Creative Destruction Engulfs the Translation Industry: Move Upmarket Now or Risk Becoming Obsolete
Heartfelt, Urgent Advice for Colleagues Stuck in the Downward Pricing Vortex of the Bulk Market
Imagine for a moment that you were in the business of manufacturing digital cameras. In fact, let’s take it a step further and say you invented digital photography. These cameras were a bit pricey at first, and the initial images were terrible, but their innovation was that they eliminated film and film processing; the pictures were immediately visible, could be stored, shared and posted almost anywhere, and the picture quality eventually became startlingly good.
Then along came the smartphone. They were unusually expensive five years ago, but the white-hot smartphone market is synonymous with brutal competition between innovative companies like Apple and Samsung, and pricing, features, longevity and physical resiliency have grown dramatically.
So today such innovation has resulted in a smartphone market where progress is rapid and picture resolution, pixel storage capacity and sharing capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds. Smartphone cameras today are more compact than digital cameras, are easier to use, faster in transporting and storing images, and sit in nearly everybody’s pocket.
So Why Would Anybody Buy a Digital Camera Today?
The answer is: Very, very few people do. Forbes called the collapse of the digital camera market one of the fastest and most startling devastations of a modern commercial market. The smartphone market has been on a tear not just to take market share, but to destroy the entire digital camera market, a process that began in 2010, eventually resulting in the bankruptcy of the company that invented digital photography: Kodak.
Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented digital photography in 1975, was told by Kodak executives to “keep it quiet,” because it endangered the sale of film, their principal revenue driver.
The “keep it quiet” strategy is a terrible defense against destructive innovation. The pile of rubble and aged patents that constitute what is left of Kodak are a strong testimony to that reality.
Google Translate as Destructive Innovation
The analogy to the translation market is clear. Google Translate (GT), which has been on an inexorable climb toward better quality over the last fifteen years, contains billions of words in paired language strings in its enormous corpora, which of course are human-produced translations courtesy of our colleagues in such international organizations as the U.N., the E.U, the European Patent Office, and the Canadian Government, as well as multiple other organizations.
These are good, human-produced translations, and don’t even require statistical machine translation.
It’s beyond ironic that calls for translators to collaborate to produce higher quality – calls that are usually ignored – is what GT is actually doing. It is leveraging the work of all your colleagues on a massive global scale, and giving it away for free, as a bundled product.
GT has become the modern translation equivalent of the smartphone. Translators in the bulk market are still trying to sell digital cameras, and are frantically watching prices continue to drop where “good enough quality” is sold. This is the same market where customers recognize that GT is often wrong, but it’s instant, free and “good enough quality.” Now is GT perfect? Of course not. But neither is a smartphone. The lighting is often off, or people feel that they are not flattered, so they take several pictures and pick the one they like best. Snapchat and other platforms provide filters to make people look good, or thinner, or to adjust the color of their face or even to turn them into various cute creatures. All for free.
Shift in Expectations
People accept these imperfections in smartphones vs. what an exceptionally good high-end digital camera can produce – much as they accept translation imperfections with a shrug – because there has been a major shift in expectations.
Instant, free, convenient and “good enough” have changed what people expect. Which is why GT famously translates millions of more words every day than all human translators do in a year. Here’s an intriguing question. As a translator with a smartphone, would you spend several hundred dollars to buy a digital camera to take the same pictures you do today with your smartphone?
I think we can safely say that the answer to that question is “no.”
Yet that is what translators in the bulk “good enough to understand” market are asking their clients to do every day. Pay them to translate texts that GT may actually produce better (remember that GT is often simply leveraging the existing translations of your very skilled colleagues).
Clients Awake to the New Reality
And now we are witnessing clients in the bulk market – agencies, small businesses, even major corporations – waking up to this reality. Clients who “just need to know what the document says” are beginning to push back even on the idea that a human needs to take the lead. They often question what a translator produces if they’ve seen a different translation on GT. They demand low, single-digit rates that almost require the use of GT, which turns translators into unwilling post-editors.
These clients’ view is reflected in a famous quote by the photographer Ken Rockwell: “The best camera you can use is the one you have on you.” Increasingly in the translation world, that is GT – and translators who have not honed their skills to move upmarket are feeling the undertow. And it’s getting worse, with rates continuing to edge downward, and translators feeling like commodities, where every human translator is considered indistinguishable from every other.
Markets Where Smartphones Fall Short
To continue our analogy to smartphones, let’s recognize that there will always be markets where smartphones are simply not going to work as cameras. These are domains where quality really does matter and where the added expertise of the photographer is critical and well-compensated. For example:
- Professional photo shoots of a wide range of products, from cars to food, for high-end professional use by companies;
- Head-shots for professional portfolios;
- Photojournalism where the impact of an image requires exceptional talent to capture;
- Wedding and special-event photography;
- Live-event coverage for media, sports, and entertainment for commercial purposes;
- Studio settings for lighting, high-end equipment and the skills to use them.
