It was on January 7, 1954, that IBM and Georgetown University organized the first-ever public demonstration of automatic translation in New York. It was a small-scale Russian-to-English translation experiment based on just 250 words and 6 grammar rules. This experiment generated not only interest and controversy, but also the first hopes and expectations for automatic translation in the future.
Today, 68 years on, the strides made in the machine translation industry are enormous. Neural Machine Translation – NMT – is a technology that uses neural networks. Dense networks of artificial neurons analyze and process a text in much the same way as the human mind, but much faster.
The methodologies of PEMT – Post Editing Machine Translation – are also constantly evolving. These involve a human revision of a text previously translated by a highly specialized machine. Currently, the language industry, a major pillar of the global economy due to its role in facilitating communication between nations, is 80% dependent on the use of artificial intelligence systems. According to Common Sense Advisory, the most authoritative market research firm in the language Industry, by the end of 2021, no less than 91% of the translations carried out across the industry will have been by so-called ‘augmented translations’ – a combination of human translating skill and artificial intelligence systems.
The push for digitalization has been further accelerated, in this as in many other fields, by the limits imposed by the Covid pandemic. 2020 was the year in which, for the first time in history, requests for augmented translation far exceeded those for traditional translations, that is, those based solely on human knowledge and expertise.
Gender and age inequalities in the world of translation
The rapid changes of the last two years have impacted the community of translators, both men and women, as well as on the interpreting sector. First up, there is the issue of the increase in gender inequality. Many female translators, following the increased workload of caring for children or family members, found themselves having to refuse work or not having the necessary time to keep up to date with the new technologies emerging. As for unpaid work, the United Nations report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Women, paints a very clear picture: women dedicate an average of 4.1 hours per day to caring responsibilities and housework. For men it’s just 1.7 hours. According to data produced by Istat (Italy’s national statistics agency) in their Employed and Unemployed survey of December 2020, more women than men are also working in temporary jobs. And of the 444,000 people in Italy in 2020 who lost their jobs in the previous year, 70% were women.
Senior translators and young people also run the risk of being unable to access the world of work. The latter, due to the gap – which is still wide – between the education sector and the world of work, often leave universities without up-to-date training in the new technologies of the language industry. According to Eurostat 2020 data, the overall employment rate in Italy is just 33%. That’s among the lowest in Europe, ranking alongside Greece and Spain. The Way2Academy project came into existence in this context of rapid change offering an Open Education programme designed to tackle these problems.
Way2Academy: serving the community
The Way2Academy project , which is innovative and, very importantly, free, was designed to give young graduates and professional women from the world of translation and interpreting access to, and experience of, the new digital translation techniques now available through Neural Machine Translation.
The project was launched in April 2021 as part of Stem in the City, an initiative promoted by Milan city council with the support of the United Nations and various public and private sector partners, to encourage more women into the world of technology, maths and science.
The Way2Academy is the brainchild of Laura Gori, CEO and founder of Way2Global – a female translation and interpreting startup established as a Benefit Company in 2017 – and of Pietro Schenone, the former Director of the Altiero Spinelli School for Interpreters and Translators in Milan , where he is still a lecturer in general linguistics and terminology, and Head of Institutional Relations at Way2Global .
The course consists of a series of short 15-20 short video presentations that can be viewed online, anytime, anywhere, which since the start of July have been available on the Way2Academy platform. To participate, users just have to register by providing their data. The course, aimed especially at young people and women, who are the main stakeholders in Way2Global which aims to promote a new ethos of working life, offers training on the topic of automatic translation using teaching materials first used at a training course held in 2019 at the Way2global offices.
At the end of the course, a participation certificate is issued and plans are being considered to allow the course to issue formally recognized training credits to participants.
The pandemic: an opportunity for change
Laura Gori, in one of our meetings at the Way2Global headquarters in Milan, spoke enthusiastically about how the Way2Academy came into existence: “Pietro Schenone and I started talking about the Way2Academy in the second half of 2020, when we realized that we didn’t know how long the situation we were in due to the pandemic would last.
