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The Field of Machine Translation in Technical Writing

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At a recent technical writing conference, one group meeting was opened with the following statement:

The role of the technical communicator is changing. It behooves all old-time writers, editors, and illustrators to accept this and to prepare themselves for what will be expected of them.

Although this field hasn't experienced a complete breakthrough as yet, computer specialists are hard at work on the problem. If you have knowledge of one or more foreign languages and are skilled in technical writing, you should be well-equipped to work with translating equipment to convert foreign languages into English and vice versa.

To give you some idea of how translators and technical writers may be assigned to machine translation, we contacted William L. Benzon of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Benzon was for-merly a bibliographer and editorial assistant with the American Journal of Computational Linguistics. This is what he said:

As high technology spreads across the globe, the need for rapid, reliable, and relatively cheap translation of technical documentation grows proportionately. Translation, however, is slow, boring, but highly skilled work-which adds up to its being very expensive work as well. On the other hand, computers are fast and they don't get bored. If they can be programmed with skills sufficient to the task, then fast and cheap translation may be possible.

Whether translation can be done by machines (MT) depends on the fact that most of the decisions to be made in translation are, in principle, as routine as the multiplication tables. Those decisions can be made quickly and accurately by a computer with the requisite software. However, many of those decisions depend on prior decisions of a different class, decisions that cannot be specified by some routine procedure. These decisions concern the meaning of the text and seem to require encyclopedic knowledge of the text's content. Current software provides literal, not idiomatic (everyday) language translations, so its use is restricted. Translated text must be converted into good idiomatic language, and there is an ongoing effort to solve this problem.

To illustrate the difficulty of idiomatic versus literal translation, consider the phrase: "the coast is clear." In Spanish, the equivalent phrase is no haber ningunos mows en la costa, whose literal translation is "there are no Moors on the shore!"

Full-scale MT, in which the computer takes a text in the source language, such as Russian, and translates it into the target language, such as English, without any human intervention, is now possible. Software now exists that is capable of translating very short (300-500 words) texts on simple subjects, but these are too restricted in scope to be the basis of practical translation systems.

At present there are more practical machine aids to human translators. They have been given the designation MAT (machine-aided translation). Several MAT systems are in use by government agencies and private corporations. This subfield of technical communications surely will grow rapidly. In fact the technology in this area is changing so rapidly, that what we have written may be obsolete by the time you read it. Machine translation is an exciting employment possibility for translators-those people gifted in more than one language and with the ability to write well.

An acronym that we see today is CAT, computer-aided translation. In order to aid in the usage of CAT, companies are approaching translation in stages. First a glossary, or vocabulary, of the most common technical terms used by that company for foreign translation is drawn up for the translators as well as for other writers. This glossary is entered in the computer memory. Then a page of a manual, let us say, is entered in the word processor. It is preedited and then it is applied to the glossary. Words in the original piece of work are now transformed by the glossary, or "glossarized." After this is done, the piece of writing returns to the translator for its completion and final editing. Of course, this is an oversimplification of the process, but it may provide you with some idea of what is meant by CAT and machine translation. This development is by no means foolproof, but it does show the direction translation efforts are taking.

Systems of oral dictation to the computer also are being developed. Eventually, words spoken in one language may be computer-processed and translated into another language.
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