This past week, I was asked if I was worried about technology rendering the profession of translator obsolete. While artificial intelligence and other technological advances have the potential to eliminate most human jobs, for the time being, we can’t worry about things that are out of our control. Instead, we can work on securing our jobs now and proving that we are able to do things that no machine is capable of, at least not yet.
FIT, the Fédération Internationale des traducteurs (International Federation of Translators) recently published a position paper on the future for professional translators. It is quite short, and well worth the read. Below, you will find the points that I thought were the most important.
…professional translators will continue to have an important role to play because machines still lack the creativity and intuition that humans have.
Machines will probably never have brains that function like yours or mine. Humans are innately gifted with creativity, intuition, and the ability to analyze language based on how it makes us feel, not merely based on what is being said. I doubt a machine will ever be capable of doing that. Translation is so much more than rewriting what is written on a page or screen. As such, there will always be a place for humans in the translation market because there will always be customers who seek to translate ideas and feelings, not merely words. However, with that said…
Professional translators have to adapt, be creative and develop business models that make the most of the latest technologies. These models could include various types of added value or involve translation services provided as part of a diversified offering. New innovative ideas are needed.
The most successful translators I know are ones that wear many hats: translator, editor, author, consultant, teacher, storyteller… In other words, the most successful translators are those who offer a variety of services and who creatively find ways to meet their current customers’ needs while finding ways to reach new ones. An entrepreneurial mindset is key to becoming successful because the image of a solitary translator poring over a paper dictionary with handwritten copies of poems just simply isn’t what the industry looks like anymore.
…[A] strong focus on professionalism must be maintained. […] [T]he quality of the translation work can only be ensured by trained and experienced professionals.
A machine will probably never be as good at anticipating translation customer needs as a human. In my interactions with customers and colleagues, I seek to maintain the highest level of professionalism at all times. This means turning away work for which I am not qualified, referring customers to colleagues whose work I admire, and being honest about my ability to help a customer achieve his or her goals. The future of our industry depends on this kind of behavior and maintaining an irreproachable level of professionalism.
Professional translators must…redouble their efforts to make it clear that they are service providers and counter the commoditization of their world.
Professional translators are highly-trained individuals who are providing services that require many years of experience and knowledge. We are not selling sugar, oil, or minerals, where the quality is more or less the same no matter what price you pay. Finished translations are unique and no two are alike. It is our responsibility to educate our customers about the value that we add to their projects and prove through our work why it is worth the cost.
Above all, [translators] should act as language services advisors or language consultants, advising their customers on the best approach to a particular assignment and explaining the benefits or drawbacks of certain translation methods.
As I wrote above, translators do not just transcribe words into a new language. We promote and facilitate communication across linguistic and cultural barriers. We therefore have a responsibility to help our customers understand how their messages will be received and to adapt those messages as necessary to help them achieve their goals. No machine is capable of doing that.
Professional translators must…be willing to move away from traditional roles and embark on new, rewarding areas of activity…
No industry exists in a vacuum. Translators cannot afford to be myopic and go the way of the railroad industry, as Theodore Levitt famously detailed in 1960. We must remember that we are not providing translations, we are facilitating communication. We are in the communication services industry, and this is what should guide how we evolve in the coming years.
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