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.
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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Photos courtesy of Corinne Durand (@FrenchTranslatr)