These days, so many people are asking “Where is this whole machine translation/artificial intelligence (MT/AI) thing headed? Are we all going to be out of a job in a couple of years?” So I decided that for this month’s master class on direct client marketing, I would just prepare a few slides on this whole topic. People seemed to find it helpful, so I thought I would share a summary with you in this week’s post.
On the one hand…
- Our imminent demise has been predicted for over 30 years. I graduated from undergrad in 1993, and one of my professors told me, “I wouldn’t encourage you to go into translation, because I think that computers are going to completely take that over pretty soon.” And, 30 years later, we’re all still here!
- I’m 52 years old. As long as my body and mind hold up, I plan on working full-time until I’m 70ish, and I’m not looking for another career. Likewise, if my 21 year-old university student daughter wanted to become a translator or interpreter, I would perhaps give her some caveats (the language industry is a lot different from when I started 20+ years ago), but I would feel very positive about that decision, and I would encourage her to pursue a career in translation or interpreting.
- DeepL and similar tools have gotten a lot better, particularly for information-only translations (“What does this say in German??”), and I still feel that any good translator can tell you in about three sentences that a translation was done by a computer. To me, MT has no style, no flair, no creativity, and that is a lot of what my clients pay me to do.
- I also think that interpreting is, in general, more future-proof than translation. I do think that automated captioning of recorded materials is getting a lot better, and that in very controlled settings, we could see automated foreign-language captioning making some inroads. But I think that when it comes to “the magic earpiece” that turns a live speech or presentation into another language in seconds, those of us working in the industry today don’t have a lot to fear.
On the other hand…
- When people say that this iteration of MT/AI feels different, I agree. This iteration is not so much “eating the market from the bottom up,” as it is making inroads into the part of the market that most translators want to work in: mid-market agencies. It seems to me that most mid-market agencies are moving toward (or already using) a model where almost any file that is computer-readable is going to be translated using MT and then edited by a human.
- I think that there are lots of freelance translators who have cruised along for years, if not decades, working for a few mid-market agencies paying maybe 11-15 cents per word, with the translator doing little to no marketing and essentially having a steady job where they set the hours. I think that many of these agencies are now offering mostly editing work, at hourly rates that are a lot lower than what their translators were making per-word for translation. Lots of these mid-career translators have never worked with a direct client and, honestly, have no desire to do so, because they just want to translate.
And where do I think this is headed?
- Most importantly, I may be totally wrong. People much smarter than I am get technology predictions wrong all the time. I mentioned in the master class that I recently saw a reference to an article from 2012 (!!), in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that he thought self-driving cars would be so ubiquitous by 2017 that human drivers would be in the minority. Annnnnd, that’s not true by a long shot, even 11 years later. But, with that caveat, here’s what I think we may be looking at.
- I think that translation may follow a similar trajectory to what happened to web designers between about 2000 and 2015. I had a website in 2002. At that time, the only way to get a website was to hire a web designer who hand-coded the HTML for you in a fairly artisanal manner. Then came the earliest versions of WordPress (2003) and Squarespace (2004), and pretty soon, most people who wanted a basic website didn’t hire a designer at all; they used a website creation tool.
- However, it’s not like web designers disappeared as a species. And in fact, I would hazard a guess that the work done by most web designers in 2023 is both more interesting and more lucrative that the work they were doing in 2002. I honestly think that if the cream rises to the top of our industry, so to speak, it’s the most interesting and lucrative work that will continue to be sent to human translators.
- I also think that in the future, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to earn a healthy income (let’s say 90-110K or higher) without working for direct clients, and most importantly, without having good business skills. I think the world of “like a regular job where you set the hours,” where you’re going five years without doing any marketing, is going, if not gone, and we’ll probably see a fair number of translators drop out of the market or change careers because of that factor alone.
I hope you find these unscientific predictions (!!) helpful. If there’s anything you want to tell me, just put your reply in the comments!
Corinne McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!