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Is Translation a Dying Profession?

The Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) and the Second Industrial Revolution (1870 – 1914) transformed how people lived and worked.

We are now living through the Third Industrial Revolution (or Digital Revolution). It’s ongoing and – many believe – accelerating…

With each of these revolutions, whole professions and industries have been wiped out or totally transformed.

It’s estimated that the Spinning Mule (invented 1779), for example, could do the work of about 200 – 300 human spinners and at a higher quality.

Today, many industries could be under threat by machine learning and AI. Drivers, doctors, lawyers and customer service are frequently given as examples of professions under threat.

So too are translators (and interpreters)…

Will translation as a profession (and the translation industry itself) disappear, transform or simply be taken over by machines? If so, how and when will this play out? Let’s explore these questions, and more.

A brief history of the translation profession

Translation between texts has existed for at least a couple of thousand years. Some sources point to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt as the likely first locations for written translation.

The English word ‘translation‘ itself comes from Old French (where approximately 29% of English vocabulary comes from), which got it from Latin. In Latin, translatus is made up of trans (“carried, borne”) and latus (“across, beyond”).

Governmental and religious translation

Translation has been needed within and between civilisations throughout history. This has made for many interesting situations.

For example, the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) between the Russian and Qing Empires was negotiated and recorded in Russian, Manchu and Latin using Polish, French and Portuguese interpreters and translators.

And famous translation projects, such as the Tibetan translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts in the 7th century, or the King James Bible translation (1604 – 1611), have transformed cultures and languages.

Official government positions and departments have long provided translation. English poet John Milton became the Secretary for Foreign Tongues for Oliver Cromwell’s government in 1649, for example.

Along with a team of translators, Milton mostly translated communications between Latin and English. He even translated his defence of the execution of Charles I (Eikonoklastes) into Latin and French for the benefit of continental governments.

Literary translation

There has long been a tradition of literary translation around the world.

This has created countless cultural exchanges over the years.

Lord Byron become one of the most famous men in Europe (via French translations of his work), Walter Scott became hugely popular in Germany, as did 10th century Persian poetry of Omar Khayyam in Victorian Britain (via Edward FitzGerald).

By the early 19th century German Übersetzungsfabrik (‘translation factories’) would churn out countless translations of books.

Today, the global books market is estimated to be worth over USD 138.35 billion. Much of this is made possible by the work of translators across the globe.

A recent open letter which aimed to get translators promoted on book covers stated:

“Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it.”

The Society of Authors, September 2021

Commercial translation

For centuries, translators were mainly scholars or government workers. However, as globalisation and international trade developed, translation (and interpretation) came into increasing demand.

In order to become a translator for the East India Company, George Staunton had to travel with his father to France, then Germany and Italy (via a difficult midwinter crossing of the Alps) in the early 1790s to find language tutors.

He interpreted for a failed British diplomatic mission with the Qianlong Emperor and ran a team of translators at a Canton factory, translating edicts and regulations for British merchants.

A century later, and translation was still big business in China. In the 1920s and 30s, the American businessman Carl Crow took on a range of commercial translation projects with his staff in Shanghai:

The translation of poker was the most difficult job of that sort we ever undertook, but when we began advertising motor-cars, we found plenty of trouble expressing terms in the Chinese language.

Carl Crow, Four Hundred Million Customers (1937)

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) was founded in 1910 and the American Translation Association (ATA) in 1959. The academic discipline of translation studies also appeared in the late 1950s.

Developments like these led to increased standardisation and quality across the industry.

The translation profession today

Though governmental, religious and literary translation are still thriving, translation is now primarily a commercial discipline. It has an impact on just about every area of the global economy.

According to one estimate, the global language services market is worth USD 57.7 billion.

One report estimates it growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.3% between last year and 2026.

Today, translators have a range of options of how to work, as freelancers or within companies. The former option often provides more flexibility, the latter more consistency.

Working within a company also enables translators to learn more about the industry beyond their task, as they get exposed to project management systems and best practices, translation tools, certification, and more.

Besides straightforward textual translation, translators often work in three other areas:

1. Interpretation

Interpretation (live oral translation) is often confused with translation (translation of text) by those outside the industry.

However, although there is a lot of crossover between the two tasks, and some translators also do interpreting (and vice versa), they are quite different skillsets.

Interpreting comes in two main forms: consecutive and simultaneous interpretation.

The former involves a speaker waiting between statements for what they have said to be repeated in another language. The latter requires the speaker’s words being put into the other language as they speak.

2. Localization

Localization is the task of adapting branding, text or products to better fit the target language or market’s audience.

Translators are particularly adept at this task. Their language skills often come along with a deep understanding of the associated cultural issues.

Some parts of the localization process are relatively straightforward: converting currency listings, measurements, date formats, etc.

Others require more subjective – yet informed – judgement than translation or interpretation. Experienced practitioners will be able to confidently and consistently make the right call on a range of difficult decisions.

3. Trans-creation

Trans-creation involves re-creating translations rather than adapting them (localization).

