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?They are not pessimistic enough to conclude that we will sink into a deep recession. Nor are they hopeful enough to think that this crisis could lead to a redesign of our industry. As Loïc Dufresne de Virel from Intel puts it: “Although I hope we'll learn from the current situation to reinvent ourselves with a renewed sense of urgency, I'm afraid we'll just quickly forget and go back to business as usual - a behavior that is not limited to the translation industry.”
Only a small contingent of our population shares this realistic perspective. They acknowledge that there is a contraction in translation business. And they recognize that some vertical sectors, such as the travel, hospitality and conference industries, will suffer at least in the short-term. But that will probably be offset by an increase in digital communication and e-commerce. And sooner or later, we’ll be back to business as usual.
Trends that were already underway will continue. As Jacques Ampolini, a one-man translation operation in Philadelphia, says: “Use of MT will keep increasing but not as a result of the Virus crisis. Having suffered from the crisis, many companies will need to improve their sales volume and this could help our business.”
So even in the Translation Redux scenario, which is the closest to business-as-usual, the language service providers will be challenged to become fit for purpose. And that can mean a number of different things. Using machine translation technology is mentioned by many respondents as a way to increase volumes and business. Another challenge is how to change focus or specialization, especially if the agency in question happened to be a specialist in a sector that is suffering most from the global crisis.
István Lengyel, former CEO of memoQ and founder of the technology start-up BeLazy, alerts us to the risk of a system crash that service providers may be exposed to, especially those that work with legacy systems, licensed software or in-house developed management systems. As translation orders are changing faster than ever before towards smaller and more ‘outside the ordinary’ jobs, vendors are discovering that their standard workflows are simply not suited to the task. So they either have to make patches or say ‘no’ to these jobs, as they lack requisite programming skills internally. And as most agencies are dependent on technology vendors, they increasingly find themselves trapped in a system crash. Technology set-ups in many agencies are not fit for today’s ‘always-on’ localization practice. And the constant pressure to make machine translation an integral part of their workflow adds further pressure for most providers in the global translation industry.
The position of the language service provider rests on four pillars: consulting, technology, project management and vendor management. In a destabilizing market like what we are experiencing now each of these functions may be subject to automation and disintermediation. How do the translation agencies weaponize themselves against this fragility? It will require more than the kind of resilience or robustness that simply helps recover from a crisis. What is needed here is “antifragility,” as described by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile. We don’t just want to adapt and survive the crisis, we want to do better in every way.
But all of that of course, so argue the ‘Reduxers’, was already in the air, and the crisis does not add that much to it. Or does it, we wonder. Because even a slight reduction in business volumes can very quickly aggravate both the fragility of the businesses and the size of the technology gap in the creative world of translation. As COVID-19 continues to wander around the world, we may see bigger, more technology-savvy language service providers with deeper pockets acquire smaller players, or an even more treacherous minefield ahead. We may see a reshuffle after all.
Check back with this blog next week to hear more about the perspective of those who believe we should expect a big reshuffle in the translation industry in the summer of 2021.
Jaap van der Meer founded TAUS in 2004. He is a language industry pioneer and visionary, who started his first translation company, INK, in The Netherlands in 1980. Jaap is a regular speaker at conferences and author of many articles about technologies, translation and globalization trends.