What the future did to translation ... a note about tech-savvy translators.

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.


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.


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.


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.


  • Daniel Yagolkowski said

    Have you considered that perhaps that insistence on having translators learn new tools that do nothing to improve their knowledge or productivity AS TRANSLATORS, is simply done so organizations can save money not paying other employees who could use those tools. I can give an example of my own too: not so many years ago, when you translated a movie, you were given instructions on how to render the subtitles, because another person (another breadearner for his/her family) would then apply those translated subtitles onto the movie. Later, those organizations decidd to save money by getting rid of those subtitle technicians and asking the translator to do both jobs, translating and preparing the subtitles to be mounted on the film. However, many companies noted that once in the possession of the subtitling program, the translator would start using it for other companies but the one who gave him the program in the first place, so they gave the translators programs prepared to be used solely with the given movie and nothing else. In Spain they got to the point that every company would use its own program and demand translators to pay for the training and the license to operate the specific program that company had. When translators complained, the companies would cynically answer that translators should not complain for they were getting a wealth of knowledge with each new program they were expected to buy.

    Morals: up to where do new tools improve a translator's knowledge? perhaps he/she can work faster but, does speed necessarily mean a good translation? If the translator is at a restaurant and a client of his/hers asks a sudden translation of a material he suddenly received, and that translator takes a paper napkin and a ballpoint and makes the translation without even resorting to a dictionary (restaurants have the habit of not having dictionaries by their menus), would you hire that translator for future good works or would reject him/her if that translator said that he/she is not conversant in the new miraculous tools companies want him/her to use, especially to pay him less (cfr. Trados and how it is used in that way, against the translator using it).


    Just this past week I have had to translate and prepare some official documents which HAD TO BE CERTIFIED and stamped by me. I thought what would have happened if the same work I would have had to do it with my mechanical or electric typewriter prior to word-processing possibilities. It would have take so much time to configure the document and the variations I had to incorporate as the original document varied with the incorporation of certifications and Apostilles, to name a couple of the changes I had to take into account for the final version. I thank technology that I now had Acrobat XI Pro, where I could scan the original document, Word.docx, where I could write as many variations to finally have the needed version. I then saved and converted the Word doc into .pdf and integrated both documents, and stamped all with my transparent seals and signatures. I have come a long way and I enjoy every challenge I have to confront with every new translation. That is why I enjoy my work so much.
    It is definitely not the way translations were made 100 years ago, in fact over 40 years when I started, but we have to be ready to put forth the best with what we have at hand and even when all the technicalities fail, we should be ready to take up the pencil and paper again. The best of all worlds relies on the culture baggage we accumulate to produce the best, digitally or on paper, though paper is becoming scarce in some places, and get the work to the client in need of what we can produce to make a difference for his subsequent actions.

  • Steven Whale said

    The sheer amount of data that needs to be translated has increased exponentially over the last few years and will continue to rise to an extent where it would be impossible to translate the data manually using either Word or pen and paper even. There are indeed instances where a CAT tool is of little help (procreation maybe?), however in the majority of translations, some form of technology could be seen as essential. Why for instance would a translator insist on translating the exact same sentence over and over again (which would be surely a waste of valuable time), if this repetitive segment/sentence (asset) etc. could be stored and used later automatically, allowing the translator to concentrate on new content and the completion of a given project earlier allowing either extra time with the family or indeed to accept new projects?
    Technology does not replace the translator- It assists you. As with anything, you only get good data out if you put good data in and this responsibility remains firmly in the hands of the individual translator. As with any working environment, there are tools designed to assist you- It’s your choice whether you implement them or not.

  • Robert Rogge said

    Great article here. I'm the founder of Zingword, and we're making a new CAT Tool. Info can be found at http://zingword.com.

    So we're building this thing, and I think there's something being lost in this discussion, which is that the current technology is really hard to use. If you look at other fields, like project management, you see that the software people were using back in the day was really hard to use too, but that today people can basically sign up for a PM tool and start using it without a single training session.

    So our mission is to make a really friendly software that eliminates some of the complexity, so that a translator can come in, translate their stuff, and not have to stretch their brain cells beyond their max capacities.

  • Claudia Brauer said

    Semir, your article is so powerful! Thank you for taking the time to make us (me) think. I read it a couple of days ago and it did strike a chord. I could not even add a comment, because I realized that you are right about the negative effects of heightening the division among translators. So, after very many hours of deep reflection, I have reached a decision of henceforth going non-controversial and actionable. What does that mean? I will post my opinions and my suggestions, because I believe it is "my" truth and worth disseminating for those who want to hear it, but I will not contest "others' truths" as it is "their" truth. I think that my mistake to date has been in trying to convince those who do not want to listen. That is an impossibility and leads, as you so very clearly nailed it, to further divisions within the profession. But, since I do believe that it is radically important for translators to become tech savvy, I am also going to "do" something about it, most probably in the form of MOOC. Thank you for being an inspiration (at least this week) for a true change of heart and a new line of action.

  • Kersti Skovgaard said

    Thank God we have CAT Tools, they do increase productivity.

    On the other hand, if a translator has coughed up a considerable sum of money to purchase one or several CAT Tools and continues to do so in order to get newer versions, training, etc., it's the translator who should reap the benefits not intermediaries and/or end-clients. I suspect that often end-clients pay full price regardless of the number of repetitions / 100% matches; most of my end-clients are not aware of CAT Tools.

    It would be great if CAT Tools were in perfect working order from the start so as to minimise the time spent on finding solutions to bugs. That's the time that goes unpaid for the translator. Perhaps I speak for myself only but it seems to me that translators do not have a burning need to new versions of CAT Tools every 2 years or so, at least not for all of the additional features that many of us never use.

    Perhaps translators who are not too fond of obtaining newer and more technology feel cheated: they are expected to invest time and money but someone else is reaping the benefits.

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Marek Piorkowski
CEO Text United Austria
Semir Mehadžić
Translation Technology Specialist

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