“In March we had seen our whole world, like the rest of the economy, go digital more or less overnight. But even before the pandemic, a revolution was underway in our sector brought about by the advent of machine translation based on neural networks. With the pandemic, the issue was sharpened: on the one hand, we had freelancers who were struggling to keep up with digitalization and state of the art digital tools, who really risked being disqualified from the market. Mostly we are talking here about women who are the majority in the translation industry. On the other hand, we had young aspiring translators faced with the difficulties of entering the world of work due to the digital mismatch between training and business. This problem had, in fact been already highlighted in a Translator Opinion Poll survey conducted back in 2018 by the Altiero Spinelli Translation school in Milan and Way2Global.
“The basic problem is that schools, academies and universities teach people how to translate but don’t provide them with the tools to understand what the market wants. Reflecting on this we realized something had to be done and Pietro suggested launching the Way2Academy project through training videos.”
Pietro Schenone told me about the start of the new venture in an online chat, fresh from an exam session on a Saturday morning: “Initially Laura and I saw the Way2Academy as a combination of dream – project – container, in which we merged a series of ideas and reflections, but the whole thing then grew and grew. Originally the idea was to create an Academy by combining all the knowledge that exists in Way2global, a place where the so called B-Corps (ethical business operators) had space to share their resources. Then with the arrival of the pandemic the whole question of women and young people surviving in, or entering, the industry became even more urgent and we thought of building an ad hoc project to deal with the possible exclusion of these groups from the world of work “.
From a surprise comes a new stimulating reality
An unexpected event also contributed to the formulation of the project. In the 6 months preceding the lockdown, Pietro Schenone, due to an accident, was forced to stay at home and so he put in place preparations to hold online courses. During the summer, feeling the need for a more effective teaching method, he started using a teaching model called the Flipped Classroom.
This system, which originated in Colorado about 10 years ago as an initiative of two chemistry teachers, Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, attempts to solve the problem of school absenteeism. Students work individually on the contents of a lesson supplied to them before class. The lesson time, therefore, becomes a space where the learners can take part in exercises and discussions based on the theory they have just studied. “In this way every student works at their own pace on their own and the class becomes a participatory space where they can apply together the concepts and ideas they have studied at home. I thought this model seemed especially suitable for the pandemic and the use of the internet,” explains Pietro.
“When, with Laura, I thought about setting up Way2Academy, we decided to reuse a course called Post Editing Machine Translation which two teachers from the Altiero Spinelli school had held ‘in person’ for Way2Global in 2019. We already had the videos. The course involved interaction and a lot of activities that could not be seen in the recording, so I worked on the editing in order to make the videos more interactive. Since the platform is not a Learning Management System, I used some ‘tricks’ to make it interactive. For example, I set up an option to pause the videos to answer questions and then resume the lesson. The didactic approach was to ask anticipatory questions rather than questions geared to assess understanding, with the aim of stimulating active listening. The emphasis was more about inclusion than verification. Of course, we are talking about the history of assisted translation, and there are also some notional questions that have to be studied, but the idea is that of an open and unconstrained educational experience,” continues Pietro.
The peer evaluation system
The Way2Academy course is designed so that, as happens in some book-based courses, those who decide to follow the course are free to follow only those parts of it that they choose. Each section is self-contained so that it’s not necessary to follow the videos in sequence from first to last.
Then there is an option of opening a new window online to do exercises using a peer evaluation system. Widely used in Mocks – the short exam preparation videos – it is a method that Pietro Schenone has been using for some time in the classroom. “Typically,” – he explains – “I entrust a piece of work to a student, and when it is complete the work is sent to two classmates who must give constructive feedback on the paper, indicating what could be improved and what works well. The feedback goes back to the original student who has to say if he/she found it useful or not. Put like that it seems like an elaborate process, but there are at least a couple of pieces of software that allow you to apply it very easily. Peer evaluation is a theory that works and is used a lot in universities abroad and also in a few Italian universities too.”
The teacher thus finds him or herself not so much giving marks for a task but rather evaluating a student’s commitment: all those who have answered and given feedback will have a different type of evaluation. In the Way2academy there is no ‘pass or fail’ type examination but peer evaluation stimulates the involvement of people and the cohesion of a work group, which might choose to reconvene for future projects.
