A convergence of circumstances are disrupting the very business model of translation. LSPs down to individual freelancers are feeling the pressure, too.
The culprits are familiar: Technology and globalization. On the one hand, we have more and more people connecting to the global community, which drives all kinds of demand for language assistance such as translation and localization.
On the other, technologies such as artificial intelligence and neural networks are making machine translations smarter every day — to the detriment of human translators, some argue.
But it’s not these circumstances that are in conflict. In fact, global demand for translation continues to grow and give translators plenty of work to do. Even during the global recession, the team at Pangeanic writes, demand for translators grew steadily.
No, the actual issue is that our industry, as it is currently structured, fails to serve most of the world’s demand for translation.
To see why this is happening — and what can be done to fix it — we first need to understand the nature of the world’s growing need for translation services.
Exploding Demand for ‘Good Enough’ Translations
LSP executives and industry leaders know this number by heart, but it bears repeating: By the time Google Translate celebrated its 10th birthday, it was translating 100 billion words per day, product lead Barak Turovsky wrote in 2016.
Granted, if Google charged even a fraction of a cent per word, the demand wouldn’t be that high. Because GT is free for everyone to use, people can use it for things like single-word translations and deducing the opening times of restaurants when they’re on vacation in foreign countries.
What this has done for our industry, translator Kevin Hendzel writes, is analogous to what smartphone cameras did to photography. We as a species take exponentially more photographs than we did a generation ago, and the non-professional shots that are the lifeblood of social media like Instagram also are found to be good enough for more professional use cases.
Just take a look at coverage of breaking news. Often, the news cycle’s first visuals of an event come from the phones of bystanders. These photos are deemed good enough to tell that story.
Translation Demands Created by User-Generated Content
Further driving demand is user-generated content, which provides valuable information for companies that do business globally. As Moravia’s Vijayalaxmi Hegde writes, companies in the travel and ecommerce industries especially must be sensitive to user-generated content such as reviews. Otherwise, they risk alienating entire communities of Mandarin speakers or Russian speakers, for example.
For the online retailer or the tour operator in Paris, an important business question arises: At what point should they graduate beyond Google Translate to handle inbound comments such as TripAdvisor reviews?
Then, there’s a question about outgoing information: Do you trust machine translation alone with your product FAQs? If not, what’s a fair price to bring in a professional translator to get the product copy up to the required standards?
The Bulk Market and the Translator’s Role In It
But evolving standards of “good enough” put downward pressure on price, and this hits hardest in the bulk market, Hendzel writes. These for-informational-purposes-only translations account for about 60 percent of commercial translations today.
In other words, the price of some translations, the global market says, is free. But there is a grey area worth exploring in the bulk market. “Good enough” has multiple definitions, and some of those definitions necessarily have a price tag attached to them.
In other words, many of these translations, the global market says, should be priced above free. The questions is how to solve this from the supply side.
We don’t feel this should initiate race-to-the-bottom pricing structures among language professionals. Instead, the professional translator should have a central role in the bulk market. The question, then, becomes: How can a translator shepherd this kind of work at a rate and at a volume that pays a fair price?
We believe there is a software answer to this question, which we will touch on in a moment. First, it is important to also explore the higher end of the translation services market.
Translators Have a Strong Incentive to Specialize in Premium Services
Hendzel makes a convincing argument that professional translators should carve out a specialization in value-added markets: Annual reports, intelligence briefings, professional journals, etc.
The demands in these markets, he says, can only be met with the highest quality of translations for precisely the same reason that National Geographic won’t be buying iPhone-shot photos anytime soon.
Corinne McKay conceives this as an either/or proposition: Translators must either focus on high-end creative work, or become minders of machines.
We believe, however, there is another path, and it lies in understanding the flaw in Hendzel’s iPhone/MT argument. A smartphone camera produces a finished product: A photograph. You can compare the quality side by side with finished products from better cameras.
But machine translation doesn’t have to compete side-by-side with high-quality translations. MT is a tool that can be used en route to creating better translations. It can be used to get a quick draft on which to improve for transcreation services, for instance.
Compare this to the photo example: You cannot take an amateur snapshot and improve it by changing the composition, lighting, focus, details, etc., to turn it into a great photo. But you can take the output of a machine translation engine and edit it until you get a final text which may even surpass the original one.
This is the key difference, and it has profound implications for the translation industry.
The Future of the Translation Software Specialist
When you embrace the idea that machine translation creates new efficiencies, not competition, you’re able to see the technology as an asset that can help translators and agencies shift to a much more customer-centric mindset. That’s just the evolutionary aspect of innovation.
“Translation is hardly alone in being shaken up by technology,” The Economist wrote in late May. “The legal industry, accounting and many other venerable professions are seeing repeatable knowledge work done passably by machines. The translators of the future need not only language and writing skills. They must, like the partners at a law or accounting firm, gain clients’ trust and learn their minds in order to do truly good work.
“The loners of the field, in other words, may find it hard going.”
TAUS founder Jaap van der Meer recognizes this need for users-first mindset. “Particularly in the translation industry, we have lost sight too often of why we translate, whom we translate for, and how the translation is used,” he writes.
“Too often translations are produced as an obligatory item in old-fashioned push or publishing models without much care for usability and findability. This must change if we are to follow the trends towards more democratic and user-centric business models.”
So, just as Uber did with transportation services, the biggest winners in the translation industry will be the organizations that put their customers, not their internal processes, first.
A Tech Road Map for the Future of Our Industry
There’s a reason Jill Krasny at Inc. identified the translation services industry as one ripe with entrepreneurial opportunity way back in 2014. Actually, there were a few: Global demand, larger companies buying up smaller LSPs and the ability to upsell clients on value-added translations.
The first quarter of 2017 saw a few eye-popping acquisitions, to be sure, but it’s global demand that will sustain our industry’s growth.
And it’s the industry disruptors who will find ways to capitalize upon that demand and propel growth in sprints. The key, says Hélène Pielmeier at Common Sense Advisory, is to stop ignoring clients’ pain points.
“LSPs see themselves as the keepers of a proven method to produce translations and often push back on what they see as unreasonable customer requests,” she writes. “They strive for stability and predictability instead of providing solutions that will rock the client’s world.”
We have the tools already to begin rocking worlds, one client at a time. It just takes a little vision to pull those tools into alignment. Software that obviates the need for project or vendor managers in the workflow is a good first step.
Even among top-tier translators, technology that can empower better workflows, make communication easier and create tighter feedback loops could have profound effects, Gábor Ugray at Jealous Markup writes, because those would bring the client and the translator into ever closer collaboration.
By leveraging technology — not fighting it, as the taxi industry does — to better connect clients with the levels of service they need, the translation industry can begin to make forward leaps that will ultimately benefit all of us.
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