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The use of eTranslation in the tourism industry

This post is also available in: Ελληνικα (Greek)

By Pr. Titika Dimitroulia, Professor of Translation Studies, Director of the Translation Sector of the School of French at Aristotle University, Scientific coordinator of the Apollonis project AUTH (Clarin-el), tutor on the University’s EMT programme and Leonidas Kourmadas, Translator in the Greek language department of DG Translation at the European Commission, currently DG Translation Field Officer at the Commission representation in Athens.

Tourism is one of the world economy’s “heavyweight” industries and, according to the World Tourism Organisation 2020 report, “Europe accounts for half of the world’s international arrivals”, with Southern Mediterranean destinations leading the sectors’ European growth (+5 tourist arrivals, +7 tourism receipts, p. 10).

Figure1. UNWTO Tourism Highlights, 2020 Edition, p.7.

As might have been expected, the pandemic, played down this growth, but this does not diminish tourism’s long-term importance in the global, and in particular in the European economy. Nevertheless, the pandemic stressed even more the need for sustainable tourism development, which, according to UNEP and UNWTO (2005, 11-12), presupposes optimal use of environmental resources, enhancing of inter-cultural understanding and tolerance, as well as viable, long-term economic operations with fairly distributed benefits to all stakeholders, while ensuring a high level of tourist satisfaction. Consequently, information and communication constitutes the core of sustainable tourism development at all levels, shaping not only a destination’s image and assessment, but also the attitudes and behaviour of those who visit it.

Besides the traditional forms of marketing and communication, today, websites and social media are a prime source of information on tourism experiences and they play an important role in tourists’ decision-making process (Liu, Mehraliyev, Liu & Schuckert 2020). They are equally important in the evaluation of services and help shape the image of individual businesses and destinations, with language playing an important role in tourists’ choices: the dominance of English as a “lingua franca” may be undisputed in tourism also, however, many surveys show that tourists prefer to communicate in their mother tongue and tend to evaluate positively the provision of services in their language. As pointed out by de Carlos, Alén, Pérez-González and Figueroa (2019, 136) in a case study of Barcelona hotel reviews, “even consumers who are fluent in more than one language expressly state that the use of their mother tongue influences their perceptions of service quality (Holmqvist 2011) and will have a positive influence on their evaluation of the service and loyalty (Holmqvist and Grönroos 2012). During the trip, communicating in their native language with tourists who have little knowledge of the local language helps them to feel more relaxed and welcome, especially when problems arise (Cocoa and Turner 1997; Russell and Leslie 2002)”.

The variety of situational contexts in tourism communication, often in relation to the diversity of experiences sought by the various categories of tourists, further emphasise the complexity of tourist communication, which has to be managed in the best possible way by both public policy bodies and businesses. It is therefore a paradox that translation studies only recently started to systematically analyse tourism discourse in the context of specialised translation. Isabel Durán Muñoz points out two possible reasons for this:

Tourism discourse has recently started to be investigated from a linguistic perspective and also to be considered as a specialized translation. This is basically due to two main features: on the one hand, its interdisciplinarity, that is, this field is highly influenced by other disciplines (geography, economics, history, and sport, among others) and employs their terminology very frequently; and on the other hand, its level of specialization, i.e., the recipients of tourist texts are usually non-specialists in the field, what makes the discourse to be close to general language and then, very low specialized. These features have provoked that the tourist discourse had not been considered as a specialized discourse until very recently (2011, 32).

The importance of the tourism sector for Mediterranean countries and in particular for Greece and Cyprus, the key position of multilingual communication and translation and the possible contribution of Machine Translation and especially the EU’s eTranslation, were the starting point for a consultation between me, representing the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and its EMT programme, the Greek Language Department of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation (DGT), and the DGT’s Field Officers in Athens and Nicosia. Our discussion focused on the EU’s wider effort to create a single European Digital Market (“A Europe fit for the Digital Age”), with sustainability as its underlying principle, also through the continuous development of the eTranslation system, which is provided free of charge to public administrations and SMEs in all Member States, as well as on MT’s potential contribution to the development of the tourism sector in Greece and Cyprus.

Two points were of particular concern to us. First, the fact that tourism activities had all but stopped due to the pandemic and that the future could look very different from what we have been accustomed to. However, we were convinced that such changes would not alter the core of tourism intercultural communication, despite any differences in scale and orientation. The second point of concern was the actual role of MT in intercultural communication, which is hotly debated among translators (see ATA 2018) and translation researchers. Τranslation researchers, who have been mostly studying MT and its pros and cons in the context of specialised translation, e.g. law (Wiesmann 2019), have recently broadened the scope of their research to examine new contexts, such as migration (Macías, Ramos, & Rico, 2020) and even literary translation (Toral 2020). On the other hand, the quality of MT and its assessment continues to be discussed often alongside post-editing, and time and effort in its context (Läubli et al. 2019; Toledo Báez 2018; García 2012).

