Posted by: patenttranslator | May 16, 2018

Is the Damage Inflicted upon Our Profession by the Translation Industry Reversible?

As I wrote in my previous post, it was about 15 years ago when I realized for the first time that major and possibly irreversible changes were taking place in the translation business environment. My solution was to stop working for what is now called the “translation industry”, and I was able to do that mostly thanks to my stubborn perseverance combined with a few lucky circumstances that I described in that post.

I believe that many translators should still be able to use the same method that I was and still am using, while others may be able to use very different methods to protect themselves and their profession from the clutches of the rapacious “translation industry”, although all of the different potential methods will be based on staying independent of the industry and being able to work mostly or only for direct clients, perhaps with a few small translation agencies included in the mix.

But since the larger question asked in the title of my silly post today has not been answered in that post, I will try to do so, from my perspective, today.

I think that the short answer is “probably not.” At least not in the short run, the damage cannot be reversed for the thousands of far-flung translators working on the translation industry’s plantation without any representation.

For one thing, we translators have nobody to speak for us, let alone work on our behalf to actively promote our interests. The government obviously does not give a damn about translators. Since unlike for example the drug industry, or the gun industry, we have no lobbyists paying millions of dollars to politicians to maintain our earnings even at a level enabling economic survival, the government becomes aware that we exist only when it comes to paying taxes, regardless of in which country we happen to live in. This is true not only about translators, but about many other professions and we should not be surprised by that.

What should be surprising, although some translators may not be realizing it, is that our so-called professional associations are actively working for the “translation industry” and thus against our interests, although nominally they are supposed to be working for us, as they are financed mostly by financial contributions from individual translators.

But the problem is, the “translators’ associations” are also funded by the “translation industry” if they and other industries, as well as the governmental organizations, are allowed to be members of the same association as translators working in the trenches of the modern translation business. And compared to the power wielded by these non-translating members who are also members of same presumably happy family, poor individual translators obviously have no power at all.

Translators have no friends, only enemies, or at best only frenemies who only pretend to be our friends.

One piece of evidence of the fact that for example the American Translators Association is working for the “translation industry” and against translators, is the current content of the ATA Chronicle, the association’s almost-monthly magazine.

Although I was able to publish two or three articles that were somewhat critical of the practices of translation agencies in the ATA Chronicle at the beginning of this century, before the term “translation industry” came into common use, times have changed since then.

I offered relatively recently several articles for publication in the “Voice of Translators and Interpreters”, partly because several readers of my blog suggested (despite my skepticism) that it was a good idea and naively thought that the ATA Chronicle would mostly likely have a positive response.

Frosty silence was the only answer. Who am I to dare to ask something like that?

The American Translators Association, and probably also other associations nominally of, for and by translators, are not interested in a dialogue between the translators and the “translation industry.” They prefer to pretend that we are all a big happy family.

Well, if it is a family, it is one in which the weaker members are abused by much more powerful members and ultimately slated for extinction.

That is not my kind of family … except perhaps as a fictional family featured in a Netflix series in which one weak member is gruesomely murdered every now and then, preferably no less than every other episode or so.

One reason why I stubbornly keep posting on my blog articles that are very critical of the propaganda and practices of the “translation industry” is that to my knowledge, the ATA Chronicle has never published anything even slightly critical of the “translation industry”, at least not in the last two decades, as it has been successfully co-opted by the industry into its machinery as simply another tool for disseminating the propaganda of an industry whose ultimate goal is basically to eliminate our profession by turning as many of us as possible into grossly underpaid, slave-like “machine translation post-processors”, a vulgar caricature of what our profession used to be and should be.

While there have been many articles in the ATA Chronicle (which calls itself “the Voice of Translators and Interpreters”) written by representatives of the industry, celebrating the advances of what is called language technology, not a single article has been published in it questioning the elephant in the room – the proposition that the present kind of mechanization and industrialization of translation is a healthy and desirable way forward for what is now called the “translation industry”.

The translation industry is blindly and furiously destroying the previous ecosystem of an ancient profession, a profession that in the case of written translation is as old as the invention of writing.

The industry does not realize that we translators are the creators of all of the industry’s profits and that if you eliminate us and replace us by algorithms, newbies and people who are being paid a fraction of what would be required to pay the bills and taxes in Western countries in order to maximize the profits of the industry, the best educated and the most experienced translators will be eliminated from the ranks of people who will still be able and willing to work for the industry.

It is only logical that one inevitable result of the current approach of the “translation industry” to what translation is all about is inferior quality of translations that are produced by the industry, especially when we include under the term translation also the new kind of pseudo-translations that are originally produced by algorithms and then picked over by rushed, underpaid and unqualified human “post-processors” to remove the most glaring and most obvious mistakes and make them look like real translations.

While I am pessimistic about our prospects in the short run, I don’t know what is going to happen to us and to the industry in the long run.

Nobody really knows that. But there may be a silver lining on these dark, gathering clouds.

Although it may take a very long time before some clients of the industry realize that they are paying good money for inferior translations that may turn out to be useless or even counterproductive, at some point they may realize that one solution would be to ditch ignorant and arrogant large translation agencies and try to replace them by small, highly specialized and highly knowledgeable translation agencies that actually understand what translation is, and by individual translators who, unlike those of us who feel that they have no choice but to work for the big and hungry dinosaurs, are able to proudly stand by their work.

But to be able to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the mostly unfortunate development over the last two decades, translators would need to stop endlessly complaining about the bad, bad agencies who pay low, low rates (if they pay at all), and they would need to figure out how to identify direct clients that would be a good match for what it is that they do for a living and offer their experience and skills directly to the actual clients, instead of being dependent on the middleman.

