Saturday, June 15, 2024

Rise of the machines: how long before AI steals my job?

Last week, I headed to the Registro Civil with — finally! — all of my divorce paperwork ready to be processed. After three long years, it was happening, and, oh boy, have I been ready to officially, legally move on!

Alas, when I arrived, there was a problem: my foreign birth certificate (a document which only recently has been required for divorce, I’m told) had not been apostilled and officially translated — that is, it hadn’t been translated by a perito traductor, literally a “translation specialist,” who is authorized to translate and guarantee the faithful translation of official documents. 

I cried, kind of hard. 

When I got married at that same Registro Civil, after all, back when I was just barely starting to call myself a translator, the officials were accommodating. 

“Oh, you can just translate your birth certificate for us yourself, it’s fine!” the lady told me. 

I did and felt immediately proud to have had my translation accepted by an official government entity, however informally. Motivated, I decided I’d try to become a perito traductor myself.

The path to that coveted position, however, ended before it began: on the call for applications that a friend sent me, the first item on the list of requirements to apply was to be a Mexican citizen. 

Honestly, it was their loss; I’m awesome. 

I was disappointed but didn’t let it stop me. Since then, I’ve become an official translator for some great media organizations, a handful of very low-paid translation agencies (not my fave) and lots and lots of Spanish-language TV shows for the major streaming services.

I have no idea who the English-speaking (and apparently non-Spanish-speaking) audience is for Colombian soap operas, but apparently it’s a big enough group to warrant English subtitles for all of them. 

I really love translating. Let me count the ways! 

It takes a lot of logic and linguistic know-how, of course, but it’s also creative, like trying to recreate the final product from a recipe without any of the original ingredients. It needs to taste the same, smell the same and feel the same, but it must be produced with completely different elements than the original.

And there’s a lot that needs to be addressed when translating: First and foremost, what’s the purpose of the translation? If it’s to entertain, then more creative license can be taken, a fun spot where one’s writing skills enter the picture as well. (Literary translation is where I find great satisfaction in that area, and I would point you in the direction of some really fun material if it weren’t for NDAs.)

If it’s to give instructions, then it needs to be straightforward and simplified: no flowery language wanted that might confuse the reader. For legal or medical purposes, there are often two steps: firstly, figuring out exactly what the message is in the original language, and secondly, finding the equivalent jargon in the target language. 

It requires a delicate and careful sensibility as anything “off” could trigger serious consequences.

There are plenty of other questions to consider as well: What if the original writing is…not good? If it’s filled with mistakes (which definitely happens), do you replicate the sloppy style or “clean it up” for the translated version? (I personally clean them up; I just can’t send in work that’s not grammatically sound or is full of mistakes.)

There can be varying levels of extremes on this question. I was recently asked to translate from an unedited audio transcription, for example, and it was a literal nightmare — void of even a tiny bit of punctuation that might give clues as to the meaning of what was being said. 

In such a case, you don’t want the English version to sound like an essay (that is, if you figure out what they’re trying to say in the first place) but rather conversational. But to what degree do you insert all the repeated words, the stutters, the skipping around of narrative?

Depending on the purpose of the translation itself, you may get a little room to play, or it could entail parameters of a nearly military nature. But however it’s ultimately done, it’s so, so, satisfying: looking at one’s perfect translation is like putting the final piece of a puzzle into its place. Ahh.

But for all this love I have for my craft — part science, part art — I’m nervous. Machine translation is getting better. It’s not human-quality better, but might that only be a matter of time? 

Google Translate 10 years ago was comically terrible. Nowadays, it does a pretty decent job with most things, though the original text still needs to be perfect in order for Google to spit out something of any kind of quality.

Artificial Intelligence (which I believe is badly-named; it should be called Collective Intelligence since it uses all the human material we’ve managed to preserve so far) seems poised to — at least eventually — render my work as a writer and translator unnecessary in fields that are already precarious career-wise: full-time salaried positions in these areas are essentially nonexistent, and most people who do them are freelancers or else contract workers who are called freelancers. 

Will peritos traductores eventually be replaced by AI programs as well? Will we all feel comfortable with so much content void of the human touch?

For now, I’m still safe. AI doesn’t have a human brain, and it reduces the quality of pretty much any translation. Will people care, though, if translations are bad but basically understandable? 

I’m betting that they will, at least for important things.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website,

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