Taking into account these aspects, we decided to organise a seminar on the use of eTranslation, its advantages and disadvantages, aimed at professionals and public authorities of the tourism sector in Greece and Cyprus. That means that we focused on the use of eTranslation by non-translators, with the aim of showing them how to use MT in the most effective way possible in specific communication situations and pointing out other communication situations where translation has to meet the highest quality standards, meaning that the use of MT is inadvisable. The seminar was thus aimed to train people in using eTranslation in possible situations where translators most often are not or cannot be involved. Of course, given the target-group of the seminar, the discussion on quality couldn’t be expressed in theoretical terms, e.g. of equivalence in semantic, pragmatic and textual level, according to House, who adds, in its revisited model, the important parameter of cultural filtering (2014).

A dedicated webpage was created to manage registrations and promote the event on social media. The seminar took place online on 3 December 2020, and was attended by around 70 people from Greece and Cyprus, including representatives of government bodies, research centres, professional associations and businesses of the tourism sector. Translators remained central to this seminar, as experts in multilingual and multicultural communication, who must be consulted in various contexts of the tourism industry and their work is of primary importance. For this reason, we invited John O’Shea, head of FIT Europe’s reflection group on MT, to the panel of speakers, who presented FIT Europe’s view on the pressing need for quality translation in many areas of the tourism sector.

Markus Foti, the head of the DGT’s MT division, presented the rationale behind eTranslation and the way it works. This was followed by two hands-on seminars (conducted by me and Dr. Kyriaki Kourouni, both tutors on the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s EMT programme) with specific scenarios highlighting the potential and the weaknesses of eTranslation. Unfortunately, the seminar was not filmed, as many participants did not give their consent, but all participants received the material of the hands-on seminars.

The aim of the hands-on seminars was to show what eTranslation can and cannot do in tourist communication, focusing firstly on the two parameters of human evaluation of MT, accuracy and fluency, as described in the MQM usage guidelines: “Accuracy addresses the extent to which the target text accurately renders the meaning of the source text […] Fluency relates to the monolingual qualities of the source or target text, relative to agreed-upon specifications, but independent of relationship between source and target.” (Burchard & Lommel 2014, 6; see also Han & Wong 2016; Dorr, Snover, & Madnani 2009); and secondly on the need respectively of accuracy/adequacy and fluency in concrete, often culturally bounded contexts in tourism. Lastly, the seminar aimed to introduce the participants to the inner logic and functioning of eTranslation, so that they are able to adapt their expectations accordingly and, by contributing relevant resources, help enhance its performance. It was stressed from the beginning that the examples used referred exclusively to: (a) communication situations in tourism, where usually no translators are used; and (b) general approaches to draft information, which can be though extremely useful for strategic purposes.

In my seminar, I attempted, firstly, through some simple examples of oral, or written  communication (e.g. seasons’ greetings) to point out that it is sometimes difficult for MT in general and eTranslation in particular to manage effectively even simple cultural elements or context, as can be seen in examples I to III –although it is true that Neural Machine Translation (NMT) deals much better with realia and culture:

Example I

El Το Υπουργείο Τουρισμού σας εύχεται χρόνια πολλά και ευτυχισμένος ο νέος χρόνος

En The Ministry of Tourism wishes you happy and happy New Year

Fr Le Ministère du Tourisme vous souhaite bonne et bonne année

In this very simple example, the system cannot translate accurately the Greek wish “χρόνια πολλά” (literally: “many years”, meaning: may you live long, an expression used for a variety of celebrations, such as religious holidays, birthdays, anniversaries etc.), due to its limited ability to render cultural equivalents –a problem that can be remediated by feeding the system with relevant resources.

Example II

El Το γραφείο μας σας εύχεται καλά Χριστούγεννα και ευτυχισμένο το νέο έτος

En Our office wishes you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Fr Notre bureau vous souhaite un joyeux Noël et une bonne année

The system, unlike a translator, cannot distinguish the type of “office” if this is not explicitly marked. However, even if it is explicitly marked, the resulting literal translation may refer to a completely different reality, as is shown in the following example.

Example III

El Το τουριστικό γραφείο μας σας εύχεται καλά Χριστούγεννα και ευτυχισμένο το νέο έτος

En Our tourist office wishes you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Fr Notre bureau de tourisme vous souhaite un joyeux Noël et une bonne année

The literal translation of the term “τουριστικό γραφείο” (which means “travel agency” in Greek) into “tourist office” is incorrect, as the latter refers to a public tourist information/service unit and not to a private company. A professional translator, perceiving immediately the context, would have translated the term correctly.

