Translate, n. “digital capacity to use language translation to solve problems”

4 minute read

Rethinking the meaning of "translate" as a word. Does "translate" still refer to the action as it used to? Why should we rethink it and why now?

Here’s a suggestion: we should adopt a new usage of the existing English lexeme “translate” as a non-count noun. This would enable the word to cover emerging phenomena in the language industry as it crystallizes more deeply into the digital ecology. This usage is obviously calqued on the current trend of using “compute” as a noun, meaning something like “computational capacity” (as in “How much compute do you need for that machine learning task?”).

What’s it for? A phrase such as “How much translate do you need?” or “What’s our translate set-up?”, or “We will need to throw more translate at that one” could help more easily identify emerging states of affairs when compute systems working on richly-qualified data can best characterize many, if not all, translation events. It could also provide a broader, shorter synonym in certain contexts to replace the collection of such clunky, repetitive terms as “machine translation” or “translation automation” etc. that have accrued over the years.

Why now? As we gradually build up reservoirs of explicit knowledge about translation data, throughputs, “words” and “segments”, and even “compute” expenditure, we will almost certainly pay far more attention to the overall cost of such factors as electric grid supply, delivery times, sizes of data resources to be processed, access to specific data, and so on. These practices in the translation industry are shifting rapidly under the sway of “compute” (and especially machine learning). So we can capture a new generalization about our work by using the term “translate” to cover the entire technology-grounded process.

Why bother? The current debates about human and machine parity, the role of the translator (ipso facto a human) in quality evaluation, and the need for new skills all make it imperative to reach agreement on the sort of enabling discourse we can share about our domain. Translators of course translate (verb), edit translations, and work in the translation business/industry/sector. But they have increasingly become part of a much broader ensemble of people and technology working together to deliver translate services. 

Translate” the noun will thus capture the entire range of activities, from innovating at the algorithm level, and calibrating performance at the chip level, to optimizing every aspect of the data level, so that process managers can speak quality to clients working closely with LSPs and others in the supply chain. 

How this new usage of “translate” might itself be translated into other languages where necessary is another question!! 


Long-time European language technology journalist, consultant, analyst and adviser.

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