Sunday, 19 January 2014

A Dilemma of Epic Proportions…

The face of the translation industry is changing more rapidly than most of us can keep up with.

To the horror of many professional translators of my generation, machine translation entered the “mainstream” in 2013—and the repercussions will be widely felt in 2014 and beyond.

The drivers for such extraordinary developments are simple enough to identify. The global penetration of the Internet has created an unprecedented commercial demand for communications in languages other than the sellers’. However, converting messages from one human language into another is a task that requires more skill (and time) than most would-be global traders realise. This raises a dilemma of epic proportions—there are simply not enough humans who have the sort of highly developed linguistic skills to meet the exploding demand.
But commerce has never stalled for lack of human resources.

If there are not enough humans to do the job (or if they are too slow), then the money is simply found to develop a workaround. If the technology solutions are not quite good enough—then the entire paradigm changes. If the machines can meet the market demands for speed and price (but not quality), then customer expectations of quality simply change to match the new reality. Hopefully, quality improves incrementally over time (

But will the march of this sort of technology put linguists out of business? We might ask if the development of computerised diagnostic expert systems made doctors redundant? Were the first x-ray machines and PET scanners perfect on first release? Not at all—the new developments simply changed the paradigm and raised the bar of what humans were able to achieve, allowing medical professionals to use new tools to solve problems inconceivable to their predecessors.

Could more human translators, perhaps, be trained to meet the emerging demand? Kevin Hentzel, in a recent blog piece ( laments the loss of the sort of rigorous training that was common when I was a beginning translator—an apprenticeship characterised by long years of “constant review by expert colleagues”. Hentzel writes that such in-depth training and mentoring by more experienced translators is essential “if we are to have a new generation of expert translators”.

Despite the continued growth of tertiary-level translator training, I doubt that this will ever compensate for the years of supervised apprenticeship that many translators of earlier generations received. In any event, I suspect that few organisations can afford to provide that level of extended training any more. On the other hand, the challenges facing the next wave of young translators are likely to be qualitatively different from those of my generation and the sort of training they will need for successful future careers may be unrecognisable to the likes of me.

While a relatively small group of highly experienced “old-school” professionals will undoubtedly continue to play an very important (and moderately well remunerated) role in the coming years, I can’t help but feel that, as a group, their size will shrink in proportion to the size of the global translation workforce as new waves of eager, more technologically motivated younger linguists take on challenges which may well seem like a “sell-out” to their older colleagues.

The distinction between “bulk” and “premium” translation will continue to widen in 2014. As Chris Durban pointed out recently, there will be opportunities for translators in both these segments (see Jayne Fox’s report of the talk at For those translators who have exceptional skills (in particular those whose command of their native language is “better than those of 98% of the general population” as Chris puts it), and a personality sufficiently robust to “dress up and get out there” to meet wealthy customers face-to-face, there will always a market willing to pay a significant premium. May such elite professionals continue to prosper!

In 2014, however, the so-called “bulk” segment (where inevitably “faster and cheaper” will be characterised as “better”) is likely to grow disproportionately faster than the “premium” and will provide most of the new opportunities for young translators. Like it or not, if “faster and cheaper” were not an imperative, most of us would still be doing our translations on typewriters (if not in longhand)!

As a government translator in my youth, I spent years in training to meet exacting standards of some abstract “absolute quality”. But the old paradigm has changed—even top performing solo practitioners like Chris Durban acknowledge the value of more contemporary definitions of “quality”—where the nature of translated output must meet the diverse needs of different customers—and as such, machine translation has a important (and rapidly growing) role to play.

While investment money appears to be pouring into new business models, the industry as a whole remains fragmented—the great bulk of the work continues to be transacted via thousands of very small LSPs who in turn rely on hundreds of thousands of freelance translators. These small LSPs are often “undersized, underfinanced, understaffed and underskilled” (see Luigi Muzii’s comments on Adam Blau’s 2014 industry predictions at and will remain under price pressure in the coming year—despite the extraordinary growth in demand. Most freelancers shouldn’t expect any let-up from begging letters from LSPs promising more work if they would but drop their rates…

In 2014 we will see the next generation of young linguists entering the workforce—excited at the prospect of applying their skills and love of language (and languages) to solving problems that, perhaps, previous generations of translators could never have conceived of. It is unlikely that they will have the same kind of training that translators of my generation had (however much many of us will lament the fact). But they will undoubtedly acquire the sorts of skills needed to solve new, and perhaps even greater challenges than did we.

In 2014, many of them will take on the task of revising machine-translated texts with an alacrity that might make some of their older colleagues cringe.

About the author:

Paul Sulzberger was born in New Zealand and studied second language teaching methodology at Moscow State University in the late 1960’s. He completed his MA (Hons) degrees in modern languages and political science at Victoria University, Wellington. Later in life he completed his PhD in Applied Linguistics.
During the 1970’s Paul taught Russian at New Zealand's Otago University and then worked as a translator and interpreter for the New Zealand Government in the early to mid 1980s. In 1986, in collaboration with several other colleagues, he established his own translation company, New Zealand Translation Centre Ltd, which grew into the largest professional document translation provider in Australasia.
Dr Sulzberger has had wide experience in virtually all aspects of the translation industry from working as professional translator, an IT specialist dealing with computing in foreign languages to managing a translation company with a full-time complement of approximately 50 staff.
Dr Sulzberger currently devotes his time to being an enthusiastic grandfather, a little translation, and blogging on translation issues.


