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Review of  Translation in the Digital Age


Reviewer: Piero Antonio Toto
Book Title: Translation in the Digital Age
Book Author: Michael Cronin
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Book Announcement: 24.3046

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Review:
SUMMARY

Cronin’s book explores the role of translation in the digital age and the role that technology tools play in shaping translation across societies and centuries. According to the author, tools play a central role in defining cultures and identities: they differentiate men from animals and give them superiority amongst all other species. The book is divided into five main chapters, with each one dealing with one specific aspect of translation and being further divided into subsections. Each chapter is linked to the previous one.

Drawing on examples taken from different ages, Chapter 1 (‘The house of translation’) introduces the 3T (trade, technology, translation) paradigm. This is a core notion linked to the concept of how the tools that we use shape us as much as we shape them (p. 10). This does not mean that the tools need to be prioritized over human/social interaction, but in order to illustrate tool dependency and this long-standing relationship between men and technology, Cronin introduces several concepts, namely: entailment (without translation so much else cannot happen); proximity (translation as an attempt to reduce distances in a period of expansion, bringing audiences closer to texts); trade (translation combined with economic need allows for the pooling of human experience) with a particular focus on cultural contact ‘which is only conceivable in any sustained sense through the agency of translation’ (p. 18); control (how we perceive the past in relation to our interpretation of history); medium (how the invention of the printing press revolutionizes access to literary work and their translations); imagined community (translation as propaganda and contributing to the formation of national sentiments); and differentiation (translation which reveals the world as a network). These notions are key to understanding the development of culture and the human experience across time and space.

In Chapter 2 (‘Plain English’), the focus shifts towards the role of controlled natural language (CNL) and English as lingua franca and its financial impact. The hybridization of language, especially at the European Union (EU) level, leads to translators acting as ‘practitioners of dehybridization’ (Pym, 2001: 11), meaning that as source texts are being increasingly written by non-native speakers of English, they may contain convoluted sentences, uncommon collocations and other stylistic/linguistic elements which need to be ‘unravelled’ in preparation for monolingual translation. As Cronin points out ‘the greater the incidence of English-language usage by non-native speakers, the more probable are the translation effects in English of second-language usage [which] are in turn captured in translation into different European languages’ (p. 41). The use of translation memory and terminology management systems (at the EU level) further aids the process of content automation in such a way that the consumption of digital content in a simplified and controlled version of English confirms the role of English as the lingua franca within the EU. This also has implications for costs: acquiring the language for those who do not speak it entails bearing costs which are seen mainly as devolved costs, i.e., transferred from the producer to the consumer. In the same way, digital technology facilitates disintermediation, i.e., the removal of the translator as intermediary. This can be seen especially in the use of Google Translate and online machine translation (MT) systems in general, where the automated process implies ‘a form of instantaneous language transfer akin to the automated sub-routines of digital processing’ (p. 47), with the translator acting as mere post-editor. In this scenario, technology reduces translation to an ‘agentless, automatic function’ (p. 47). When aided by crowdsourcing (i.e. translation done for free by users of a brand/product), the cost of translation is also devolved and users become not just the target of the information, but also the providers of that same information in translation.

Chapter 3 (‘Translating limits’) explores translation’s contribution to enriching cultures and going beyond limits/frontiers. Cronin takes translation as an example of a driving force behind globalization and presents the case of translation smartphone apps, which offer users ‘a vision […] of a borderless world of instantaneous language access’ (p. 71). This borderless and standardized idea of translation is identifiable as part of an extensive culture (Lash, in Cronin, 2013: 70) -- the ‘endless multiplication of goods, services or ideas’ (p. 5) -- and is in contrast with translation as active engagement with the world (e.g. the translation of Arabic poetry), which instead requires coping ‘with the seemingly intractable differences of languages and cultures’ (p. 73). This is an approach more readily identifiable with an intensive culture, i.e., a culture of non-equivalence. Concepts such as identicality and variability in translation are also discussed in this chapter: while the former refers to the possibility of unequivocally identifying the author of a text/product in order to repeat content exactly as originally intended, the latter acknowledges the ‘very variable nature of translation practice’ (p. 87), thus admitting that no one version of the same text will be exactly the same. The relationship between these two concepts points towards variability (or ‘nonstandard seriality’) as the predominant model and paradigm being followed in the digital age, where content customization is a primary source of profitability.

