Posted by: patenttranslator | November 14, 2011

What Are The Present and Future Challenges Facing Translators?

Different people will naturally identify different challenges. Many people believe that the biggest challenge is the threat of machine translation. I don’t think that machine translation is a threat at all. As I have written many posts on this subject here, I can’t think of anything new to say at the moment. If you want to know what I think about MT and the future of human translation, click on the category link below.

Other people firmly believe that computer assisted memory tools (CATs) are the way to go and translators who don’t use CATs will be left in the gutter. I may or may not learn a CAT or two at some point in the future. But if I don’t do that, I don’t think it’s a big deal in my field, namely patent translation, which probably means that I will never learn any of them, just like I never learned how to drive car with manual transmission. I would have problems with cars in Europe but in America, most people can only drive cars with automatic transmission. And I would have a problem if I did not use Trados if I worked for a certain kind of translation agency. But if an agency is more interested in the kind of memory tools that I use than in my translations, that tells me right away that I don’t want to work for them.

One problem with CATs is that they are the one tool that is always required by translation agencies that pay low rates and send translators long agreements, which among other things specify that the agency owns intellectual property rights to the terms contained in databases of terms prepared with software such as Trados, etc. The intent here is clearly to turn the translator from what I would call an independent artisan into an obedient and easily replaceable cog in a complicated, proprietary machinery owned by the broker. Another problem is that the software is very expensive and it also seems to be really hard to learn – I see on my dashboard that just about every week somebody who Googled “I hate Trados” ends up on my blog. I don’t need CATs and I don’t trust brokers who want to own what is in my head because I do believe that what’s in my head is mine. So I ignore both.

A more important present and future challenge is in my opinion mastering the proper use of new tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking media. I am probably too old to master the fine points of these new tools, but I did create an account for each of them, although I use them mostly just to spy on my kids on their Facebook pages (they did give me their permission) and to advertise my blog posts. I think that social networking, time consuming as it may be, will be even more important in the future for translators. But it is not really such a big challenge, most people under 40 learn it intuitively, although many people older than 50 resist this new trend and for some reason have trouble figuring out how these things work.

The real challenges in our future are not of a technical nature. Technical problems tend to sort themselves out with time. Even the most stubborn translators, such as this one, had to first learn touch typing, how to use computers and Internet, and then they had to switch from WordPerfect to MS Word, etc. After a while, we forget how painful the changes were when we were facing them for the first time.

The real challenges facing translators in the future are the same ones that they were facing in the past. Will my languages and fields still be in demand in the future? What are my particular strengths and weaknesses? Is my business model viable? Should I concentrate only on translation agencies and if so, what kind of agencies, or on a mix of agencies and direct clients, or should I try to develop a clientele consisting mostly of direct clients? And how should I go about it? Every person will have a different answer to each of these questions, and the translator is the only one who can answer them.

These are the real challenges because a series of wrong decisions can turn a talented translator into an underpaid and miserable slave, depending on what kind of clients he works for and in what fields.

I have met a few freelance translators who were not happy with their chosen occupation. Not everybody is cut out to live the life of a pajama-dressed lone wolf who may never even see his clients or other translators, year after year, decade after decade. But I also met other translators who would never exchange their somewhat precarious lifestyle for a “more secure” existence, such as being a 9 to 5 employee.

Once we get used to the idea that figuring out our future challenges on our own can be a lot of fun, and that making sure that we do so is in fact much less dangerous and less stressful in the brave new world that we live in now than depending on an employer who can “outsource” an expensive employee any time, we will be seeing things in the right perspective.


  1. As a younger translator, most of my challenges revolve around that one question: How should I go about getting clients? Current technology may make it an “easier” search, and also put some distance between the potential clients and my nerves… but it guarantees nothing. Without the internet, I would be looking in a phone book to do the same. Without telephones, I suppose I’d be scouring the city and popping into many, many offices to introduce myself. The technology is incidental. The results are roughly the same.

    (Oh, and just for the record, not all under-40’s adapt easily to the new technology. Twitter just isn’t my thing.)


  2. “As a younger translator, most of my challenges revolve around that one question: How should I go about getting clients?”

    That has always been the case for people who are starting a new business.

    You seem to be going in the right direction with your website.

    I think that one important thing that you need to figure out now is how to make sure that potential clients will be able to find you (through search engines).


  3. Enjoyed your post, as I always do, Steve.

    As concerns CAT tools, I have a feeling you have a preconceived notion that they are slavery tools of agencies to make them rich and to exploit us poor translators.

    I agree that is one way they can be used, if you let an agency use them that way.

