The Sustainable Translator: Harnessing Technology to Survive & Thrive

Think back roughly 35 years, to the early 1980s. A translator just starting out in the business would have had to make a large investment—of time and money. While not required, a formal language education, such as a degree in translation, was considered a strong credential. Beyond education, the budding translator would need to buy costly language resources, from bilingual dictionaries to specialized publications. The barrier-to-entry in translation was steep indeed: the initial investment would take at least three years to repay.

Fast-forward to a decade later: by the early 1990s, the translator’s investment consisted mainly of—you guessed it—computer hardware. Indeed, the computer was an irreplaceable piece of equipment—and it consumed the lion’s share of the translator’s start-up budget. Meanwhile, resources like dictionaries and specialized publications—much of that was digitized (on CD)—were far more affordable.

All of that has faded into the background.

Since the early 1990s, the initial investment required for translator has been steadily decreasing. Today, that investment is practically zero. These days, a translator needs only a minimal amount of money, mostly for education fees, which can be recouped within a year and a half.

What else has changed? Many talk about translators’ reduced income, and the decrease in fees. But production capacity has largely offset this decrease. Consider the numbers: in the 1990s, our prototypic translator had an average capacity of 1,000 words per day. (This included prep time as well as research.) Today, productivity is estimated to be at least 2,500 words per day, with peaks of 4,000 to 6,000 words per day.

All of the professional translator’s usual tools still exist—but they now exist in a virtual format. New technologies provide new computational power. And many tools of the trade have become cheaper—if not free—and accessible from practically any location. The new result is that, day by day, translation is becoming simpler and simpler.

So, why are translators having trouble surviving & thriving? Could it have to do with technology? Has disruption come and gone in the translation industry—and we didn’t even notice? How can we, as industry professionals, harness disruption to better service clients?

Just two are the genuinely disruptive innovations in our industry: translation memories and statistical machine translation. Translation memories opened the door to “datafication” in the translation industry, and this, in turn, enabled statistical machine translation. In fact, statistical machine translation is the single most useful technology we have—that it is transformative.

The realities of differentiation—an individual’s ability to develop new and different skills—in this case translation skills should also be examined. Practically any motivated expert—an engineer or doctor, lawyer or architect, for example—can acquire the necessary translation skills in a relatively short time. Compare this to one of our industry’s confounding realities: that a translator with a language degree and no skills other than linguistic skills would have to re-train for years to master a completely new field of expertise. The question to ask is, if mastering translation is relatively easy for an engineer or a doctor, a lawyer or an architect, why is mastering a new field so difficult for a translator? Are standard translation skills outdated—or, worse, obsolete?

The good news is that traditional translation skills are NOT outdated. But another skillset—a complementary one—is also required: technical skills. The state-of-the-art translator is someone who has re-trained herself or himself. Specifically, s/he has acquired a range of skills and can deliver a range of services, each one both linguistic and technical. Think of it this way: a translation itself is a product. And to deliver that product successfully, the translator needs strong component skills, from research skills to writing skills to computer skills.

This survival strategy is differentiation. The translators who survive & thrive are those who are willing and eager to differentiate themselves from their peers-by continuously improving their offering.

So, what could the modern translator’s skillset look like? First, the skills must be distinct from one another. In marketing terms, this means services must be “unbundled”—broken down into component services. For example, terminology work is a distinct, definable service. And it’s a service that relies heavily on both linguistic and technical expertise. Consider another example: Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This is a service with a discrete application, a defined place in the business process. And the list continues. And a translator with this linguistic and technical know-how—and the ability to communicate it—is far more likely to thrive. Translators aren’t necessarily trained to unbundle services, just as we’re not necessarily trained to promote our selling propositions. But unbundling is key to growing professionally. Trade organizations should know this—and that’s why they should support technologists, like me—in bringing the message to the industry.

Technology has profoundly altered our industry. Translation still attracts people with strong linguistic skills and abilities. But given the disruption we have experienced for decades, we must acknowledge that technology—in concert with linguistic skills—is the single most powerful tool to survive & thrive.

Author: Luigi Muzii

Luigi Muzii