The translation industry, if we want to call it that, has undergone many changes in the last two or three decades. These changes may be invisible to young translators who may assume that the way things are now is the way things have always been.
But I remember that things were very different indeed when I was a newbie translator in 1987. The main difference between the translation industry then and now is that while back then translation industry was still very much about the art and craft of translation, now it mostly about the art and craft of buying and selling of translations – buying as low as possible, and selling as high as possible.
There were no huge translation agencies producing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for their monolingual owners (who by virtue of not knowing any foreign language don’t understand the first thing about translating) every year through thousands of employees in dozens of offices.
I am looking at a list of Top 100 “Language Services Providers” (the newspeak for translation agencies, designed to hide the true nature of the business entities, which is that of a broker), compiled by a company called Common Sense Advisory, Inc.
The list says absolutely nothing about the countless invisible translators who translate and thus create millions of dollars in profit from which the monolingual translation agency owners and thousands of employees of the translation agencies can then live. This profit from the work of these unmentioned translators is also used to pay the rent for the offices, advertising costs, and all other associated costs.
But translators are not important in the modern model of the translation industry and if they are mentioned at all, it will be only in a single sentence on a website which says something like “We work with 3,000 (4,000 …. 5,000 or more) highly qualified translators”.
In the old days, before the advent of the mammoth translation agency model with hundreds or thousands of employees and many offices, small translation agencies, and it is almost comical how small they were compared to the monstrous structures that translators are dealing with today, in fact did try to work only with highly qualified translators because that was the key to survival in a marketplace where quality mattered.
Or so the translation agencies of yester years thought. That was why multilingual operators who were usually running the old type of translation agency were always on the lookout for the best translators out there, translators with degrees and experience in a given field, usually slightly weird people who loved their slightly weird occupation. Once they found such translators, they would work with them for many years, and they would pay them handsome rates for good work, because back then, the people who worked in these translation agencies were still able to tell the difference between good work, not-so-good work, and total garbage.
But all that changed with the advent of the mammoth translation agency model around 20 years ago. Most of the people who are now working in the large translation agency model, called project managers (or PMs for short) can’t really tell the difference between good work and not-so-good work because they almost never understand the languages from or into which something is translated. They can spot total garbage if the target language is in the one language that they do understand, but that’s about it.
The prevailing philosophy in the new translation agency model is that quality is somewhat overrated anyway, which is quite a logical conclusion considering that the people running things in this model, called PMs, can’t really tell a good translation from a bad one.
Quantity, on the other hand, is very important in this translation agency model because quantity can be measured and measured quantity, once there is a lot of it, equals higher and higher levels of profitability.
In addition to increasing the quantity of “production of translations”, another way to achieve higher profitability is to decrease the pay for the people who do the translating bit in the complex transactional process created by the modern and revolutionary translation agency model.
This relentless pressure on rates paid by agencies to translators has been further intensified by judicious use of modern technology by the translation agencies in the new translation agency model.
Internet, computer technology, globalization and the never-ending economic recession (we are not supposed to call it a crisis) are the four prongs of a giant fork used in the modern translation industry model to push the rates paid for translation to those invisible translators who work quietly in the background as low as possible, and then to keep them as low as possible.
This is similar to what has been happening for quite some time to many other white collar professions that used to employ highly paid professionals in a number of fields. As per this article in New York Times from 2003, complicated X-ray images that used to be analyzed by American radiologists who were making up to 350 thousand dollars in United States are now often analyzed by cheap Indian radiologists for 25 thousand dollars a year.
It’s good money for the people in India, and the private health insurance companies and hospitals in United States get to keep the difference in pay because the medical costs in United States have gone through the roof since 2003.
Translation rates are also squeezed by CAT (computer-assisted translation) software which is used by translation agencies to greatly reduce or simply refuse to pay for words repeated in a translation (a concept called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”). The difference in the cost is again mostly kept by the translation agencies.
A new concept pushed by a brand new model of translation agencies is human-assisted machine translation, which is something that could use a new abbreviation.
HAMT? Or can somebody think of a better and snappier abbreviation?
In the old days, humans used to be assisted by machines. These days, machines are assisted by humans.
Innovative new startups, and new ones are being created as I am writing these words on my silly blog, are based on the concept of crowdsourced editing of machine translation, namely the idea that the minor imperfections of machine translation, such as when they make no sense whatsoever, can be corrected by humans who don’t really need to be translators at all as long as they have some knowledge of two languages, and who should be able to make these corrections on their cell phones for something like 1 or 2 cents per word.
According to a youthful owner of one such startup called “Flitto”, [Machine translation] … “has been unable to shake inaccuracy issues. Nobody uses Google for translating business documents. We believe we can outdo Google in this field. Flitto is a great way to make money with your free time. While you’re sitting in the toilet, you can utilize the time efficiently by translating and earning points”.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that the modern translation industry is now completely dysfunctional.
It seems to me that people who perhaps know another language to some extent, who have no credentials and no experience in the translating field, are likely to just further mess up the garbage that was originally produced by machine translation instead of fixing the “tiny problems”, for instance when they are working on a mobile phone while sitting on a toilet.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the translation industry, with all of its modern tools, from shifting of work away from educated and experienced translators to people in third world countries who may be translating from languages that they don’t understand very well into a language that they have not really mastered, to machine translation and working on a cell phone while sitting on a toilet, is now a complete joke.
I think that the inevitable result of these trends is that the modern translation industry model will be producing mostly just heaps of garbage.
I also think that the best thing that customers who need real translations for really important projects should do would be to stay away from the modern model of the translation industry altogether and work instead only with small translation agencies who still believe in the old model, or directly with translators.
Otherwise, there is a good chance that the translation that they just paid good money for was first processed by machine translation software, and then edited by a dude who says that he knows some German, or Japanese, or Korean, and who was editing the machine-translated detritus on his cell phone while sitting on a toilet.