Double Bind 7: Human vs. Machine
(1) Be a human translator.
(a) Translate in a human body: not just
skin and bones, but emotions, motivations, prejudices, and a rich private
and public life beyond translation.
(b) Let your humanity flow into and through
your work as a translator, and (at least partly) shape the work you do,
and the way you do that work.
(c) Love or hate individual words and
phrases and entire translation jobs you do, and the profession as a whole,
and the various people you work with and/or for. Feel excitement about
some aspects of the job, frustration at others.
(d) Gravitate toward certain types of
work (translating or interpreting; (literary, technical, commercial, legal,
medical; in-house or freelance) because of your personality, your personal
preferences, your ethical predilections.
(e) Let your work as a translator (at
least partly) define your humanity, your personality, your sense of your
place in the world.
(f) Take pleasure in your interculturality,
your mixed loyalties to the source and target cultures, your complex sense
of national and local politics due to your work as a translator.
(g) Think of translation in terms of
the translator's humanity.
(h) Insist on the importance and inevitable
idiosyncracy of interpretation in translation, and deny that any such
thing as a single "correct" or "accurate" translation
could ever exist. Since every translator will filter his or her work through
his or her personality, there will be as many different translations of
any given text as there are translators of it.
(i) Insist that all interpretation is
a constitutive process, bringing a new text into being, turning from the
source text in new directions, recreating the target language. All reading
is active; all writing is creative.
(2) Be a machine translator.
(a) Train yourself to suppress your humanity
when you translate.
(b) Translate without emotions, without
extratranslational motivations, certainly without prejudices. Allow yourself
these things when you are not translating, but remind yourself that their
effect on a translation is invariably to distort the meaning of the source
text, and that must be avoided at all costs.
(c) Take guarded pleasure in your success
at the suppression of your humanity while translating. But only allow
yourself to feel that pleasure when you are not translating.
(d) Take classes in translation in order
to enhance your ability to translate in machine-like ways. Shy away from
translation teachers who do not preach strict neutral objective accuracy.
(e) Think of translation as basically
a machinic process.
(f) Embrace models of translation that
highlight the depersonalized transmission of an undistorted message from
a sender to a receptor. Do not think of the "sender" and "receptor"
as actual human beings, with names and spouses and children and importunate
needs. Think of them as abstract geometrical shapes in a diagram.
(g) Enjoy perusing schematic representations
of this process more than doing the work itself. But do not allow your
diminished enjoyment of the work itself stop you from doing it. You are
not doing the job to "have fun." You are doing it to convey
meanings undistorted from a sender to a receptor.
(h) Study machine translation systems
in quest of models for emulation. Think of the formalized analytical and
restructuring rules devised for machine translation software not as reductive
mechanizations of human linguistic competence but as representations of
the "higher" human thought processes.
(i) Despair of ever purging your own
thought processes of the "lower" elements that keep creeping
in, but do not give up striving.
(j) Seek to mechanize your own translation
processes in more literal ways as well, using terminology management or
even automatic translation software. As you edit the latter's output,
think of yourself as its humble assistant.
(3) Internalize the command to do both,
and expect censure for failure at either.
(a) Don't let yourself dwell too long
on the incompatibility between these two ideals. They aren't really incompatible.
They only seem that way, if you think about them in counterproductive
(b) Think of "being totally human"
as being systematic, reliable, unemotional, and comfortable performing
repetitive tasks. Think of machine translation systems as simply imitations
of all that is best in human beings.
(c) Think of computers, including machine
translation systems, as simply tools that help human translators do their
jobs better. There is no danger of them replacing humans. No one really
thinks human translators should strive to become more machine-like. Human
translators should celebrate their humanity! It is nothing to be ashamed
of. (But of course they should also strive to eliminate their own unreliability
and tendency to grow bored with repetitive tasks.)
(d) Understand without being told that
what is at stake here is not just your professional integrity as a translator,
but your worth as a human being. If you become as a translator at once
fully human and completely machine-line, you will be not only a good translator,
but a good person.
(e) Understand without being told that
you can't do both, and thus will never be either a good translator or
a good person.
(f) Expect to have your nose rubbed fiercely
in your failures: you will be considered a soulless drone if you fail
at 1, incompetent and unprofessional if you fail at 2.
(g) Feel a simultaneous anxiety that
you are too human and too machine-like, too emotional and too rational
and not enough of either.
(h) Internalize the negative conception
these conflicting commands mandate not only of you but of your profession.
Think of the human translator as intrinsically flawed, incapable of achieving
the neutrality and impersonality of machine translation, and of the machine
translation as impossible, unable to manage complex contextualizations.
(i) Fight the negative conception of
translation that the impossibility of obeying both 1 and 2 mandates by
working harder, and calling on other translators to work harder as well,
to obey both 1 and 2. If only translators were more fully human (alive,
curious, ethical, responsible) and more machine-like (accurate, objective,
fast, uncomplaining), people would respect you and your profession more.
Let this transform 1-2-3 into a vicious circle from which there is no
(4) Repress all this, and despise anyone
who reminds you of it.
(a) Believe that there really is no conflict
here. You are a human being, certainly; you've never questioned that!
And you are not really attempting to become a machine; simply to perfect
your natural human translating skills.
(b) Tell yourself that your conception
of "perfection" is not a machine ideal. It is just an enhancement
of what humans already do well. Some humans, anyway. The really competent
(c) Tell yourself that your humanity
is anything but a limitation on your ability to translate really well
(neutrally, objectively, accurately). It is what makes it possible for
you to do the job at all. In attempting to minimize your tendency to make
mistakes, and even in some cases to find your own mistakes insidiously
attractive, you are not eliminating "the human factor"; there
is no reason to equate humanity with unreliability.
(d) Scoff at translation theorists who
suggest that the ideal machine translator in the hegemonic imagination
of the West is the apotheosis (apomachinosis?) of the medieval monastic
ideal, the perfected cenobitic monk, the subtracted self that machine
translation in some sense was first theorized by Augustine in On Christian
Doctrine. Machine translation is simply a matter of producing computer
systems that will improve overall translation efficiency. It is aimed
at mechanizing the most repetitive translation tasks, which human translators
do not enjoy doing. It will increase speeds and lower costs. Pure and
simple. (And Augustine was just trying to improve the quality of human
(5) Idealize the command-giver.
(a) Believe that there is no command-giver;
there is simply a factual state of affairs. Don't even deny the existence
of a command-giver; just never let the possibility arise. If it is difficult
(or impossible) to be both fully human and completely machine-like (or
to envision perfected humanity in terms of surreptitiously machine-like
qualities like ideal systematic reliability and repetitive accuracy),
that is not because you have been commanded (or trained, or programmed)
to do both, and to conceive translation as doing both. That's just what
translation is not what someone told you it is, not some artificial
restrictive definition of translation, but the facts.
(b) To the extent that you identify the
command-giver as your own humanity, imagine it as utterly in tune with,
and unlikely ever to deviate from, the strictest principles of professional
translator ethics. It would never encourage you to distort the meaning
of a text, or to prejudice the target reader against the source text,
or to feel (let alone express) disgust or impatience with the source text,
source author, client, or target reader.
(c) To the extent that you identify the command-giver as logic or some other machine ideal, imagine it as utterly in tune with, and unlike ever to deviate from, the full range of your humanity. It would never impose a humanly impossible task on you. It would never expect you to become something human beings simply cannot be. It simply wants you to do your very best.
Other double binds: