Thoughts on the sustainability of translation as a career for young translators
Thread poster: Laura Jones

Laura Jones
United Kingdom
Jan 25

Hi there,

As a languages student, I just wanted to solicit some opinions on the current state of the translation industry.

I’ve been advised by a translator I know, that the influence of machine translation in translation, particularly regarding driving down rates of pay, is making translation increasingly unviable financially as a full-time career choice for young translators who may not have already built up a portfolio of clients.

I love to translate
... See more
Hi there,

As a languages student, I just wanted to solicit some opinions on the current state of the translation industry.

I’ve been advised by a translator I know, that the influence of machine translation in translation, particularly regarding driving down rates of pay, is making translation increasingly unviable financially as a full-time career choice for young translators who may not have already built up a portfolio of clients.

I love to translate and have been considering a career in translation for several years. However, I would have only one source and one target language and have been advised that this is too little given the increasing influence of machine translation on the industry. That language pair is German -> English. I am an English native speaker but have lived in Germany previously for over 2 years and worked in German as the primary language for most of my adult life.

Would it be wiser in the current climate to acknowledge that with only one language pair (and quite a competitive one), translation may be more viable as something to earn extra money (and enjoyment) on the side, rather than as a sole source of income?

I wanted to know if some here would be so kind as to share their opinions as to whether this is the case from their experience so I could assess the state of the industry from just more than one person's perspective.

I also wanted to ask about the importance of location in terms of a career in translation. Outside of London, where would be the next greatest location for in-house opportunities in the UK? For example, Edinburgh?

Furthermore, does location make a difference in terms of networking as a freelancer, or is it entirely possible to make contacts through the internet and experience?

Your thoughts are appreciated.
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Kay-Viktor Stegemann
Germany
Local time: 22:44
Member (2016)
English to German
A few answers, but not all Jan 25

No one can see into the future, and many midterm or longterm plans have been thwarted by the occasional pandemic dropping in. Maybe in a few years something completely different happens, like machines taking over, or extraterrestials make their landing and we all need to learn new languages like Klingon or whatnot. Who knows? So the wisdom of making longterm plans is doubtful. Anyway:

What I believe is that machines will take over a lot of jobs, but translation will still be one of
... See more
No one can see into the future, and many midterm or longterm plans have been thwarted by the occasional pandemic dropping in. Maybe in a few years something completely different happens, like machines taking over, or extraterrestials make their landing and we all need to learn new languages like Klingon or whatnot. Who knows? So the wisdom of making longterm plans is doubtful. Anyway:

What I believe is that machines will take over a lot of jobs, but translation will still be one of the last jobs they take over. It is a common misconception that machines are good at translating. They are not, but what they do is so cheap that many are willing to accept the weird output. I also believe that this will not change in the foreseeable future, since machines are still not able to understand what they are doing. In the meantime, there are a lot of other jobs that are much more in danger to become obsolete due to machines or automation.

What I also believe is that any job you start at a young age today will most likely not be the job you are doing a couple of decades later. The idea to learn one job as a young adult and to do this job for the rest of your life is a thing of the past. The best thing you can do is acquire knowledge and a mindset that allows you to do what needs to be done, to understand new challenges and to learn new things continuously, including new technologies. And as it happens, these traits are essential for a successful translator too.

Language talent and knowledge is only a part of being a translator. To be successful, you need to give clients what they want and need. And this might change anytime, with changing markets, new products, new rules, and so on. Imagine a client trying to explain their needs and ideas to a machine translator. Then you know what will be needed in the future: for example, competent human translators who can counsel their clients, based on the clients' business and requirements, how to achieve best results, and then provide them.

As long as you don't have the knowledge and skills to provide such a service, it would make sense to acquire these skills. Business skills and industry knowledge are things that will help you in many career paths. At the same time you can start translating on the side (you should start right away if the opportunity arises) and see how it works. You should always look for a niche that might be a good fit for you and create a position for yourself where you are a sought-after expert for a certain kind of project. That is the best way to keep the competition in check and to avoid rate pressure.

Having only one language pair is no problem, as long as you have a strong field of subject matter expertise.

Also, as a freelancer, translation is totally location independent as long as you have reliable internet access. I have met only one of my clients ever in person, and made all contacts via the internet. I also learned this job entirely online, for that matter. On the other hand, I believe that inhouse positions in translation are on the decline. Freelancing is the way to go.

Good luck.
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Dan Lucas
Gloria Romano
Mina Chen
P.L.F.Persio
Peter Shortall
Sheila Wilson
Chiara Foppa Pedretti
 

Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
My 2 cents Jan 25

Forget the multiple language pairs argument. It doesn’t hold water unless you choose to work in a seriously tiny niche where there is literally not much work.

Machines won’t take over high-end translation (stuff that requires a bit of flair) for a while at least. You can always move on later if it does.

Good luck!


Mervyn Henderson
Rachel Waddington
Mina Chen
P.L.F.Persio
Aline Amorim
Sheila Wilson
Philip Lees
 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:44
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Where Jan 25

Laura Jones wrote:
I also wanted to ask about the importance of location in terms of a career in translation. Outside of London, where would be the next greatest location for in-house opportunities in the UK? For example, Edinburgh?


London and indeed anywhere in the UK is probably not the best place to begin your career as a translator.

If what you're looking for is to gain practical experience in your language pair (your profile doesn't say what that is) and your specialised field (your profile doesn't say if you have a specialised field) you should try to get a job as an in-house translator in the country where your source language is spoken, working for a company that deals with your specialisation. Do this for a while until you attain mastery of translation in that specialised field. Then go solo.

And don't worry about computers/MT. There will always be a market for specialised, literate translators who can write well and clearly without making grammatical errors.



[Edited at 2021-01-25 16:07 GMT]


Baran Keki
 

Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Germany Jan 25

It pains me to say it but Tom has a point (even though he can’t read). You might do better to seek work in Germany for one of the big companies there rather than in the UK. There will be more demand for German to English in Germany than anywhere else.

Peter Shortall
Kay Denney
Beatriz Ramírez de Haro
Yaotl Altan
 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:44
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Some thoughts Jan 25

Laura Jones wrote:
I would have only one source and one target language and have been advised that this is too little given the increasing influence of machine translation on the industry.

The opposite is true. It's the generalist, jack-of-all-trades translators who will suffer most from the growth of MT. Specialists will always be needed, whereas the everyday, unimportant communications can be done by Google Translate with a bit of tweaking by an underpaid human if there's a budget for it.

That language pair is German -> English. I am an English native speaker but have lived in Germany previously for over 2 years and worked in German as the primary language for most of my adult life.

So, what have you been doing in German? Presumably, you have an in-depth knowledge of some business sector in German. Do you know all the ins and outs of accountancy, computing, sport, music, genetics . . . in German? That would be worth a lot.

I also wanted to ask about the importance of location in terms of a career in translation. Outside of London, where would be the next greatest location for in-house opportunities in the UK? For example, Edinburgh?

Furthermore, does location make a difference in terms of networking as a freelancer, or is it entirely possible to make contacts through the internet and experience?

There is very little in-house work available anywhere as a translator, AFAIK. Most companies outsource their translation work, and agencies use their few in-house employees (mainly interns) as PMs and proofreaders mostly. All the translation work itself is sent out to freelancers. And we can work with clients around the world. As a French to English translator, my biggest client for many years was an agency owner in Bulgaria who's a native French speaker. And when I moved from France to Spain (a country whose language I didn't speak at all), I only lost one client -- the only one I'd ever met face to face.


Rachel Waddington
Christine Andersen
 

gauloise
United States
Local time: 22:44
Member (2020)
Italian to English
+ ...
Reviewers butcher most work to sound like MT anyway. Jan 26

As a copywriter and editor who got into translation, the problem I have with the translation world is that even if you spend time doing a fluent, natural-sounding translation, it gets sent to "reviewers" who have no grasp of the basics of copywriting or grammar, and the copy ends up reading like a Google translate word-for-word translation anyway. Their rabid need to pack in every word, in the same word order and using the same punctuation as the original results in horrible quality work. Word s... See more
As a copywriter and editor who got into translation, the problem I have with the translation world is that even if you spend time doing a fluent, natural-sounding translation, it gets sent to "reviewers" who have no grasp of the basics of copywriting or grammar, and the copy ends up reading like a Google translate word-for-word translation anyway. Their rabid need to pack in every word, in the same word order and using the same punctuation as the original results in horrible quality work. Word salad, basically. (I do specialized translations. It's not any better than the general stuff. If anything, it's worse because the reviewers have even greater tunnel vision on individual words.)

