There are not many vocations out there in which one must prove their necessity quite as much as a translator. A farmer, for example, is a noble position that directly affects the physical well-being and national security of a country—perhaps many countries. A businessman might provide jobs for other people, all the while facilitating commerce and trade both in and out of the country. But translators are often asked the question—both in their public and private spheres—“what is the point of translating for a living when there are machine translations available for free?”
The death of the translator is a tenuous, worn-out discourse. In a world where technological advancements in the form of Google Translate and DeepL have bridged linguistic gaps, it’s obvious that people should ask such questions. If anything, contesting the existence and necessity of professional translators is important, if anything, to goad translators into contemplating more on why their vocations are as important as others. Before computers, translators might’ve had an easier time positing themselves as requisite figures in society, but now, translators often find themselves as the butt of their friends’ jokes in reunions.
In his essay, “The Translation Age: Translation, Technology, and the New Instrumentalism,” Michael Cronin pleads with his readers to think of translation in a more nuanced light. Cronin recounts the general history of translation and its role, at once subverting the tired notion of translation as a mere substitution of words and redefining translation beyond its usual understanding. And the conclusion he comes to is that a human translator is no longer a scribe—never was—to be ousted by machines. Rather, human translators—aided and informed by machines—stand at the gates of information as it passes from one country to another, from one language to the next. In fact, all form of understanding and meaning-making—whether it be programmers coding, musicians singing, scientists experimenting—is a form of translation. But what is that even supposed to mean?
Cronin starts his essay by positing that “human presence in the world can only be understood through and in the context of the made objects that mediate human existence” (470). In other words, we can perhaps say that we are the product of the tools we employ; Cronin mentions twelfth-century scholar and translator Adelard of Bath who, in his treatise On the Use of the Astrolabe, expresses the idea that “knowledge is inexpressible outside the language of artefacts” (469).
Tools are important in the human effort to understand what it means to be human, Cronin says. Citing the archaeologist Timothy Taylor, Cronin makes the argument that “evolution for humans is, in a sense, both biological and cultural.” After all, aided by our tools and structures, humans do not need physical attributes to help us survive in the wild. Humans depend on the inanimate—our tools, buildings—so much for our survival that they may as well be a part of us. Or as Cronin says, “we need to take account of the intrinsic and not simply extrinsic involvement of technē. It is a question of ontology rather than utility. We evolve or are defined by the artefacts we use. The tools shape us as much as we shape them” (470-471).
What does any of this have to do with translation? Well, translation, in short, is a tool we employ to evolve. Cronin would say that “there is no transcendence without translation.” Like the famous painting The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel, humans aim for higher worlds—for a united language and front against regression—through the use of tools, such as the “ladders, levers, pulleys, scaffolding” present in the painting. Without this tool of translation, there is no transcendence; Cronin cites nineteenth-century writer Samuel Butler, who defines writing as follows: “The written symbol extends infinitely, as regards time and space, the range within which one mind can communicate with another; it gives the writer’s mind a life limited by the duration of ink, paper, and readers, as against that of his flesh and blood body” (Butler 198). Translation is how we extend our ideas to different areas and societies (English to other languages) and through time (Old and Middle English to Modern English).
That still doesn’t give readers any clear idea of how modern-day translation as we think of it—localization agencies, freelance translators—prove their necessity in the era of the internet. So Cronin, in this next section, brings out the big guns, namely the printing press. Cronin quotes Francis Bacon, who once claimed that “no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exercised a greater power and influence in human affairs” than the movable-type printing press. And it certainly sounds true. Writing, which was once the private pleasure and activity of the ruling elite soon became a commonplace medium of information, available in markets and in average households. And while the Gutenberg press is venerated for having spread translations of the Bible, what’s really more important than the content is the medium itself: the role of the printing press to democratize information.
