Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Growing Interest & Concern About the Future of Professional Translation

I have noticed of late that every conference has a session or two that focuses on the future. Probably because many sense that change is in the air. Some of you may also have noticed that the protest from some quarters has grown more strident or even outright rude, to some of the ideas presented at these future outlook sessions. The most vocal protests seem to be directed at predictions about the increasing use of machine translation, anything about “good enough” quality and the process and production process changes necessary to deal with the increasing translation volume. (There are still some who think that the data deluge is a myth). 

Some feel personally threatened by those who speak on these subjects and rush to kill or at least stab the messenger. I think they miss the point that what is happening in translation, is just part of a larger upheaval in the way global enterprises are interacting with customers. The forces causing change in translation are also creating upheaval in marketing, operations and product development departments as many analysts have remarked for some time now. The discussion in the professional translation blogosphere is polarized enough (translators vs. technology advocates) that dialogue is difficult, but hopefully we all continue to speak with increasing clarity, so that the polemic subsides. The truth is that none of us really knows the definite future, but that should not stop us from making educated (or even wild) guesses at where current trends may lead. (I highly recommend you skim The Cluetrain Manifesto to get a sense for the broader forces at play.)
Brian Solis has a new book coming out that describes the overall change quite succinctly. The End of Business As Usual (his new book) explores each layer of the complex consumer revolution that is changing the future of business, media, and culture. As consumers further connect with one another, a vast and efficient information network takes shape and begins to steer experiences, decisions, and markets. It is nothing short of disruptive.
I was watching the Twitter feed from two conferences last week (LRC XVI in Ireland and Translation Forum in Russia)  and I thought it would be interesting to summarize and highlight some of the tweets as they pertain to this changing world and perhaps provide more clarity about the trends from a variety of voices and perspectives. The LRC conference had several speakers from large IT companies who talked about their specific experience, as well as technology vendor and LSP presentations. For those who are not aware, CSA research identifies IT as one of the single largest sectors buying professional translation services. The chart below shows the sectors with the largest share of global business. This chart is also probably a good way to understand where these changes are being felt most strongly.

Here are some Twitter highlights from LRC on the increasing volume of translation, changing content, improving MT and changing translation production needs. I would recommend that you check out @therosettafound for the most complete Twitter trail. I have made minor edits to provide context and clarify abbreviations and have attempted to provide some basic organization to the tweet trail to make it somewhat readable.
@CNGL Changing content consumption and creation models require new translation and localisation models – (according to) @RobVandenberg
@TheRosettaFound We are all authors, the enterprise is going social - implications for localisation?
@ArleLommel Quality even worse than Rob Vandenberg says: we have no real idea what it is/how to measure, especially in terms of customer impact
Issue is NOT MT vs. human translation (HT). It's becoming MT AND HT. Creates new opportunities for domain experts.
Dion Wiggins. LSPs not using MT will put themselves out of business? Prediction: yes in four/five years
CNGL says 25% of translators/linguists use MT. I wonder how many use it but say they don't use it due to (negative) perception (with peers)?
Waiting for translation technology equivalent of iPhone: something that transforms what we do in ways we can't yet imagine.

Tweets from Jason Rickhard’s presentation on Collaborative Translation (i.e. Crowdsourcing) and IT go Social.
@TheRosettaFound Jason of Symantec giving the enterprise perspective, added 15-20 languages to small but popular product, built tech to support this. Not just linguistic but also legal, organizational issues to be resolved in collaborative, paid-for product.
Is collaborative translation bad & not-timely? #lrcconf Not so, a lot of translators = involved users of the content/product they translate.
Review process is different in collaborative translation. Done by voting, not by editors
The smaller the language gets, the more motivated volunteer translators are and the better collaborative translation works.
Is volunteering something for people who don't have to worry that their day-to-day basics are covered?
Does collaborative translation and collaboration mean that content owners "give up the illusion of control" over their content?
Enterprises do collaborative translation for languages they would/could not cover otherwise - true, for both profit and non-profits
Collaborative/Community will not replace existing service providers but open up more content for more languages
Language Service Providers could play an important role in community translation by building, supporting, moderating communities
It's not correct to say Community Translation = bad; Professional Translation = good
Microsoft appoints moderators with a passion for the project/language for community localization
>1,200 users translated Symantec products into 35 languages
If >1,200 were needed to translate 2 small-ish products, how can millions of translators translating 1 ZB be 'managed'?
@ArleLommel Symantec research: Community involvement in support often leads to ~25% reduction in support spend
“Super users” are what make communities scalable. Key is to identify/cultivate them early in the process
Jason Rickard: Dell is a good example of using Facebook for support. One of few companies with real metrics and insight in this area.
Jason Rickard: Symantec has really cool/systemic/well-thought ways to support community

