The Inevitable Unforeseeability of the Foreseeable Future

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“I tell in my book that Bill Gates in ‘98, when I asked him what he worried about, he didn’t say the obvious, which is “My competitors, Netscape, or Oracle or Apple.” He said “I worry about someone in a garage inventing something that I haven’t thought of.”

Ken Auletta

Sometime in the 1970s, when IBM decided to subcontract the operating system design for its new computer to Microsoft, (to be called “personal computer” or “PC”),  the company did so because it erroneously determined that a computer’s hardware would naturally be more important and thus more profitable than its operating system. This turned out to be a very shortsighted decision for IBM because once the new PC design was out in the open, there was no reason to continue using IBM hardware.

As journalist Ken Auletta tells it, Bill Gates was more circumspect than IBM executives and bean counters because he knew that he needed to constantly worry that somebody somewhere might be inventing something that he could not foresee himself. Except for the fact that instead of one guy working in a garage, it turned out to be two guys working in a dorm who eventually came up with the idea of an Internet search engine, Bill Gates was quite the visionary to worry about the inevitable unforeseeability of the foreseeable future.

The expression “foreseeable future” is in fact an oxymoron because the so-called foreseeable future has never been foreseeable.

At the end of the 1980s, nobody expected the Soviet Union to implode within a few short years. The only person who did predict it was Andrei Amalryk, in his book “Will the Soviet Union Survive the Year 1984?”, which was published in 1970. But implode it did and very quickly, along with its vassal states in Eastern and Central Europe, because even a tiny dose of hesitant democratization is extremely destructive if you unleash it on a calcified, bureaucratic system that is held together by lies and a lot of violence.

Who would have expected the son of a Jewish immigrant from Hungary to become president of France, or a year later, for white people in America to vote a black guy whose middle name is Hussein into the White House?

Things change all the time, usually quickly and when we least expect it – although it is also true that the more things change, the more they tend to remain the same, especially when it comes to politics.

Are Future Trends in “the Translation Industry” Foreseeable?

If what I just said here is true (and it just might be), is it even possible to try to foresee and predict the future of our profession, or what is often referred to as “trends in the translation industry”?

I believe so, provided that we keep in mind that many things, often the most important ones, cannot be foreseen or predicted. It’s easy to predict that the demand for translation will continue to grow on this planet, from and into many languages. But it is not that easy to foresee how exactly this demand will grow, in which fields and languages, and how that demand will be met.

Because I have been working as a translator since 1980, both in-house and freelance, in Europe, Asia, and the United States, I have already seen a lot of changes to the profession in my lifetime.

A Language Can Become Less or More in Demand with the Passage of Time

One of the inevitable and largely unforeseeable future changes is that over time, the demand for individual languages can change, as some become less important and others become more important.

Starting in 1987, I translated mostly patents and the majority from Japanese. I still translate a lot of Japanese patents, but while Japanese patent translation used to represent about 80 percent of my workload some 20 years ago, last year it was probably only 30 percent, and I am pretty sure that I must have translated more patents from German than from Japanese last year.

And while I was told that there used to be very little work for translators who could translate patent applications from Chinese and Korean, there is so much work for patent translators in these language combinations now that the rates paid to these translators are as high or higher now than the rates that were paid 20 years ago for patent translation from Japanese. This is especially true about Korean patents, because there are many patents in Korean that need to be translated and relatively few translators to do it well, while the competition among legions of Chinese translators keeps the rates for translation from Chinese at a lower level.

So I am predicting, in my wisdom, that the rates for German patent translation will remain relatively steady, and will probably even go up over time, while the rates for Japanese, which have gone down during the last two decades, will probably not go up significantly. They may even still dip a little lower over time, unless Japan wakes up from its post-Fukushima stupor and starts cranking out new patents at the pace it was cranking them out from the 1960s until about the year 2000.

If that happens, a few years later we will all be surrounded again mostly by Japanese TVs, computers and smart phones in every big-box electronics store, instead of seeing mostly Chinese and Korean hi-tech products on display in every store.

Incidentally, if you are a Japanese patent translator who does not seem to be getting enough work these days, it might make sense to start cooperating with a Korean or Chinese translator, or both. That is what I have been doing for quite a few years now and it is working quite well for me – although something like that can obviously only be done if you mostly work for direct clients.

Is Technology on a Collision Course with Human Translators?

