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in Machine Translation

Will You Help Me Flip It?

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I am a translator and interpreter and I am worried about how we fit in the “translation industry” of the future.  Many freelancers have lost sight of the skills we need to update to remain relevant and productive in the 21st Century. In the virtual instant village of the 21st century, the need for multilingual content is expanding at exponential rates and yet, many translators are finding it progressively difficult to earn a decent living. A large number feel underappreciated by society at large and by the client in particular.

Translators have lost sight of the changes occurred in the “means of production” of the goods and services (or art forms) we deliver. The language services industry, in turn, has lost sight of the vital role that freelance translators and interpreters play in the industry’s future.

In a world of increased competition and decreasing margins of profit, translators and interpreters do not understand the investments (in time AND money) they need to make in software, training and processes to catch up to the demand for multilingual content, “immediately”.  The language services industry, on the other hand, has been dismissive of the need to invest (time AND money) in their human resources, the providers of the raw material needed by the industry: knowledge. 

Translators and interpreters are suspicious of most innovations in the language industry.  Many do not understand what is going on or where we are going. We humans are frightened by that which we do not understand.  And freelancer jobs are now threatened by forces not readily understood. Our primeval response is to either fight or flee, instead of understanding, staying, and growing.

The language services industry is relying more and more on machine technology and intermediaries to render their products to the end client.  But ROI has not materialized as expected. Some questions have even been raised as to the validity of certain investments in technology. 

In the meantime, the ongoing democratization of multilingual content (the fact that I click a key and have access to content in my language of preference) has created huge expectations that such multilingual instant content will be available at all points of contact.

I believe that both sides (“freelancers” and “industry”) are right and both sides are wrong. Ignorance of the true value of each other has led each to believe that they are mutually exclusive, instead of mutually inclusive.  

The “industry” that has sparked so many changes in the means of production of multilingual content should be able to invest in the related human factor. What I have in my brain will be extraordinarily difficult to replicate. That is the new lesson learned by the industry.  You may, of course, harvest some segments of our brains to improve the results of software.  But in limiting your experience with us to doing only that, you are wasting the combined knowledge base held in the brains of tens of thousands of translators who are at the top of their game.  Why would you not want to start where the best are and build up from there?

There is a need for change.  Mostly a change in understanding and subsequent behavior, which are the most difficult of changes. Behavior on the part of translators and interpreters in regards to the future of the industry. Behavior on the part of the industry as to the intrinsic value of freelancers. There is a tension that needs to be resolved and we need to find ways to a win-win relationship.  

What does this mean for those of you who are part of the “industry”? 

My proposal is that you start investing time and money to “update the skills” of your human base, current freelance translators and interpreters, so that you may “flip it” around and benefit in the long term. I have no evidence that this may be good to your ROI, but neither was there any evidence that the investments you have made in software would. 

I urge industry leaders to invite us, everyday translators and interpreters, to become an integral part (not a side story) of this equation. We have been severed from the most important conversations about our own future. Many of us are afraid of the new technologies because there is yet no clear answer to the question “what’s in it for me?”.  The “industry” as a whole may well benefit from inviting us to become part of the equation going forward. If translators and interpreters do not learn –quickly and swiftly– to use 21st century technologies, we may not survive as a viable profession. Unless all the parties are on the same page, the “industry” as a whole may not evolve the way industry leaders might have anticipated. We need each other.

How would we do that? You ask. Let me give you some examples (and there are many other). 

Let’s say that all of those in the “industry” who are working on the development of Machine Translation assign a budget for the education of translators and interpreters in CAT tools and MT.  Education, not training.  I am talking about giving translators and interpreters the tools and the knowledge to be able to understand the new technologies, along with the resources to really have access and benefit from them.  Maybe via grants for the development of Coursera-type free-for all education programs.  Maybe via funding for the acquisition by translators and interpreters of new software, coupled with scholarships to become fully proficient in it (training and real-world practice).  Maybe some sort of global push that not only highlights the “industry” as a whole but makes PEMT an appealing profession for old and new translators....

What does the industry win? Hearts and minds. Think of the possibilities. Buy-in by large numbers of direct users who in turn contribute to growth and transformation. The freelance business model needs revamping. The language service industry as a whole may benefit from helping achieve such goal. Giving current freelancers the opportunity to transform their current knowledge and experience into useful and valuable skills may help in fueling a new generation of translators and interpreters that responds to the new challenges faced by the industry. The “knowledge workers” in this profession, rather than the software on its own, may become the vital link to convey multilingual content to 21st century audiences.

Will you help me flip it?

Claudia became a trainer of translators and interpreters in 2011, after 35 years of experience in the field. She is also a speaker, writer and blogger on topics related to the current state of the translation and interpreting industry.
Claudia has designed and delivered some 200 hours of proprietary content to more than 3500 students and uses her wikis to freely disseminated more than 25 copyrighted tools designed to help translators and interpreters in the 21st century virtual village.
The vision of BrauerTraining is to educate translators and interpreters, so they may become great quality professionals with a high code of ethics. The mission of the company is to help linguists become competitive in today's world by encouraging them to embrace technology, instead of resisting it.  
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People in this conversation

  • Guest - Alina

    I have been in this industry for years now and I feel my long-acquired skills are today quite underestimated by the market. In fact, I am at the brink of a crisis to take a firm decision whether to get out and try something new or not. Anyway, I am still thinking about getting more specialized in something---like in the pharma industry or accountancy---so as to keep a decent monthly wage. I hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel for our industry... I must confess I am a bit disillusioned by now!

