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 (http://translationbiz.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/will-the-best-and-most-talented-translators-benefit-from-the-disruptors/).
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 (http://www.kevinhendzel.com/bad-advice-for-novice-skydivers-learn-as-you-go/) 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 http://foxdocs.biz/BetweenTranslations/bulk-versus-premium-translation-chris-durban/). 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 http://www.blauconsult.com/2014-predictions-translation-localization-industry/) 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.