Machine translation literacy and an ethics of collective care

Posted on October 19, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone on the planet to view life differently. Something positive that has emerged from this situation is the way that it has called on us to look beyond our individual needs and act for the collective good. For instance, people are washing their hands more frequently, not gathering in large crowds, and staying home whenever possible. Of course, individuals are taking these actions to avoid getting infected personally; however, it goes beyond self-preservation. These actions also contribute to the collective good. If one person washes their hands, it doesn’t make much difference to anyone except that individual. But if millions of people practice good hygiene, it can make a significant difference to millions of people. This is the idea of collective care.Note 1 But what does this have to do with machine translation or the language professions?

The winds of change have begun to blow

For over 50 years, machine translation tools were mainly in the hands of researchers or language professionals, but in the past decade, a host of free online machine translation tools have become available to the public. We could say that machine translation is now “in the wild,” meaning it is no longer restricted to language professionals but is available to anyone with an internet connection. In addition, the underlying approach to machine translation has changed recently, and current systems use artificial neural networks coupled with machine learning techniques. Though not perfect, the output of these neural machine translation systems may be quite usable for some purposes, but users must show good judgment. Yet this technology is alarmingly easy to use – often just one click! The effortlessness with which we can access and use machine translation tools means that it’s very easy to use them in an unthinking way, which could lead to problems. Just because machine translation is now easily accessible, of better quality, and simple to use, this doesn’t mean that people instinctively know when or how to use it wisely. Among members of the general public, the need for a new type of digital literacy is emerging, as I point out in my blog post entitled From “the three Rs” to machine translation: A new kind of literacy for the digital age.

From COVID-19 to machine translation

I hesitate to liken machine translation to a virus or to describe its growing presence as a pandemic because those terms have overtly negative connotations. It’s true that machine translation (like any tool) is sometimes used inappropriately with undesirable consequences. But there are also many positive ways in which machine translation is used (for example, translating a friend’s Facebook post, getting around in a foreign country, or researching your ancestors). The key is knowing when and how to use it and when to choose another translation option. With their background and experience, language professionals are able to make such decisions with confidence, but the wider public may be less equipped in this regard. They may need help! However, up to this point, the way that many language professionals have handled the situation has been simply to advise the public against using machine translation and to encourage them to use the services of a professional translator instead. But doing this is similar to washing our hands. It’s an important first step, but how can we now reframe this situation so as to promote collective care?

Looking out for each other

As members of the language professions, we can work with the wider public to slow the inappropriate use of machine translation and to educate people about the ways in which this technology can be safely and positively used. Instead of posting an online message that simply discourages people from using machine translation, a translation company or translators’ association can use its expertise to offer more nuanced and helpful advice that would enable potential users of machine translation to make more informed decisions about the appropriate use of these tools. This requires a shift in thinking towards a more collective perspective (that is, how can we as language professionals help the wider community to make more informed use of machine translation?). This calls for language professionals to work with the wider public to ensure a kind of collective care that benefits the broader community. Will you join in this effort?


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Lynne Bowker

Lynne Bowker

Lynne Bowker holds a PhD in language engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, in England. She is a full professor at the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa and a certified French-English translator with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario.

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Submitted by Maria Kalsatos on October 20, 2020, at 11:07

Excellent work, Lynne! Very thoughtful and a great reminder that we should continue to look out for each other in these strange times.

Submitted by Lynne B. on October 27, 2020, at 14:13

Thank you, Maria! I appreciate you stopping by and reading the post :-)

Submitted by Merouan on January 20, 2021, at 11:41

I am working on a research dealing with the ethics of machine translation, and I was wondering if you could provide me with sources that might help me in my research. Thank you.

Submitted by Lynne on January 21, 2021, at 18:07

Hi Merouan! Hope your thesis is going well. It's a fairly broad topic, so depending on the angle you are pursuing you might find relevant information in the literature on copyright law, artificial intelligence, business practices, and so on. I know that the journal _Translation Spaces_ (vol. 9, iss. 1) published a special issue entitled "Fair MT" in 2020, so you might find some leads there? I also recently contributed a chapter on "Translation Technology" to the _Routledge Handbook of Translation and Ethics_ which can be accessed through uOttawa's library. It's about ethics and translation technology more broadly (not just MT), but it may still have some content of interest to you. Hope this helps!