Why Translators Are the New Blacksmiths

A few months ago, during a talk at Google, I shared the idea that translators are the new blacksmiths. Here are six reasons why:

The translation profession is shifting from craft to science. It took three thousand years for humans to learn the science of converting metals into tools and other objects in a consistent and predictable way with a high level of quality. Likewise, even though translation has existed for as long as humans have spoken different languages, it has taken many years for the translation field to evolve in order to enable translators to convert information across languages in a consistent and predictable way with a high level of quality. Software, in the form of computer-assisted translation tools, is helping to accelerate this shift.

The impact of translation can be seen everywhere we look. In medieval times and right up to the industrial age, the work of blacksmiths was visible everywhere. Each village had a blacksmith, and they would do everything from create horseshoes to tools and weapons to keeping a fire lit long enough to bake bread. It was difficult to imagine life without them. In a similar vein, nearly every facet of modern life depends in some way on translation. With more than 6,500 languages today, nearly every society on earth is multilingual. Translation sustains the linguistic, cultural, and knowledge diversity that characterizes our world.

Translators will help us move into a new age. The work of blacksmiths was transformative in that it enabled society to move into the industrial age. Blacksmiths aided in building the machines that would help automate production and the transportation of materials more quickly than ever before. Similarly, the information age cannot move forward without translation. The language composition of the web is changing. With every human being predicted to have Internet access by 2020, the Internet will become more reflective of the language realities on the ground. English is in decline as a lingua franca, making the role of translators more important than ever before.

New technologies will spring forth from translation. Many famous inventors, such as John Deere, Studebaker, and Henry Ford, started out as blacksmiths. For the information age to move to the next level, society will rely on the ability not only to convert information across languages, but to modify it in many other ways - by reading level, by cultural fit, by linguistic preferences, and more. In order for those kinds of changes to become more widespread, the knowledge of translators will be critical, because translators already do far more than just convert messages across languages. They already know how to accommodate these issues, and technologists will depend on these skills and knowledge to help create a more dynamic and rich informational future.

The tools of the future depend on translators. An old story about King Arthur, the king asked artisans to explain why their work was critical to Camelot. Each artisan - a carpenter, a goldsmith, a stonemason, and a tailor - made a strong case. But when Arthur asked them where they got their tools, they said, "from the blacksmith." Arthur then asked the blacksmith the same question, and he replied, "Sire, I make my own tools. That is my craft." Computer-generated translation, such as Google Translate, doesn't just happen magically. These tools depend directly on the existence of translated information. If there is no one to translate the content, Google cannot mine the data. The same is true of many other such tools. Their success depends directly on the work of human beings, most often translators.

The need for human translators will always exist. As a result of new technologies, the blacksmiths' profession did not die out - it diversified. Today, a blacksmith might do custom crafted work for home decoration with no help from machines at all, or might use digital welders and metal parts cut out by computer-controlled machinery. Much of their work is now automated, but there is still a need for their craftsmanship, skills, and specialized knowledge. Likewise, the futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that there will still be a need for human translators, even when machines eventually become capable of producing human-like quality through computer-generated translation.

In short, just as blacksmiths helped move us into the industrial age, our modern-day wordsmiths - translators and interpreters - will help us move from the current age, in which information is merely available, to an age in which information also becomes highly relevant and useful.