Macro/Micro: The melodrama of toasters and MT

Confession: I love Downton Abbey. Whether it’s outing myself as a closet romantic in MultiLingual or just that sharing this fact feels so personal, I am slightly ashamed to admit this in a professional forum. But I shouldn’t be. My love of this British period drama is not singular. Downton Abbey is a true international craze. Broadcast in England on the ITV network, the television program also runs in Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Australia, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Finland, Argentina, Canada, Japan, Italy, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Croatia, South Africa, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, Switzerland, France, Greece and Hungary. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were aired next on the dark side of the moon. Downton Abbey fever is here.

I love it.

There are some things in life that you don’t think about why you love them, you just do — a doll you were given as a child, hot baths, Labrador retrievers. But I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I love Downton Abbey. Too much time, as I border slightly below freak fandom level — buying the seasons on DVD but not yet suckered into purchasing any of the making-ofs.

I think it’s because of the story. Oh, not the melodrama of who will inherit the Mr. Darcy-sized estate or whether poor Edith Crawley will eventually find a beau who loves her. All that is well and good, I suppose, the plotlines that keep us watching this soap opera for the modern age. But it’s this modern age itself that draws me in. See, I’ve always been a sucker for 1900s-1920s stuff — the hair, the dresses, the polite pretension that somehow seemed to exist on top of the sex and bathtub gin boiling just below the surface. It was turn of the century, and living through the turn of another century of my own, I fancy myself like them. I mean, after all, there’s uncertainty and ingenuity in everyone. Take the toaster scene. In season three (or series three, for all you Brits out there), Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, buys this new-fangled contraption called an electric toaster. When Mr. Carson, the butler who runs the estate, sees it for the first time, he exclaims, “Could you not have spared me that?” For poor Mr. Carson, technology seems to just keep coming at him right and left. Season one found him dealing with the introduction of the abbey’s first telephone. It’s downright endearing as he picks up the receiver over and over again, learning how to best remain proper while using this brand-new machine. “Hello, this is Mr. Carson, the butler at Downton Abbey. To whom am I speaking?” My heart goes out to him when the operator makes fun of his rehearsing, but Mr. Carson rebounds well by responding, “No, I don’t want to place a call; I was just practicing my answer. Well, I dare say a lot of the things you do sound stupid to other people!” Then when the phone finally rings, poor Mr. Carson isn’t even inside to answer it. The chauffeur finally picks up the call after several of the servants stare at each other trying to figure out what the ringing noise is. One, the cook, even yells, “Oh, my Lord, listen to that! It’s like the cry of the banshee!”

I warned you the show was melodramatic.

In all seriousness, these scenes seem rather silly as I put them down in print. (See why I might be embarrassed to admit I love it?) But to see them played out by characters who have become real on the small screen really helps one understand how difficult it might have been for people in those times to deal with technological changes. I’ve shared in this column before that I grew up in the rural American South during the 1980s. My grandparents had a party-line telephone, a way of sharing a single phone line between multiple families that doesn’t exist in the United States anymore, and their telephone itself was a corded, rotary dial until I went to college. Seventy-some-odd years of technological telephone advancement and we did not have nor want the latest thing on the market, a cordless touch-tone. The popular word used now is Luddite, but no one in my family was going around demolishing cordless phones with a stick, similar to what real Luddites did at the turn of yet another century. We just didn’t see the need for a new telephone. After all, our corded phone had gotten us by just fine since the days of Mr. Carson and the Crawleys.

Part of that is because the telephone itself went a long time without any earth-shattering advancements. That’s how most things are. They change rapidly, they slow down, they change rapidly again. This is the part of Downton Abbey that’s eternal, the part of the program that will keep me watching no matter how soap opera-y it gets. As creator Julian Fellowes told American radio station KCRW in an interview, “We opened the season in 1912 and we chose that year very carefully . . . we wanted it to be the beginning of the modern era and not the nineteenth century.” In other words, they intentionally set the show during a period of great change.

Call me a workaholic, but as I watch Downton Abbey, I can’t help but think of the world of translation. Sometimes I feel like the freelance translator or the regional translation provider is Mr. Carson and that forward-thinking companies are Mrs. Hughes. Not only have we brought this newfangled thing called a telephone — ahem, I mean translation memory — into truculent people’s lives, but in a relatively short period of time we’re trying to cram machine translation (MT), our version of the electric toaster, down their throats. It’s not that Mr. Carson doesn’t want what’s best for the house. Anyone who watches the show can tell that deep down, the butler cares greatly about his work, the house he serves and the family that lives in it. But people’s tolerance for change is a lot like their tolerance for pain or alcohol or anything else — they can only take so much at once. And in an industry that’s rapidly changing, each new advancement leaves some in our industry saying, “Could you not have spared me that?”

Embarrassing as it may be, I will keep watching Downton Abbey even though we all know how the story ends. The telephone remains ringing, the toaster keeps right on toasting. Technology and tide wait for no man, and we will all receive it at our own levels. We will be Mrs. Hughes and bring it into the house or we will be Mr. Carson and want it out. If you watch the show, you’ll see that both of these characters desperately want only what’s best for the abbey. As silly as the anti-MT arguments may seem to those of us who have embraced the technology for daily use, our industry’s Mr. Carsons have reasons of their own for being anti. I’m not saying those reasons are valid anymore in today’s industry. At some point, stick in hand or not, you will become nothing more than a Luddite to be laughed at. That’s why Downton Abbey is such silly fun — because of course we all know now that there’s nothing shameful or irreproachable about a telephone or a toaster. Twenty years from now, MT will be our industry’s toaster. And we all must decide when our care and hesitation in wanting what’s best has become nothing more than the stuff of comedy and melodrama.