaking German has been one contestant of Germany’s next Topmodel [sic].

  57. He won’t need to wash dishes, he probably has an oma to do that
    He’s been living in a suite in a posh hotel on the Alster in Hamburg for years now, so yes, I don’t think he’s short on cash, and he certainly won’t have to worry about washing dishes, although it’s probably not done by an Oma, but by a combination of dishwasher machines and gastarbeiters.

Speak Your Mind