Three major influences have converged in the last 15 years and have thereby changed the profession. These changes are ongoing and this therefore makes times rather turbulent for the translator.
These three influences are the computer, agencies and globalization.
Initial forays into machine-based translation (on a grand scale in the 80's) were phenomenally expensive and failed miserably. These forays were largely the result of a general euphoria that the computer could do practically anything. We now know better. In spite of miniaturization, faster processor speeds and "intelligent" programming, we are not really any great step nearer to reproducing the neurological networks of the human brain (although, believe it or not, attempts are being made to graft brain tissue onto computers). Until such time, the computer will never be able to compete with human translators. Even if the computer could come close to thinking, it would also lack the living environment in which languages are constantly being refined and changed through human dialogue.
A humbler, but more frutiful approach, has been the development of modern CAT tools. These have proven highly effective and have indeed had a profound impact. This impact has been a double-edged sword: these programs have increased productivity and undeniably increased quality while at the same time lowering prices.
When I started translating some 15 years ago there were very few translation agencies. Now they seem to be sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms. These agencies are getting more and more grip on the market - almost all large corporations now work with agencies (for a variety of reasons which make perfect sense). Unfortunately, this means less money for the translator. The translator now takes a "double-whammy" - less pay caused by CAT tools and less pay caused by agencies.
This has converged in the last few years with the challenge of globalization. I'm sure I don't have to go into this in great detail here - many of us have felt this and see its results daily on this very web site (no criticism of proz.com intended, just a sober look at the "realities on the ground").
I actually think that the situation will in some ways get worse before it gets better. CAT tools will eventually coalesce with machine-driven translation solutions as absolutely massive databases are made available on the Internet. These databases will be able to translate simple and even medium-level documents with a good degree of accuracy (we should remember here that operating instructions are becoming more and more "picture" driven as general literacy declines).
In terms of globalization, customers with a greedy eye on profit margins will generally opt for the cheaper solution until they realize - through costly court costs - that the cheaper solution is not always the better one in the long term. In other words, the experienced translator will eventually win the day. But the road getting there will be tough.
Certainly, the halycon days of picking-and-choosing customers are over and there are some tough times ahead. Would I encourage someone to become a translator today? Yes, if they really wanted to be; but I would also inform them of the problems. The market has never been tougher than it is now, and it is getting tougher by the minute.
In summary, computers will never entirely replace human translators, but they may cut into the market in the long term; agencies will dominate most of the market; and globalization will drive prices down. Nevertheless, on the upside, globalization also means that the need for translations will also increase sharply (in fact, the estimates for this are very encouraging: somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent in the next 10 to 15 years). I am reminded of the old Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times". For the translator, they have never been more interesting than now...
If you found this article interesting, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading and good translating!