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Open letter to young language professionals

André Guyon
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 2, 2011, page 28)

The major technological and social upheavals of 20 years ago bear no resemblance to those of today. To use an analogy, it’s like comparing a level 1 tremor to a level 8 earthquake.

If I were a 20-year-old today, I would be both frightened and excited about everything that is happening technologically and socially.

Allow me to start off with the bad news. Then, I will finish off with the good news.

Everyone will always be on the language professional’s back

Let’s look at vocabulary. In the past, a prankster could expect to get his name on the voters’ list by claiming to be a callipyge. All he would need to do is keep a straight face while telling the enumerator that a callipyge works in the field of calligraphy. These days, you can be sure that the first instinct of anyone—even someone who is barely literate—is to look up callipyge on the Internet, quickly discovering that it has nothing to do with calligraphy. Busted!

You will therefore have to be extremely vigilant, as you will always be running up against the kind of people who look all over the Internet and constantly second-guess you on your choices and decisions.

What is worse, they will sometimes even poke around tools, such as TERMIUM Plus®, that were originally intended for language professionals but are now available to everyone. Always in a rush, they will naturally disregard the usage notes, or fail to read the observations or even all the records, but will assume that the first term listed is the one most frequently used and therefore the best one.

Then, they will hit you with a reference supporting their complaint, the way quotations from well-known authors used to be bandied about. You will therefore have to develop extraordinary skill in explaining to the complainers that they missed a little something.

Not only will they question the quality of your work, but they will make a point of telling you that your services will soon be obsolete. With a vengeful eye, those English- and French-class dunces will smile at you and say that you are an endangered species.

“Machine translation,” they will proffer, “is constantly making advances.” However, if they were to spend as much energy poring over the machine translation product as they do picking apart your texts, they would clearly see that machine translation still has a way to go.

You will need to have incredible patience to explain again and again to these people that despite what they think, knowing how to read and write is still vital. You will have to tell them that if they had read everything, they would have realized that the machine translation engines recycle language professionals’ knowledge.

Fans of the technological golden calf do not realize that we, in fact, are the fuel that propels machine translation, that we are the brake on the road to absurdity. You will have to explain all that to them, and I warn you, they are as fervent in their beliefs as any dyed-in-the-wool evangelist.

Language professionals will always be needed

And now for the good news. I would say that the new media you love so much will eventually be fully accepted by major institutions. Some political groups are already using social media for partisan purposes.

While this is not necessarily good news for democracy, it certainly is for those who write, translate, revise and generally ensure that written communications are of good quality.

In addition, since you are more accustomed to these communication methods than your elders, you will be in a better position to properly adapt these instant messages to the recipients. Blogs, wikis, tweets, forums and other new forms of communication will have to be reviewed by language professionals once they are adopted by institutions.

No offence to those who are proclaiming the end of the paper era, but the arrival of a new medium does not always mean that an old one will vanish. Fifty years ago, some thought that radio and newspapers would disappear with the advent of television and referred to young people as a generation of “visual idiots.”

The other good news is that the pendulum may now be swinging back toward intellectuals and diversity. The reign of cultural convergence that exists today will not last forever. Illusions are more and more fleeting, as information is circulating faster and faster.

We should soon rediscover the charm of distinctiveness and different cultures after several years of globalization, when financial gain was all that mattered.

The challenges and opportunities are indicative of the times and are innumerable. I have every confidence in you, just as I have every confidence that my sons will do as well as or better than their parents.