What Does The Future Hold For Translators?

Tech Comm expert Stefan Gentz talked about the future of our industry at the 2015 Institute of Translation and Interpreting Conference, which took place in Newcastle, UK, last month. His “10 facts about the future the translation industry cannot afford to ignore” were received with mixed reactions, including criticism about the one-sidedness of his presentation and his bias towards machine translation.

Although I’m not a fan of automatic translation, I was surprised by some of the comments I heard at the conference as I hadn’t expected Stefan’s talk to be about anything else. As a freelance translator affected by the emergence of MT and post-editing, I wanted to learn more about that side of our industry and what it holds for our future. The aim of this article is to present the key messages I took away from the talk.

Stefan isn’t a translator himself, which means that it wasn’t possible for him to connect with his audience on that level. Instead, he used humour and told us how, as a kid, he believed he would grow up to become a cowboy; and how things didn’t turned out that way – a familiar experience for many of us. Through his personal story, he described how reality often differs from our expectations, thus inviting us to consider an alternative future for ourselves and for the translation industry.

Stefan went on to share facts he believes translators cannot afford to ignore. Quickly abandoning his light-hearted tone in favour of a more provocative one, he displayed a series of bold statements on large red screens. His key messages were as follows:

  • Translation is now global. People buy and sell translation online, and most translation will happen in the cloud within 10 years’ time. We need to think and act globally.
  • Clients want faster translation. They’re no longer prepared to wait. We need to fulfil that need through the use of translation technology.
  • Clients also want cheaper translation, some even want it for free. Many of them need hundreds of thousands of words translated and simply can’t afford to pay the full price. Their prime motivation is cost reduction, not quality. We need new business models.
  • Translation has become an embedded sub-process. We have to embrace technology and the tools that are available to understand how our clients manage their content and to fulfil their needs.
  • 3 trillion gigabytes of data are produced every day. This represents a huge potential for translators, but we’ve already lost 99% of our market opportunity to Google and Microsoft because we’re not developing fast enough. Google translates more words in 1 minute than all human translators in one year!
  • Without translation, there’s no global business. We need to become more confident and to make a strong story of our business. The translation industry has a future, but we need to change because the world is changing.

Gentz Talk 1

By the end of the presentation, the mood in the audience had shifted. Some felt inspired, some were angry, while others felt that machine translation had nothing to do with them. As a translator specialising in IT and software localisation, I recognised the changes Stefan described in his talk. The introduction of MT and post-editing started to have a noticeable impact on my work a couple of years ago, and led me to add a new direction to my career.

Like me, you may not like the growing role that MT is playing in our industry or its effect on the quality of our work, but Stefan has a point: the world is changing, attitudes are changing, and the future of our profession will depend on our ability to transform what many perceive as a threat into a new opportunity. This is all the more feasible as MT doesn’t have to replace high-quality, human translation. Despite the disproportionate size of its potential market, it can simply coexist alongside it – a point Stefan should perhaps have stressed more during his presentation.

But apart from the “gold mine” the MT market could represent for translators, I believe there are two main reasons why we should reclaim it from companies like Google and Microsoft. The first one is that, although automatic translation isn’t currently producing the quality of work humans can, it will improve fast. I once heard someone say that it will be another 40 years before machines can translate like us. I disagree. I believe that MT will be of an acceptable standard within the next 10 to 15 years, at least in a number of fields. While of course I’m not an expert, I’m basing this estimate on the speed at which I’ve seen technology evolve over my 15-year career as a translator, and on conversations I’ve had with researchers and scientists in my hometown, Cambridge, aka Silicon Fen.

The second reason why I think we can’t afford to let Google and Microsoft take full ownership of the MT market is that, if we’re not careful, these companies will transform the way consumers view our services without us having a say in the matter. Microsoft’s corporate vice president Gurdeep Pall recently said “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free”. Business models that include free products and services not only make sense for large companies, they’re something consumers have come to expect, especially the younger generations. “Freebies” are rapidly becoming the norm. Gmail and Facebook are free, linguee.com is free, this article is free. Business models are changing. We will need to change too.

Stefan’s talk really opened my eyes to the size of the MT market, as well as its impact on the future of our profession. While I strongly believe that specialisation and “premiumisation” are our best tools when it comes to making it as successful translators, I don’t think we can afford to boycott or even neglect machine translation. We can’t afford to let Google and Microsoft turn our profession into a freebie for all. To respond to new trends and fulfil new needs, we will need to adapt, be creative, and develop business models that make the most of the latest technologies. These could include free, standard and premium levels of service, or translation services provided as part of a diversified offering. New, innovative ideas are needed.

With his cowboy story, Stefan encouraged us to drop some of our expectations about the future and consider new alternatives. But if our attitudes towards machine translation are to change, we may need a stronger narrative. Perhaps an inspiring “David and Goliath” story – the translation industry versus the software giants of the Internet. Maybe then will translators consider the latest trends and technologies as weapons for renewal, growth and continued success.