I think because this happens, it makes MT almost inevitable. Having worked as an English-language editor in English-language publications (monolingual), I am absolutely appalled at what happens during the revision process in translations. There are times when I just want to cry because things I spent so much time on are literally revised to Google translate wordings that could have been achieved in a few seconds of cut and paste. I just don't understand why something written quite decently in English gets dragged over the coals by English editors in monolingual publications, while translations, which really, really need a decent editor most times, are given to "reviewers" instead of editors. You get a decent hourly wage to edit English, but pennies on the word to "review" translated copy, which is normally a mess that needs to be totally redone. It doesn't make sense.

I am moving back to copywriting, journalism and working in a monolingual environment simply because the quality of the work is higher and therefore more satisfactory. In order to be a good translator, it seems you need to become a horrible writer, and I just don't want to sacrifice my writing skills and crank out schlock work for a paycheck. Translators are just too hyper-focused on "words" as opposed to fluency.

If you don't care about grammar, style and usage, the modern translation world may be for you, but I just can't imagine companies not moving to MT because that is what most human translators/reviewers produce, at least in English. Sometimes you luck out and get a client who agrees to no revisions, but it is rare.

It's also thankless work because you are working for non native (insert your language here) speakers so no one can even discern if you are doing good work or not.
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Arabic & More
 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 22:44
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Laura Jan 26

Laura Jones wrote:
I’ve been advised by a translator I know, that ... translation [is] increasingly unviable financially as a full-time career choice for young translators who may not have already built up a portfolio of clients.


There are factors that increase the demand for human translation and factors that decrease the demand for human translations. On the one hand, machine translation makes it more competitive, but on the other hand there is a lot more globalization today than 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

The advice to any new translator has always been that your income in the first year or two is going to be less than ideal (almost certainly not enough to live off of) and that it takes time to build a client base.

So if your aim is to become a full-time freelance translator, your career path is going to include lots of marketing and job searching initially. There is a fantastic tool at ProZ.com that anyone can use for free, called the Blue Board, which is a list of translation agencies. Contact as many of them as you can (I mean hundreds, not dozens), and some of them may become clients of yours.


Dan Lucas
Yaotl Altan
 

Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
@Laura Jan 26

You’ve already got quite some advice from the colleagues. No point in repeating it here, but just wanted to stress the importance of specialisation.

You mentioned you are a language student. So, you are half-way there to make a good start. Another half is specialisation. Do you have a life-long hobby? Have you been exposed to a specific field? Are you willing to learn something new? If not, just choose a field you like and do an MA or similar programme.

In my case,
... See more
You’ve already got quite some advice from the colleagues. No point in repeating it here, but just wanted to stress the importance of specialisation.

You mentioned you are a language student. So, you are half-way there to make a good start. Another half is specialisation. Do you have a life-long hobby? Have you been exposed to a specific field? Are you willing to learn something new? If not, just choose a field you like and do an MA or similar programme.

In my case, I did law studies in Spain, LL.M in the UK and MA in Institutional Translation in Spain again (most of it was online, though I did have physical exams and lectures). I also worked for multinational companies for about 18 years (not as a translator). As a result:

- 90% of work I am doing is law, business and finance-related
- I almost never accept general translations (there are exceptions, based on which client asks, but the cases are marginal, really)
- I NEVER accept technical texts, for example (user manuals, engineering texts, etc.), as (i) I don't enjoy it and (ii) hence I am not good at it

I’ve been translating full time since 2010 and I don’t see decrease in work as a trend (there are ups and down, though, which is what you’ll have with this business model).