In translation, those same markets also exist, but they lie several miles above the “good enough to understand” bulk market. These markets are referred to as the ”value-added market” and the “premium market” (distinction discussed below) and typical products include:
- Annual reports and formal financial disclosure statements required by law that are issued by multinational corporations, where translators must master regulatory issues and complex financial rules;
- High-profile advertising by Fortune 500 companies, investment banks, high-end consumer goods companies, etc. in high-prestige venues;
- Professionally published journals, articles and documentation in the sciences and engineering, requiring advanced technical training on the part of the translators;
- Diplomatic and intelligence data in a wide array of fields critical to national security, both classified and unclassified, where translation often blends into analysis, requiring special expertise;
- Translations adapted across cultures in ways where the two products end up as completely different works of art.
In the same way that an exceptionally talented photographer can “make magic come alive” in the photographs taken in the examples above, an exceptionally talented translator can also “make the message come alive” in the translation examples.
Note I did not say make “text” or “words” come alive. Those are often translators’ worst enemies, as they are trapped into translating words rather than ideas – what those words express. As I’ve long argued: “Translation is not about words. It’s about what the words are about.”
The photographer Ken Rockwell also famously noted: “The camera’s only job is getting out of the way of making photographs.” This suggests what we have known all along – it’s the talent, expertise, experience and collaborative flair of both the photographer and the translator that makes it possible for these artists to create art: To be able to work in both the value-added market and at the very pinnacle of the industry: the premium market.
Soon these will be the only sectors of the industry that even exist for professional photographers or translators.
Moving Upmarket: Two Pathways out of the Bulk Market
Bulk Market. The market where GT poses a singular threat and is already having an immensely harmful impact on rates is in what we call the “bulk market” – the estimated 60% of commercial translation done “for informational purposes,” or to “convey basic information” where “good enough” is the standard and price is the primary basis of selection, because GT (free) is considered a serious option.
Uneducated clients are also increasingly using GT for “outbound” translations: Into the languages of their clients, for purposes of selling their products to their own customers in broad, general consumer markets, or for software and web content localization, in languages the uneducated clients don’t understand. The pitfalls of such an approach are obvious, as the client cannot judge the results, but the brand power of Google and the mindshare grip that GT has on their view of translation has shoved the “for information” translators out of the picture.
Translation Fail: United Airlines
For example, United Airlines recently used GT and a tiny bit of post editing to translate their apology letter relating to the passenger violently dragged off a flight, resulting in a translation that, while understandable, was very far from polished or persuasive in the target languages. Count this as yet another PR blunder by United Airlines in their attempt to enhance their image. One would think such a sensitive and delicate communication would intuitively compel management to demand the best, but we are seeing the immense Google branding power behave like water on a flat surface – it finds the cracks and flows into them all.
The Value-Added Market
The “value-added market” is a higher-end sector that requires special expertise, experience and sensitivity. While not yet the premium market, it’s a solid step above the bulk market, and often where translators work for years as they hone their talents and expertise before moving into the premium market.
The value-added market is where the translations are typically in a specialized subject-area that is sensitive enough for clients to pause at the thought of using GT or any machine translation at all. The complexity of the subject is enough to sow doubt in clients’ minds. The risk of a translation error can be significant. Translators who work in these markets (typical rates in the USD $0.15 – $0.20 range) have completed specialty training in the subject-matter at the university level, are exceptional writers, and have largely completed the switch to direct clients and the best boutique agencies while terminating their relationships with low-end bulk-market agencies and ceased to consider random agency inquiries.
Examples of subject areas include:
- The entire range of medical, pharmaceutical, and health-care translation, including clinical trials, medical devices and instruments, patient records and charts, physician notes; physician rater training, regulatory and compliance and other health-care specialties;
- IT and telecom, with principal focus on innovation and next-generation technology solutions;
- Accounting and auditing on the corporate, institutional and legal levels;
- Environmental sciences, petroleum and industrial engineering;
- Entertainment: subtitling, voice-over and A/V at the national network and media level.
While this is obviously a representative list, it is hardly exhaustive, and in several sectors overlaps with the list provided above to contrast with the bulk market. But this value-added market is not the province of generalists or bulk-market translators – those who market themselves in these areas without the true expertise to succeed will certainly fail. A ticket to success in this market is hard-won, and success takes talent, commitment, a thorough knowledge of the subject matter and an excellent record of performance.
The Premium Market
The ironclad way around becoming an unwilling post-editor or being stuck at low single-digit rates is to become an expert translator. A specialist. A true artist. This requires exceptional subject-area knowledge, exquisite writing skills, and a lifetime of collaboration with your most talented colleagues.
Here are some tough-love truths about the bulk vs. the premium market. This will help translators dodge the bulk-market trap of perpetual downward pricing competition.
One can tell the difference between an expert premium market translator’s work and the work of an average bulk-market non-specialist at a glance.
It’s a Picasso vs. a 5th-generation photocopy of a grainy black-and-white mess.
Now, obviously, we all started out as novices producing those grainy photocopies and took a lifetime of work, study, collaboration and the development of subject-matter expertise to get into the Picasso range — it’s important to make this clear.