Some will hopefully be able to do just that. But if past experience is an indicator of things to come, probably not too many.


  1. Well said.
    It’s all about greed and power, while quality is a concept that can be stretched down to meet the conditions of a cranked up demand to crank out forever cheaper and faster.
    It is probably not a mere coincidence that quite a few CEOs of the translation industry mammoths, and not the least those of the MT mafia, in their communications give reason to suspect that they are dyslexic. They have something in common that antipedes the state of mind of many a skilful professional of the written word.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given that this constant downward pressure on wages and conditions is not particular to the “translation industry” and the fact that in previous decades it was combatted by strong trade unions and closed shops, I think we can sadly say that there is little short-term way of reversing this process. And it is to be reversed, it would have to be a sea-change in society, not just our profession.


  3. I agree.

    The situation is untenable, and not only in the ecosystem of the hometree being destroyed by the “translation industry.”


  4. Sometimes I think we’re like the Ottoman scribes, who lobbied to ban the printing press and helped keep their countries in the Middle Ages. Wouldn’t it be Full Commnism if every service were available for free – even the one we happen to provide? Who cares about quality when its free?


  5. Don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to have machine translation banned, especially since I use it myself frequently.

    I just want people to understand that machine translation is not really a translation, only a tool that to some people may look like a translation.

    Which is why it cannot be edited. Unless it is processed by a human mind and retranslated in a time consuming manner by somebody who knows both languages and who can create a real translation, it is bound to contain too many errors.

    Which makes the whole editing bit mostly a waste of time.


    • >>>I just want people to understand that machine translation is not really a translation, only a tool that to some people may look like a translation.<<<

      Well said. The term itself leads the unknowing to believe that machines can (and will eventually) replace human cognition. MT would not exist, were it not for billions of sentences translated by humans and stored electronically for repeated use. Human language constantly reflects changes in all spheres of human endeavour and understanding, hence the language always changes, while a tool is just a tool and remains a tool – it is only as good as the person behind it. That's why so many "machine translated" texts not "edited" (read and corrected) by a qualified and experienced person with a keen sense for the finest nuances in wording and meaning read awkwardly, at best.

      Jaron Lanier, a grandaddy of the digital era, says as much in his book "Who owns the future". It's a great book and although it came out almost a decade ago, very relevant today, and will be tomorrow. We're in for a "disruption" the likes of which we haven't seen before, if we don't stop glorifying machines at the expense of humans. As Lanier puts it, human work is increasingly becoming erased from accounting books, made invisible as if it did not exist, which is contrary to the fact.
      What will happen to people if all their work becomes unacknowledged and unaccounted for?

      I wonder why people pushing MT overlook the basic fact that technology – however sophisticated – is no more than an emulation, an extension of the human mind made tangible to make our lives less complicated. The way things seem to be going, one would think that people should become obsolete. 🙂


  6. Reblogged this on Translator Power.


  7. ” I don’t know what is going to happen to us and to the industry in the long run.”

    Sure you do. Translation will thrive for centuries, which you said repeatedly from 2000 to 2013.


  8. I know it may seem like a hundred years, but I have been actually writing this blog only since 2009.

    Good to know old timers like you are still reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Like

  10. I was refering to the conclusion of your opinon piece in Translation Journal in 2000:

    “All I can say is, good luck, Mr. Kurzweil, and more power to you! Thanks, among other things, to your superior machines whose intelligence will presumably soon exceed yours and mine, we human translators can look forward to a booming business in the exciting field of human translation for a few more centuries!”

    (Big Buggles fan!)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I see. We sure go back a long time, don’t we?

    I think I was right about the machines. They are not really a threat to translators because what they produce is not translation, even though it may kind of look like it.

    The main threat to our profession is the bottomless, self-destructing greed and ruthlessness of the so-called translation industry, as I discovered in the last decade or so.

    Working for agencies used to be a workable business model not so long ago. But the best way for translators to survive and thrive now is not to be dependent on them.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Better and better MT has allowed lower skilled translators to do a better job for lower wages where the extreme case is Japanese into English translated by Indians. Some are excellent but many rely on much better MT compared with 2008 and MT will keep improving. One J>E translator recently posted that his earnings were cut in half last year compared to the two previous years and said the translation industry “is in meltdown.” I thought the meltdown would be in 2013 to 2015, so I was a little off.


    • I know that the situation in the market for translation of Japanese patents is rather dire for experienced translators thanks in part to translators from India, who may not know very much Japanese, (or English, for that matter), but who can wing it somehow with MT to produce something that the “translation industry” is only too happy to sell at a cut rate.

      Fortunately for me, my earnings were doubled last year compared to the previous year for one main reason: I switched from translating Japanese patents  to English for prior art purposes to translating German patents for filing, as my German is about as good as my Japanese.


  13. Couldn’t agree more with your comments about “the industry”. As a French/Swedish to English translator of 16 years’ standing,
    I am planning to leave the industry this year and retrain. I was able to make a decent enough living as a freelance translator from 2008 up to 2014, at which point, I took a very lucrative short-term contract working as a translator in the oil and gas industry, which took me up to June 2016. Since then, however, it has been an uphill struggle, my workload is much more sporadic and unpredictable,and many agencies are more demanding.
    In 15 years’ time, I may start translating again on a semi-retired basis, but at the moment, there is not enough work/decently paid work to enable me to justify continuing to work in this sector.
    Good luck to everyone!


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