@TheRosettaFound 21st generation localisation is about the user, about user-generated content - Ellen Langer: Give up the Illusion of Control
@ArleLommel Illusion of control? You mean we can have even less control that we have now? That's a scary thought!
@TheRosettaFound The most dramatic shifts driven by the web happened because communities took over - Imagine: 100000s of user translators translating billions of words into 100s of languages - control that!
Seems the deep and complex problems of localisation are a minute drop in the ocean of digital content management
@CNGL Discovery, analysis, transformation - Alex O'Connor tells how CNGL is addressing the grand challenges of digital content management
@TheRosettaFound Is the L10N industry due for a wave of destruction or positive transformation?
@ArleLommel Yes, Most of the mainstream technologies for translators are non-ergonomic and still in 20-year-old paradigms

Tweets from Tony Allen, Product Manager Intel Localisation Solutions presentation
@TheRosettaFound 30+ langs >200k pages >40% localised @ Intel's web presence. Intel: important to have user-driven content, interaction with the customer. Integration important, e.g. multilingual support chat. Integration, Interoperability key issues for Intel L10N. To figure out how content flows, without loss of metadata, interoperates with internal/external range of systems, is crucial.
2.5b netizens, >15b connected devices >1 zetabyte of traffic by 2015 and companies will interact with their customers using social media - type setups; new challenges for localization.
#intel What does it mean for localization infrastructures if we have >1 zetabyte of content in 2015? Current methods won't keep up
@ArleLommel #intel says that interoperability standards are required for cloud to meet future demands. L10n must evolve to meet this need too.

@ArleLommel Alison Toon (#hp) puts it this way: “localization (people) are the garbage collectors of the documentation world”
@TheRosettaFound 600GB of data in Oracle's Translation Platform - We need concise well-structured content - then we're going to be able to deliver efficient translation services - How to get it right: analyze content, identify problems and throw it back into the face of writers and developers. I18N and l10n have to get into the core curriculum at Universities says Paul Leahy (of Oracle), since we spend too much time teaching it.

Tweets from Sajan / Asia Online MT presentation
@TheRosettaFound MT cannot perform magic on bad source text - user-generated non-native-speaker content is often 'bad'
MT errors make me laugh... but human errors make me cry - an old quote from previously recycled presentations... Asia Online
Dirty Data SMT - what kind of translations would you expect? If there are no humans involved you are training on dirty data, says Asia Online. Sajan achieved 60% reduction in costs and 77% time savings for specific project - a miracle? Probably no, let’s see.
Millions of words faster, cheaper, better translated by Sajan using Asia Online - is this phenomenal success transferable? How?
XLIFF contributed to the success of Sajan/Asia Online's MT project. Asia Online's process rejected 26% of TM training data.

Tweets from Martin Orsted, Microsoft presentation
@TheRosettaFound Cloud will lead to improved cycle times and scalability: 100+ languages, millions of words
Extraordinary scale: 106 languages for the next version of Office. Need a process that scales up & down in proportion.
Microsoft: We have fewer people than ever and we are doing more and more languages than ever
Martin: "The Language Game - Make it fun to review Office"... here is a challenge :) Great idea to involve community via game
How can a "Game" approach be used for translation? Levels of experience, quality, domains, complexity; rewards?
No more 'stop & go', just let it flow @robvandenburg >>Continuous publishing requires continuous translation. New workflows

Tweets from Derek Coffey, Welocalize presentation Are we the FedEx or the WallMart of words?
@TheRosettaFound TMS of SDL = burning stacks of cash - Reality: we support your XLIFF, but not your implementation
Lack of collaboration, workflow integration, content integration = most important bottle necks. Welocalize, MemoQ, Kilgray and Ontram working on reference implementation - Derek: Make it compelling for translators to work for us
It's all about the translators and they will seek to maximise their earning potential according to Derek.