Trans-creators will often begin with a brief on the original brand and its objectives in the new market. From here, they will work on new messaging and even tone to maximise the brand’s impact in its new market.

Though translation skills are useful for trans-creation, they aren’t even necessarily essential. However, translation and localization backgrounds often come in handy because of the familiarity and experience they bring with the issues at hand.

The future of translation

Famous baseball coach Yogi Berra once said: 

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

In recent years, a number of new platforms and trends have appeared across different industries. The ‘next big thing’ usually has a link to technology, whether it’s cryptocurrency, electric cars, augmented reality, the meta-verse, etc.

Either way, the effects and implications of machine learning and AI on the profession of translation can’t be ignored.

The significance of Google Translate (and similar free tools)

Google Translate is a Neural Machine translation (NMT) service available on browser and by app.

It was launched in 2006 and ten years later it had 500 million users and translated 100 billion words a day. It now translates between 133 different languages.

Though we all know Google Translate’s limitations, it has improved significantly in recent years.

An enormous data set and the backing of one of the world’s largest technology companies means its prospects are bright. As recently as 2020 Google announced a further USD 100 million investment in the service.

Besides Google Translate, there are other large translation platforms such as Microsoft Translator, Baidu Translate, and others. These too are improving. In early 2021, Microsoft announced the release of their document translator.

It’s difficult to assess the precise impact these free tools have had on the translation industry to date. But there can be no doubt that they have taken work from translators.

Human translators vs. machine translation

Machine translation is not new. IBM was even working on an early version of machine-aided translation back in the 1920s.

Today, the market for machine translation was estimated to be at USD 800 million back in 2021, and to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30% between 2022 – 2030.

Arguments in favour of machine translation

Proponents of machine translation and AI-assisted translation say that it’s not if but when they take over translation from the (human) professionals.

They also argue that its accuracy and cost will outcompete human translators.

Furthermore, interpretation technology could circumvent the costs of multiple interpreters who need regular breaks, preparation time, travel expenses, etc.

Arguments in favour of human translation

Some proponents of human translators argue that nuance and tone are lost when machines talk to humans, but not when humans speak to humans. After all, being human is itself a kind of ‘native language’ machines will never truly master.

And having trusted interpreters at political or business events provides an atmosphere of human interaction and warmth that is well worth the cost.

Man and machine translation: A hybrid approach?

So does this mean that professional translators (and interpreters) are locked in a zero-sum competition against one another? It may do, but there is another view.

Speaking about AI more generally, former Chess world champion Garry Kasparov said:

“For those who say AI is making us redundant, I say no. We are being promoted.”

Translation memory software and computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools have been in the translation industry for many years now. They help human translators translate higher volumes of work more effectively.

It could be that the end result is that translation technology will simply give translators a greater capacity to work – to take on more projects and process them quicker.

One way it could do this is to make their work more like proofreading than translating from scratch. This method would also give them more time in which to make judgment calls on where localization or trans-creation are needed.

Will the translation profession die or evolve?

Regardless of the possibilities discussed above, it’s clear that the translation service translators currently provide will at the very least change in the future.

How will this affect translation as a profession? Let’s look at some of the possibilities available to translators currently considering this question.

Digital up-skilling

The digital realm is where much of translation takes place now. Therefore, digital skills will become increasingly valuable. These could include design, SEO, video-making, UX, or other skills.

Website translation, for example, increasingly comes with international SEO requirements. This means not only knowing SEO, but specialising in the international component of it.

And though translation software might become increasingly effective at translating, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will also be able to discern where and how that material should be distributed.

Therefore, skills around social media marketing, PPC and other marketing fields may also remain the responsibility of human translators.

More localization and trans-creation

Translators are very well-placed to move into marketing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cases of those who are experienced in localization and trans-creation.

Regularly coming into contact with marketing projects via localization and trans-creation assignments puts many translators in a good position. There is a lot of crossover with the skillset involved for these and international marketing more broadly speaking.

Adapting to deglobalisation

Some argue that deglobalisation is growing.

This was particularly stark in the case of Russia and the reaction to its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. 

But there are possible signs of it in many other locations and industries, too.

This could mean that the industries that require translation might change. Translators can adapt to this by switching to industries that are relatively insulated from the potential effects of this.

Conclusion

Human translation has been around for a long time. Centuries ago, the typical translator probably worked within a governmental or religious role.

Literary translations have had a huge impact on world culture and still influence the international books trade today.

Since the era of commercial globalisation at the end of the 18th century, the need for commercial translation has grown considerably. Today, practically every product we come into contact with was linked to the translation industry at some point.

Machine translation and AI are evolving quickly. Some fear they will replace human translators completely in the near future.

Others feel that human translators will simply harness them to get more work done at a faster pace, just as was done when translation memory software and computer-assisted translation (CAT) were launched.

Many translators also work in interpretation, localization, or trans-creation. The latter two in a particular crossover with marketing broadly. The translation profession might shift towards these even more.

Either way, in the meantime, up-skilling (especially in the digital realm) is the best way translators can evolve with their industry and prepare for the huge potential change ahead.

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