You don’t have to follow my example. I’m sure there are far more successful translators out there who can give you a better advice. I just want to repeat again, and again, and again, and be really redundant about it: SPECIALISE!!! You can't do everything at the same level (of quality and enjoyment).
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Rachel Waddington
Beatriz Ramírez de Haro
 

Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Personal experience Jan 26

gauloise wrote:
Lots about his/her personal experience


I don’t think this experience is typical and it is certainly not universal. My take-away from it is that Gauloise needs to find different clients, not that this is a reason to avoid the industry.

My work is rarely checked, never butchered and definitely appreciated. One of my clients regularly gets chills down her spine 😳


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:44
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Clients drive translators, not vice versa Jan 26

gauloise wrote:
Translators are just too hyper-focused on "words" as opposed to fluency.

I would respectfully suggest that this is not invariably the case, and is likely driven at least in part by clients rather than translators.

If you don't care about grammar, style and usage, the modern translation world may be for you,

Let's just say that I do care about grammar, style and usage, but I prioritise putting food on the table for my family. If paying clients want me to bias my work towards literal translations, I'm not going to argue with them and put myself out of a job. When I see an what opportunity to gently educate a client about some aspect of the English language that they are mangling I seize it, but I bear in mind always that she who pays the piper calls the tune. Sometimes they are happy for me to attempt a more fluent rendering, but not always.

but I just can't imagine companies not moving to MT because that is what most human translators/reviewers produce, at least in English. Sometimes you luck out and get a client who agrees to no revisions, but it is rare.

It's rare because the best clients make up a small part of the total, as is the case in almost every market. For the bulk of the translation market (if we can even speak of it in such monolithic terms) an edited machine translation may well be adequate. It opens up huge translation markets that previously could not be addressed. It's all very well to say "The English in the manual for this $20 toy from China is rubbish" because it probably is. But it's also probably an improvement over what would have been contained in the box a decade ago, when the expense of expert human translation made it non-viable. Google Translate is arguably a lot better than the kind of translations that inexpert non-native speakers used to deliver.

Then again, realistically, professional translators shouldn't be aiming at the $20-dollar toy manual market. We should be aiming at the $200,000 MRI scanner manual market. In comparison to the MT market the market for human translation is growing more slowly and, it being more expensive, there is naturally less of it. I don't see it going away any time soon, but it will continue to expand and evolve.

Laura Jones wrote:
Would it be wiser in the current climate to acknowledge that with only one language pair (and quite a competitive one), translation may be more viable as something to earn extra money (and enjoyment) on the side, rather than as a sole source of income?

In answer to Laura's question, I think it would make more sense for her to work in a different job that requires active use of her language skills - overseas if possible, i.e. in Germany - and to try to acquire useful domain-specific knowledge in some industry or other. She can come back to translation later, or (as she suggests) enjoy it as a low-pressure gig on the side. If she wants to immediately strike out on her own as a full-time professional translator I'm sure she will succeed if she is tough enough, proactive enough and determined enough.

Having multiple language pairs broadens the pool in which you operate, but it doesn't necessarily make you any more competitive. I would argue it dilutes your focus and makes you less competitive. If you want the best jobs in a particular language pair you need to be in the top 10% or so, and unless you are preternaturally talented (or have a really attractive specialisation) you are unlikely to be in that top 10% if you are spending only half your time or a third of your time on that language pair. It might be different for oddball/diddy language pairs with constrained supply of translators, but you'd struggle to put German, French and Spanish in that category.

Regards,
Dan


Rachel Waddington
Merab Dekano
Kay-Viktor Stegemann
Christine Andersen
Chris S
 

liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:44
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
Personal experience regarding translation as a career Jan 27

Hello!

Well, as long as you are prepared to work as a translator from home with online clients, and you join Proz to get your foot in the door and reply to job ads, you will be fine.

Of course, I am only talking from the perspective of a medical translator. There is absolutely loads of work out there at the moment. I have been working from home for at least 15 years and I have never been short of work. It is a great career, and well paid.

I wish you all the
... See more
Hello!

Well, as long as you are prepared to work as a translator from home with online clients, and you join Proz to get your foot in the door and reply to job ads, you will be fine.

Of course, I am only talking from the perspective of a medical translator. There is absolutely loads of work out there at the moment. I have been working from home for at least 15 years and I have never been short of work. It is a great career, and well paid.