Tweets from Future Panel
@TheRosettaFound Many translators don't know what XML looks like
Rob: more collaborative, community translation - Rob: Users who consume content will have a large input into the translation BINGO
Tony: users will drive localisation decision, translation live
Derek: future is in cooking xxx? Open up a whole new market - user generated, currently untranslatable content. HUGE market
Derek: need to re-invent our industry, with focus on supply chain
The end of the big projects - how are we going to make money (question from audience)
From service/product to community - the radical change for enterprises, according to Fred
No spark, big bang, revolution - but continuous change, Derek
Big Spark (Dion): English will no longer remain the almost exclusive source language

The Translation Forum Russia twitter trail has a much more translator oriented focus and is also bilingual. Here are some highlights below, again with minor edits to improve readability.

@antonkunin Listened to an information-packed keynote by @Doug_Lawrence at #tfru this morning. As rates keep falling, translators' income keeps rising.
@ilbarbaro Talking about "the art of interpreting and translation" in the last quarter of 2011 is definitely outdated
Language and "quality" are important for translators, speed and competence for (final) clients. Really?
Translators are the weakest link in the translation process
Bert: here and now translation more important than perfect translation
Bert on fan subbing as an unstoppable new trend in translation
Is Bert anticipating my conclusions? Noah's ark was made and run by amateurs, RMS Titanic by professionals
Carlos Incharraulde: terminology is pivotal in translators training < Primarily as a knowledge transfer tool
To renatobeninatto at who said: Translation companies can do without process standards < I don't agree
@renatobeninatto: Start looking at income rather than price/rates
Evaluating translation is like evaluating haircuts - it's better to be good on time than perfect too late
Few translation companies do like airlines: 1st class/ Economy/ Discount rates – Esselink
Traditional translation models only deal w/ tip of iceberg. New models required for other 90%. Esselink
Good enough revolution. Good enough translation for Wikileaks, for example. Bert Esselink
In 2007 English Russian was $0.22 per word, in 2010 it dropped to $0.16 @Doug_Lawrence
There's much talk on innovation but not much action - don't expect SDL and Lionbridge to be innovative
@Doug_Lawrence all languages except German and French decreased in pricing from 2007 to 2010
@AndreyLeites @ilbarbaro problem-solving is the most important feature translator should acquire - Don't teach translators technology, teach them to solve problems - language is a technology, we need to learn how to use it like technology - 85% of translators are still women
@ilbarbaro 3 points on quality: 1. Quality is never absolute, 2. Quality is defined by the customer, 3. Quality can be measured - it is necessary to learn to define quality requirements (precisely)
@Kilgraymemoq announces that they will open Kilgray Russia before the end of the year

This is of course my biased extraction from the stream, but the original Twitter trail will be there for a few more weeks and you can check it out yourself. It is clear to me from seeing the comments above, that at the enterprise level, MT and Community initiatives will continue to gather momentum.  Translation volumes will continue to rise and production processes will have to change to adapt to this. Also, I believe, there are translators who are seeking ways to add value in this changing world and I hope that they will provide the example that leads the way in this changing flux.

And for a completely different view of "the future" check this out.


  1. "Few translation companies do like airlines: 1st class/ Economy/ Discount rates" - that's because for most large TC, it's all coach class, all the way, no matter what the ticket says.

  2. Kirti, you write: "I believe there are translators who are seeking ways to add value in this changing world."
    I am intrigued by your words "add value". Who are these people? what sort of "value" are they seeking to add? Do you know any translators who are willing to give a testimonial to the positive impact on their working life and earning capacity? This would help to lift the debate beyond the vague "I believe" level.

  3. @Victor
    “Who are these people?”
    These are translators/post-editors/linguists who see MT as a new leverage opportunity and a variation on an old theme. I know of several at Asia Online who used to work as traditional translators who now use MT regularly as part of their translation process, simply because they have learnt to use it. There are also some translators involved with large localization projects (huge manuals of mostly technical stuff) e.g. some who work with Sajan mentioned in the conference are examples. There are several other LSPs and their translators who are also doing this.

