Hope for the future
I went to this year’s ITI Conference in Sheffield hoping to meet friends and colleagues but not sure quite what else to expect. Many would now have us believe that the big translators’ organisations have sold out to the agencies and the pushers of machine translation in the drive to make translators complicit in the endless spiral of falling rates and enforced productivity increases. It was my first ITI Conference, having recently joined the organisation, and I was delighted to find that, at least for this association, it simply isn’t true.
Everywhere the message was the one I believe is right: specialise, be a better translator and charge what you’re worth. Close interaction with clients was also one of the themes. David Jemielity, an in-house translator with a Swiss regional bank, explained how he has managed to put translators at the heart of his organisation’s communication campaigns. And Chris Durban, perhaps the one translator who really does need no introduction, spoke, with detailed examples, about the way many translators are churning out work little better than machines. Her route out of the trap: specialise, improve, take more time over your work and, to the biggest round of applause of the conference: eschew PEMT (and how many computers could ever come up with such a memorable and perfectly chosen verb?).
As usual I avoided the sessions on machine translation. Fortunately for those of use who really can’t be bothered to attend talks on something we’re never planning to use, we have people like former ITI chair Sarah Bawa-Mason to keep a critical eye on it for us. Her verdict as she looked forward the future of the ITI: “The machines are good, but there’s still plenty of scope for human translators.”
I was co-presenting too, explaining, together with my RevClub colleague Victoria Patience, our own small contribution to becoming a better translator, developed together with Tim Gutteridge: our mutual revision system that means translators can help each other to improve at no financial cost. It was complemented by a presentation the next day by Mason Colby and Juliet Baur on commercial collaborations between translators, with lots of useful detail on how to find a compatible partner.
All this seemed to be tremendously well received by the conference-goers. Translators, it seems, are looking to stay in the game, rather than resigning themselves to the soul-destroying task of tweaking computer output for a living. Perhaps there is still hope for the idea of translation as a craft, rather than translators being reduced to cogs in a word sausage machine.
There is still a problem though, I believe, in making sure that the right message gets across: the traditional division that everyone talks about between the bulk market and the so-called premium market. The low-paid bulk market, I think everyone now agrees, is on the verge of disappearing if it hasn’t already gone. As Chris Durban made clear, a machine can now do at least as good a job as an unskilled human translator. But what is the premium market exactly? There’s no doubt that it does exist. But is it really open to all translators? Or is it equally open to all of us? Chris revealed the secrets of getting there, which boil down to subject expertise, translation skill and becoming indispensable to the client, all of which I’d heartily support. But according to her figures, I, and I’d wager a good part of her audience, are still generally charging bulk market rates, even though the translations we produce may be much better than the examples she showed.
Not all markets, of course, pay as well as the financial world where Chris works. This disparity of rates makes it easy for some to dismiss her as a “special case”, not relevant to “ordinary” translators. But this is wrong. Her advice is excellent for reasons other than simply what can be earned. Because if we are to eschew post-editing machine translation we need to be in areas of the market where those machines can’t go, and the way to get there is exactly the same as going truly premium – expertise, skill and customer service. Verónica Sardón, whom I met for the first time face-to-face in Sheffield, touched on this in a guest post she wrote for this blog a couple of years ago. She called it “Redefining the premium market”. I wonder now, though, whether there is more of a need for a new title than a new definition.
I would call the market Verónica alluded to, which values translations but does not, for a variety of reasons, have huge budgets to spend, the “sustainable market”. Sustainable because it pays enough for translators to earn a living – no bulk market here; sustainable because it’s not easily accessible to machine translation so is not about to disappear; and sustainable because it lends itself to an approach that maintains translation as a craft, offering the translator pride and job satisfaction. It is sustainable, too, because it offers translators decent working conditions, not only far from the semi-slavery of the bulk market, where they are working round the clock just to stand still, but also removed from the pressures of over-demanding corporate clients who want their translators available on a whim at all hours.
Just like the bulk market and the premium market, the sustainable market does exist. I work there a lot of the time and it’s by no means a soft option. Only translators prepared to sharpen their skills and apply the advice of people like Chris Durban can survive there because, to a large extent, it works on word of mouth, so most of your new clients come from your existing clients. It means knowing your clients, knowing what they’re really able to pay and being able to get it, and knowing how to build lasting relationships with them. Through this sustainable market it’s perfectly possible to move on to premium market clients, or it can simply be an end in itself. My sincere hope is that many of the translators I met in Sheffield, who received the messages they heard there so enthusiastically, will not be put off by the seeming unattainability of premium market rates and follow the path to finding something sustainable for themselves.
Photo by Claudia Benetello.
Hi Simon, good to see you posting on this.
Just speaking for Chris, David and I, since we have been presenting on this topic going clear back to ATA in Chicago in 2014 (with Chris and I going WAY farther back than that — I think around 1998), there exists no clear delineation between the bulk and premium markets. It does not exist. There is no clear line dividing the two.
We’ve repeated this so often and in so many venues that you’d imagine at some point it would rub off. But that’s OK. People are busy. I personally have written extensively on this on my own blog, repeatedly, to some level of exhaustion, to address any confusion so if you’d forgive my weary eyes and brain after an unusually long and difficult day, I’ll just quote from that blog post, which my records show has been viewed over 4,000 times:
"The translation industry is best represented as a very long continuum that encompasses all market segments, with raw bulk free machine translation (MT) at one end and $25,000 tag line translations of three words at the other.
"And it’s far more accurate to characterize the “quality” continuum in terms of gradual and consistent gradations of shade rather than in terms of clear differentiating boundary lines.
"So to be clear, the “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only."
And in a subsequent blog post:
"I’ve taken great pains to emphasize that the translation market is a very long continuum consisting of billions of shades of gray. The “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only.
"We are all employed at various points on that continuum throughout our careers.
"There is no one single differentiating line between the two markets, so to argue where one specific translator falls on the continuum vs. other translators – getting into a “more premium than thou” argument on social media, or worse, to belittle a translator who has been financially successful in the premium market on those same fora – is pointless, counterproductive, potentially dispiriting to colleagues who are working to help each other, and at the end of the day just sets us all up for unnecessary and personally divisive distractions."
I also identify an intermediary market that is similar to what you refer to as the "sustainable" market above. My chosen term was the "value-added market" or the "added-value market," the latter seemingly more popular in Europe. Once again, from a different blog post dated April of 2017:
"The Value-Added Market
The “value-added market” is a higher-end sector that requires special expertise, experience and sensitivity. While not yet the premium market, it’s a solid step above the bulk market, and often where translators work for years as they hone their talents and expertise before moving into the premium market.
"The value-added market is where the translations are typically in a specialized subject-area that is sensitive enough for clients to pause at the thought of using GT or any machine translation at all. The complexity of the subject is enough to sow doubt in clients’ minds. The risk of a translation error can be significant. Translators who work in these markets (typical rates in the USD $0.15 – $0.20 range) have completed specialty training in the subject-matter at the university level, are exceptional writers, and have largely completed the switch to direct clients and the best boutique agencies while terminating their relationships with low-end bulk-market agencies and ceased to consider random agency inquiries.
Examples of subject areas include:
The entire range of medical, pharmaceutical, and health-care translation, including clinical trials, medical devices and instruments, patient records and charts, physician notes; physician rater training, regulatory and compliance and other health-care specialties;
IT and telecom, with principal focus on innovation and next-generation technology solutions;
Accounting and auditing on the corporate, institutional and legal levels;
Environmental sciences, petroleum and industrial engineering;
Entertainment: subtitling, voice-over and A/V at the national network and media level.
While this is obviously a representative list, it is hardly exhaustive, and in several sectors overlaps with the list provided above to contrast with the bulk market. But this value-added market is not the province of generalists or bulk-market translators – those who market themselves in these areas without the true expertise to succeed will certainly fail. A ticket to success in this market is hard-won, and success takes talent, commitment, a thorough knowledge of the subject matter and an excellent record of performance."
I do think it’s useful to have discussions on "moving upmarket" as a form of positive progression for any translator, while emphasizing that the market is enormously diverse and complicated, and it serves no good purpose to set ourselves up for comparisons in any personal form.
The intent is to provide specific guidance in very concrete terms *that has worked consistently for thousands of translators* and to do so at no cost to the translators at all.
Thank you for the detailed comments, Kevin. I think I’d just say two things. First of all, I am not criticising anyone in what I’m saying in my post. It isn’t anyone’s fault (clearly not, as you’ve demonstrated), but there is a perception among many translators that the premium market is something far-off and not relevant to them. What I want to say to those people is that maybe they are a long way from the premium market, and, depending on their language combination and specialism, they might not even get there, but that they can still learn a great deal from you and Chris and others. As you say, there are lots of markets, and the size of each of them differs depending on your language combination, as well as other factors. I would say that, for example, in my main combination of Spanish-English, the premium market would be very small for cultural reasons – quality is not valued in Spain as it is in some other countries. I don’t think I know anyone who works in it all the time, although there may be translators who do. That’s why what I’m describing here, which probably does correspond to your added value market, is not necessarily a middle market – in some cases it’s probably the best there is. As translators, what’s important to us about a market, I think, are that 1) it pays enough so that we can take enough time to do a good job; 2) that the texts are complex enough so that the work isn’t going to disappear in the near future and, 3) that the work is interesting enough to give us some sort of job satisfaction. And that’s what I mean about sustainability – this is a market we can rely on, at least for the foreseeable future. But, as you say, there’s nothing new about it, except possibly the name.