Will you help me flip it?

Translators and Interpreters Need to Become Technologically Savvy

Will you help me flip it?

This article was originally written for and posted in the 03-18-14 TAUS blog (see here).

It was originally addressed to translation & interpreting "industry" leaders and administrators.

However, it also addresses issues vital to translator and interpreter development and thus should be of interest to all linguists.

I am a translator and interpreter and I am worried about how we fit in the “translation industry” of the future. Many freelancers have lost sight of the skills we need to update to remain relevant and productive in the 21st Century. In the virtual instant village of the 21st century, the need for multilingual content is expanding at exponential rates and yet, many translators are finding it progressively difficult to earn a decent living. A large number feel under-appreciated by society at large and by the client in particular.

Translators have lost sight of the changes occurred in the “means of production” of the goods and services (or art forms) we deliver. The language services industry, in turn, has lost sight of the vital role that freelance translators and interpreters play in the industry’s future.

In a world of increased competition and decreasing margins of profit, translators and interpreters do not understand the investments (in time AND money) they need to make in software, training and processes to catch up to the demand for multilingual content, “immediately”. The language services industry, on the other hand, has been dismissive of the need to invest (time AND money) in their human resources, the providers of the raw material needed by the industry: knowledge.

Translators and interpreters are suspicious of most innovations in the language industry. Many do not understand what is going on or where we are going. We humans are frightened by that which we do not understand. And freelancer jobs are now threatened by forces not readily understood. Our primeval response is to either fight or flee, instead of understanding, staying, and growing.

The language services industry is relying more and more on machine technology and intermediaries to render their products to the end client. But ROI has not materialized as expected. Some questions have even been raised as to the validity of certain investments in technology.

In the meantime, the ongoing democratization of multilingual content (the fact that I click a key and have access to content in my language of preference) has created huge expectations that such multilingual instant content will be available at all points of contact.


I believe that both sides (“freelancers” and “industry”) are right and both sides are wrong. Ignorance of the true value of each other has led each to believe that they are mutually exclusive, instead of mutually inclusive.

The “industry” that has sparked so many changes in the means of production of multilingual content should be able to invest in the related human factor. What I have in my brain will be extraordinarily difficult to replicate. That is the new lesson learned by the industry. You may, of course, harvest some segments of our brains to improve the results of software. But in limiting your experience with us to doing only that, you are wasting the combined knowledge base held in the brains of tens of thousands of translators who are at the top of their game. Why would you not want to start where the best are and build up from there?

There is a need for change. Mostly a change in understanding and subsequent behavior, which are the most difficult of changes. Behavior on the part of translators and interpreters in regards to the future of the industry. Behavior on the part of the industry as to the intrinsic value of freelancers. There is a tension that needs to be resolved and we need to find ways to a win-win relationship.

What does this mean for those of you who are part of the “industry”?

My proposal is that you start investing time and money to “update the skills” of your human base, current freelance translators and interpreters, so that you may “flip it” around and benefit in the long term. I have no evidence that this may be good to your ROI, but neither was there any evidence that the investments you have made in software would.

I urge industry leaders to invite us, everyday translators and interpreters, to become an integral part (not a side story) of this equation. We have been severed from the most important conversations about our own future. Many of us are afraid of the new technologies because there is yet no clear answer to the question “what’s in it for me?”. The “industry” as a whole may well benefit from inviting us to become part of the equation going forward. If translators and interpreters do not learn –quickly and swiftly– to use 21st century technologies, we may not survive as a viable profession. Unless all the parties are on the same page, the “industry” as a whole may not evolve the way industry leaders might have anticipated. We need each other.

How would we do that? You ask. Let me give you some examples (and there are many other).

Let’s say that all of those in the “industry” who are working on the development of Machine Translation assign a budget for the education of translators and interpreters in CAT tools and MT. Education, not training. I am talking about giving translators and interpreters the tools and the knowledge to be able to understand the new technologies, along with the resources to really have access and benefit from them. Maybe via grants for the development of MOOC's (massive online courses), i.e., free-for all education programs. Maybe via funding for the acquisition by translators and interpreters of new software, coupled with scholarships to become fully proficient in it (training and real-world practice). Maybe some sort of global push that not only highlights the “industry” as a whole but makes PEMT an appealing profession for old and new translators....

What does the industry win? Hearts and minds. Think of the possibilities. Buy-in by large numbers of direct users who in turn contribute to growth and transformation. The freelance business model needs revamping. The language service industry as a whole may benefit from helping achieve such goal. Giving current freelancers the opportunity to transform their current knowledge and experience into useful and valuable skills may help in fueling a new generation of translators and interpreters that responds to the new challenges faced by the industry. The “knowledge workers” in this profession, rather than the software on its own, may become the vital link to convey multilingual content to 21st century audiences.

Will you help me flip it?

Written by Claudia Brauer for TAUS blog 03/2014


Subsequent to that post I created a Wiki that addresses some of the resources I believe need to be considered when training the translators and interpreters of the 21st Century.

Link to that Wiki here