Along Came Dictation
An interview with Donald Barabé, president of the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec (OTTIAQ).
Lire en français :Et la dictée fut

For millennia, humans have used tools to build fires, hunt prey, gather food, build shelter, write, and communicate. As for translation, historians maintain that written translation would have appeared in conjunction with the creation of alphabets, writing systems and writing tools. Throughout history, language professionals have adopted many tools in response to the constant scientific and technological advances, from stone-engraving tools to typewriters to personal computers—which have become the norm for professional translators.



“In a situation where the demand is greater than the supply, translators and their employers would greatly benefit from dictation.” – D. Barabé

But for half a century now, translators have had the option to dictate their work instead of type it. However, translation dictation (TD) and dictation tools, which were rather common in the 1960s and 1970s, are mostly unknown to translators, translation schools, and translation agencies today. The vast majority of translators cling to the current methods of typed translation and computer-aided translation (CAT) tools because they have not tried TD. Still, a substantial number of translators around the world dictate their translations using a voice recorder, a human transcriptionist, or voice recognition software, with automatic transcription capabilities. 


“With translation dictation, the sky is the limit.” 
– D. Barabé

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet a handful of translators in Canada and around the world who dictated for decades, and some who still do. One of these translators who dictated his translations long before the arrival of personal computers is Donald Barabé, current president of the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec (OTTIAQ) and former Vice-President of Professional Services at the Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau. 


I interviewed Mr. Barabé to learn more about this translation technique, which has been at the heart of my translation studies research, my professional practice and my startup’s R&D. Like everyone else in that handful of translators I’ve encountered over the years, Mr. Barabé talks about the TD era with a reminiscent smile. 

Julian Zapata: Thank you, Mr. Barabé, for agreeing to this interview.

Donald Barabé: My pleasure, especially if it helps bring dictation back!

JZ: How were you first introduced to translation dictation?

DB: I began dictating immediately after finishing university, in the late 70’s. I was hired by the Translation Bureau and they gave me a desk with a typewriter and a voice recorder. Word processing machines were reserved for transcriptionists at that time. My supervisor made sure I understood that the typewriter was only for short texts, very short texts (50 words or fewer). He spent a few minutes to show me how to use the voice recorder and then told me to dive right in. The transcriptionists gave me a few tips, like how to translate tables in texts. Since everyone else used dictation, I did too. Dictation had actually been the default method of translation for years there, especially for in-house translators.

JZ: Had you been taught how to dictate in university?

DB: It wasn’t part of the curriculum. I don’t think there were any classes on translation dictation in Canada for that matter. Of course, there were a few sight-translation exercises in the translation or interpretation classes but that’s not an all-important a prerequisite for dictation. I also don’t think you need several years of experience in written translation to begin dictating. It’s a skill you acquire through practice. All you need are good translation skills.

JZ: Do you think that it’s possible to dictate any genre of text in any language combination, no matter how challenging the text or language?

DB: My native language is French, and I mostly translated from English into French. But I don’t think it would be impossible or more difficult to dictate in any particular language combination. If you can translate on paper, you can translate by voice. Granted, if you have a very strong accent in your second or third language, then the transcriptionist or voice recognition software might have trouble understanding you. I also don’t believe that certain texts would be harder to dictate than others with regards to the subject and terminology. Formatting is a different matter, though. Back in the day, if you were translating a text with a table, let’s say, you had to number every part of it and then dictate the translation. The transcriptionist would recreate the table and then fill it in according to your dictation. Seeing as I have little experience with voice recognition software, I can’t say whether it is easy to use or not when you have a document with complex formatting.

JZ: Do you think the arrival of personal computers in the 1980s is the primary reason for the decline of translation dictation?

DB: Obviously, employers in every field, not only in translation, saw the advent of the personal computer as an opportunity to save money by letting some secretaries, assistants, and transcriptionists go. In my opinion, that was a mistake because employers gave their tasks to other employees—ones who were not experts in that field. This meant that these employees and professionals had to spend time working on the page layout and text formatting, and so were not doing what they were specifically hired to do.

