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Rise of the Machines: Are Translators Endangered Species?

A recent article at Translation Guy Blog discusses how Luis von Ahn, a serial internet entrepreneur, wants to use language students for professional translation services and claims that the resulting translation will be just as good as done by pro translators. I enjoyed how strongly Translation Guy voiced his opinion, defending our industry against this misleading claim, but I’d like to look at this issue from a slightly different perspective.

Regardless of whether this particular idea promoted by Von Ahn works out or not, I believe that crowdsourcing and machine translation (MT) will become more competitive. In fact, MT has been already putting translation professionals out of business for at least a decade. Ford Motor Company has been successfully using machine translation to translate build instructions since 1998. Guess who had to find new clients after Ford had moved to MT.

Machine translation already has many applications. At this point, it’s no good for any kind of creative text, but chances are it will get better. Google Translate produces much better translations now than the gibberish we used to laugh at 10 years ago. I’m not trying to predict the future or crying that the sky is falling. It just seems logical to assume that new translation technology will become a stronger competitor to human translators, at least those who put high output first and quality second. And even if this isn’t going to happen (hopefully), it’s common sense to be prepared for this scenario rather than protect yourself by building a wall of denial. Resisting progress is counter-productive. For instance, paper-based media lost a huge part of their customer base to electronic media and will likely continue to do so because it’s so much easier and cheaper to get content on the Internet. If old-fashioned media deny this change, they will only make things worse for themselves both financially and in terms of lost opportunities.

What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves?

  1. The first step is to change your mindset by stopping to resist progress. Letting go and adjusting seems a much wiser response to any changes that the translation industry might eventually face. I’d be even prepared to change career. I don’t think this is something to be afraid of anymore. In fact, it’s a quite common belief that an average U.S. worker will have seven careers in their lifetime. With all the rapid changes taking place in this information age, there should be at least some truth to it. Be open to changes because blaming the circumstances and denial will make it difficult for you to see and seize opportunities that come with those changes. My grandfather who had been born in 1918 was used to riding horses as the main means of transportation early in his life. After cars had replaced horses entirely, he would sometimes wonder, “Where did all the horses go?” He never learned to drive a car although he lived until 2009.
  2. After accepting that things might change, the next step is to become proactive instead of reactive. There are two options about your future in the translation industry: you can either let it happen or make it happen. In order for you to make it happen, I can offer two recommendations:
  • As a translation professional, you should commit to ongoing continuous improvement. By making your professional development a life-long commitment, you increase your chances of becoming indispensable to your clients. It’s up to you to deliver an outstanding level of quality and customer service, so that they will never even think of replacing you by someone else, let alone a machine translator.
  • Move into areas of expertise less susceptible to machine translation or crowdsourcing translation. Texts written using simple, controlled language are easy targets for this new competition. Obvious examples include patent translations or technical translations such as instructions manuals. You might be better off exploring those areas where controlled language doesn’t belong such as translating marketing texts. Another possible area is highly-sensitive documents or documents where errors are unacceptable. Some examples are legal, financial, and medical translations.

Fellow translators, what is your vision of the future? Do you think English to Russian translators can feel safer because Russian is a quite difficult language?

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.