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Translating for the XXI century: part 1

Article by Sam Berner

It is argued that we live in the knowledge economy, and that translators are knowledge workers.

This implies that we need to be knowledgeable in specific areas or descend from professionals to unskilled labour. Our knowledge, therefore, intrinsically impacts on our financial bottom line. It is not so much our linguistic knowledge, because that - so far - is a given, but the skills set that we need in addition to it - that is what I want to touch on in this article.

When we glance at the knowledge environment that we live and function in, we see that it is a very interconnected world. Social media, handheld devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data are all things we need to know about because this is what we are expected to translate about. In addition, the modes of production in our profession are being disrupted by crowdsourcing, globalisation, and artificial intelligence.

Translators today are expected to not just know, but also to work, on online platforms provided by clients - sharing their translation memories generated through CAT tools, and post-edit the ever-improving machine translation output. We are expected to work in teams made up of project managers, terminologists, editors and proof-readers with large multilingual jobs distributed across a number of translators all working simultaneously in the cloud.

Another factor effecting our bottom line is the power of certain languages vis-a-vis others. Any entity wanting their work to be read internationally, is forced to write it in English. If we want to be able to use the myriad of products that the consumerist world throws at us, Chinese is the language to know.

Other languages become important for various reasons - conflict, mass migration, international events with their importance then subsiding. Then, there are languages that never become international. This McDonaldisation of the world acts on the minority languages by obliterating them. Translating becomes a moral duty, rather than a money-making exercise, best suited to crowdsourcing.

The pervasiveness of social media as a marketing tool, the speed with which businesses want to access expanding markets, the need to translate faster than the competition does, and at an acceptable quality, means that the market wants more, faster and cheaper. It is just a matter of time before all this hits the translators, but it would be unreasonable to expect that it could be any different.

Time is money. In the translation process, time is wasted at every junction: during quoting, project managing, translating and typesetting, during quality assurance and so on. For a client wanting their website translated into 20-30 languages, this is a massive amount of time (and therefore money).

Yet over the past decades, translators have consistently failed to accommodate the client. We continued doing what we do best: translating in the same way we have been for hundreds of years, oblivious of how change was affecting our clients. Into the vacuum of our inaction stepped others including programmers with very little understanding of translation but great understanding of artificial intelligence.

Sam Berner is currently the principal partner of Arabic Communication Experts, one of Australia’s leading translation and cross cultural training services specializing in the Middle East. Having spent over 30 years translating, Sam continues to mentor and motivate many aspiring translators to expand their vision globally. She is also an active AUSIT member and a former national president.

Stay tuned next week when we publish the final part of Sam’s article. Part 2 will cover practical tips that all translators can apply in their own practice.


Published: 23/05/2016