A controversial discussion occurred in a Linked In group recently, about the need for translators to become (?!) technologically savvy. Generalisations of this sort are always a sensitive thing (for example, this one might imply that none of the translators is on good terms with technology), and this discussion was no exception. This “call for action” turned into a quite heated discussion, with arguments varying from “I totally agree” to “I absolutely do not agree”. Essentially, the discussion boiled down to the question of whether the translators can meet the requirements of modern day translation or not.
If the idea of translators who are knowledgeable in at least two languages and, ideally, several areas of specialisation comes to your mind, then you can safely say that most professional translators do meet the requirements and are very good at what they do. Many of them do not spare their energy or resources to get better at their chosen field of specialisation, and that is what makes them so valuable.
There is always a “but”, isn’t it? Here it is related to technology – translation technology, to be more precise. Computers, CAT tools, translation memories, terminology, alignment, even more CAT tools, word count rates, machine translation, post editing, etc. Or, if you prefer, CAT, TM, TB, SMT, RbMT, PEMT. (Sorry if this has just made you dizzy.)
And the list will surely not get any shorter with time, or less complex.
So, if we ask the question again – can translators meet the requirements of modern day translations – the answer will not be easy to give. Translation has dramatically evolved from what it had been just 35 years ago. Technology is now not used only in poetry translations and similar creative areas, and the things have been moving faster and faster. Unfortunately, we have already seen that translators were the ones who had to adapt to clients and LSPs, not the other way around. This trend has been present for a long time now and, whether we like it or not, the future seems to be going into that same direction.
Now, a problem has arisen here since not all translators are naturally inclined towards using technology imposed by clients/LSPs, nor can they handle all the tools and processes that are, to express it vividly, shoved down their throat. Then there are also those translators who are very specific about what they (do not) want to do – they feel that their role is primarily linguistic and asking for additional, tech-related skills is simply too much. There are many, many translators that fall into one of these groups above. Too many translators to impose anything on them, but too few to meet the ever more complex translation demands.
Grand solutions and answers to this situation are of course being generously offered all around by LSPs, large corporations, translator trainers, and others – all saying that translators MUST learn new things. Translators somehow seem to have the least say in this.
So, is that the solution to this “tech-savvy” issue – that everyone should reach the “translation technology expert” level, or they will become jobless? Or, just maybe, there is the remote possibility we do not need any solution at all.
We can maybe just leave the industry to continue with its organic growth and see where that will take us. It might happen that translators will indeed need to learn new things (how to handle the new tools and processes that will appear), but will then be able to charge more for their specialised, human-only knowledge (think about post-editing MT output, for example).
The translators who are willing to learn all this will certainly follow the trend and adapt to the new circumstances, the rest of translators will not. Many translators have already learned how to use the major translation tools, and will certainly have no problems learning new ones (these programs tend to be similar to each other, anyway). This might, of course, mean that the first group will have more chances to get premium, better-paid jobs or translation projects. That will be the reward for their tech skills, but all the other translators will still have standard translation jobs coming their way. Luckily, no one is forced to do anything, and everyone is free to position himself/herself at the translation market however they please. It is like Darwin’s model, only adapted to the translator industry. And of course, different people want different things, and that is just the way things work.
GOOD TRANSLATORS GOING OUT, INEXPERIENCED TRANSLATORS COMING IN…
But there is another interesting trend related to our industry. One of the problems that translation industry has always had is its low-entry-barrier character – anyone can start translating (not all of them will be good at it, mind you). And, as the time progresses, more new people with “only” language skills will keep coming in. But, on the other hand, the translators who were not afraid to embrace new technologies will tend to “move” to other language-related positions (management or engineering). Mostly because of their unique combination of language and tech skills. This has already been happening in the language industry across the world, so this forecast is far from speculation.
These fluctuations tend to increase the “translation technology” vacuum notion, and probably they are the very reason why we sometimes have the impression that decent tech skills are constantly missing with translators. They are actually not that scarce, there are many “tech-savvy” translators around, but they are more difficult to find or do not do translations anymore.
A LITTLE BIT OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
From the author’s personal experience, there is quite a high percentage of translators who simply do not want (or do not how) to learn the new tools that keep emerging. They either do not care about various tools available to them, or just do not want to be ordered into that direction by someone else. Such an attitude is understandable, but too many mutually benefitting opportunities often get lost because of it.
To illustrate the above, here’s a quick question to anyone in this industry. Imagine you send a Word document containing images with embedded text to a random group of translators – how many of them would be willing and skilled enough to handle such images (with proper financial remuneration, of course)?
The author’s experience suggests that not more than 30-40% of them will be able to do it. This estimate may of course not be correct, as it is based on (only) 8 years of experience in the translation industry and not on any surveys or analyses. But it is a fact that the author has always directly preferred working with fellow translators who could take care of smaller technical tasks themselves, thus speeding up the work and improving client satisfaction. A potentially very useful argument in favour of what this article wants to say.
NOW & THEN
So, is this the same translation as the one from 100 years ago? It is safe to say that it is not. But adapting to the new reality still looks like a much safer bet than declining to join the computer-powered translation wagon.
In the beginning, there was only a pen, paper and a person’s bilingual knowledge. Today, it is bilingualism, subject-matter knowledge and a lot of tools. Seems too much? Probably. But then again, we have never had more work than now. That might just be telling us that the modern translation practices are not that destructive for the profession after all.