The role of the translator has a most ancient history. It dates back even to the dawn of writing itself—the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving examples of literature, has been translated into other languages, and in fact, those translations are the reason we have the story in its complete form!
Translators have always been an important figure in the history of the world, bridging cultures and enabling the sharing of knowledge through their skill at languages throughout history. Even now, translators do work in important settings such as government, diplomacy, and even global humanitarian missions.
But there’s a new challenge looming on the horizon for our humble protagonist, the translator.
We’re talking, of course, about machine translation. Machine translation has quickly risen to be a revolutionizing force in the language services industry. Just a decade ago, it was a little more than a source of amusement due to its quirky and error-filled mistranslations. But now, the quality has improved by leaps and bounds, opening it up to many industrial uses. And it just keeps getting better.
But what does this mean for translators? Will they have to face off against this new technology? Or will they embrace it as a chance to evolve as language professionals? And how will it affect the translation landscape over the next decade, and into the far future?
One might expect that the rise of machine translation would be met by translation professionals with suspicion. After all, man vs machine is a conflict that has played out in many industries, with many jobs being replaced by machines.
But with machine translation, we believe that this won’t be the case, and many translators agree. Language is something that comes so naturally to us but it’s more complex than we can imagine. And no machine is able to yet replicate the way we humans process and use language. Despite the rapid and dramatic increases in quality, there’s still that ceiling it is unable to break through.
But despite that, machine translation has opened up a lot of new possibilities for translators. One example is machine translation post-editing, or MTPE. In the past, MTPE wasn’t a feasible activity as the quality of MT was nowhere near good enough yet, and it would take translators the same amount of time, if not more, to edit the output. But now, it is more than possible for translators to work quickly and efficiently with MT output.
Because MTPE is a more cost-effective solution than traditional translation, this means that language services have suddenly become more accessible to buyers. This has opened up a flood of demand on the lower end of the spectrum for language services that would otherwise not be met. Meanwhile, traditional translation services—and their traditionally premium prices—remain in demand, as the need for expertly crafted language is still very much present today.
This is how things currently stand. But there are more opportunities for language professionals that are sure to open up in the future, especially when it comes to the development and handling of machine translation. As MT grows, the need for experts who know how to handle it will as well.
MT will require more engineers, consultants, and managers with a background in languages in order to function, not only in the future, but even now. And these roles are to be filled by language professionals with the drive and foresight to upskill themselves and grasp these new opportunities.
We envision a future landscape for the language services industry where traditional translation and machine translation each have their own important roles to fill. The best and most creative language professionals will always find a place in traditional translation circles. Meanwhile, those who decide to specialize in machine translation will also find a space where they can provide immense value.