And these mediums shape us, in the same way tools shape humans. Quoting the American writer Nicholas Carr, “every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the mind works or should work. The map and clock shared a similar ethic. Both placed a new stress on measurement and abstraction, on perceiving and defining forms and processes beyond those apparent to the senses” (Carr 2010: 45). The map and clock have renegotiated the relationship of the human to the world; tools—technology, overall—have the power to reposition the paradigm we utilize to think about the world.
For the printing press, the advent of such a revolutionary technology “implied an intellectual ethic of mobility which would be hugely significant for the role of translation in religious and political history.” For example, Bibles translated into vernacular English were forbidden in England, but the notion that such a translated Bible could now be published—in England or abroad—via the printing press is, itself, a great subversion to political and religious ideology. Furthermore, there is the “pressure to standardize spelling,” a further consolidation of a certain English “self-consciousness” that the printing press brings, so much so that translation, in a sense, is a “culture-technology hybrid,” invented by man yet shaping so much of the intangible culture humans exist in. “Through print, translations colonize the space of the everyday, menacing in their accessibility,” Cronin writes, telling the story of how translations of Italian tales spread virally through late sixteenth-century England, much to the dismay of the ruling elites who prioritized a certain sense of English, religious pureness in print (Cronin 474).
Fast forward a few centuries. The world has changed so much, yet the way in which tools influence our very lives has not changed at all. 2022 is the heyday of ubiquitous computing—computers everywhere, in our hands, our surroundings, our homes, our furniture, even our bodies—to the point that “computing capacity dissolves into the physical surroundings, architectures and infrastructures” (475).
In such a “trans-architectural” world, the multilingual is impossible to omit. No longer do we simply read books in a uniform language; through technology such as smartphones and laptops with their constant notifications and ease of access, we have moved from “the static and serial presentation of information in a limited number of languages” to a “customized interaction with the possibility for continuous expansion in languages and information offered.” Most of the information we need, we access in the language of our choice, in the comfort of our homes and relative solaces.
And in such a world, translation takes on a new form. Translation is still, in many ways, a necessary and important tool that humans undertake to disseminate information and shape society; it’s hard to argue the sheer importance translation holds in modern society when all major scientific developments and technological advancements required some form of cross-linguistic, cross-cultural, cross-temporal translation. But now, the agents of translation have shifted. Before Google Translate and the general internationalization of English, professional translators and bilingual scholars have taken pride in being the only ones to disseminate new ideas from abroad. Now, translation is a communal, collaborative experience, evidenced by the “proliferation of crowdsourced translation or open translation projects such as Project Lingua, Worldwide Lexicon, Wiki Project Echo, TED Open Translation Project, and Cucumis,” alongside Facebook which has “used a crowdsourcing model to translate content into languages other than English” as well as fan translations for “everything from Japanese anime to Korean soap operas” (476). Such is the state of translation in the era of the internet and Web 2.0, characterized by “interactive, user-generated content” (476).
Michael Cronin sums it up into three major ideas. First, translation is now a mode of prosumption; in other words, the consumer of a translation is also an active producer. The audience is at once the producer, and this phenomenon redefines the diametric dichotomies that translation theorists have spent decades pondering over.
Second is post-print translation literacy; the internet has dramatically transformed the way people read, “from steady, cumulative, linear reading to a form of accelerated power browsing” (477). Cronin cites a report by the Israeli company Clicktale that found that “in most countries people spend between nineteen and twenty-seven seconds looking at a web page before moving on to the next one” (477). And with such transformation to the “paradigms of literacy… we must expect translation to change in nature” (477). No longer is quality the priority for many; fast information—one can’t help but think of the recent debacle over poorly-paid, overtime-working translators for Netflix’s Squid Game—is king.
Third, such collaborative and communal translation processes represent a “reinvestment of translation technology by the human,” which effectively contests the “conception of machine-human interaction in translation as fundamentally dehumanizing” (477). Cronin writes that “a tendency in localization discourse has been to accentuate the role of automation in translation activity and to minimize the intervention of the human agent,” to which one can give the example of the recent rise of MTPE—machine translation post-editing—as a feasible, cost-efficient solution to traditional translation practices. And in this transformation, translation moves from “the monadic subject of traditional translation agency… to a pluri-subjectivity of interaction” (477).
