Ambiguity

If you ask computers, they will probably name ambiguity as public enemy number one. Ambiguity occurs when a word or expression can mean two or more different things, and you can’t find out which from the word alone – for that, you need the surroundings, or the context, and often also a lot of background  information. Here’s an example: is a guide a book or a person? Although computational linguistics has methods to deal with some of this, resolving ambiguity remains mainly the privilege of the human mind.

Yehoshua Bar-Hillel himself invokes the concept of ambiguity in language to prove that high-quality automatic translation is not feasible, at least not if you stay with the generative approach. But I have already spent several posts on this, so now it’s time for something completely different.

Today I plan to confuse my readers by pointing out that human beings, whether they like it or not, are part of translation technology – or any technology, for that matter. Yet in the previous post, I argued that humans, for better or worse, are prone to refuse to be part of the machine.

The answer lies in the ambiguity of the term ‘technology’. My impression is that we tend to apply the word to the actual equipment, and if it hints at something so physical, the feeling of being ‘part of the technology’ could be as good as having our bodies violated by some vile contraption.

Dictionaries don’t talk much about this, or when they do, they do it in a curious manner. Merriam-Webster, for example, offers a ‘simplified’ definition that captures the ambiguity of ‘technology’ quite aptly: either it’s

the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems

or

a machine, piece of equipment, method, etc., that is created by technology

The second definition doesn’t come up in the ‘official’ section of the same dictionary entry.

My native language received engineering and technical terms through German. Before English became predominant in technical communication in our part of the world, the concepts we used had been determined by German engineering. We learned that technology is first and foremost

a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge

– to quote the third definition from the same Merriam-Webster entry.

According to Wikipedia, the confusion about ‘technology’ in the English language originates in a translation error: “[…] when American social scientists, beginning with Thorstein Veblen, translated ideas from the German concept of Technik into ‘technology’.” Thus the difference between the German terms ‘Technik’ and ‘Technologie’ was lost, or blurred at best.

We Hungarians took these over from German in a Latinized form, as ‘technika’ and ‘technológia’. But the difference is fading away even in our language, with ‘technológia’ becoming a synonym of ‘technika’, and the use of ‘technika’ vanishing – thanks to the heavy feedback from English technical communication.

Disclaimer: I do not subscribe to views and complaints about language being ‘corrupted’ or ‘destroyed’ by vernacular (vulgar) or foreign influence – I simply note the change in the language. However, the mixup of the ‘technical’ and the ‘technological’ does make communication more difficult at present. I have no doubt, however, that other changes in technical language will even this out.

Still, it’s quite important to distinguish between the two meanings of ‘technology’, because they are fundamentally different in the way they relate to humanity.

Here’s how I prefer to define technology: it’s a well-defined, repeatable and documented procedure – or a collection of procedures – that humans use to achieve a goal, produce something tangible, or deliver some service. It may or may not involve actual technical equipment; but it’s always based on co-operation among human beings.

Nowadays, in the business lingo, the closest thing to this is called a ‘process’ – unless people apply the term ‘technology’ in this sense. (In my experience, the word ‘procedure’ is rare, as it also tends to have a legal flavor.)

Some years ago, in my PhD thesis (that was never published, and was written in Hungarian, anyway), I argued that translation technology is not simply the translation environment software that translators use. I proposed to return to the old interpretation: translation technology is made up from the organization [of humans], the workflow, and yes, the technical equipment, applied together to produce translations.

As soon as translation must be done in a planned manner – because it’s part of something bigger, like the documentation of a car or the text in a software product –, translation professionals cannot escape working along some sort of technology. This means they need to have a way to anticipate costs and time; and they are expected to deliver the translation within the planned cost and time, and in specific quality. In technical translation, this usually means that their translation must remain within a certain length, and they are required to use specific words and expressions. These words and expressions are defined by the maker of the something bigger, in order to sell or operate the thing (the car, the software product, etc.) more efficiently. (This is called terminology, by the way, but right now I have no space to do it justice.) To achieve all this, translation professionals might need to, more often than not, work together, sometimes in different roles (as translator, as reviewer, as project manager, etc.).

Working in a planned and predictable manner doesn’t imply you must use sophisticated equipment to get your task done: but because there is technical equipment and there is competition between translators and translation organizations, you would probably be a fool not to.

So, I wrote that technology is run by humans, and it’s mostly about organization and process rather than technical equipment. But then, ironically enough, my friends and I went on to create a company with ‘translation technologies’ in the name, specializing in – can you guess? – translation environment software. To sell our product, we had to argue that no translation technology can exist without the technical equipment. Which happens to be true, just not because it’s there in the concept. It’s the circumstances: in today’s competitive environment, technical equipment – good software serving a good workflow in a good organization – is essential for survival in business.

Finally, I want to brag about something. The ‘translation technologies’ company we called to life all those years ago pioneered something we call collaborative translation. We may not have been the first to create technical tools for the organization rather than the individual translator; but we were the most transparent and most consistent to do so. Instead of solving a purely technical problem of sharing a database (a translation memory or a term base) over the network, we recognized we had to think about the needs – members and processes – of organizations. In this, we returned to the original concept of ‘technology’: we  aspire to create tools that bend to the organization – rather than bending the organization to themselves.

Technology as ‘organization and procedure’ seems to turn the world upside down, at least compared to technology as ‘technical equipment’: the first one is centered on humans, the second one on itself. Right now we cannot do much to clear up the confusion of the two distinct uses of the word. But we, as makers of technical equipment, can always take a step back and look at the greater good we work for (or that we are supposed to work for). If we conclude that technology serves the ultimate end of enhancing the lives of human beings (I won’t talk about the progress of humanity because I’m not convinced it exists) – then we can design and produce technical equipment that, instead of domination, strives to enhance the capabilities of the organizations that use them.

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