Translation trends: Interviews from the ATA conference

Against a background of blue skies and palm trees, the 2012 American Translators Association (ATA) Annual Conference was held October 24-27, 2012, in San Diego, California. Close to 1,700 translators from 45 countries attended the event.

“I attended my first ATA conference in 1992, incidentally also in San Diego, and 20 years later I see the translation profession has changed fundamentally from a cottage industry to a collaborative effort enabled by modern technology,” said Jiri Stejskal, ATA official spokesperson, past ATA president, and current president and CEO of CETRA Language Solutions.

Stejskal noted that a new industry trend is reflected in the cooperation between the ATA and the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas (AMTA). The two organizations coordinated their conferences to facilitate face-to-face communication and exchange of information. This collaboration speaks volumes about the growing importance and influence being paid to the machine translation (MT) movement, even among individual translators. Even though MT has been heralded for decades as the next best thing, it finally appears to be gaining momentum, and organizations such as the aforementioned AMTA and TAUS are devoted to promoting the process.

As everyone in the translation and localization industry knows, professional translators are the backbone and lifeblood behind the scenes. By and large, translation is a solitary function and most translators work long hours for very exacting clients. Their observations and comments offer important insight into the state of the industry.

The conference was an opportunity to speak with a few translators to get their read on the marketplace and what they see as the emerging, relevant trends. A specific set of questions was posed to all the translators. Of particular interest were their observations on pricing and MT.

Sam Pinson is an English-to-Russian translator and ATA member, living and working in Washington state. He works with both agencies and direct clients, but is gaining more direct clients. “At a high level,” he observed, “I see two approaches to translation. The traditional approach is to employ a competent human translator. A relatively new approach is to combine MT with post-editing. Given the low barrier to entry, crowds of inexperienced and/or incompetent translators and editors pile into the field every day. Some of them distinguish themselves and within a year or two find themselves in a sustainable position. Others do not, because they lack language skills, writing skills, specialized knowledge or some combination thereof. In the past, these folks would subsist by translating at fabulously low rates. However, with the advent of MT, I don’t think there will be room left at the table for them.” To succeed in the industry in the not so distant future, one would either have to be a gifted translator or a talented post-editor. As for the pricing question, he himself had not experienced lower rate expectations as a major factor in his current business. “I’m contacted regularly by potential clients who are at various points along the pricing spectrum. By offering premium services, I’ve been moving steadily toward the upper end of the spectrum.”

MT was another current topic about which Pinson expressed some opinions. Like so many for so long, he expected amazing results “in the next 20 years” and felt MT’s virtues were compelling. “It’s fast, inexpensive and never needs sleep. Its results are also adequate for many purposes. But when it fails, it fails spectacularly and in ways that, as least in my experience, humans would not. Everybody recognizes this, and that’s where the road diverges. You can either engage an expert human translator from the start, or you can hire a human editor to try to patch up the holes in your machine-translated text. Of course, I clearly have a pecuniary interest in the human/MT question. I would prefer that clients hire me.”

Alessandra Cortese de Bosis, an Italian-to-English translator living in Virginia, sees some definite trends in the marketplace. “A translator is a communications officer,” she said, “the instrument that helps make or break a relationship, be it business, social or political. Sometimes, understanding each other is hard even when we speak the same language, so in today’s globalized world, with so many cultures trying to communicate, I feel that translators are instrumental as a means toward understanding. Unfortunately, due to the economy and the need to have it done instantly, the quality, and therefore the ‘understandability,’ of most translations has declined dramatically. But there are still some institutions and organizations for which quality is paramount, and it shows.” She also said it’s important for translators to stay globally competitive and to market themselves. She characterized working with MT as “my least favorite job.”

Regarding rates and pricing, de Bosis observed, “Having to compete with translators based in the European Union and in Asia has certainly put some pressure toward lowering fees. Unfortunately, I feel that a lot of the time, I am competing with low quality translators who are obviously willing to charge less to get the job. I have been asked to edit translations that were very poor quality, and so take double the time to edit.”

