Translators Under Pressure

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In the midst of the AI-powered machine translation hype, the translation industry finds itself grappling with a shortage of talent

This article delves into the insights from the 2023 Translation Technology Insights survey conducted by RWS.

The Growing Skills Shortage:

The statistics are alarming. Not only do most LSPs face the challenge of talent shortage, but there’s also a darker trend emerging.

Graph showing translator experience in the industry, comparing 2020 and 2023
Source: RWS Translation Technology Insights 2023

Graph illustrating the decline in experienced translators from 2020 to 2023:
According to the RWS Translation Technology Insights 2023 report, there has been a 9% reduction in the number of highly experienced linguists in the market over the span of mere 3 years. Concurrently, there is a rise in the percentage of new entrants.

This trend aligns with the findings of the ProZ.com 2022 report, where 37% of translators stated that they knew someone who had left the industry.

However, I am skeptical of RWS’s interpretation that this outflow is primarily due to retirement. Firstly, the scale of the exodus is significant, and secondly, translation has always been viewed as a profession that one can continue even after retirement or in poor health. While some activities can be reduced, why would someone leave the entire business?

So, what is really happening? The answer lies in the immense pressure experienced by translation professionals.

Key Pressure Points for Freelancers:

  • 42% face pressure for cheaper translations.
  • 29% face pressure for faster delivery.
  • Only 18% cite higher quality as a primary concern.

The reasons mentioned above are self-explanatory. If experienced professionals are leaving the industry at an increasing rate, retirement cannot be the main driver.

The Harsh Reality:

As translation professionals struggle under the constant pressure to adopt new technologies and deliver faster, the demand for lower prices has reached a threshold that many cannot sustain.

Newcomers to the industry are often willing to work for reduced rates, hoping to increase their rates once they gain sufficient knowledge and references. However, as this does not materialize, after around five years or more, when they have families to support, they start leaving.

Experienced language professionals face mounting pressure to sacrifice their time management, continuously learn new tools under stressful conditions, and endure disrespectful requests to lower their rates. In such circumstances, leaving the industry becomes an appealing option.

The Impact of New Technologies:

While translators hear promising stories about new technologies in the industry, let’s be clear: for the most part, it is the language service providers (LSPs) who benefit.

Although these technologies may enhance effectiveness (which is not always the case), LSPs have adjusted their metrics to demand more words translated within shorter timeframes and at lower fees. The paradox lies in the fact that the resulting fees for translators are lower than before the adoption of these technologies, while the work becomes more exhausting.

The Future Outlook:

The optimistic view based on the RWS survey is that the skills shortage will further drive the adoption of new technologies to “free human translators for the kind of work that machine translators aren’t suited for.”

However, the reality is that human translators’ capacity is being utilized not for highly specific and creative work, but for endless reviewing of an increasing volume of machine-generated words. This shift from creative and inventive work to mechanical tasks is draining, unattractive, and demoralizing.

A staggering 21% of language professionals who do not possess computer-aided translation tools cite they either find them too expensive or not worth the investment. This clearly indicates that they are underpaid to the extent that they can’t afford essential work tools. Additionally, they do not expect to benefit from increased productivity. In other words, they recognize that these tools would enable them to secure jobs from other sources, but their profits would not grow.

LSPs and clients will continue to push reflecting the “easier” character of work in their collaboration terms, resulting in declining incomes for translators. Alongside the mounting pressure to process a growing number of files and smaller jobs, the attractiveness of the profession is diminishing.

As unfavorable payment terms extend to highly skilled and experienced professionals, too, the absolute income numbers are declining rather than growing even for highly skilled, this makes the prospects for newcomers even more dismal.

Moreover, the shortage of skilled individuals will intensify the pressure to further rely on machines, and where senior expertise is lacking, LSPs will attempt to replace it with more sophisticated QA tools. With a major part of clients lacking the knowledge allowing them to estimate the benefits of having a professional linguist, I believe we’ll also see a decline in work opportunities for senior reviewers who, though critically missing, might feel forced out of the industry.

In conclusion, the translation industry finds itself in a critical situation. I dare say this is a point of no return. While machine translation technologies continue to advance, it is crucial to address the talent shortage and alleviate the growing pressure on translators to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for the profession.

In an industry growing constantly in revenue, I believe there must be a way for language professionals to get their fair share. Translators who often negotiate their rates are in general more satisfied with their income. What does that say?

9 thoughts on “Translators Under Pressure

  1. Very interesting piece – and review of the RWS survey. I often wonder how Burn’s iron triangle impacts translators – the pressure to achieve the mythological trinity of high volume, short time and low price is surely a factor.

  2. Excellent article, thank you. I do think that, in time, many serious professionals might realize that the solution to the demand for MT discounts is the same one that was used (by SOME of us) for fuzzy matches: Increase your rates. I never accept more than 10% discounts for MT, because it almost never helps (and actually distracts). There *have* been a couple of cases where MT did a really good job (after being trained on my own translations), and I accepted a 20% discount. But in either cases, I told the client I want an overall increase to my rate, which is still smaller than the MT discount. This almost always seems attractive to the client, but it’s also a practical way for me to make up for the MT discount. I still refuse to give any discounts at all for most MTs which I can easily prove to have terrible output. Practically, I have not taken a hit in my income by adopting this policy. I *have* lost some clients who refused my terms, but found new ones. Always negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. And always look for greener pastures.

  3. Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing these insights, Marketa. And yes, as a professional translator with 25 years in the business, I can only underline what has been written and said above.
    I do negotiate but I never go below what I need to earn to make a decent living. But the pressure is definitely increasing.

    1. Happy to read such feedback, Tatjana. I know lots of translators who just don’t negotiate at all, or do not pay enough attention to raising their rates from time to time. Now with the growing inflation and pressure to go down from some big market players, the situation of many becomes very difficult 🙁

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