Will Translators Ever Be Obsolete?


Photo Credit: Matt Benson via Unsplash

Photo Credit: Matt Benson via Unsplash

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.

And finally…

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.

How do you think technology will affect the way we work in the future? Leave a comment, follow me on Twitter, and subscribe to my blog for more content like this.


6 thoughts on “Will Translators Ever Be Obsolete?

  1. The main problem I find with analyses about new technologies and how they might displace translators is that those analyses are reductive. In other words, they oversimplify complex situations. The secondary problem I see is the misunderstanding of what translation processes are, compounded by a misguided analogy of translation as a computerizable or automatable activity.

    To say that translation is communication is as insightful as saying that a human hand is for greeting at a distance. Yes, we need to learn and apply business skills, and sell our services effectively to a changing assortment of clients. To be sure, we translators need to wear many hats. Sometimes, the whole translation team is just one person —translator, editor, proofreader and project manager, not to mention the accountant who bills the client.

    As for the image of the solitary translator poring over a paper dictionary, that has never been my image. There as many assumptions about what a translator does as there are people. Maybe the literary part is an enduring visual to some.

    Finally, we don’t have to field stupid questions, like “will a better AI render the human translator obsolete?” Frankly, I don’t see why we should even entertain an answer to such highly speculative question. There are some speculative questions that invite thought, dialogue, and bring opposite viewpoints closer to an understanding. The AI- or technology-focused question that I consider stupid above is of the useless speculative kind, and we should ask probing questions instead: “What makes you think that AI can translate? What is translation to you? Are you concerned about my well-being as a professional translator?” And so on.


    • Thank you for your comment! We of course know how difficult it would be to automate translation today, and I am not worried about losing my job anytime soon, but at the same time, computing power and technology is excelling at such a fast rate that one day, computers may be smart enough to both write compelling books and translate them, too. In the meantime, I think it’s important for us to demonstrate our value so that even when that day comes, savvy buyers look to humans instead.


      • It’s not a matter of difficulty, Ben. If we were talking about gen replication or genetic manipulation, ADN editing, then we would be on a more solid ground to talk about how technology could advance to such a degree that a biological operation would reasonably be done by software or a device. That will never be the case of translation. Why? Paraphrasing Whorff, there aren’t two languages that represent reality in the same way to the point that substituting labels (dog for perro, for example) would be all there is to it. Also, some language theorists have indicated that what we see as language (written or oral) is the visible product of what’s going on inside a person’s head. If science can’t yet describe the mental processes involved in translation (or interpreting) —fMRIs on bilingual people only show brain areas that light up during the interpretation into another language, not specific neurons, just areas— what hope can Silicon Valley technocrats (Facebook, Google, others like Kurzweill and his so-called singularity stuff) have to design software that can actually replicate mental processes. Those processes are currently unknown.


      • Mario, while I agree with you that the technology is currently not up to snuff, I do not agree with saying that since the processes needed to fully automate translation are currently unknown that translation is 100% safe from the encroachment of technological innovation (you say, “that will never be the case of translation.”). You are right, the technology does not exist to replace human translators, and perhaps it never will. However, being myopic about how our industry is changing would be unwise. Just over 100 years ago, we didn’t even have zippers, and now we have self-driving cars, we can instantly and wirelessly communicate via video with anyone, anywhere in the world, and robots assist with human surgery. Who knows what the next 100 years will look like? Though it may never happen, I still believe it is worth doing what we can to solidify our value proposition to ensure that no matter what, customers will still want to hire humans.


      • Ben, maybe better analogies could be more useful to our fruitful discussion (because I think this is a fruitful conversation). Zippers, really? Yes, robots assist with surgery, like the Da Vinci robots (I’ve seen them, but not in the surgery room). The self-driving car is an ambiguous example, however, because the software powering it is a series of preemptive procedures and scenarios that can be easily programmable (by ‘easily’ I don’t mean ‘it’s easy’ but it’s highly complex but attainable).

        Machine translation has been with us for decades, more or less starting in the middle of the Cold War when knowing Russian fluently was very profitable for a translator. There was no statistical engine at the time, and processors weren’t fast enough to process lexicogrammar rules to handle natural languages.

        You might be interested in reading what a company called Narrative Science has been doing for a few years: creating financial and sports news by software. There are no journalists or human analysts: it’s all done by software that parses the relevant data. More info: https://www.narrativescience.com/

        Ben, even if we disagree on some points, it IS important to keep the arguments and debates like this one on the surface. Thanks.


      • Mario, perhaps using zippers was extreme, but I do not think it is a terrible example to illustrate the veritable leaps and bounds that have been made in technology (and by extension, computing) in the last 100 years. The advances in automated systems and robots are mind boggling. Computers are not powerful enough to process language the way humans do (and perhaps they never will), but we can’t forget Moore’s Law and the fact that there are hundreds of scientists working on just that. Who knows what the future will hold? Thank you for the link, I will definitely check it out.


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