    BUT–they are first and foremost tools that make your life easier, Steve. Especially in the patent translation field! I know what I am talking about since I, too, translate patents occasionally (English>German). You are familiar with the structure of US patents and the similarities in text between the descriptions and the claims. This is where CAT tools shine. I am sure that I with the aid of my CAT tool will do a claims section three times as fast as you could ever do it. Because a CAT tool is basically an archive of each and every sentence you’ve translated. And that is all YOURS. There are no agencies involved. Nobody owns or is acquainted with my translation memories (TMs); they are mine only. And–nobody knows you are using a CAT tool unless you choose to tell them.

    There are more advantages to CAT tools:
    -You will never again forget or overlook a sentence.
    -You don’t worry about formatting
    -Numbers, dates etc. will convert automatically
    -You will always know how far you have progressed in your document and how much is left

    You say CAT tools are difficult to learn, as everybody whines about Trados. Trados IS difficult, because it is vastly overloaded with functions that you or I will never need in a lifetime. But there are other CAT tools, relatively easy to learn and to handle (Wordfast, memoQ, Snowball). Snowball is the easiest (and simplest) of them all; you’ll get the hang of it within a half hour. memoQ has by far the best support in the industry (just ask Kevin in Berlin, who likes your blog but, like me, just won’t share your attitude to CAT tools.)

    You say one doesn’t teach an old dog new tricks. C’mon, Steve, Czech people are clever, and Czech people who mastered Japanese, German, French and English must be infinitely smarter than I am. I started using a CAT tool when I was 56, without any instruction from anyone (and started dictating to a CAT tool when I was 61). If I can do it, you can do it.

    After two or three weeks you will wonder how you ever did without a CAT. After a year, you will notice that your revenue curve shot upwards when you started using your CAT tool. And after that, there will only be two periods in your life: the time before CAT (arrrgh) and the time after (smiles!)

    At that time I hope you will send me a bottle of champagne for kicking you in the a…



    • Volkmar,

      Could you also please send me your resume and rates for E to G patent translation through the e-mail link on my website?

      I might have an occasion to exploit you at some point.


  4. Hi Volkmar:

    Thank you for your response

    I will take a look at Snowball at some point. I did actually download Wordfast a few months ago but I had no clue how to use it.

    One major stumbling block for me is that the Japanese patents that I translate are in PDF format and I would have to run them first through OCR, which I think would be complicated and time consuming. I tried it once and it did not work for me at all.

    Thank you for your confidence in my abilities but I am not really that smart: I can’t even parallel park my car properly, which is something that every American teenager can do easily. Fortunately, this is not a problem here in the suburbs.


  5. Your phrase “many people older than 50” is a lovely euphemism for a milestone that I passed ages and ages ago. I had already passed it when I started on CAT tools (Déjà Vu). Yet I wouldn’t be without my DVX2, and this year I have even launched out on Twitter (although I still resist Facebook). My view on CAT tools is similar to Volkmar’s. But one of the beauties of our line of business is that we are free to choose our own tools for the job, and if Word is your love and your delight, so be it!!! 😉 😉 😉


  6. Volkmar

    I don’t deal with agencies; but merely on the basis of getting the work done, I’m with Patenttranslator on this one, simply because I have found CAT tools to be a hindrance rather than a help (i.e. they get in the way; I can translate more and faster without them than I can manage with them).

    I too translate patents (French to English), and I’ve been earning my living that way for about 30 years.

    Tell us more about your CAT tool and how it has done you so proud. Very particularly, how do you get it to help with the claims (references in parentheses), the description (references without parentheses), and the statements of invention (no references), but otherwise much text that is almost identical?

    As a human, I can see loads of ‘repetition’, but the machine is very bad at speeding me through it.

    Instead, I tend to use my own macros for highlighting the changes needed to get from the claims to the statements of invention. Ditto for aligning after I’ve finished a translation, in order to find what’s been left out (and my alignment files convert easily into Wordfast TMs, should that ever be needed).

    Tell us more – I’d love a CAT tool to work for me.



  7. @A.S.

    Thank you for your moral support.


    Word is not my love and delight, unless you mean Logos, The Word that is the source of order and knowledge.

    My new dog Lucy is. She is a scary looking pit bull who was left behind here by my son who moved to California a month ago.

    At first she was growling at me but now that I am feeding her and walking her and picking up her sh*t, she really, really likes me.


  8. […] of a g11n Veteran – Social and Mobile Apps and Globalization i18n L10n The Illogical Series (When a Big Translation Is a Big Problem) Whenever I Hear Agency Owners Griping About Translators… Blog recommendation: My Lord, my fam, my […]


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