Many prophets of doom for human translation and human translators on the Internet have been expecting the ultimate demise of our profession for a long time. The change that many prophets of future trends have been anticipating and foreseeing for at least the last 20 years is the ultimate switch from translation performed by humans to translation performed at lightning speeds by machines.

Based on how many people perceive translation, especially those who don’t understand much about it, human translation should have been replaced by machine pseudo-translation a long time ago. Many people firmly believe that if this hasn’t happen yet, it soon will, as soon as machines are fast and powerful enough, or have enough “corpora” (comparable translated data), etc. The general consensus among translation ignoramuses is that human translators will disappear from the face of the earth within about five years. Incidentally, this has been the general consensus of people who don’t understand how translation works since about 1990.

I don’t believe that computer tools, including machine translation, are on a collision course with human translators. As a translator, I find them very useful, as long as it is up to me whether I use a tool and which tool I want to use. If technology were on a collision course with human translators, we would already have been replaced by these tools. But as I have written in many posts on my blog, although at first glance the product of these tools may look just like real translation, appearances are deceiving, and machine translation is just one example of such a deception.

The “translation industry” is on the forefront of the movement to replace human translation as much as possible by automated translation output generated by computer tools such as CATs, machine pseudo-translation, and based on what I’ve read on social media lately, also by “translation quality checking and validating software tools” such as “X-Bench” and “Verifika”.

Human translators are protesting about being abused by “the translation industry” in this manner, but nobody seems to be paying much attention to them. Here is a translator’s comment on LinkedIn who is being forced by a translation agency to use this software “to ensure translation quality”:

“I translate into and from Hungarian, too, and I know exactly what you are talking about [this was in response to a comment of another translator who was being forced by a translation agency to use a tool that she despised and considered a complete waste of time]. What I do now is that I tell upfront to my clients that if they want to use X-bench, they should not bother asking me to work for them because I will not work with it. Period. It is a complete waste of time, especially with Hungarian, but I suspect this may be the case with other languages, too, because it does such a crude, mechanical comparison that the number of false positives must be high, no matter the language. If you proofread your translations before submitting them, this tool will not tell you anything useful.”

The tools don’t work. In fact, they have the power to kill human translation if used as directed by “the translation industry”. But who gives a damn when the expectation on the part of the great “translation industry leaders” is that these wonderful tools will speed up the translating process and reduce the need for expensive human translating, thus leading to higher and higher profits.

Is “The Translation Industry” on a Collision Course with Its Customers?

Yes, I believe so.

I am predicting, in my wisdom, that the push to replace human translation as much as possible by mechanized and automated output generated by machines and software, to be later only lightly checked (as long as it’s not too expensive) by humans who will be completely subordinated to these machines and software and who can no longer be called translators, will dominate in a certain part of what is called for lack of a better name “the translation industry”.

I am certain that major translation agencies, often referred to as “mega-agencies”, will definitely jump or already have jumped on the bandwagon, lured by the expectation of ever higher and higher profits.

As the reliance of “the translation industry” on mechanized and computerized output and the insistence that all human translators adhere to the same tools prescribed by the boss (often on the basis of ignorance and always to save money on human translation) is forcing educated and highly experienced, specialized translators to abandon agencies that they used to be working for, “the translation industry” is eagerly embracing new, inexperienced translators who are often referred to as “newbies”.

Since this trend for maximization of mechanized and computerized translation output and minimization of participation of human translators in the translation process inevitably results in very poor translation quality, “the translation industry” is on a collision course with its customers, especially among those customers who need highly specialized translations requiring a certain amount of expertise, for example patent translations.

I see this as an opportunity for small, specialized translation agencies, (often referred to as “boutique agencies”) as well as for individual translators who are able to establish a continuing relationship with direct customers and who can deliver what “mega-agencies” don’t seem to be too interested in. Namely, highly specialized translations in fields and subjects that are limited only by the capacity of human brain to absorb and process new knowledge rather than by the storage space on a hard disk and the processing speed of a CPU.

To the extent that that the future can be predicted or foreseen at all, this is something that I definitely foresee in the foreseeable future.

2 reaktioner på ”The Inevitable Unforeseeability of the Foreseeable Future

  1. I guess translators will have to take back their market if they want to survive in the near future. It is a sad reading. Whitour translators everyone will have to use shitty machine translations 😦

    Gilla

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