“The method works very well when it is applied within a team,” – continues Schenone – “and in the pandemic we have discovered how important it is to be able to form and maintain online networks”.
The results of the Term4Neural pilot project
The idea of the Way2Academy came about as part a research and development pilot project in 2020, called Term4neural, which was included among the examples of best practice in the STEAMiamoci initiative of Assolombarda, an association of companies operating in the Metropolitan City of Milan and in the surrounding provinces. (In Italian the word Steamiamoci is pronounced in the same way as ‘stimiamoci’ which means ‘Let’s respect one another’)
Term4Neural was created by Way2Global with the help of three recent graduates: Arianna Pinna, Flavia Casini and Silvia Sorrentino, who were very passionate about their topic, and had already dabbled in taxonomy (the practice and science of categorization or classification), linguistics and terminology.
Laura Gori recalls the experience: “We needed to set up a terminology database to integrate into our neural network-based machine translation engines – NMT – to refine and improve the quality of translations. With Arianna, Flavia and Silvia, the initial idea was that of an internship, but after the interview, I realized that they already had the skills for a professional project, so we recruited and trained them, and they undertook a huge job that lasted 8 months in which time they processed 12 million words – the basis for terminology extraction – which led to the production of a mega vertical glossary in the financial-legal sector, a state of the art tool that has no equal.
“This tool, when integrated into our NMT engines, allowed us to develop or work, a spill-over effect meant we could train 20 other translators – our freelance collaborators – in our ‘bootcamp’ to use the NMT and then pay them for the work they carried out on 2 million words.
“Arianna, Flavia and Silvia were also paid, and we are very proud to have helped them develop professionally as Data Scientists through pro-bono training ”.
Training which keeps pace with the world of young people to help then enter the job market
Alessandra Puppi, 26, obtained a bachelor’s degree at the University of Interpreting and Translation in Varese (north of Milan) and subsequently a master’s degree in international communication from the Altiero Spinelli Translation School in Milan. Today she works in the marketing department of Way2Global. We talk to her about the difficulties young aspiring translators and interpreters have on entering and finding their way in the world of work .
“For us young people, interfacing with the world of work is not easy. The theory we study in school is very different from professional practice in the workplace and despite having studied translation I didn’t know much about many of the tools that I discovered while working. The Way2Academy path is very useful: it gives a practical vision of the world of work and of where the language industry is at now. It is no longer a question of taking a document and translating it from the source language to the target language, there are a series of steps that have now become mandatory and which involve the use of technology,” explains Alessandra.
Pietro Schenone also talks about the gulf between training and work: “The issue is that there are some things which universities, and in particular Italian universities, are not yet able or ready to teach. We operate in a context in which translation is still taught traditionally and there is a great fear of automatic translation.
“With Way2Global we have looked at the programs of Italian and international universities. Our universities are in many ways quite avant-garde but in others they are behind the times. Machine translation, the internet and everything ‘out there’, as I joke with my colleagues, is seen as something that is at best regarded with caution and, most often, simply left out of our educational offerings. We see cases where there are entrance exams where students can’t use the internet, despite the fact that all dictionaries are online now. You can imagine how it becomes very complicated to tell students who have never used paper dictionaries to buy them or borrow them because during the exam there is no internet access.”
The aim of Way2Academy is therefore to bring education into step with the world in which the student actually lives.
“Training and professional formation do not follow the same logic we might have applied in the past, namely that the world of knowledge was changing and so we had to update ourselves,” continues Pietro. “Now the concept is quite the opposite: now the reality is, ‘I finished updating myself yesterday and already my formation is outdated’. You must constantly update your formation. With Way2Academy we try – and hopefully succeed – in helping the boys and girls who follow our courses to update and modernize the training they have received and ultimately apply it to the everyday life they live, using the skills they already possess, but which their formal training maybe didn’t stimulate, or put into action or help them apply. This reflection is based both on my teaching and on the teaching of the school and the aim is to do everything we can to help the students.”
Designed for both those who study and those who work
Even from the point of view of time constraints, Way2Academy is very practical. The length of the videos is designed for both those who work and those who study.
