The Linguistic Service Sector Between Rhetoric and Reality

The linguistic service sector is no stranger to rapid and disruptive paradigm shifts. Initially, the emergence of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools revolutionized the workflow for language service providers (LSPs) and translators, playing a role in reducing costs. However, these changes were not seen as threats to the linguistic profession, but rather as technological adjustments professionals had to adapt to. Currently, we are undergoing a substantial paradigm shift that is reshaping the linguistic services landscape for the upcoming decades.

We have reached this point thanks to advancements in technology such as neural networks applied to machine translation (MT) and generative artificial intelligence (AI) in translation and content creation. Recently, American screenwriters engaged in a union battle to regulate and limit the use of generative AI in the film industry, as automation — which used to affect primarily manual tasks — is now entering the sacred realm of human creativity.

This article poses a controversial question: Is it not time to stop overemphasizing the importance of translators when significant investments are geared towards replacing them with machines? “We Believe in Humans” is the famous slogan of Translated, a leading provider of translation tools and solutions. But is it accurate? Perhaps “We Believe in Machines” would be a more honest and appropriate motto.

Insights on Freelance Translators: The Italian Market

A recent survey by ASTW, an LSP based in Genoa, targeted the online community of freelance translators in Italy, inquiring about revenue trends, MT adoption, future expectations, and the number and type of training courses taken. Out of the 138 respondents, representing a fair sample of the entire population of freelance translators in Italy, 93.4% were female. A substantial portion has been in the linguistic services sector for 1 to 5 years (42.3%), with 19% having 6-10 years of experience. Only 8% have been in the field for over thirty years.

When asked about their revenue trends, only 27.7% reported an increase, with a relative majority (40.9%) experiencing a reduction, and the rest seeing stable income. Remarkably, 43.9% noted a revenue decrease of more than 20%. This downturn is attributed to the refusal to accept low rates, decreased workload, and challenges in acquiring new clients. Strikingly, almost a quarter of respondents are considering leaving the translation profession.

There’s a noticeable desire among Italian translators for industry regulation, such as unionization, minimum rates, and standard service conditions. Our survey reaffirms this sentiment, with nearly 90% of participants supporting some form of industry regulation. Regrettably, the majority would advise against pursuing a career in translation.

Low Salaries: The Core Issue

In Italy, salaries are generally lower than in other developed countries, and freelance translation is no exception. Over a quarter of respondents earn up to €10,000 per year, another quarter reports annual earnings between €20,000 and €30,000, and approximately 13% have a gross income between €35,000 and €40,000. Only a minor fraction earns above €40,000, with just six individuals (4.6%) reporting incomes over €60,000.

Despite these earnings, a significant portion (61.8%) is not interested in employment, presumably due to the perception that salaries for employees in Italian LSPs are not attractive.

How Many Translators Does the Industry Need?

One might wonder: Are there too many translators in Italy? If so, the current market might not have enough demand to offer decent salaries to the vast majority of freelancers. Alternatively, there might be a productivity issue. If a freelancer cannot make, on average, €400-€600 in an 8-hour workday, can we still consider translation an appealing profession, or is it becoming a supplementary job to more stable and lucrative careers?

The education system should acknowledge this situation and devise training programs that align with corporate demands. Currently, there are no university courses for Project Managers or Vendor Managers, roles that companies highly demand. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize that full-time translation work is gradually losing its appeal, transforming into a side job alongside more secure and rewarding careers.

From Humans to Machines: Is There an Oligopoly Risk in the Linguistic Sector?

While open-source technologies are not uncommon in our industry, the skills and infrastructures to develop marketable solutions from these technologies are concentrated among a few international players. This concentration might lead to monopolistic or oligopolistic profits for these entities, with the associated negative effects, establishing a sort of “technological seigniorage” characterized by prices set by oligopolies and the “uberization” of linguistic work.

This analysis is not a moral stance but rather an attempt to understand current trends and foresee future developments. To genuinely comprehend our reality, it is crucial to abandon a falsely optimistic narrative often used for self-promotion and marketing purposes. While the linguistic sector might have a bright future, the benefits will not be evenly distributed. The future oligopolists surely have reasons to be optimistic, but can translators say the same?

P.S. This text was originally written in Italian and localized with ChatGPT. Subsequently, it was reviewed and refined by a native English-speaking linguist who worked with the English-only text. If I had opted for a full translation service, it would have cost me 50% more.

Domenico Lombardini
Domenico Lombardini is the founder and CEO of ASTW Specialized Translation, a language service provider specializing in the intellectual property, life sciences, legal, technical, and scientific fields.


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