One recent example of the amazing power of technology has been the development of computer software capable of translating texts fully automatically or interactively.
Computer-aided translation (CAT) is based on the development of a customised, domain-specific memory database of relevant words and phrases. According to Chan Sin-wai, professor at the Department of Translation of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), CAT provides advantages of speed, consistency and cost effectiveness. He points out that the computer program can translate 3,000 words in a second, while that would take even a skilled translator around eight hours. "It's definitely the way for Hong Kong translation houses to enhance their competitiveness, especially in view of the keen competition from the mainland," Professor Chan says.
He adds that the focus of modern commercial translation is teamwork and that places particular emphasis on consistency and speed. These are exactly the areas where CAT scores compared to standard methods. In practical terms, approximately 90 per cent of the documents requiring translation nowadays are of a certain type. If they are prospectuses or annual reports, the chances are the type of vocabulary and sentence structure will follow a generally familiar pattern. For such work, CAT can be the ideal solution.
People in other parts of the world recognise the importance of CAT, and Professor Chan thinks that, within five years, knowledge of the systems will become a basic requirement for translators in Hong Kong. To prepare the way and provide proper training, CUHK has run a groundbreaking master's programme in CAT since 2002, the first of its kind anywhere. "Although the technology was already being used overseas, it had never been included as part of a university curriculum in Hong Kong," he notes.
The two-year part-time programme is for degree holders in any discipline who want to enhance their ability to translate and their understanding of computer applications. Instruction focuses on how best to combine traditional translation skills with the latest technology and, thereby, to increase efficiency.
The main modules include translation theory and methodology, the use of CAT systems, and special areas of translation. Students can use a multimedia laboratory and have access to a software library that now has around 200 different translation systems for various language pairs.
Professional translators in Hong Kong, like their counterparts in other fields, stand to benefit greatly from the expansion of the China market. Gilbert Fong, chairman of CUHK's translation department, says there has been a surge in demand for Putonghua-English service and that this will continue. As mainland companies look to expand overseas and build internationally recognised brands, they will need reliable translation services to put marketing, promotional and financial information into any number of other languages.
Professor Fong says that translation companies in Guangzhou and Shenzhen offer very competitive prices, but thinks they are likely to focus on English-to-Chinese work for foreign investors and multinationals, which want to get their message across to the potentially huge mainland market.
"That means Hong Kong still has an edge in Chinese-to-English translation, since standards of English here remain comparatively high," Professor Fong says. "Also, as there is always a cultural aspect in translating, people in Hong Kong, with their understanding of both eastern and western culture have another advantage."
He has noticed new demands created by the need to translate web pages accurately and to add a local touch to entertainment-related work. As a result, CUHK has introduced a new course in translating subtitles for TV series and movies.
Professor Fong says such skills are always useful, which explains the interest in the course from professionals in the fields of medicine, journalism and film-making, in addition to those who make their living from translation work. "They do it out of interest, but soon find that it helps in practical ways," he adds, and emphasises that courses offered by CUHK cover a wide range of different styles of translation including literary, financial, legal, mass media, arts, government and technology. Plans are taking shape for a special course on translation for public relations.
One future priority for the MA programme will be to upgrade the training offered in interpretation skills. It will also continue to promote research and theoretical study alongside the more practical elements. "We would like to attract more PhD students, as they will be able to train the translators of the future," Professor Fong says. "Of course, we can recruit teaching staff from overseas, and we currently have professors from Taiwan, China and Australia. However, we believe a Hong Kong perspective is an essential part of what we offer."
- Computer-aided translation can significantly boost speed
- It is most effective for documents with similar vocabulary
and sentence structure
- The software is still not perfect in terms of translating
style and idiom
- The mainland market is expected to boost demand for translation
- Courses are updated to reflect the new needs for translation
in the commercial world