These “side-by-side” translations have been done going back about a decade. Some come from “mystery shopper” experiments, and others from translation workshops which most of us in the premium market have taught for at least a decade, so we actually SEE the huge discrepancies in quality right there in the room! This is not a mystery or unknown in the industry at large.
Even some raw GT finishes ahead of many translators who are still young, inexperienced, cannot write, or have no idea what they are translating.
Putting Your Translations “At Risk” For All Your Colleagues to See
Translators who engage in translation slams or other competitions where they take the same text and then publicly compare their translations, with hundreds of other translators witnessing that process, and a tough judge in the middle, discussing alternate translations, shades of meaning, the finer points of, say, legal and financial interpretation, etc. show the dramatic differences you see when translators confident in their work — and both highly specialized and also revised by colleagues on a regular basis — are willing to put their translations out there for all their colleagues to see.
For the most part, these competitions occur in the premium market at such events as the “Translate in the…” series, which deals with Fr<->Eng exclusively, and some competitions sponsored by the SFT in France, as well as most recently at the ITI Conference.
Here’s an ironclad rule: If your translations are not out there “at risk” for evaluation by your colleagues, you are not doing it right. You need hands-on, hard-skills collaborative workshops; translation slams; and shared portfolios of your work for everybody to see.
The way to break into these markets is not to just keep translating in isolation, without subject-matter training or collaboration, because the clients paying serious rates (above USD $0.50 per word) are deeply engaged in work in law and banking and industry and technology and are not usually out there in Translatorland talking to translators.
Bemoaning the Lack of Serious Translation Talent
I can’t tell you how many lawyers — just to pick one profession at random — I know who became translators because they were disgusted and fed up with the “quality” they were getting on a regular basis over years from a huge number of different translators who had translated one contract and then marketed themselves as a “legal translator.”
So the way to higher rates starts with subject-matter expertise. You have to know the finer points of the law to offer, say, five different translations of a phrase and explain to your client exactly how they are different in your source language and what you — the expert — think is important in their language (your target language).
That’s right — you get to explain the finer points of the law to a lawyer who is discussing a text in his own native language.
That’s the premium market.
If you are not able to do that — if you are not able to discuss the law in that detail with 5 different translation options, and a solid reason based on the subject-matter with a lawyer (or engineer, or banker, or physicist, or certified financial analyst) – then you are not there yet.
So your level of specialization should be on a level equivalent to a practitioner in that field.
That requires REAL expertise, not lightweight CPD, so expect to minor in these subjects in college, or go back for formal training. That means formal university training. Without this level of knowledge and expertise you will NOT see errors that you are making every day in your text that a true subject-expert will spot in an instant (several translators with readily recognizable names on social media recently published books containing howling scientific errors — and they had no clue. Don’t be them.) Skipping this step means you are not only delivering a substandard product to your client, your competition out there that does have expertise in the field will soon enough take your clients away from you.
There are many more steps on that ladder and most of them involve daily collaboration with other, more experienced colleagues.
I recognize that people must tire of hearing me say this, but there is NO OTHER WAY to make it to the pinnacle of the craft without leveraging the expertise of other smart, creative, thoughtful and engaged colleagues.
Find an expert reviser (or more) who reviews every word you translate. Establish revision partnerships with translators whose skill sets complement yours, but whose experience is superior to yours. Ideally they should come from an institutional framework, so if you translate physics into English, be revised by other physicist-translators with the American Institute of Physics who have greater expertise than you do. Have them share their marked-up copy with you on every assignment. There is no other way to avoid the “echo chamber” of translation that exists in your head, or to avoid making even glaring errors repeatedly, because nobody downstream has bothered to correct you.
Then you have to go out there and attend the same functions your clients do.
You also have to share your translations in public — perhaps do a slam or two as a form of practice — and see how you stack up against the 20 or 30 or 50 other translators who call themselves “experts.”
Some day — if you do this long enough — you will find your work has made incremental improvements over a very long time, and the distance between what you were producing five or ten years ago vs. what you are producing today will point you in the right direction for being successful in the premium market.
Other translators who have seen how good you are will begin to refer work to you that is too much for them to handle. Other translators working in the opposite direction will have also heard of you, and will be glad to have a trusted name to recommend to their clients for work in the opposite direction. Talent, experience, expertise and your final product drives rates. Not the other way around.
Rates: Welcome to the Premium Market
As you improve through specialization, collaboration and honed writing skills, raise your rates on a regular basis. Use earmuffs if you need them to combat howls of pain from low-ball clients. Use rates as a way to control workflow once it rises to the level where you are unable to service it all in a quality fashion.
If you make it into the premium market, be aware that $0.50 per word is a common rate, and project rates are becoming the predominant quoted practice.
Plus, the demand is intense, as there are simply not enough translators able to produce on this level. Translate a LOT. Every day. In the same way that professional athletes train hard every single day, your success in the market will be determined by your persistent dedication to translating regularly, being reviewed regularly, being revised/corrected regularly, raising your rates regularly, serving your clients exceptionally, and rising up the ladder in that fashion.
Finally, Smile. Laugh. Be nice. You are enormously fortunate to be succeeding in a field you love. How many people can say that about their work?
Follow me on Twitter: @Kevin_Hendzel