The Future of Human Translation: A Rosy View

There is no shortage of concern about the future of translators and of the language industry with the prospect of high-quality machine translation (MT). I have some ideas, but they are far out there in rosy land, so please bear with me.

Imagine a planet with no pharmacies and no medication to buy. A person has a headache and does not know what it is, so she goes to the doctor. Another has a cough, and he goes to the doctor. The doctor prescribes some concoction and the doctor’s business is good. Then, millions of people land on the planet, and suddenly there are not nearly enough doctors.

One doctor realizes that every time someone comes with a headache, he prescribes the same combination of drugs. He thinks that maybe he could produce a massive amount of it and tell everyone that “if you have a headache, take this.”

And the pharmaceutical industry is born. The other doctors try to stop him saying, “People will stop coming to us.” He calmly replies that “people will stop coming to us with headaches, and coughs, and we will treat more important things.”

Not only that, he continues, “millions of people don’t even know that doctors exist, so they are not our customers. However, once they find out that a headache can be treated with some medication, they will realize that doctors can treat things that are more important. And they will become our customers!”

Back to our planet, do you think that any doctor thinks that over-the-counter medicine will take away their jobs? I don’t think so.

How Millions of Companies Discover Translation

My rosy view is that translators are the doctors, and MT is the over-the-counter medicine. MT will make millions of companies discover that translation exists and translated content is read by customers in other languages. People will read it. And understand it. And then act on it: buying things, talking about your company and your product in social media, bringing other people to read your pages.

Traffic. Sales. Mind share. From translation.

Then, what happens next?

The next realization by these companies is that many people in other languages are reading the top 10 pages on their websites or their latest brochure. They will realize that these are precious pieces of content that are getting attention, and they will want to make sure that the translation is great.

Therefore, there will be a human professional working on those pages. Now, where there was zero work for human translators, there will be highly important work to do, well paid and recognized. Will the price of human translation drop? No, it will go up. Translators will work on the most important stuff and leave the headaches and coughs to MT.

Proudly Walking the Orange Carpet

There won’t be red carpets, but I see some shade of orange carpet being rolled out, and translators proudly walking on it, recognized as the great creators of content in another language that they are.

So does a translator in rosy land look different? Yes. Instead of translating a brochure for a coffee maker, a travel site, or a financial report on the same day, translators will specialize even more on a subject and have long-term relationships with LSPs and end clients. We are not treating headaches and coughs anymore. We will be attending demos of new equipment and discussing terminology with in-country specialists. That is what rosy land looks like.

Translators will be attending demos of new equipment and discussing terminology with in-country specialists

And LSPs may have to change from companies that “find translators for your files” to partners that guide the client through translation strategy, discussing which content should go human and which content should go through MT, using which engines and which data, and measuring the quality of that data. That is an LSP in rosy land.

All of this may be way too optimistic, but I like rose colored glasses, what can I do?