Futurists, Visionaries and Wishful Thinkers

In the preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935), John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

In fact, the translation community is rather close and definitely conservative. This is why, twenty years ago, no one inside the translation industry could actually imagine what it would look like today.

In the last twenty years, things have mostly remained the same; few have changed, often thanks to outsiders.

The sterile obsession with quality is one of the things remaining unchanged, together with the industry’s typical pulverization.

Business models and production processes are also unchanged, together with the hesitancy to adopt any innovations. Yes, in the early ‘90s, the translation community quickly seized the opportunities of the Internet, but the innovation was almost imposed and rather suffered. The same applies to translation memories, still largely doubted and distrusted.

On the other hand, the translation community claims to be different, dynamic, innovative, and even ethical.

In reality, many insiders depict the translation industry as an industry waiting to be disrupted, entrenched in bureaucracy, complex workers roles, riven and outdated.

Anyway, many business scholars argue that innovation is not coming up with something big and new, but instead recombining things that already exist.

Is the translation industry just being held back by the inability of its players to process all the new ideas fast enough?

In The Visionary’s Handbook (2001), Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor, and Howard Means wrote, “The closer your vision gets to a provable future, the more you are simply describing the present.”

Maybe, when advocating innovation in the translation industry, most insiders are just indulging in some wishful thinking, from predicting no future for machine translation to a new raise or even surge in rates, from the absolute belief in the universal role of translation to the imperishable intrinsic artistic nature of it.

In an interview to Nataly Kelly of June 13, 2011, Raymond Kurzweil, author, inventor and futurist, predicted that machines will reach human levels of translation quality by the year 2029, and yet even major technological advances in translation will not replace the need for language learning. According to Kurzweil, we will expand our intelligence through technologies that enable us to learn other languages more quickly.

On the other hand, in one of his books, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil predicted that spoken language translation would be common by the year 2019 and, when asked about this prediction, he noted, “It all depends on the level of quality you’re looking for.”

Still too often, translation is depicted as a highly technical and dynamic process requiring both human and technological involvement, complicated to the point that no step can be definitely removed or absolutely needed.

Now, technology is already playing a growing role in every area of everyday (working) life, and translation technologies will certainly replace a certain way of applying knowledge.

In the near future, tools will spring up of even greater sophistication and new software infrastructure enabling projects and even tasks to be further parceled out.

These tools will be collaborative platforms combining workflow and computer-aided translation capabilities into one application. These platforms will also serve as online marketplaces, opening the way to disintermediation.

However, for full disintermediation in the translation supply chain, the translation market should be highly transparent for customers to be aware of supply conditions. In addition, factual bidirectional standards will be required.

Since any goal can be targeted only with the evaluation criteria of the present, as an imperfect result of our knowledge, non-expert outsiders will have a better chance to provide solutions to organizational challenges, rather than experts and insiders.

To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the translation community should change without waiting to see what others do.

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii