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What Photography Can Teach Us About Translation

What Photography Can Teach Us About Translation

While there are many freelance translators who embrace technology in their daily lives, I often come across a certain segment of the freelance translator community that tend to take a negative view toward new technology. In today's post I'll explore some of these fears to see if they spell doom for the translation industry and also give some advice on how you, as a freelance translator, can make sure that evolving technology doesn't hurt your business but rather helps it.

I'll begin with a personal story. My mom started her own freelance professional photography business when I was a child. She specializes in child sports photos, family photos and school photos. Since she started the business she has been able to continue to grow it year in and year out. It has by no means been easy, but in thinking about it recently there are many parallels to the translation industry and freelance translators, specifically related to how technology has impacted each industry.

Why do parents still order photos from my mom when they have a smartphone with a powerful camera in their pocket? How has my mom's business not only survived but thrived with technological advances seemingly a huge threat? I'll explore these topics in today's post and I think the answers to these questions offer good insights and parallels to the translation industry.

What is worrying freelance translators?

The issues I see that most often worry and frustrate translators include:

  • Low barriers to entry in the industry to become a translator
  • Downward pressure on rates throughout the industry
  • Issues related to machine translation (PEMT rates, misuse of MT, fear of MT)

Concern: Any bilingual with an Internet connection can become a "translator"

Advances in technology have certainly lowered barriers to entry to the translation industry. Between free machine translation services and a huge increase in terminology resources available on the web, it is easy for any bilingual hobbyist to set up shop and call himself/herself a translator. So how do you distinguish yourself as a professional translator? How can you grow your business when facing increased competition from untrained bilinguals? How do you win translation jobs when these "translators" seem to be undercutting on every job posting?

Well, here's the good news. There is still a market for quality translation done by a professional. While the barrier to entry into the translation market as a translator has become lower, the barrier to entry to become a professional translator has actually become much higher. Here's why:

  • The number and sophistication of the tools you need to know as a professional translator have increased - no longer is it possible to survive as a professional translator with a pad of paper and a dictionary, you need to be proficient with CAT tools, file formats, and more
  • Expectations are higher - clients expect fast turnaround times and great customer service
  • Mastering professional tools is extremely difficult - the efficiency gains a professional can see from the proper use and leverage of technology can lead to order of magnitude differences in the quality, consistency and speed of one's translations

So how does my mom stay relevant when all the parents are snapping photos with their smartphones? This same phenomenon is happening in the freelance photography world - while the barrier to entry is lower, the barrier to become a professional is much higher.

My mom knows her equipment inside and out. She has spent countless hours doing test photos in every type of lighting condition imaginable. On the back end, my dad has made our basement into a digital darkroom. While my mom uses a lab to print the photos, all of the color balancing is done in-house. Between my mom's knowledge of her camera and lighting equipment and my dad's knowledge of software tools for processing and color balancing the photos, they have been able to consistently produce to a very high quality standard and a quick turnaround time.

How does this apply to you as a freelance translator? You need to be an expert in translation software - learn and master your tools. Take the time to learn your CAT tool of choice in depth. Maintain your TMs and glossaries - keep them organized and free of mistakes. Know which resources you should use (and which you should not use) depending on the project. Be knowledgeable of different file formats and how to handle them. Learn and leverage new technologies. Find out how to best incorporate machine translation into your translation process. Start using voice recognition technology to increase your efficiency.

While some of the advice above may be seen as controversial by a vocal minority, I can tell you that I have been personally messaged by many professional translators who are leveraging new technology to achieve efficiency levels and earnings that exceed their louder peers.

All that said, utilizing technology in your work flow is only one piece of the puzzle. Understanding what professional translation (the art) entails and having deep domain knowledge in your specialty are what will ultimately make you stand out and keep your clients coming back to you. As they say, "A fool with a tool is still a fool."

Concern: There is a continued downward pressure on per word rates

Far and away the loudest complaints by translators tend to be related to rates. If you search popular translator forums for phrases like "peanuts" and "bottom-feeding" you'll turn up enough reading material to keep you busy for a few days.

While there is a lot of negative chatter around low per word rates, the data suggests that incomes for translators and interpreters have actually risen at a higher pace than inflation over the past 15 years. How can this be if per word rates are falling? Either translators are working much longer hours or they are translating more words per hour. While it may be a combination of both, I think that increases in efficiency have had a much larger impact. The average words per hour that one can translate today compared to 15 years ago is night and day due to advances in software applications built for translators.

This means that more important than optimizing for per word rates you should be optimizing for your per hour rate on a job. This is not to say that the client will be paying you per hour (the majority of clients will pay per word), rather that you should estimate on your own what your per hour rate will be and optimize for jobs that increase this rate. Your ability to accurately estimate the hourly rate of a potential job can help you be more selective and increase your earning power.

