Sunday, September 29, 2013


I’m just old enough to know a thing or two about obsolescence. 
My first computer had a DOS prompt and I’ve owned every version of Windows since 2.0.  My first job using a computer required that I learn to use WordPerfect, which has since disappeared  in favor of MS Word.  Fortunately for my career, I was able to move from a technical environment into a legal one, and attorneys held on to WordPerfect longer than other professions.
From my thirties on, changes in technology have zipped along, with kids leading the race, eager for each new gadget, and frugal adults reluctantly following, learning early on that any equipment bought was obsolete as soon as it came out of the sturdy cardboard box in which it was sold.
Perhaps a person’s age and experience paint our world’s planned obsolescence in a bad light.  I spoke up at a recent board meeting, where the discussion of replacing the company fleet of cars was on the table, to tell clients that the hybrids they were contemplating are equipped with a special battery that has an estimated service life of seven years and a replacement cost, after seven years, that would then exceed the resale price of the car.
I’ve often wondered what happened to the bits and pieces of my old cars, beloved machines that carried me where I wanted to go.  A lot of metal, plastic and rubber went into their construction.  Where is it all now?  And I am only one single car owner on this huge, automated planet.  Sometimes I imagine the earth beneath my feet suddenly bursting open with old car bumpers, milk gallons, and 8-track players oozing to the surface from long hidden garbage dumps.
I started writing this while seated in the double-deck car of my commuter train, having left my Buick in the train station parking lot.  Soon I will be getting on a plane to cross the Atlantic into France.  Hundreds of other aircraft will be in the sky simultaneously, and the international space station will float over all of us.  How many times in our lives do we entrust our physical bodies to the inside of a big metal machine, with the objective of moving quickly from Point A to Point B?  I’m sure few people know how many times they have ridden in a car or a bus, and I count myself fortunate to have lost track of how many flights I’ve taken over mountains and oceans.
The trains and cars and aircraft have all gone through lightning evolutions in a short period of time, but here is the constant in all of this Modern Metal Modification Madness:  People are not obsolete.  The machines get faster and more efficient (well, let’s take the Concorde out of this discussion), but their goal is to move human beings.  I can easily transmit my image and my words and thoughts over wireless connections to far reaches of the globe.  And yet people still need to meet up with other people, have face-to-face contact.  The basis of the whole internet and communications revolution is to carry human words and voices faster and further.
As a translator and interpreter, I am acutely aware of the individual, personal nature of a human being’s speech and use of his language.  Human rendering of language is as unique as a fingerprint, with accents and styles, ethnicity and education all shaping our speech and our words.  But just as we entrust our human bodies to a variety of machines so that our presence is not limited to the space in which we live, our words and our speech are more and more entrusted to mechanical devices that will carry them great distances.
We should never forget the human being behind the text message, the document or the Email.  Because behind the flood of electronic communications is thought:  the intangible products of the human brain.  And no two brains are alike.
I recently attended a professional meeting of translators, where a distinguished professor of translation lamented the rapid decline of the individual translator’s income.  While translation as an “industry” is outpacing many others in growth, individual translators are suffering from plummeting rates.  As in many fields, the mechanization that was developed to “make life easier” has made life harder for those humans whose functions it replaces.  Linguists seem to be going the way of travel agents.  Although we are the ones who know all the best places and how to get there, the general public prefers to take its chances with booking over the Internet.
Translation software was developed to enhance the translator’s memory by instantly coughing up a phrase that was translated previously.  As a tool for the translator, what a boon!  But these lovely tools have fallen into the wrong hands:  translation agencies and the clients themselves.  Now the client can say to the purveyor of translation services:  “I’m only going to pay you for NEW text, since my machine has already translated fifty percent of my document.”
If the subject of the translation is an owner’s manual for a machine that is in its FIFTH VERSION, it’s easy to see how automated translation would be fast and efficient.
But how much of human language is so repetitive, so uniform, so black and white and lacking in nuance, that a machine can render its translation?  Machines are made that way, but not human beings.
I just translated a brochure for a client who wanted the product literature to be an elegant reflection of the high-end, unique objects whose commercial value resides in their place of origin and the human craftsmanship that went into them.  The brochure was classy, peppered with descriptive language and the occasional play on words that only someone French-speaking would grasp.  I had some great “Ah Ha” moments coming up with parallel expressions in English.
A machine could not do this. 
On my way to Union Station in Chicago this week, I passed in front of a record store that was selling good old vinyl records.  The store was full of customers at 10:00 o’clock in the morning.  I asked someone about the value of going backward technologically and purchasing vinyl.
“It just SOUNDS better.”
I guess until human ears and brains become obsolete, with all their capacity for detecting nuance, there is still hope for humans who translate and interpret the shades and tones and notes of human language.