TRANSLATORS, AGENCIES, CUSTOMERS AND COUSINS: WHO’S RIGHT?

There are two general, exactly opposite attitudes in the language services sector, both of which are fundamentally incorrect: some customers are unaware of the work that is necessary in order to produce the requested quality, and some translators have a hard time accepting the fact that they work in an unregulated market. This is why translators
sometimes resort to the “Have your cousin do it” argument to claim a sort of monopoly that they could never actually claim on a job, that of translation, which is first of all a job carried out with words.


I have no intention of diminishing the professionalism of translators, far from it. But the argument “Have your cousin do it” is often made out of fear of competition and lack of regulation, when it is precisely competition and lack of regulation that make the language services sector such a dynamic and innovative one. With the regulation and use of software patents, we would not have had such impetuous development of the computer industry years ago. Regulations, intellectual property (see the studies of Boldrin and Levine) and the inhibition of competition substantially hinder innovation and increased productivity, which in the end are actually real assets of the community.

Of course, the fear is that the competition is only in terms of rates, which may be true at first glance. But I think this is a non-issue. It is entirely plausible that machine translation and other forms of automation will increasingly reduce rates over time. Today translators in certain fields are almost exclusively post-editors of texts pre-translated by a machine. At this stage, when machine translation output is far from perfect, translators must have substantial expertise in that particular sector, thus specialisation is a crucial competitive factor.
Also for this reason, if “your cousin” is a naval engineer with substantial experience as a translator, he will be comparatively much more competitive and more skilled than a translator who is not specialised in translating technical shipbuilding-related texts. We can predict that artificial intelligence will make further improvements to machine translation, but this doesn’t exclude that: 1) rates can only be “compressed” to a certain extent; 2) precisely because the rates will be low, translators will have to specialise and develop different skills.


I do not want to be overly daring by predicting a future where translations will be post-edited (perhaps another term will be used, who knows?) by translators who are not even very specialised (therefore relatively cheap) and where the most professionalised roles will be those of professional figures halfway between translator and coder, between linguist and artificial intelligence expert. We should ask universities to substantially update their educational offer (allowing private individuals to contribute in terms of training) in order to better support the forthcoming revolution in the language services sector: only in doing so can we train people whose professionalism will be in step with the times, and who will be able to earn a respectable income. And no one will be afraid of those elusive cousins any more.


Domenico Lombardini

English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider