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.