Is the party over? The future of the translation industry

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Those that tried to accurately predict the future of the translation industry 30 years ago failed miserably. Nobody got remotely close to imagining how things are today. Not only have computer software and other technology become ubiquitous, but the internet has collapsed distances, allowing translators to work from anywhere, for anybody. This has become a mixed blessing, as the same medium that allows you to send your translations off and receive reference materials at a touch of a button also doubles as a competitor on your market.

Our world has become faster, unpredictable and more challenging, meaning that many of us struggle to remain competitive, financially viable, appropriately skilled and relevant. Yet, change is the only constant. With thousands of new language professionals entering the Australian market every year, both through local training institutions and as a result of corporate and individual international promotional efforts, translators and interpreters need to keep apace with this new reality and embrace the world of continuous learning, adjusting and relentless progress.

In hindsight, everything looks easy. It’s predicting the future that’s hard. But let’s have a go, as we are entering yet another year. What will 2013 and beyond bring?

Statistics and news can be overwhelming and downright confusing. On the one hand, we know that the translation market is growing and maturing. On the other, prices are dropping; deadlines are dwindling, whilst demands for efficiency, reliability and professionalism are ever escalating. We all seem to be under pressure, chasing the next job, competing on a global arena.

In the twelve years that I have been an active player in the translation and interpreting profession, I have seen many developments, forcing me to change the way I think and operate. Back in 2000, much of the industry discussion was focused on increasing awareness. Guess what? We can tick that box! Clients have become more educated either through the industry efforts or their own curiosity. Those who didn’t know what translation was then, do now… Millions of people press the translate button every day, on their computers, phones, ATM machines. Just about everybody is using machine translation to find out more about the world around us. The purchasers of language services are wiser, more prudent and discerning. In some contexts, translation has become a commodity and a utility.

But rather than seeing it all as the end of the profession, let’s see where the opportunities lie. How can translators and interpreters rise to the challenge and reinvent their future? How can we all benefit from this exciting and stimulating professional environment? What can we do to differentiate our services, and provide value to our customers who expect more for less?

Those of us who have been around know that there is much more to being a translator than being able to translate. We are expected to provide a professional business service, accessible over different time zones and platforms. The actual translation is only a component of the deliverables. This will, in my view, continue, and just like in any other service area, our clients’ expectations will provide a perpetual challenge that we simply must meet.

I also believe that collaborative networks of language professionals will gain in popularity, particularly with the younger, technology savvy translators, willing to try innovative business and cooperation models. This is happening in many other industries, and our profession is by no means different. We’ve been talking about this for years and the time has come to put it into practice.

The next decade will see the end of translation agencies as we know them. Those, that is, whose only job seems to be receiving and sending translations out, without adding any value to the process or its participants. Unless language service providers are willing to invest in technology, superior project management systems and customer service, ensuring that they work with their contractors more collaboratively, they will simply be perceived as irrelevant by both the customers and the translators. We are in fact already seeing it in Australia first hand.

Prices will continue to drop in response to the global and technological pressures. But the growth of premium translation services will be sustained. The demand by clients who understand the difference between an OK translation and an excellent translation, including governments, will remain steady. We also need to bear in mind that setting up and running a translation office has become a lot less expensive than even five years ago and efficiencies for translators will continue to be found. I further believe that we will see differentiation in prices and volumes across languages, driven by supply and demand.

But to remain competitive and thrive in the premium translation services market, our productivity must improve. We also need to learn to nurture relationships and networks, including social networks as this will help us in finding our own niche and maintain a steady flow of business contacts. I will also lead to building stronger and more aware communities, and it will be up to each of us to shape them and benefit from them.

Rather than worrying about our own little turfs, we must further support new graduates and ease them into the profession. Internships, practicums and work experience will become an essential part of their induction. I also believe that Australian translators and interpreters of the future will be tertiary educated in the field of translation or interpreting and will no longer be able to enter the market sideways, by sitting to a test.

New, off-shoot careers will develop further, such as project management, sociolinguistics, subtitlers, psycholinguistics, voice recognition experts, localisers, internationalisers, post-editors and quality managers… the list goes on.

Today, my mobile phone is more powerful and feature rich than my entire office set up twelve years ago. You may argue whether this is in fact progress but it seems that non-stop connectedness, perpetual learning and building virtual communities are here to stay. I strongly believe that there is room for all of us in this profession in Australia and we are well placed to take advantage of our linguistic diversity, technological advancements and thriving business culture. Individuals can now more than ever influence the world around them and that can only be a good thing.

by guest blogger, Eva Hussain,  CEO                                                                                                                                      Polaron Language Services

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