Factors that you need to take into account when estimating your per hour rate for a potential job include:

  • Is this translation in a domain you know well? How many words per hour can you translate on this subject matter?
  • Do you have resources for this client / domain (i.e. TMs, glossaries, etc.) that will help you to work faster and more efficiently?
  • What is the format of the files you need to translate? Is it something you need to spend 30 minutes tinkering with or a format that is handled easily by your CAT tool?
  • Is this a new client or someone you have worked with before? (e.g. a new client will probably take up more of your time for administrative tasks and communication compared with a client you have successfully worked with in the past)

In addition to the low barriers to entry on the supply side that I mentioned above, technological advances have also increased demand for translation. Day by day there are more and more web sites, marketing materials, etc. that need translating as the world economy becomes more global. While on the surface this sounds like a great thing for the professional translator, in reality companies have gotten smarter about this new demand and, when they run the numbers, it often makes more sense for the bulk of this material to be translated on the cheap to a lower standard of quality.

This is a tough pill to swallow for some translators - the mere idea that quality is not binary. There are clients for whom a low or medium quality translation is all they need. This part of the market exists and will continue to exist. With that knowledge in mind, your duty as a freelancer should be to:

  1. Be self-aware and know where you stand. No one is born a professional. It takes years of experience and hard work. If you are a new translator know where to go to learn about appropriate rates. A great resource is the ProZ.com community rates page.
  2. Assess your ability to produce translations of a professional caliber in your chosen area(s). If necessary, improve your knowledge and skills.
  3. Confirm with a third-party that you are capable of translating to a professional standard in your chosen area(s) of specialization.

At the end of the day, don't let low rate jobs bother you and don't waste your time with them. On TM-Town we have the Don't Bother Me Rate that you can set when you sign up. If a client or agency sends you a message for a job that is below your DBM rate we'll make sure you don't have to see it.

In the photography industry, my mom feared that cheap, powerful digital cameras and the ability to print photos at home would end her business. However, that hasn't happened. Parents actually spend more money per child today than they did in the past. Why? Parents understand the importance of a photo of their child...and not just a photo on a memory stick, but a physical photo they can keep in the house. While they could print their own, they are willing to pay for not only the convenience of not having to worry about printing it themselves, but more importantly for the quality.

Even with the best home printer and digital camera, a parent would never be able to match my mom's quality - just like running a text through Google Translate is never going to match the quality you provide. Your unique value is the level of quality of the translations you provide. If you can build a deep trust with your client base that you are the expert in this field who provides the highest quality, most consistent translations - then your business will be successful and grow.

Concern: Issues related to machine translation

While there are many various concerns that translators have around machine translation, I think the big ones in the context of this post are:

  • An increase in low-rate Post-Editing Machine Translation (PEMT) jobs
  • The fear that machine translation will ultimately replace human translators

PEMT jobs are translation jobs where the client first machine translates the material and then uses a human to edit the text that the machine translation produced. As mistakes produced by machine translation are of a different nature than mistakes by humans, PEMT jobs require a different skill set than editing human translations.

PEMT has been controversial in the translation industry as the rates offered for these jobs have been lower than editing rates while arguably requiring more mental effort. From your perspective as a freelance translator these jobs should be relatively easy to evaluate - but it involves having a great self-awareness. Just like your other work, I recommend you view this from the framework of your hourly rate. How long does it take you to translate {x} words at the level of quality you provide? How long does it take you to post-edit machine translation of {x} words to the level of quality you provide? If that rate does not satisfy the hourly rate you are looking to earn then ignore those jobs and keep looking elsewhere.

A few translators seem to do well with PEMT (as mentioned above it is a different skill set than regular editing), while many others find PEMT to feel like more work than just translating the sentence from scratch. Whatever your style, be sure that the job satisfies the hourly rate you are looking to earn.

For the final fear, will MT take over the world and replace all human translators? Or to continue with the photography analogy - will cameras get so good that no one will ever hire a professional photographer again? Possibly, on a long enough timeline...but I don't think any of you need to go find a new profession any time soon.

Just like there is a lot that goes into a great photo (the pose, the focus, the smile, the color balance), there is a lot that goes into a great translation. While machine translation has come a long way, there are still many, many domains where machine translation is no where near coming close to replacing a human translator.

Take heart in that the jump from pretty good to professional is still just as difficult as it was in the past (for both machines and humans). To succeed as a professional in any industry it takes a mixture of:

  1. skill
  2. specialization
  3. experience
  4. hard work

Our robot overlords are not here yet

Instead of spending time worrying about if technology is killing the translation industry, instead spend that time thinking about how you can utilize technology to improve your translation business. The smart, professional translators are continually learning and using technology to improve their efficiency, consistency and grow their translation business. There are still many good paying jobs out there for specialists, but it takes a lot of effort and hard work to win the best clients.

One of the goals of TM-Town is to help translators with this - to show you in the best light and to help end clients who need specialized professional translators find the right translator for the job. Currently Nate is working on a new profile redesign which I’m really excited about. Be sure to subscribe to our blog updates in the left sidebar and we'll let you know when it is ready.

Lastly, remember it is easy to start standing out on TM-Town.

  • Load a document (you'll appear as a featured member on the home page)
  • Comment on a blog post
  • Start a new forum thread
  • Start selling a glossary
  • Fill out your profile as best you can (we'll be releasing beautiful new profiles very soon!)

If you are ready to find your niche and own it, then sign up for TM-Town today! If you are a client in need of a professional translator be sure to try TM-Town's first-of-its-kind translator search engine which will recommend the best specialist(s) for your specific text.

kevin dias at tm-town

About the Author

Kevin Dias
TM-Town Developer
More about me

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