Stefanie Mueller translates from German to English and works primarily for agencies. She lives in Arizona and is a long time ATA member. She mainly views the ATA conference as a great place to meet and mingle with her fellow translators, take expert classes and seminars, and network. 

“My role as a translator is to provide a good translation that flows well and is a correct rendition of the source text,” said Mueller. “That job is easy, if there is a simple source text that is to be rendered in the target language. But in recent times, I have come across the need to engage a lot more in the ‘technical side’ of the translation business, for example looking for tag errors in Trados files that are filled with formatting tags. These formatting tags create additional work for the translator since most of the time you have to move around the tags to reflect the target sentence structure — a cumbersome and time-consuming process that most of the time is not compensated for by the agency.”

She also mourns the loss of working with the editor. “Oftentimes, I, as a translator, do not see the edited file after the editing step and thus do not receive feedback from the editor,” Mueller said. “And I also do not have the final say in what changes should be accepted or declined. I wish the practice of reviewing editor’s changes/suggestions could be revived, as I think it would make a better end-product.”

She finds that pricing and rates play a major role in the translation business. “Many agencies are trying to lower prices, either due to the fact that they need to stay competitive (they say), or that they want to keep a larger margin for themselves. A time-consuming haggling war then ensues where the translator will try to work out the best rate for herself or himself, and the agency will try to take the lowest bidder. This haggling war always leaves me upset and disappointed, because essentially the translator is the one who carries the burden of the lower price and a disservice is done to the entire industry by translators trying to undercut each other.” Mueller sees this constant battle as a detriment but there are some exceptions, she said. “There are some agencies that do not haggle about price and that gladly pay the requested price as well as any applicable rush charges, and of course those are the ones I love to work with, partially because of the rate issue, partially because of their excellent project management abilities.”

Mueller said she has not raised her rates in over ten years, and has been frequently asked by agencies to work for less than her normal rate. “Sometimes I agreed to that, sometimes I did not. What this means (even if you leave accepting work at a lower rate out of the equation) is that I now have to work more than I did before to maintain my standard of living, since the cost of living has gone up, but not my rates. Sad but true.”

Globalization is also impacting the translation industry with respect to rates, in Mueller’s experience. “I have to compete with German translators who live in a location where the cost of living is considerably lower than where I live. The difference between my rate and the rate that some agencies sometimes request is huge and most of the time there is no deal to be made.” On the subject of MT, she noted that “I was very frustrated with the few MTs that I worked on. It required extensive editing/rewriting. A good glossary would serve a translator better than an MT, in my opinion. I don’t accept it anymore.”

Finally, I asked the three translators for their thoughts on the future of the translation profession. While no one has a crystal ball to forecast where the translation industry will be headed in the future, translators experience a critical aspect of the industry firsthand and thus have their fingers on the pulse and plenty of personal observations to share. Pinson felt that MT would continue to improve and create a winnowing process. “The human translators who remain will be deep experts in their areas of specialization. I see translator tools becoming more stable, integrated and language-specific. Industry standards will systematize the translation process.”

de Bosis also focused on MT, but felt differently about the outcome. “I really hope that the need to save money will not result in overusing MT. Communication has always been a fundamental element of civilization and in a globalized, multicultural world, it is critical. MT is not yet able to deliver the whole original concept and misunderstandings may ensue. Translators are still a critical element in global communication.”

Mueller was less optimistic than the others. “Given the more than stagnant development of the industry in the past 15 or so years, I don’t have much hope for any true improvement for the financial aspect of the business. More focus needs to be put on cooperation, not isolationist work on the part of the translator and editor.”

Conferences like the ATA and others that are focused exclusively on our industry are an excellent way to gather insights into the future facing all of us. I always find it fascinating to interact with other colleagues and trade stories and experiences.