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Success Mindset For Translators (Tess Whitty’s podcast)


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Photos courtesy of Corinne Durand (@FrenchTranslatr)

21 Comments on “What Does The Future Hold For Translators?”

  1. I was there, too, and I agree with the comment from an audience member that this 99% isn’t an opportunity lost, because it was never ours to begin with. Vast volumes of text coming in thick and fast – like reviews on TripAdvisor, for example – were never going to be translated by humans. Nor is there much point in having ‘gist’ translation done by an expert professional. So MT has its place; after all, there are all kinds of translation markets and translation clients.
    The premium market, where expertly crafted texts with spot-on tone of voice, finely balanced nuances, and keen marketing psychology are prized, is the place to be, it seems to me. Or at least to aim for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You wrote: “I once heard someone say that it will be another 40 years before machines can translate like us. I disagree.”

    I wanted to use another source, but then I noticed the same article you linked above says: “There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars. But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst.”

    Now, this is not to bury the head into sand, but I feel part of the current MT agenda is more hype than anything else. (Hype is a part of marketing after all, and MT system sellers probably won’t be an exception.)

    By the way, I find it quite ironic that in spite of all the recent progress, there is still (to the best of my knowledge) no standalone desktop MT application that I could install and use only for myself (just like offline CAT applications) – i.e. without, for obvious confidentiality reasons, sharing source (or also translated) texts with the developer or any other third party, let alone a “pool” of other MT users – and that could at the same time be easily integrated into any major CAT tool.


  3. Medical doctors take advantage of all kinds of new technology. There is still a need for doctors. Technology will not replace translators. It will simply be used as a tool to improve efficiency. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t believe that human translators can be remplaced by MT! It wil be forever impossible even for Google to translate poems and verses because even for human translators it’s quite difficult task.
    Moreovere evry year apperes a lot of new services for freelancers like translators, you can register on http://2polyglot.com and see that demand for translators is still very big.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right. The demand for translators is growing as more and more content is being published online. And because there aren’t enough translators around to cope with this growth, MT is growing too. Many are now seeing MT as a productivity tool (with post-editing), rather than something that could replace them.


  5. Very thought-provoking! Thank you. As you say, our business models have to change…I have also found most success through specialisation and premiumisation (!! Is that a word??!) which is fantastic, because it means the quality and diversity of the texts I get to translate is higher and more challenging. Who wants to translate MT-able texts, like legalese and CVs anyway?


  6. MT interfaces will eventually allow for parameters like mood/tone to be defined, but it is my understanding that we are still some ways from having automatic context recognition. For the foreseeable future human intervention will continue to be needed to massage nuanced content (like poetry and advertising).

    Something else to think about is globalization pushing the world to communicate in Chinese and English.. But that’s for another conversation.


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  10. There is translation and translation. The Google/Microsoft type “Me little Indian to have big horse” and the human one which even though a lot slower is the ruling one. It is not simple to rule in whatever conditions we are faced to – but as we say in Hungary “If God has given you an employment He had given you also the brain for it”. Something the machines using whatever highly manufactured software existing are unable to do.


  11. My profession is software development and testing, along with design of the architecture that supports it and the whole process and practice element that delivers it. I’ve seen exactly this kind of scare story in my own profession. Software that will write code itself from simple sets of requirements, based on Domain Specific Languages that remove all ambiguity. Testing automation that will spider through all the ways you can use software and automagically create all needed tests and find all issues and problems. Network discovery tools that create architecture diagrams with no human intervention, libraries of standard components that you simply plug-and-play to build applications – the list goes on. More than 20 years into my working career and while of course some elements of the above have arrived, the profession is still here, more in demand than ever.

    The industry still can’t find enough candidates to fill all the roles, people still sit and write lines of code manually, we still create the tests from manual analysis, architects still draw diagrams that describe the systems – we just do it while harnessing the power of the new technologies.

    New ways of delivering have certainly arrived. There are new tools that can reduce our workload (like your machine Assisted Translation), more complete code libraries that can be reused (like your Language Memories or Text Corpus) and of course massive amounts of off-shore, out-sourced, crowd-sourced work going on. Yet still, the profession grows.

    I could write far more about this as it feels so similar to my profession. I’m telling you – don’t worry about MT! The point is, you’re in demand more than ever and that demand will only grow.



  12. Indeed, the scare story that is the underlying narrative of ‘the robots are coming to take our jobs’. It’s been going on since the Luddites. We absorb the tech, invent new ways of doing what we do and move on, usually better than before.



    • Yep, this guy Mark has a clue. There is a lot of hype about automation nowadays, but when working in tech it all comes down to the details. Transcriptionists are still being hired in spite of voice recognition, and translators still are being hired in spite of MT. The employment levels are steady or increasing (in transcription general has increased, while medical has gone down, for example.)

      In the field of health information, with the switch to electronic records, people thought we would be using less paper. But now a typical hospital uses 3 times as much paper as before, due to the increased availability of data.

      So the point is made very well in this article that opportunities have increased due to the increased availability of data. There are simply more words out there now. And some of them, people will pay to have translated. Add to that there are only 250,000 translators worldwide, and there is a lot of demand out there.

      The point about “false summits” is also a good one. OK I don’t have too much more detail to add so I’ll stop there. I’ve worked in transcription, and am going to start doing translation soon, so I kind of unconsciously roll my eyes whenever anyone starts talking about how great voice recognition is, or Google Translate, or how we’ll have self-driving cars in 10 years.


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