“Way2Academy,” – explains Alessandra – “offers short bursts of teaching of between 15 and 30 minutes, the maximum would be an hour. It is designed to suit even those who study or work all day. “
The ultimate aim of the Way2Academy is, through the creation of a discussion network, to combat the problems of isolation created by the pandemic.
In fact, the recent pandemic meant it became harder for those working in this area to get work experience. “In the months when it was impossible to move” – explains Alessandra – “even gaining experience through internships became more complex if not impossible, especially given that even before Covid we were experiencing the problem of placing our students because companies require young people who already have experience. That’s why these webinars are so useful – they open our eyes to what the world of work is looking for.”
A recent TOP survey highlighted that younger translators have fewer qualifications: 68% of translators with 0-3 years of experience have no certification, compared to 40% of translators with 30-40 years of experience.
More experienced translators also report a higher rate of clients looking for them: the percentage is 56%, compared to around 35% for less experienced translators.
And linked to the question of experience is the theme of remuneration, which had already been lowered with the introduction of new technology.
“The pandemic, by reducing direct work experience, meant that young people were unable to pitch their fees appropriately. “Often” – continues Alessandra – “even just talking to people helps you understand how to present yourself, how to glean the relevant information, but if you are stuck at home alone, all this becomes much more complicated.”
The inclusion of women in the STEM world and augmented translation
In one of Turin’s venerable cafés, I meet Silvia Giancola, a professional technical translator with a specialization in finance and marketing. Recently, Silvia has also worked in other sectors: manuals, patents and translations in the medical field, a sector that, following the pandemic, has seen a significant boost in the last two years
With Silvia we talk about the fact that the translation profession is mostly female. The TOP Translator Opinion Poll conducted in 2018 7 using a sample of 1107 translators from around the world found that 74.29% were female, with a predominance of professionals from European countries, where the survey initially started. Way2Global itself is 92% female across its employees and freelance collaborators. Of the 182 freelance translators and translators Way2Global employed in 2020, 124 were women, and of Way2Global’s 13 female contract translators, 10 reported a reduction in volume of work in 2020 and 4 reported zero turnover due to family commitments and care for young children or other family members. Furthermore, according to TOP data, male translators are professionally more satisfied than women with a satisfaction rating of 13.24%. against 5.6% of female translators. And regarding the gender pay gap, even in a sector as female-dominated as that of translation, rates are uneven: the rates are € 0.104 per word for men against € 0.086 for women.
“With Way2Academy,” – says Silvia – “I had a really positive and meaningful experience thanks to the approach which was very much focused on growing together, in other words, a harmonious development of the company but also of the collaborators who are seen as an asset of the company itself. Way2global understood with great foresight that keeping up with the latest technological advances was becoming fundamental. The courses provided me with the tools to start working with these new methodologies. It was a minor revolution in our business, we had to learn to deal with this new reality, and understand how it works because while technology advances, those who fall behind automatically reduce their chances of career progression.”
The TOP report of 2018 also highlighted how, in general, male translators are more likely than female translators to use the various technological tools available. For example, the use of NMT technology, the percentage of male professionals familiar with it was 26% against 13% of their female counterparts. When it comes to the study of STEM subjects, data from the Italian statistical agency, Istat, shows that women graduates in technological disciplines are few and far between. A 2020 Assolombarda survey assessed the Gender Gap in STEM degrees, highlighting that in the previous academic year, among all students enrolled in STEM faculties, female students represented only 37% while in non-STEM courses female participation was 62%. Yet girls enrolled in STEM courses tend to achieve higher academic results but lower employment and salary rates than men. Indeed one year after graduation, the employment rate of men graduates in STEM courses is 91.8% compared to 89.3 % for women. In Italy, Lombardy is the leading region in the study of STEM subjects, with 17% of students – male and female – studying in STEM faculties.
Silvia continues: “Contrary to popular belief, the translation professional needs to be familiar with a lot of technology, so it is important to encourage girls not to be afraid of digitization and not to think that they should only study the humanities because they don’t feel confident about their technical capabilities. That myth is just not true, even if there is a strong prejudice against girls and technology. I have always been very active on this front because it is a pity that girls give up scientific careers because they think they are not cut out for them, or because they are victims of the preconception that if you are female, mathematics is not for you. There is nothing more wrong! So I invite them not to be afraid of new technologies because they will be able to learn and master them.”