Example IV

El Το Γραφείο Tαξιδίων μας σας εύχεται καλά Xριστούγεννα και ευτυχισμένο το νέο έτος

En Our travel agency wishes you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Fr Notre agence de voyages vous souhaite un joyeux Noël et une bonne année

Only if we provide the system with an absolutely clear and culturally neutral text as in the example IV, will we receive a satisfactory translation. Of course, we did not take into account the cases of non-Christian countries and clients, but used concrete examples to highlight the complexity of language even in relatively simple contexts, such as those of seasons’ greetings, and, above all, the scope of the communication: seasons’ greetings addressed to clients and partners, as public communication, have to be translated with both accuracy/adequacy and fluency. Therefore eTranslation’s use needs to meet concrete prerequisites if it is to be helpful.

After this rather disappointing but also enlightening start for the seminar’s participants, I continued with situations where the system can really be particularly useful to professionals and public authorities: e.g. for the translation of multilingual reviews on social media and dedicated websites, on the basis of which they can adapt their policy and visibility actions. In this particular case, eTranslation can be used to get the general gist of reviews or of website content from existing and, even more, from emerging markets. In these cases, eTranslation can be used to get a more accurate translation, compared to the one from other systems, as illustrated by the following example from Romanian into Greek.

Ro Nu recomand

5,0 A apreciat· Doar panorama ce se poate admira din balcon.

Nu a apreciat· Mobilier vechi, patul foarte neconfortabil, usa balconului din lemn si foarte zgomotoasa.

Nu as recomanda sejur aici.

Chicineta vai de ea…

El Δεν το συνιστώ.

5.0 Εκτίμησε· Μόνο τη θέα που μπορείτε να θαυμάσετε από το μπαλκόνι.

Δεν εκτίμησε· Παλιά έπιπλα, πολύ άβολο κρεβάτι, ξύλινη μπαλκονόπορτα και πολύ θορυβώδη.

Δεν θα συνιστούσα να μείνετε εδώ.

Το κουζινάκι της αλίμονο…

The translation of the comment on the kitchen by Google Translate («Η μικρή κουζίνα πηγαίνει από αυτήν», literally: the little kitchen goes by itself), does not make any sense, whereas eTranslation offers an inept translation, which can however be understood.

Based on more examples, I pointed out that, when we cannot check the translation because we do not speak the language, and in these exactly cases eTranslation can obviously be useful, we have however to decide beforehand whether a communication with possible blunders is more important than the absence of communication. Or, in other words, if communication is absolutely necessary, even with some blunders, while, when it comes to public communication, it is always necessary to resort to translators.

For example, eTranslation can be particularly useful to a hotel’s reservation desk, especially when communicating with customers prior to their arrival, for the translation of both customer requests and the hotel’s responses. This kind of communication is rather limited and standardised. While most websites are translated into many different languages and have an extranet for the communication of businesses with customers, the latter often tend to write in their own language. In such cases, eTranslation can be useful, as the relevant topics tend to be rather concrete: for example a celebration during the stay, a booking at restaurant X on day X etc. It is easy to train employees on the system’s specificities so that they can respond to such requests.

It was shown that eTranslation can also be useful in obtaining a general idea of the content of a contractual text, such as the sale contract of a holiday package translated from Greek into French, and of a legal text, such as the Romanian law amendments on tourism, also translated in Greek. However, these translations are by no means official, nor can they be used to conclude an agreement. Finally, we presented examples of gleaning information from foreign websites on Greece’s image as a travel destination, with reference to a Brazilian site with content written in Brazilian Portuguese with no translation into other languages; and also of the translation of informative texts concerning Greece and Cyprus, that can form the basis for new texts promoting these countries in foreign markets.

From the webinar it became clear that, despite its limitations, eTranslation can be helpful in cases where communication is essential or urgent, or when one needs to get the general gist of a text or collect information in order to form a policy or strategy. It can support specific situations of informal communication, as in the case of hotels for example, facilitating the personalised management of clients, while always taking into account and factoring in possible communication blunders. It can also support strategic watch, i.e. the monitoring of tourism developments in many languages, thus allowing public bodies and businesses to shape their strategy and approaches based on diverse, multilingual data. However, under no circumstances can it be used in public and official communication, where only translators can provide high-quality, efficient translations, which take into account the various aspects of communication, especially cultural specificities that are necessary for effective communication in a variety of contexts..

The seminar received overwhelmingly positive reviews and we are currently working on its follow-up, hoping that we will soon have some new elements that can give directions to the practical use of eTranslation in tourism and other sectors. The system’s results will certainly continue to improve, as long as it is constantly fed with relevant resources and we hope that participants have taken note of it and will provide tourist language resources (ELRC-share) to support its development.


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