  1. Great post Paul and Ewa! I think translators can embrace MT as an aid, but the need for professionally translated documents that are publication worthy will always exist and a machine cannot produce this. It is also our job to educate clients in the difference between a machine translated document and a professionally translated document. I agree that there is a market for post editing machine translation, but this will not diminish the need for publication ready translations.

  2. This comment arrived by email. It's from Chris Durban:
    "Paul, you've already heard my position -- which is that "statistics" from the likes of CSA (and unhappy folk like Luigi Muzi, for that matter) who are mired in bulk, are utterly unreliable.
    They are so far removed from the (growing) premium end of the market that they literally have no idea of where (those) clients' heads are. On the contrary, bulk, yes (which is one reason why they spend a lot of time bemoaning the "price trumps all" situation -- which is the only situation they are aware of or have any personal experience of).
    Why do you take them so seriously? (Well, they do seem to have lots of time on their hands to rabbit on, and in some cases even funding to explain to one and all why their end of the market is subject to plunging prices.)
    How about this: it makes no difference that the bulk end of the market grows "disproportionately" faster than the premium end (measured how, btw -- volume? price? we now all know that CSA stats are totally skewed: virtually none of their respondents have anything to do with the top end of the market, despite the increasingly vague claims they make).
    There is plenty of high-end work out there, but translators (yes, translators) who have been misinformed by their trainers (and yes, this is a shout-out to the academics out there who simply do not know enough about the real market to clue their students in) and who have not picked up on the essential skills they *must have* to build a serious practice tend to buckle under the tsunami of bulk providers. A pity. More than a pity, actually. And certainly not a given.
    The industry has space for a very wide range of providers -- all the better!
    But implying -- or claiming outright -- that bulk is somehow in the ascendant is to ignore a hugely profitable and attractive segment (or two or ten or twenty) of the market. :-)"

  3. Here's a response I wrote to a question on my blog post that Paul cites above about what options are available to independent translators who do not have the opportunity to get training and feedback.

    Response follows here:

    [Part 1]

    Easy -- the independent contractors collaborate.

    Right now in today's market the translators at the top of the field -- those who earn the most, have tons of work, and enjoy the best client options -- have collaboration woven deep into their DNA. Their work is under constant review and is revised by their expert peers. This is the “premium” quality sector of the market.

    The same is true of the best translation companies -- the boutique shops or larger quality-focused companies -- where the margins are solid, the work plentiful and interesting, and the clients happy and enthusiastic.

    This is the sector of the market where the rates are actually rising. There are parts of this market that cannot even find enough well-qualified translators -- they are hungry for them.

    The cost of entry into this club is expertise. You absolutely MUST be a subject-matter expert. You absolutely MUST have exceptional writing skills. You absolutely MUST have talent that is in extreme demand.

    When every person brings that kind of talent to the table, every OTHER person at the table is eager to learn from them.

    That creates a virtuous circle where the product just gets better.

    Too many freelancers today are work in the lower “bulk” sector of the market where pricing drives everything and imagined fictions masquerading as “statistics” from outfits like CSA suggest that prices are falling and ALL translators are doomed.

    What’s sad is that the bulk-market translators are often their own worst enemies. They’re hiding behind the idea that client confidentiality or tight deadlines or low rates are blocking their ability to collaborate. This is idiotic nonsense. It's really their own confirmation bias that is telling them that their own little sliver of reality with blinders on both sides actually represents the whole rest of the complex market.

    It does not.

    Often these are the people who are "coasting," have not learned about their blind spots, are stuck in ruts or are not even aware how poorly their work stacks up against others'.

    I know this first-hand because I've seen endless examples of it, even from "highly experienced translators" for well over 20 years.

    It's also about to get worse. MUCH worse. Many of these "coasting" translators in the bulk sector of the market are producing work that is below the quality produced by Google Translate right now. So they are charging money for a product that anybody can get right now, instantly and for free.

  4. Part II

    Translation clients in the bulk market are increasingly finding out just how good Google Translate is at certain tasks and it turns out it is expert at -- wait for it -- brute force collaboration. It leverages everything out there that humans have already translated, runs it through a statistical analysis algorithm, and serves it up with a cherry on top in the flash of an eye and a smile. And charges not a penny.

    Sure, it's not always perfect, but then neither are the pictures you take with your smart phone. Smart phone picture quality = bulk translation, "for information" quality. But those smart phone pictures are very, very, VERY good for what you need them to do – identify all those smiling people – and much better than they were even a few years ago. And they don't cost you much at all.

    This is one reason the digital camera market is collapsing so fast that Kodak couldn't even survive by relying on digital -- it had already been almost completely destroyed by the disappearance of film cameras. Remember those dinosaurs?

    The only survivors in this market are going to be those who have the expertise, talent and long-term collaborative expertise to stand way up on the high ground while the flood takes out everybody below.

    Those experts get to use $1,000 cameras with sophisticated lenses in studios and charge thousands of dollars to commercial clients who pay them because they are better than the digital cameras or Google Translate or most all other professional translators.

    If all you have is language skills, you're working alone and just staring out and not learning from colleagues, you would be well advised buy a boat. Soon.

    It's crucial that beginning translators learn about the skills they will need to survive as soon as possible in their careers. I recognize that this comes across more as "tough love" than "You go girl!" but the tough love, in my view at least, will be far more likely to keep you warm and dry and happy and successful in your new career long after the "You go girls!" have echoed away into the hills and been forgotten.