There is nothing like the COVID-19 crisis to teach us how important perception is. Of any group of people in the same place, at the same time, governed by the same rules, you will find some who are ultra cautious, going out as little as possible, always wearing a face mask and taking no risks and others stretching the rules to the limits and beyond, ignoring social distancing and making sure they’re the first on the beach or in the bars. The real risk is the same, but these people perceive it very differently.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when my attention was drawn to a European Union web page entitled “eTranslation for SMEs”. What it is, effectively, is EU-sponsored computerised translation aimed at small businesses – or “a state-of-the-art online machine translation service”, as it describes itself – between the 27 official EU languages. “The eTranslation service is free of charge and will help you save time and money to translate your documents and text between any two official EU languages, and more!” trumpets the blurb. On top of this, and unlike rival services, “eTranslation guarantees the confidentiality and security of all your translated data”. There is even €4 million available for businesses to integrate the service into their processes.
In a Facebook discussion on the subject, some colleagues made the quite reasonable points that machine translation is nothing new and that the service appears to be no better than those already available. Others found (I did not) a caveat on the website stating that for critical documents human translators would always be necessary. In theory, then, as I have written myself in the past, there should still be a market for good translators.
And yet… I see this initiative as extremely dangerous to our profession for one overwhelming reason: perception. Because what is the perception of a small business potential client of ours when they see that the EU, effectively, thinks machine translation is all right? Whether it really is or not and the fact that the EU still employs plenty of human translators even though it is a great user of machine translation, is all irrelevant. There are bound to be business people who look at the fact that Europe is in favour of machine translation and think: “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.” After all, this is a free service with official backing – there’s no sharp-suited salesman trying to make them part with their hard-earned cash. The perception is completely different. And when, as translators, we try to convince them that reality is not quite the way they perceive it, they’ll just see a group of self-interested Luddites trying to hold back the march of progress. To me, it all begins to look like the beginning of the end.
Is there anything at all we can do about this? Our options seem limited, and I think they are very different depending on the career stage we are at. For young translators, I cannot see any choice other than to learn to live with machine translation – use it, find out its strengths and weaknesses, get good at correcting its output – because this is where your bread-and-butter work is going to be in many language combinations.
On top of this, my tip would be to become a really great writer: improve your vocabulary in your target language, work on your style and learn to write like no-one else can. It will help immunise you against the monotonously mind-numbing pap produced by computers conditioned to consistently choose the most popular option every time for each word and phrase, and it will make your translations memorable and different. Finally, I’d investigate learning an unusual language, or one where machine translation is less advanced or more difficult to use. These might be Oriental languages, for example, and perhaps Arabic, or minority languages.
Older translators can always do the same, of course, but for them – for us – I’d suggest another course. Firstly, I think customer care is going to become more important than ever. It might become difficult to attract new clients, but we can do our best to look after the ones we’ve got, most importantly through giving them excellent work, but also by being aware of and meeting their needs, making suggestions and becoming a valuable part of their team rather than just a disposable freelancer. There is no certainty, of course, that someone won’t at some point look at the figures and decide that the money they spent on us is a cost ripe for cutting, but I believe it does make it less likely.
There also may be some use in offering additional services such as copy and content writing, or teaming up with those who offer them, such as web designers. This isn’t so much about diversification, which is a term that can cover all kinds of less desirable projects, it’s about trying to offer clients a complete package. What if they could buy a website in several languages without having to go to several different professionals? Convenience is a useful weapon against price objections.
And my final suggestion for older translators, which I hope does not sound too strange, is to be a curmudgeon. Don’t just refuse to use machine translation, be vociferous about it. Because there are bound to be clients who, however much MT is pushed at them, do not trust it and do not want it. They are the clients you want to find you, and the more you make your position clear – to your existing clients, on the internet, on social media – the easier it will be for them to do just that. This won’t be a large or a growing market, of course, but it could be a useful one in the short term.
There are going to be people who look at what I’ve written and tell me I’m just being a prophet of doom. They’ll say, quite rightly, that the idea of machines taking over translation from human beings has been predicted for decades and that it still hasn’t happened. But I’d feel a lot more confident about that position if clients weren’t now being officially told to trust the machines. Because, as we know, perception is much more powerful than the truth.