    By the way: pehaps it would be a great idea a future article here about ways for qualified freelancers to overcome this tendency of the market (to hire cheaper and in many cases unqualified professionals easily available in the net instead of certified ones).

    Thanks for posting such a great and meaningful article!

  • Guest - Karen Sexton

    Interesting discussion Claudia. It certainly touches on a topic that is very relevant today. I strongly believe that translators will never become obsolete and there is room and budget for talented linguists in the industry. In medical translations, my specialism, I don't believe that I can be replaced by a machine, because of the specific characteristics of this industry and my language pair. For example, researchers from all over the world write in English, my source language, but as such a globalized language they often take liberties with the use of grammar and vocabulary. My job, in addition to being knowledgeable about the medical content, involves deciphering this content and converting it into Brazilian Portuguese as if it had all been written with the same grammatical and lexical accuracy. There is a certain tone and fluency to medical documents that need to change if you are addressing physicians and researchers or patients, for example, and this is not the sort of plasticity that a software can have. Having said that, I do believe that MT will develop and become more sophisticated. I believe generalist translators, who are not specialized in a particular field, will struggle. However, the fact that machines will be able to do more of the repetitive and low grade work for us, means that we will have more time to do the intellectual part of our work, which is researching terminology, consistency, etc. We will need to adapt to a role of consultants, rather than just translators and although this involves becoming more knowledgeable about our field, it also means that we can charge more for our highly specialized service.

  • Guest - Sebastian

    Very valuable thoughts, Claudia. I think one aspect that will greatly improve things in the industry is the growing degree of networking among freelance translators, but also among employed translators. Knowledge exchange is the most important factor in the equasion. I think a lot of friction regarding adaptation of new technology comes from the fact that translators bear the brunt of the cost that comes with adapting, such as constant learning, investing in new software, and so on. The technological change comes at an increasingly rapid pace.
    Companies should listen more to the needs of the industry (we'ere doing a lot of that these days, including an interview series at http://lingo.io/blog ) but translators also need to get comfortable with the idea that their profession, just like all other professions, is changing and some adaptation and diversification is necessary. Nicole Y. Adams' book on that topic is highly recommended.
    I would have to say that part of the industry is also to blame for some of the friction: constant efforts to push prices even lower with dubious crowd and post-MT platforms whose only selling point is price (instead of quality) will not win confidence....

  • Guest - Isabella Massardo

    Claudia, you make a sad but very true statement: "Freelance translators are simply individuals who know their craft, sometimes know a bit about business (most are not even remotely entrepreneurial), are dispersed, and simply do not have the tools to even know what is going on in the world of translation."

    And I shiver at the idea that forums like ProZ or TranslatorsCafe might be the only source of information for many of our colleagues. But, still, that would explain a lot.

  • Guest - Claudia Brauer

    @Isabella: I agree, but to quote the excellent statement by Luigi, many "are mostly happy to be educated and trained by dinosaurs." The issue, I believe, is that many do not know their teachers are dinosaurs because those dinosaurs and the dinosaurs know how to sell themselves as semi-gods. But the other big hurdle is that the "language services industry" has been able to gather around one or several business models (LSP, for example) and think tanks (TAUS, for example) and have been able to find some sort of "voice" (or at least are talking about the issues of the future ). Freelance translators are simply individuals who know their craft, sometimes know a bit about business (most are not even remotely entrepreneurial), are dispersed, and simply do not have the tools to even know what is going on in the world of translation. I dare say that only a tiny number of current translators and interpreters in the world had any sort of formal university education and even a smaller number are members of any association. Some have started joining Linkedin or ProZ or Translators Cafe (or similar) more in search of potential leads for assignments than anything else. It has been through this open forums that they are now realizing how much they are missing. But with those few exceptions, I truly believe that the largest percentage of freelance translators are just absolutely in the dark, belong to no tangible group that represents their interests and are being mis-informed by many in their own profession (the dinosaurs) about what they need to do or where they should go. That is my plead. Those in TAUS are at the forefront of the next generation of developments in the industry. I believe the industry will be well served if it can gather and call upon the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of freelance translators that simply have not realized what is going on and how much the "means of production" of multilingual content has changed in the past two decades. It will be a win-win situation.

  • Guest - Luigi Muzii

    After 32 years in the language industry, and a decade in localization and terminology teaching, I think I can speak my mind. I did it lately in an article for the December issue of MultiLingual (http://dig.multilingual.com/201312/#?page=22), in many posts for The Big Wave (http://thebigwave.it) and for my blog (http://www.s-quid.it/blog/).
    Based on my experience, I dare say that aspiring translators, as well as many translators, are mostly happy to be educated and trained by dinosaurs. Unfortunately, paraphrasing Sören Kierkegaard, the value of education can only be understood backwards, but choices must be done forwards. Training can then be found to be inadequate only "a posteriori", when the same investment is returning a higher wage (possibly twice as much) to peers who chose a different way.
    I have been reading about "a need for change" since my early days in translation. I have not lost hope and I'm always happy to welcome anyone who willing to commit him/herself for change.

  • Guest - Isabella Massardo

    Excellent post, Claudia! But I'm not sure that I would put all the responsibility on the "industry leaders". It's also up to the universities to offer better (up to date) training to future translators (i.e., not concentrating exclusively on language skills) and it's also the responsibility of experienced translators to keep their skills up to date. i think we can agree that Neo-luddism is not the way to go anymore. But I like your proposal very much and would be glad to participate in any future initiative.

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