In our article Translation Economics of the 2020s in Multilingual Magazine I raised the question how sustainable the current co-existence of near zero-cost translation and paid-per-word translation would be. The increasing volumes of content combined with continued international business expansion make the economic pressure too high, for almost every company, to ignore the tremendous potential benefits of AI-enabled translation. A reconfiguration of the translation ecosystem is inevitable and is in fact already in full swing. In this article, I will elaborate on the emerging new business models from an economic perspective.
The long-expected technical revolution is here. Automatic translation is no longer just a freebie on the internet. It is now entering the ‘real’ economy of the translation sector and it changes everything.
NO MORE VISION. NO MORE PREDICTIONS. The future is now. No need anymore to predict machine translation. It’s here and it’s working. Our message for the new year this time is therefore very pragmatic and single-minded: fair pay for the translators and data-keepers!
In this data age, we can personalize the provision of information because we are rapidly learning more stuff about hundreds of millions of individual users of services. The underlying idea is that an AI-enabled information system (internet, website, media, etc) will be able to give end-users exactly the content they want. Why? Because these users offer increasingly rich data profiles to the machines running online services. How far, then, will a person’s experience of language(s) - one crucial variable - offer a challenge or a solution to tomorrow’s personalized data game?
We look back on the corona crisis of well over a year ago and happily conclude that it was not as severe as it could have been. Economies came back to life after a lockdown of a few months, and people started traveling again in June-July 2020. Most translation companies experienced a dip in revenue, but it wasn’t devastating. And now, a year later, everything is more or less back to what we call the new normal. Time to start revisiting all those aspects of the industry that are ready for change, revitalization, or improvement?
This is the worst-case scenario. Unemployment rates in the USA exceed 35%, and all western economies are slowly climbing out of the recession. Several airline companies have gone bust. Governments have taken control of economies and nationalized vital sectors. And global supply chains have been restructured. In 2021, the translation industry is likely to retract by 30 to 40%, if anyone can actually measure it. Many agencies have not survived and global suppliers have undergone a major restructuring. The only possibly good news is that big global-tech companies have further stepped up their investments in their machine translation and AI programs.
The 2020 corona crisis has left its scars on the translation industry even though the recession didn’t last that long. We saw quite a few agencies closing shop. A few of the larger investors took advantage of the crisis and absorbed more businesses, leading to further consolidation at both global and regional levels. Thousands of language workers lost their regular jobs. This was a sobering experience, but there were no fundamental changes. The virus simply reshuffled the existing pack.
The corona crisis is having a deep impact on the minds of the people who together constitute the translation industry. Only 8% of the respondents to the TAUS Que Sera survey seem to be less disturbed, believing that we will have bounced back to normal conditions by the summer of 2021. What exactly are they thinking?
How are we in the translation industry coping with the corona crisis? We have a population the size of a city like Paris, and our job is to ensure that citizens, patients and consumers can use products and read websites in their own languages. Except that we are all spread around the globe, and now, like almost all other workers in the world, we are locked down in our homes. Most of us have by now settled in on the new reality of the corona crisis and are doing our best to stay safe and healthy. But other worries are creeping into our minds. What will happen to our jobs and to our business when this crisis is over?
What a different world we suddenly find ourselves in. Who would have imagined, just two weeks ago, that planes would stay on the ground, that we are no longer queuing up on the autobahn, standing in line for the barista, that all the NBA games, the Eurovision Song Festival and the UEFA Euro 2020 would be canceled. Who would have thought that we, all together, find ourselves in a war with an invisible enemy that undermines our normal lives, our markets and our society?
When I try to imagine the traditional translation supply chain, I picture a long conveyor belt where every actor (content writer, marketer, translation project manager, translator, reviewer) is responsible for their individual workstation and contributes their own share of work without having the full perspective of the desired outcome or the actual end-product. Often they don’t know who the other contributors are and prefer to stay anonymous themselves. If something goes wrong, the fires are extinguished locally, because the deadlines are tight and the communication chain is seemingly so complex that people don’t even dare to ask questions. As a result, important details fall between the cracks and the end result is far from the initial expectations.
In January 2005 we held the first TAUS Round table meeting in San Francisco. For those of you who have followed me over these fifteen years, you know I think that automation and innovation in translation can never develop fast enough. Why is that? Well, first of all out of personal interest: I find it fascinating what technology can do for language and translation. But secondly, for a definitely ideological reason: I believe that as language professionals it is our mission to help the world communicate better. And that is the point: only through technology we can deliver on that mission.
Maybe it’s time for secondary school students to learn more about what machine translation is all about as part of their general education! No, not a whole course on the technical background and workings of MT; the focus should be on exploratory, even playful learning about a technology that will soon be as natural to them as game-playing or video-editing on smartphones. Here are three reasons why a short MT101 course could be useful for early teens learning foreign languages.
How well did you do? BBC Newsbeat recently challenged six language students aged 18-29 to translate sentences they’ve created using emojis and they’ve bypassed the boundaries of their native languages - German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish and English, and did pretty well understanding the emoji sentences (see the video here).
We’re entering a digital ‘translate’ era in which people and machines are learning to cooperate more effectively to deliver rich services and language experiences at scale. The resulting synergies will underpin all new industry strategies in the coming years. As current S-curve wisdom has it, things will evolve slowly at first and then accelerate rapidly. So it’s time to look up from our shiny new instrument panels and scan the road ahead for emerging opportunities.
Here’s a suggestion: we should adopt a new usage of the existing English lexeme “translate” as a non-count noun. This would enable the word to cover emerging phenomena in the language industry as it crystallizes more deeply into the digital ecology. This usage is obviously calqued on the current trend of using “compute” as a noun, meaning something like “computational capacity” (as in “How much compute do you need for that machine learning task?”).
30 September is being celebrated every year as International Translation Day since 24 May 2017 when the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 71/288 on the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering understanding and peace.
You may be looking forward to Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story or the US presidential election next year, but are you ready for content globalization the way TAUS sees its future? We’ve been peering into a crystal ball for you for a long time. Now is the right time for an update. Via a glance in our rear-view mirror!
Back in 2012 we delivered a prediction about the future of the industry that we believe is still relevant. That’s seven years ago - the year of the Arab Spring, the London Olympics, and the Costa Concordia cruise-ship fiasco. Neural network MT technology was still a glint in researchers’ eyes.
It was a cold and dark December evening. Tina the translator was sitting behind her desk, with her hands in her hair, desperately trying to finish this one final project before she could celebrate Christmas with her loved ones. The project seems almost unbearable to get through. Over the past months, Tina is feeling less and less creative while doing her job. She’s making less money than she used to do and she feels she’s working harder than ever on the most boring projects she can think of.