I wish you all the best!

Liz Askew
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Chris S
 

Stephen Emm  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:44
French to English
+ ...
Not a sure bet Jan 27

You are right to raise concerns about the future of the translation industry and the implications for freelance translators.

Despite what some might say, machine translation, google translate, etc. has had a definite impact on the translation industry and this trend will only continue as AI is developed.

More and more work offered by translation agencies (which is where freelancers get the majority of their work from) consists of post-editing machine translation and is
... See more
You are right to raise concerns about the future of the translation industry and the implications for freelance translators.

Despite what some might say, machine translation, google translate, etc. has had a definite impact on the translation industry and this trend will only continue as AI is developed.

More and more work offered by translation agencies (which is where freelancers get the majority of their work from) consists of post-editing machine translation and is not fantastically paid.

I am not sure I would enter the industry now.

However, the advantage you do have is that you offer German to English translation which is very much in demand.

There is no doubt that Germany is the industrial powerhouse in Europe and if you gain a professional translation qualification you will stand a good chance of being contacted directly by German manufacturers.

The fact also that German is a language, which in the UK, is being increasingly displaced by Spanish and is studied much less than French, also means that you have a valuable asset.

Try and get an in-house job in a German speaking country and then develop a specialism from that and you should be fine.

Nevertheless, don't fall into the trap of thinking that translation is a particularly secure or lucrative profession, some specialists make very good money, but there are plenty of translators who make a pretty average living from it.
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Rachel Waddington
Yaotl Altan
 

David GAY  Identity Verified
English to French
+ ...
OK Sure the future is unpredictable Jan 28

Kay-Viktor Stegemann wrote:

No one can see into the future, and many midterm or longterm plans have been thwarted by the occasional pandemic dropping in. Maybe in a few years something completely different happens, like machines taking over, or extraterrestials make their landing and we all need to learn new languages like Klingon or whatnot. Who knows? So the wisdom of making longterm plans is doubtful. Anyway:

What I believe is that machines will take over a lot of jobs, but translation will still be one of the last jobs they take over. It is a common misconception that machines are good at translating. They are not, but what they do is so cheap that many are willing to accept the weird output. I also believe that this will not change in the foreseeable future, since machines are still not able to understand what they are doing. In the meantime, there are a lot of other jobs that are much more in danger to become obsolete due to machines or automation.

What I also believe is that any job you start at a young age today will most likely not be the job you are doing a couple of decades later. The idea to learn one job as a young adult and to do this job for the rest of your life is a thing of the past. The best thing you can do is acquire knowledge and a mindset that allows you to do what needs to be done, to understand new challenges and to learn new things continuously, including new technologies. And as it happens, these traits are essential for a successful translator too.

Language talent and knowledge is only a part of being a translator. To be successful, you need to give clients what they want and need. And this might change anytime, with changing markets, new products, new rules, and so on. Imagine a client trying to explain their needs and ideas to a machine translator. Then you know what will be needed in the future: for example, competent human translators who can counsel their clients, based on the clients' business and requirements, how to achieve best results, and then provide them.

As long as you don't have the knowledge and skills to provide such a service, it would make sense to acquire these skills. Business skills and industry knowledge are things that will help you in many career paths. At the same time you can start translating on the side (you should start right away if the opportunity arises) and see how it works. You should always look for a niche that might be a good fit for you and create a position for yourself where you are a sought-after expert for a certain kind of project. That is the best way to keep the competition in check and to avoid rate pressure.

Having only one language pair is no problem, as long as you have a strong field of subject matter expertise.

Also, as a freelancer, translation is totally location independent as long as you have reliable internet access. I have met only one of my clients ever in person, and made all contacts via the internet. I also learned this job entirely online, for that matter. On the other hand, I believe that inhouse positions in translation are on the decline. Freelancing is the way to go.

Good luck.



but I'd like to bet that the prices will be down and that MT quality is going to improve a lot
Do you want to bet? It has nothing to do with luck


[Modifié le 2021-01-28 12:50 GMT]


Rachel Waddington
Stephen Emm
 


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