As we start a new year, here are a few thoughts I have about how things might go in the translation field. They are subjective thoughts, of course, which is another way of saying that they are supported by my observations over decades in the translation business and, more specifically, over the past year or so.
Translator upward mobility. I expect that, for most translators, upward mobility in the translation food chain, which is already difficult, will gradually become even more difficult. Additionally, in at least certain markets (such as my language pair of Japanese-to-English), there is a chance that, depending upon a translator’s current position in the market, involuntary downward mobility might be an outcome to be of concern. That said, there are very few translators working at the top; perhaps only 5 to 10% of translators are doing any significant work in the truly premium market, which essentially means working for direct clients. I think these translators will largely be spared any slide into or toward the bulk market, because they have achieved a bit of immunity, both to the direct demands of the bulk market for cheaply done translations and to the domino effect triggered by translators just below them in the food chain caving in to such demands.
Bulk-market translators. Here is where I see a real existential risk for those who think that it will continue to be business as usual. There are two major factors that will work to accelerate this risk. One is the continued presence of translators in cheap-labor economies. In JA-to-EN translation, for example, a large portion of the huge demand for discovery document translation for US litigation is already being served by translation brokers in China and India. This is placing downward pressure on rates offered by US translation brokers to translators in the US, many of whom are quite dependent on such work. Some have given in to the low rates being offered, and this will inevitably place pressure on colleagues just above them in the pecking order to do the same or perish. Essentially, even those who are not immediately above the cheap labor economy translators have reasons to be concerned.
An additional risk in terms of rates is a two-forked one, represented by existing reverse auctions such as Proz and the proliferation of new online translation platforms, both of which work to lower the bar to entry into translation. The result is a ready supply of new translators ill-equipped to produce high-quality translations, but very willing to work for low rates. The demand for translations that are “good enough” as long as they are cheaply done has been demonstrated to be large. And the willingness of translation consumers to sacrifice quality to achieve a low purchase price provides fertile ground for the growth of machine translation services, bringing me to the next area of my predictions.
Machine translation. Anybody who has seen the low quality of JA-to-EN translations coming from translators in cheap-labor economies should recognize that there is already a considerable overlap in quality between machine translation and bad translations produced by humans, and that these poorly done human translations are already gaining acceptance in bulk translation markets such as the US discovery document market. If you are already able to use “good enough” bad translations produced by humans, the barrier to using much cheaper machine translation of a comparable quality falls away. This represents a threat to not only the JA-to-EN translators in India and China, but also to the lower-level translators in more advanced economies who are just above them in the food chain.
The effect of social media. Although social media is not a place to find up-market translation clients, interactions in groups of translators on social media platforms can affect a translator’s expectations regarding several important aspects of the translation profession. My experience is that translators using social media tend to group themselves roughly along lines of their position in the food chain of the translation market. A group that is populated mostly by translators in the low-paid bulk market will develop a group mentality regarding a number of issues facing translators. Essentially, these translators are in an echo chamber of their choosing. I suspect that members of such groups who have different views might be reluctant to express those views, perhaps not to annoy other members, or out of a sense of futility. I will go into this aspect of translator interaction in a short article coming up soon.
In summary, I think the world of translation as seen by practitioners in the coming year will not see any quantum leaps, but rather will be affected by trends that are better described as gentle drifting.