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Last updated:
April 12, 2001
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Machine Translation

The Black Box Myth

There is a widespread and dangerous myth that translation is a black box with one input and one output. A source text goes in and the one correct target text comes out. The one and only specification needed is the target language. A good black box produces good translations and a bad box bad ones. The ill effects of believing in this myth are felt by both the requester of translation (you) and the outside supplier (an individual translator or a translation company). The requester who is shackled by this myth approaches a supplier and asks for a bid on the translation of a document. If the supplier asks for specifications and a terminology file, the requester assumes that the supplier is incompetent (do you know how to translate or not?) and looks elsewhere. If, on the other hand, the supplier does not ask for specifications and terminology, the resulting translation is likely to be inappropriate. The fact of the matter is that there is no universal standard of how specialized terms should be translated. As some have put it, there is no "great [final, static] global glossary," nor can there be. Terminology is always changing. New terms are continuously being coined in huge quantities. And each organization has its own terms and custom equivalents for widely-used terms. Translation is not a black box. The specifications and terminology must be visible alongside the source text. If they are not provided initially by the requester, then there should be an extra charge by the translator or translation company for helping the requester develop them.

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