Are low rates and robots coming to get us?

Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while…and since my main work computer picked last night as a good time to die (don’t worry…everything was backed up), I have some time on my hands while it’s being repaired. This post is in response to various questions I’ve gotten from readers, colleagues, and students over the past few months, along the lines of:

“I came across a company based here in Paris who asks translators to sign up to a platform in order to submit their work for free (or for a coffee mug if you’re very good), and I wondered if you had any thoughts on the changing landscape of the freelance market for translators.”

“Are you worried about MT encroaching into certain translation markets, or into the translation industry as a whole?”

“Do you think translators should be looking for other jobs?”

I think these questions speak to a general uncertainty about, as the first questioner put it, the changing landscape of the freelance translation market. So let’s dive in; I’ll give my thoughts and you can give yours in the comments.

Short answer: Yes, things are changing in our industry. More people are doing freelance work in general, and more people are entering our industry through non-traditional pathways that may make them more amenable to lower rates. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living at the low end of our industry and there’s more competition at the high end, as more people opt out of the low end. Machine translation is certainly going to make some inroads into the “information-only” translation market, and into specializations where controlled vocabulary is an option. At the same time, I don’t think that our entire industry is going the way of the stagecoach driver. In fact, I think these changes might separate out the clients who want, need, and are willing to pay for really good translations. And for certain languages and specializations, MT simply is not a viable competitor to human translators for any type of project, and perhaps never will be.

I think the main choice we need to make is: If you’re going to work in the translation industry into the foreseeable future, do you want to be a translation software specialist, or a writer?

Longer answer: All of these are factors I think about in my own business. When I started in the industry (insert cranky old-timer voice) fifteen years ago, things were different. Even the mega-agencies generally paid non-peanuts rates, and most freelancers simply would not work for minimum wage. But lots of things have changed since then. I recently read a Freelancers Union survey stating that about 34% of Americans are independent workers, and that number is expected to increase by about 50% by 2020. That reality causes some shifts. As an example, I’ve recently talked to various beginning translators who’ve told me something along the lines of, “I currently work as a barista/nanny/museum guard/bilingual administrative assistant, making $9.25 an hour plus tips with no benefits or paid time off. So if I could make $20 an hour and work from home on my own schedule, I’d be thrilled.” I’m not blaming them or saying that that outlook is negative, but it exists, and it has an effect on the market as a whole.

Now, what about MT? I’m not an MT hater, at all. As I often explain to my clients, I use Google Translate myself…just not for anything other than a general gist of meaning. If I’m going on vacation to Italy and want to know what days a museum is open and closed, Google Translate does the job. When a client in Switzerland forgets that I don’t speak German and e-mails me about a translation auf Deutsch, Google Translate can usually provide a pretty good approximation of what they’re asking. If I translated for industries where translations are mostly done for informational purposes only, mostly include only a limited range of vocabulary, and where there’s some tolerance for bad writing or even minor mistranslations (think of the little user pamphlets that come with things like earbuds and can openers…), I’d be doing some strategizing. I’d ask myself: if the trends in MT, including neural networking, continue, am I going to be happy translating and post-editing 6,000 or 10,000 words a day for a couple of cents a word? Or would I rather look elsewhere?

In my own work, I’ve made a deliberate decision to work with a different kind of client. As an example, I recently started translating blog posts for a European environmental foundation. When I did the sample translation for them, they said, “Don’t treat it as a legal translation; rewrite it the way an American blog post should sound.” That’s the kind of client I’m looking for, because that’s a skill that MT doesn’t have.

If you want a comparison with another industry, I’d think in terms of the effect of tax preparation software on independent accountants and small accounting firms. Just like MT can give me a reasonable approximation of the menu at my favorite pizzeria in Milan, TurboTax and its ilk can do a decent job of preparing a simple tax return. I would assume that tax preparation software has taken a chunk out of the lower end of the accounting market, i.e. people who would otherwise use a chain, storefront accounting service. But, as someone who spends about $1,000 a year on accounting for my freelance business, I would never, in a million years, dump my accountant for TurboTax. I think of my accountant as the CFO of my business; she can advise me on whether to shunt more money into my retirement account or spend it on upgrading my computer system, or whether I’m missing any hidden deductions, or what I should do when I unexpectedly make more or less money in a quarter than I thought I would. As an example, here’s a story by a writer who pitted TurboTax against her human accountant and stuck with the human. Just as MT cannot tell a client whether US readers would know where Fribourg is (no, say “Fribourg, Switzerland”), or whether “their” is preferable to “his/her” (less clunky but may be too casual for formal writing; see Chicago Manual of Style for workarounds), TurboTax isn’t going to be your CFO.

In sum, I don’t think it’s a question of whether the translation industry will still be here in 20 years; I feel confident that it will. I think the larger and more important question is where you want to fit in: translating and/or post-editing huge volumes of words a day, or working as more of a bilingual writer. Readers, over to you: thoughts on this?

12 Responses to “Are low rates and robots coming to get us?”
  1. Sjoe! May 24, 2017
  2. Kevin Hendzel May 24, 2017
  3. Michael Wells May 25, 2017
  4. palomnik May 25, 2017
  5. Chris Durban May 28, 2017
    • Earl de Galantha May 30, 2017
  6. Carola F. Berger May 29, 2017
  7. Hazel Catkins May 30, 2017
  8. palomnik May 31, 2017
    • Sjoe! June 16, 2017
      • palomnik June 18, 2017
  9. Peter June 1, 2017

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