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.