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Translation Agencies – Will the Future Need Us?

by Erica Manning

Returning from the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) Language Industries Summit 2017, I reflected on an emerging theme that threaded across the presentations and discussion topics.

Like the gas lamplighters of the 1800s, whose numbers dwindled as electricity gradually eliminated the need for most of them (save those who care for the last 1,500 gas lamps in London), will translators and agencies eventually be replaced by Star Trek’s Universal Translator?

The answer I came home with is perhaps, someday… but not today.

Emerging technologies are indeed making amazing strides. The computers we use are capable of replicating our actions with more precision and are able to predict what we’re going to do faster than we can figure out what we want for lunch.

However, our needs around language are more complicated than “get this translated.” When I think of the last few projects I’ve managed, I was needed for much more than just getting the text into another language.

I was needed over the course of the project to answer questions like:

  • Why do we need this translated?
  • What will it be used for?
  • Who will be reading it?
  • What does my client want the audience to learn or understand?
  • Should the content be adapted to facilitate better understanding?
  • Are there interested parties other than my client and their intended audience?
  • How would it be best to incorporate feedback?

We still need humans to answer these questions and to make project, task, and resource decisions based on the answers. Human language has always been complicated. Having two people communicate to the point of genuine empathy is challenging far beyond any language barrier.

The good news is that we still need people. Capable, intelligent, and adaptable people are valuable and required today… and even tomorrow when we find machines to help out, we’ll still need human beings to fix those machines.

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