    The value “they” add is corrective feedback, manufacturing sentences to learn new patterns, error analysis to improve engines which in turn improves future productivity. Many of them get paid a lower rate for post-editing but are generally involved in higher productivity environments so they end up making more as Doug Lawrence said at TFRU “As rates keep falling, translators' income keeps rising”. This is true for some, though not all at this point.

    MT-savvy translators are also more likely to get involved with translation outside of the “software and documentation localization” space e.g. User reviews, social network brand related discussion etc… Change will not touch everybody in the same way, for some there will be no change.

    I suspect that many of the translators who use MT regularly are wary of broadcasting it, because of the feedback they would get from some vocal anti-MT peers who make “ethical” issues out of the use of this tool. Many new translators who are growing up with Google already know that it can help them get work done faster, whenever it is allowed. So slowly this change will become less prominent and threatening, I hope. Some translators will understand where MT makes sense and where not, how to make it more useful and how to leverage their work with MT, just like they did with TM.

    There will of course be some who will choose not to participate and this is true for many things. I still have close family who will not use email though pretty much everybody is using phones now. And so it goes.

    @Riccardo Maybe translators will be able to refuse to travel on those kind of airlines in future.

  4. Hi, Kirti, it is a very nice way you have put it, the future is in data-driven, based on all the old technologies and human translation models we are using. The best is still from both, the better TM tools and organization of people who using the tools.


  5. Kirti, I can offer my take as a translator. If the dialogue has become strident, if there is a loud debate about MT and translators, I can offer some causes:
    a) Some translation-industry observers insist on "predicting" the future of our industry.
    b) Some so-called gurus, thought leaders and visionaries use hyperbole and grandiose language to broadcast their predictions.
    c) In an era when anyone can write a blog or tweet, we have too many consultants, big LSP and tools representatives talking about how we translators have to accept lower rates and MT workflows under the promise of large volumes and higher incomes.

    Like you said, nobody can foresee the future. Any talk about future events is worthless and distracting.

    Additionally, the market is quite fragmented. We independent contractors get tired and wary of this preaching from the bulk riders in the industry.

  6. Hello Kirti, the topic sounds interesting. But I'm not very sure of the line of your argument. Is it possible to expantiate a bit? Thanks.

    Enobong INYANG

  7. Enobong

    I am not exactly sure what you mean or refer to - but basically I am saying that the translation needs of the market are changing and what we used to focus on in the past in terms of translation is also changing. This requires more automation, new content and faster turnaround which means that sometimes traditional translation process can not be used.

    I have included Twitter comments from many others to support these claims.

    I have other blog posts that go into more detail on this and you can see them at if you check out the most popular blog entries you will get more detail.

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  9. Machine translation will never place human translation, it only helps a little bit, we still need to check for grammatical errors, style, syntax , word order, word choice...

    Posted by Nellie K

  10. The only ones I see worrying are those, who are trying to make money of translators.
    There is only a limited amount of good translators and those (if they are smart enough) can name their price, and there is nothing you (or anybody else trying to profit from their work) can do about it, just to shut up and pay their price or try to find somebody cheaper (and of course less experienced, prone to mistakes, requiring extended testing, etc, etc). When you count all those direct or indirect costs, you are better of to pay good money to good translators at the beginning. But because your job is to strategically lower the cost, it is Catch 22 (smile)

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  13. I quote "Many of them get paid a lower rate for post-editing but are generally involved in higher productivity environments so they end up making more as Doug Lawrence said at TFRU “As rates keep falling, translators' income keeps rising”. This is true for some, though not all at this point."

    It depends how much is the increase in productivity and how reduced are the rates, if the MT rates are 50% lower than translation rates productivity should increase more than 50% in order to make more money. This is the key point.

    There are translators who are against MT for "ideological" reasons but many are not against it are against being paid less.

    With the current pricing schemes for MT, accepting a MT post-editing is a gamble the translator takes. In the best case scenario he or she will be making the same amount of money as they would by doing a "normal" translation, but most likely it will be less money per hour.

    If you know of professional translators who switched to MT post-editing from standard translation and working the same amount of time as they used to are making more money post-editing I will change my mind (I am not talking about semi-professional or students who were used to charge 0.03 USD per word but established professionals). In other words I would like to see business case for an established translator to switch from classic translation to MT pos-editing jobs.

    I would like to know where MR. Lawrence found the data to corroborate the statement that "translators income" is rising.

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