In a situation where the demand is greater than the supply, translators and their employers would greatly benefit from dictation. In fact, in professional translation, we are very interested in delegating all tasks except the two that belong to a language professional: linguistic transfer and quality control. All other tasks, such as documentation, terminology research, page layouts and text formatting should be given to a language professional assistant, also known as a paralinguist. Any time a professional translator spends on these other tasks is time they don’t spend on their primary function, the task that only they can do, which is to translate, thus reducing their productivity.

JZ: Do you think that some of those who dictated never learned to use a typewriter or computer?

DB: I think every translator knows how to use a computer, even those who continue to dictate. And those people do exist. They never experienced that productivity setback.

JZ: How much more productive is dictation?

DB: There are a few factors in play here. It might seem paradoxical, but computers made page layout and formatting both easier and harder. Easier because they can be done by anyone, not just typographers. Harder because they bring all these separate elements (text, tables, graphs, images, animations, etc.) together into one document and not everyone can do that efficiently. Just think of PowerPoint presentations. While a professional translator might develop a certain familiarity within word processing software, the fact remains that when he or she “manipulates” the text and its format, they are not translating. This affects their translation performance and profitability. Even with typing skills, typing a text will always take longer than dictating it.

JZ: What advice would you give for cases where pre-translations are provided, which is happening more and more often?

DB: It is probably more efficient and faster to dictate a sentence than to postedit it.

JZ: In your opinion, is profitability the main advantage of dictation?

DB: Profitability is certainly one advantage, but it’s not the only one. Ergonomics is also important. Few translators find working on a computer to be comfy because they have to hold their arms and wrists in unnatural positions, causing work-place injuries. Dictation can be done while standing, or even while walking.

Another advantage would for sure be the improved quality of the translation. Dictation allows you to hear the phrase and listen for idiomaticity. It also provides for a break, even if only of a few moments with voice recognition software, between speaking and then reading your translation, which lets you see the translation with fresh eyes. In fact, I would say that dictation offers nothing but advantages because with today’s voice recognition technology, there is no cost for the transcription and the wait time for a transcription from a third-party is shorter.

JZ: Even if voice recognition still makes a few mistakes?

DB: Transcriptionists also make mistakes. As do translators. The real challenge is dictating in an open concept office space or in a cubicle.

JZ: About that, the technology’s accuracy has improved significantly. It can filter out ambient noise or pick up soft—almost whisper quiet—speech.

DB: If that’s the case, that is an amazing improvement. Sometimes transcriptionists made mistakes because they didn’t understand what was said or were unfamiliar with certain words.

JZ: Do you think those who dictate their translations could work as interpreters, given their ability to sight-translate?

DB: I’m not sure if we can equate translation dictation with sight translation, which is done “on the fly.” However, in translation dictation, the translator forms each sentence in their head and then dictates it. Typing translators can work the same way or they can jump right in and adjust their phrase as necessary. That method is less efficient and therefore, less profitable. But back to the question, translation dictation could, up to a certain point, be like consecutive interpretation, but I doubt it is anything like simultaneous interpretation.

JZ: Have those who dictate adapted well to the new dictation tools as they’ve evolved?

DB: I would say that those who used transcriptionists adapted very well to using voice recorders. For those who tried voice recognition software, I think the results vary. Some people took to it easily, others, not so much. As I said, this technology has evolved a lot of the last few years. I think all translators would do well to try it out now.

JZ: And what about looking up information on the web?

DB: I think voice recognition will grow into the preferred method of interaction. Just look at how popular personal assistants like Alexa are becoming.

JZ: Are there any fatigue factors inherent to translation dictation? Can a person dictate for 7 or 8 hours per day like you would with a traditional computer and keyboard?

DB: Dictation is for everyone, although it would be more difficult for those who struggle with a speech impairment. Keep in mind that you need considerably less time to dictate a translation that you need to type it. In my experience, I would even say that dictation is less physically and mentally taxing.


JZ: What barriers to entry do you see for translation dictation in this era of translation technologies, postediting and artificial intelligence?

DB: I believe that with the ubiquity of mobile devices and the advances in voice recognition and cloud computing technologies, we will see interactive translation dictation increasingly adopted by large translation companies and freelancers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, with dictation, the sky’s the limit. 

“[Voice recognition] technology has evolved a lot of the last few years. I think all translators would do well to try it out now.”
– D. Barabé

Translated from French by S. Gorbahn