In Chapter 4 (‘Everyware’), Cronin highlights the ‘centrality of the labour of translation’ (p. 91) and the ubiquitous presence of computers in our lives. Just as during the Industrial Revolution, a predominantly ‘hand-crafted’ activity (i.e. translation) is being replaced by automated processes and ‘centralized control’, where the constant need for updated versions of the same product requires extensive levels of automation and quick turnarounds. What characterizes this process are two main elements: bi-directionality and asynchronicity. Bi-directionality is the potential for dynamic communication, conversation and feedback between consumers and producers, while asynchronicity is the 24/7 availability of online services and offers. This constant flow of information, combined with the ‘sense of recurrent temporal deficit’ (p. 94) that most translators seem to go through, creates a challenge for translators, that is, this issue of how to embed ‘chrono-diversity’ (i.e. the different timeframes needed to accomplish differing projects) ‘in the context of the time-space compression and near-instantaneous communication’ (p. 95) of the digital age. For companies, creating multilingual content on their websites means dealing with high volumes of work and turnaround times, which in turn are linked to costs. This is key in maintaining an open dialogue with customers and users alike. However, as is especially the case with localization companies, what content is prioritized for translation is a matter of how profitable that content will be to the company, which may limit access to vital information such as that related to healthcare. Different modes of translation are also explored in this chapter, such as wiki-translations, whose crowdsourcing efforts further highlight the role of translators as ‘prosumers’ (i.e. both producers and consumers) and recipients of their own work. Cronin also mentions the shift towards ‘power browsing’ from traditional, linear ways of text consumption. This has implications for translation too, which, especially when coupled with MT, is gradually being marketed as gist translation, or a lower-quality activity. Overall, while localization shows a certain degree of dehumanization of processes, crowdsourcing and its multi-purpose application involve ‘a strategic use of technical resources to further human concerns or agendas’ (p. 103). The chapter also includes a discussion on the notions of ethical, ostensible and penal transparency, as identified by the author.

The last chapter (‘Details’) deals with the impact of indicative/gist translations (as produced by MT systems) on the translation industry, and consequently, on translators’ workflows/roles and the ‘quest’ for quality in translation. These two aspects are, in a way, at opposite ends of a spectrum: while gist translations are not concerned with capturing the details of a text but rather the overall effect they create, the need for quality in translation, particularly in post-editing, marks ‘the return of the repressed translation detail’ (p. 128), which re-emerges through the attention to text, language and meaning, thus reaffirming once again the central role of the translator in the current scenario. Other concepts discussed in the last part of this chapter are, amongst others, digital humanism (i.e. an emerging discipline concerned with the relationship between computing and the humanities), the demonetization of translation (i.e. how crowdsourcing and free translation services affect translation’s status as a valuable and profitable activity) and the ‘cult of the amateur’ (Keen, in Cronin, 2013: 136), which takes into account how difficult it can be to find high-quality, professionally produced material on the Internet.

EVALUATION

Overall Cronin’s latest effort is consistent with his previous work (‘Translation and Globalization’ and ‘Translation and Identity’, in particular): challenging, thought-provoking, accurate and multidisciplinary. Several complementary areas of study are investigated along with translation in order to explain concepts and notions introduced and/or further discussed in the book. At times, the reader may feel that such investigations take over the discussion of translation due to the numerous examples, explanations and references provided. On one hand, this enriches the reader’s experience, but on the other hand, it might pose a challenge for those very digital readers/translators who are attracted by the title/topic of the book, who might find that their reading (or ‘power browsing’, as Cronin himself calls it in Chapter 4, albeit in reference to web reading) is slowed down by the relative complexity and density of some of the language used and the concepts expressed. There is also a slight propensity to discussing literary translation over other fields, which can be attributed to the historical and ‘visceral link’ (p. 101) between the evolution of translation and literature, which is coherently explained in the book. However, novel concepts for the more tech-minded, such as out-of-the-ordinary localization and digital humanism, come to the fore, especially in the final chapters. Chapter 4 is particularly insightful in that it highlights the fundamental role of translation technology in helping companies deal with the mass provision of differentiated content, be it original content, updates, customer support requests, etc. What Cronin defines as the ‘paradigm of control’ (p. 92) is the need for companies to centralize their approach to content management in an increasingly ‘centrifugal’ scenario, where the workload is distributed across several translators living in different time zones and where they feel a constant ‘sense of […] never doing enough fast enough’ (p. 94), which causes them stress and dissatisfaction with their working conditions and their lifestyle. This is consistent with current debates on translators’ well-being and the need for self-care (especially for freelancers) in the workplace, which dominate translation blogs and social networks. It is also possibly an area which could be further explored in relation to the changing face of the translator’s role in automated processes and how their centrality as stakeholders in the translation process as a whole can be retained. It would also help budding translators and seasoned scholars reflect on the implications of the digital revolution and the role of technology in our lives. For this reason, this volume seems particularly suitable for students with existing knowledge and awareness of the ‘digital turn’ in translation studies; since the intricacies of today’s fast-paced world of translation technologies are dissected and explained against the backdrop of globalization and current translation industry policies, they might pose a challenge for students who are just beginning to approach this discipline and who might therefore not be completely familiar with all facets of the translation industry. Nevertheless, this is an extremely resourceful and useful volume which will undoubtedly provide much-needed food-for-thought for scholars and students alike.

REFERENCES

Cronin, Michael. 2003. Translation and Globalization. London and New York: Routledge.

Cronin, Michael. 2006. Translation and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Pym, Anthony. 2001. Against Praise of Hybridity. Across Languages and Cultures, 2(2), 195-207.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Piero Toto is Lecturer in Translation at London Metropolitan University. His main field of specialisation is translation technology and training, in particular electronic tools, information and technology management for translation, web-based resources for translation and localisation. He has extensive experience as both in-house and freelance translator and is actively engaged with industry partners and translation stakeholders in the development of best practices. His publications include translations into Italian and articles on masculinity, queer studies and translator training.

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