These ideas—or rather, the central idea that translation is no longer a professional, solitary job and more of a crowdsourced, collaborative one—seem to disprove, if anything, the necessity of the localization industry. But that is not what Cronin argues for; up to this point, Cronin has argued for a wider understanding of translation, one that regards the practice as expansively transformational and utterly indispensable to the human experience and evolution. “The global expansion of business demanded that translation carry messages from one point to another, leading to the development of the localization industry,” writes Cronin, suggesting the notion that the localization industry is still key to that integral process of cultural dissemination. Cronin goes on to quote Reinhard Schäler, a scholar of translation theory: “Localization can be defined as the linguistic and cultural adaptation of digital content to the requirements and locale of a foreign market, and the provision of services and technologies for the management of multilingualism across the digital global information flow.” (Schäler 2009: 157)
From here, Cronin goes one step further and argues that “when we talk about the Information Age, Information Technology, and the Information Society, we should be talking about the Translation Age, Translation Technology, and the Translation Society.” In other words, translation is information; information is not possible without translation, not the opposite, as we so often think. When Samuel Morse designed his code—to be used for the telegraph—all he did was replace signs (alphabet) with other signs (Morse code), according to Cronin (480). This process of “replacing signs with other signs, mapping one set of objects onto another—it might be argued that this is precisely what translators do. They are continually engaged with forms of encoding, moving from one symbolic level or system to another,” argues Cronin (480). In this sense, translation can be interpreted to include “the ultimate translatability of all content to the binary code of machine language.” Our very own relationship with machines is that of translation. We shouldn’t be thinking of all the ways translation fails us (the so-called notion of “lost in translation”), but rather, thinking of all the ways in which something is a translation: a passage of ideas from one sign to another.
No one can deny the “transformative impact of information technology.” But what Cronin is ultimately trying to prove is that “the history of information and information technologies is if anything a history of forms of translation.” All science comes from the Greeks, who got it from the Egyptians, who took it from the Hebrews, says sixteenth-century English translator John Florio.
And this is the power of Cronin’s “The Translation Age: Translation, Technology, and the New Instrumentalism”; by recounting the history of translation and its tremendous influence on humankind, Cronin reconfigures our relationship to the world around us, helping his readers view the world in terms of translation. In that aspect, translators are harbingers of ideas, messengers that enable human evolution. Our lives consist of translations, are borne of translations.
With such a general, expansive definition of translation, it is worth asking what role localization experts and professional translators play. If translation is any form of meaning-making via a transfer of signs, aren’t computer programmers translators? Aren’t musicians translators? Aren’t farmers translators, taking the signs of land and agriculture and transforming them into the signs of food and commodity? In a sense, all these are true. According to Cronin, translation is effectively technology, that process through which humans extend functions and ideas to different modes of understanding.
However, despite Cronin’s argument that the medium is more important than content (or at least, of equal relevance), even within such a one-size-fits-all definition of translation, professional translators occupy a special role of translating one human language to another. Natural language, unlike other signs, is compounded by a variety of elements—history, culture, technology, politics. Natural language is a code that, unlike most codes, is fraught with contexts. And given that most people in the world speak at least one natural language, the implications of natural language translation are endless. The results of professional translation affect many, and the circumstances that have made natural languages so heavily contextual and fraught with risk are beyond our scope of control.
Professional translators, unlike other forms of translation, differ fundamentally in that their job is to facilitate communication directly between one person to another. Cronin’s paradigm of a universalized translation only goes to prove that translation is an ever-present, ever-necessary function of human life and experiences, the most exemplary of which is that process of making ourselves understood, human-to-human, culture-to-culture, language-to-language. That is the kind of professional translation that Sprok DTS stands for.
Venuti, Lawrence, and Michael Cronin. “The Translation Age: Translation, Technology, and the New Instrumentalism.” The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2021.