What are the limits of a project like Way2Academy and the aspects that still need to be developed?
In our 360 ° survey on Way2Academy we asked Pietro Schenone and Laura Gori to also talk to us about the areas which still require to be improved and expanded.
One aspect that Pietro Schenone highlights is a technological one: the level of interactivity of the course and the involvement of the participants would ideally require the use of a different type of technology that involves higher costs, costs that are not easy to meet at the moment due to the non-profit nature of the project. In addition, the time needed to establish a more complex project would have been greater and Way2Academy wanted to deal with the issue as quickly as possible.
With regard to the timescale for the finalization of the project Laura comments, “Our project is still very experimental. In a sense we have given it all we’ve got, putting our heart and soul into it, knowing that it was a bit of a gamble. But if you wait for it to be 100% perfect before you launch, you quickly realize that in the meantime the world has moved on, evolution doesn’t wait. So, we said, let’s start now with these modules and then let’s see the take up rate, see what level of commitment we can offer, and the needs of the participants and as we go on we can adjust our approach.”
The idea is also to refine the schedule and build a more organic program as well as broaden the areas of specialization, because the course is currently focused only on the financial, legal and marketing sectors.
“The other issue,” – adds Pietro – “is that for now we are still talking about an initiative that comes from us, from the perception of one company. Certainly, it’s a company with bases in many countries, which works with young people, and has a very open worldview, but the effort is still ours. The ideal would be to reach a level of involvement with those who sign up to take part so as to grasp the real needs out there in the market in addition to those we try to imagine. It’s not that we are unable to observe reality, but a project created together would have that extra dimension.”
The last element of improvement that Pietro mentions is that the Way2Academy course to date requires a certain level of basic knowledge of the world of neural machine translation and PEMT. “That’s OK,” – he says –“but the ideal would be to offer a short course that can explain this topic to those who do not have that type of training, those who don’t have a university education or who haven’t done linguistic or classical studies.
“A practical example can make it easier to understand. I went for the second dose of the Covid vaccine at a medical centre recently. In the 15 minutes observation time after the jab, the nurse who was very friendly, asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I taught in a university. She asked me what I taught and when I answered linguistics she asked me what that meant. I replied that linguistics is the scientific study of language. And she said to me: ‘What does that mean? Try to explain it to someone like me too!’ And so, I re-phrased some of what I had to say to her, I tried to understand who she was, where she was coming from, and that helped me to explain to her what I did and what linguistics means. In the end she said: ‘Amazing, that sounds really interesting, I like it!’ and I thought: ‘OK I did it! I got somebody interested.”
Alessandra Puppi, on the other hand, focuses more on the limits of automatic translation: “The basic issue is that the machine thinks mechanically, and does what it has been programmed to do, albeit with many variables. Sometimes it thinks it has spotted an error because it has been told to act in a certain way, but in fact, from a cultural and stylistic point of view it may not be an error at all. For this, the intermediary of the translator or proofreader is always required. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that we will never get to the point where the machine will be able to replace the human translator, because the machine lacks the humanity and cultural depth of professionals who engage with the culture of the country every day.”
Adherence to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 agenda
The last very important point to note is the Way2Academy’s ethical approach. “Our translators” – says Laura – “are our human capital. Way2Global is a company with a social conscience and cannot evade its responsibility to generate value for others. Our industrial plan was built on the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 agenda, with a special focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
The Way2Academy is an evolving project, which embraces the challenge of keeping up with changes in society and in the workplace, which is committed to offering formation and training in a context of exchange and openness. This is in line with its status as a Benefit Company, and means that Way2Global, works for the development of the wider community, beyond the company itself. All of this reflects the changing role of the translator – a fundamental figure in the modern world – one whose role is much more than just linguistic. In fact, in May 2017 a United Nations resolution defined the work of translators as being an instrument of peace due to the connecting role it plays between nations in encouraging sustainability, understanding and development.
Translated by Ronnie Convery
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