Thursday, 16 February 2017

A Bubble about to Burst?

Pics of People inside bubbles about to burst on a flowering cactus

Asset Bubbles, Derivatives and Translation. The title of the President of the International Federation of Translators’ presentation at the University of Bristol sounded intriguing in advance. So it proved. Henry Liu gave a fascinating presentation to a room full of experienced translation colleagues, lecturers and eager MA students.

This was certainly not a ‘Death by PowerPoint’ presentation. It was full of colourful pictures, photos and charts.

Henry showed us a picture of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, the Bank of England, then switched to the modern towers of Canary Wharf. What happened? London’s financial district relocated.

Pic of Canary Wharf's Tower Blocks
Canary Wharf's modern tower blocks in London

Pictures of the old stock market appeared including the old global stock market sign language. Today, there is hardly any stock. It’s all on screen.

The old Silk Road has been replaced by the new Silk Road. Frankfurt?

Then came the big bubble. The impact of the Global Financial Crisis needs no explanation.

Everyone wants to go back to a simpler life. Let’s go back to the good old days, when things were so much better.

We used to trade goods. Now the link to the real world is tenuous. Today’s Governor of the Bank of England can’t use the gold reserve to help interest rates. His hands are tied.

A photo of the long queues outside Northern Rock following its collapse in 2008 appeared on screen. Too much debt. People unable to pay. The right to own your own home is again in the news. A past aspiration for many.

And the translation comparison?

Clients expect cheap or free translation today.

There are various ways of certifying translators.

Lots of translation companies are being sold at higher prices.

A photo of Jochen Hummel appeared on screen - founder of Trados and the industry’s hated discount rates table. Nick Rosenthal, former Chair of the UK’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) kindly stepped in to explain Translation Memory (TM) matches.

It’s all in the perception of value. Henry ridiculed TM matches by comparing them to interpreting for the G8 or G7. You can’t take 10% out in interpreting, yet translators are regularly asked to do so. You wouldn’t ask a radiographer to deduct 5%, would you?

Data, data everywhere.

Neural Machine Translation is approaching human translation skills - if you read the Press. 

The Language Barrier is about to fall

PIc of yellow bricks spelling out the word HYPE against black brick background

It’s hype. Yet, it’s hype that the world’s decision-makers are reading about our industry.

If it's not happening right now, then the Media are forever suggesting that the great automated translation breakthrough is imminent.


We can all be Nigella Lawson at home in the kitchen. We just buy all the ingredients. And hey presto, we can all  cook equally as well. Can’t we?


Figurative illustration of burning light bulb match about to set light to lots of matches with red human-shaped tops
Latest craze burns the old ways with human faces? c. Freshidea

Hype catches on. We saw last summer's Pokemon craze.

Hype has consequences. It has been suggested that they are not planning to use interpreters at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Hype suggests they won’t be necessary.

What of reality? When the first terror attack occurred in Belgium, there were only two qualified Arabic interpreters in the whole of Belgium. Impossible to work efficiently.

All the talk is about tech. There is so little talk about PRACTITIONERS + TECH. Instead we hear about the looming singularity, the hype curve or cycle.

How do we find more interpreting and translation experts? How will we finance CPD and degree expectations? Who is going to pay? If clients continue to buy cheaply, we will have a serious problem.

We still need humans to assist the automated translation process. What’s the translation market’s future? Will you have to marry someone rich to be an interpreter or translator?

We need strong collaboration. 

Twitter Selfie pic of translation industry leaders together
Twitter Selfie of the night: Jesper Sandberg (GALA), Nick Rosenthal (ITI) & Henry Liu (FIT) 

Are we really better off with more data? More volume = greater diversity. The most obvious statistical match is not always the most appropriate. Frequency does not always correlate, as Microsoft knows to its cost. Microsoft's MT replaced 'Saudi Arabia' with 'Daesh'. 

And what of rare language pairs? What of those languages with no written script?

Non-native speakers often reveal themselves not by using the wrong terminology but by the little connecting words that they get wrong. Henry gave the example of a New Zealand legal text that received the comment:

‘It’s not the same. It’s not how we write’.

What is native? What is distinctive? How clean is your data? Where has the data come from?

What happens to the data when past scientific facts are no longer considered valid?

95% of new products fail. There is an increasing reliance on automation instead of on people and services.

Henry continued to highlight the similarities between the Financial Crisis and the situation in the translation industry today. We all know that the bubble will burst. We need a new paradigm. Not to go back. We must avoid half-truths, overestimations and nostalgia for an unrealistic glorious past.

Put the dates in your diaries: 3-5 August 2017. The FIT Conference in Brisbane, Australia will discuss the theme ‘Disruption and Diversification’.

A lively debate followed Henry’s presentation. Nick Rosenthal described the sale of Lionbridge for 70% of turnover as a massive own goal for the perception of value. Jesper Sandberg, the new Chair of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), argued that translation companies generally sold for a third less than turnover rather than 1½ x turnover.

Charitable Translations
Is there another own goal in translators being expected to work for charities for free? Amnesty International pays its translators. Non-payment is particularly unfair for translators and interpreters working in rare languages. They simply can’t support services on this basis.

Role for LSPs?
Discussions highlighted the need for closer collaboration between freelancers, LSPs and the IT industry. Jasper Sandberg argued that LSPs will always exist as they add value for clients. The likes of Microsoft will never work with freelancers, unless it is in a very niche area.

GALA's Pessimism
I asked why the Chair of FIT and the Chair of GALA could not work closely together to dispel all the hype. An individual freelancer is limited in what they can achieve against the tide of exaggerated claims for MT. I was frankly disappointed in the new GALA chair’s reply. He pleaded lack of resources, yet his new role places him in one of the most powerful roles in the Localization Industry with strong contacts in the IT industry. If the new GALA Chair is so pessimistic at the start of his new role, it makes you wonder how much lower his pessimism can go by the end of his tenure. 

Cartoon of a king being tipped out of his chair by an organised group of much smaller people

Evolution or Revolution?

The GALA Chair says that he favours 'Evolution not Revolution'. That's all very well, but there is a digital Revolution going on. Evolution sees the survival of the fittest. If translators 'die out', his precious LSPs die out too. In the second stage of a Revolution you need a new leader who can return followers to Law and Order and establish a new stability.

Future Translation Students
Carol O’Sullivan, Director of Translation Studies, was asked about Bristol University’s MA intake. She seemed optimistic, claiming that she had seen no slowing in applications. She noted that there are now a greater number of ‘portfolio career' students.

Pic of University of Bristol sign on campus

My own personal contact with Generation Z suggests that there is little interest in languages. There is a perception that it is harder to achieve high grades in language A’ Levels. Choosing languages could potentially harm university entrance prospects. Yet, downgrading grade expectations also downgrades the attention to detail that is so important in translation and interpreting. Today’s young people believe that there is no future in translation. They use Google Translate to do their language homework much to their teachers’ exasperation.  They’ve all heard that 2020 HYPE - and they believe it.

When I left, the FIT Chair was surrounded by Bristol’s eager and optimistic MA students. I wish them every success in their future careers. I hope someone in power will have the motivation and resources to tackle the HYPE before the bubble bursts.

Karen Andrews is a freelance French to English translator, transcreator, content writer and editor. She has a strong background in global marketing.

Email Karen for further information via in French, German or English.

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