Saturday, 15 February 2020

The unfortunate thing humans do in conversation

How often do we say something to others, only to regret it afterwards? This often happens because we didn’t take enough time to think. How often do we allow ourselves the luxury of a pause in a conversation to think?

The astoundingly short gap between spoken turns

My friend Kasia last year tweeted an article about a (rarely thought-about) phenomenon that is typical of conversations between humans: the astoundingly short gap between spoken turns. This gap is usually just 200 milliseconds in duration (although there are slight variations across different cultures). 200 milliseconds is, for example, the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol. So it indeed is not very long! Read the article here.

It means that when we’re engaged in a conversation, we are pressed for time (which never is a nice state to be in). We are forced to think about and form our responses while we’re still listening to what the other person is saying, to be able to reply at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s a culturally imposed conversation pattern: we minimise the gap of silence between turns in a conversation because it’s expected of us.

A culturally imposed phenomenon:
when we’re engaged in a conversation, we're pressed for time
(Image source: Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay)

The lasting effect of childhood experiences

The article reminded me of how as a child I was once mocked (first by a stranger, then by a relative) for not replying quickly enough. It wasn't the first time it was suggested to me something was wrong with me in that respect. In some odd way, certain experiences from our childhoods tend to have a lasting effect on us, although the human mind is also good at simply shoving such memories away. But the memory of being mocked for not replying quickly enough stuck with me subconsciously: I henceforth believed conversations were supposed to be a quick exchange of spoken turns. 

As children we tend to believe what the grown-ups tell us; as grown-ups we’re free to think our own thoughts. As a grown-up, I now think it should really be the other way around: conversations should not be of a rapid-fire nature, but ideally should be deep, perhaps even slow. And pauses for thinking, by all means, should be allowed.

The benefits of pauses in conversation

Pauses for thinking may be necessary for various reasons: so that we don’t offend the other person; so that we’re able to come up with something better than the usual platitudes that mark a lot of our conversations; so that we can give our full, undivided attention to what the other person is saying.

What does it take to have a really good conversation? To take one step in the right direction, let’s prolong what Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the article terms “the minimum human response time” at least a bit. Time in our day and age is a luxury and should be employed wisely, not least in conversations!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Why translators don’t fear the machines

The takeover of translations by machines is impending (or so we've been told).Why then don’t human translators fear the much talked-about rise of the machines?

As I see it, it all boils down to one simple answer: translators don’t fear the machines because a translation is created in a series of stages.

Most translations require human input

Machine translation is sometimes helpful in the first stage of creating a translation, but it then cannot contribute to what happens in subsequent stages. And where machine translation is no longer helpful, a human translator’s input will be required. 

Why don't human translators fear the rise of the machines?
(Image source: Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke on Pixabay)

The translation stages where machine translation is not helpful include, for example:

- Researching terminology in the particular field of the text

- Identifying and pointing out issues in the source text to the client, using appropriate grammatical terminology to describe and explain those issues, suggesting improvements

- Discussing the approach to “untranslatable” terms with the client

- Finding workaround solutions to tricky terms and phrases

- Applying client style guidelines to the translation

- Creating coherence between the individual parts of the text

- Improving the first draft of a translation (also known as “rough translation”)

- Improving the translation further

- Checking that correct punctuation has been used

- Formatting the file

- Eradicating errors (including errors potentially introduced by machine translation!)

- Printing off the translation and checking it on paper

- Double-checking that correct numbers and/or reference numerals (in patents) have been used

- Rewriting the translation (where required) so that it reads like a text that is idiomatically phrased in the target language

- Ensuring that the underlying meaning of the original text has been accurately conveyed (as we know, language is full of ambiguities!)

- Checking that technical terms have been used consistently throughout the translation

- Editing, fine-tuning and polishing the translated text

- Putting a human touch to the translation

Anyone who believes that a translation can be produced by the simple push of a button is unaware that a translation is created in stages. Machine translation may be useful during the first of those stages, but creating a fit-for-purpose translation is a long, drawn-out and intricate process.

A good translation cannot be produced by the simple push of a button
(Image source: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay)

Afterthought: Nobody knows, of course, what's still going to happen on the AI front, and some of the tasks above will maybe be taken over by robots one day. Right now, we're still very far away from it. I also personally believe that we will never get to a stage where robots will be like humans.

(A German translation of this blog article is available here.)