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The Demise of Freelance Translators Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

About 15 years ago, an article in the New York Times painted a bleak picture of the translation profession. Soon, it prophesied, freelance translators would be squeezed out of the market by large translation firms, while intelligent software able to conduct the same – and better – work would endanger the business as a whole.

A decade and a half later, it’s time to take stock of these predictions, compare where we currently stand in the translation industry, and how much of the threat still remains. Are freelance translators really an endangered species? Join us for a dissection of the article and its main points to find out.

Prediction #1: The Internet Has Exponentially Increased Competition

According to the article,

An American company can e-mail a Spanish translation job to a lower-wage translator in Mexico. And translators of less-common languages are suddenly in ample supply.

Part of that prediction undoubtedly rings true. Today, freelance translators will compete not just with area professionals, but linguists from around the world for the same type of jobs. But just as competition has increased, so has opportunity.

Just 20 years ago, freelance translators had to work hard just to get their name recognized by relevant businesses in the area. Today, translation websites and marketplaces make it easy for translators to find and connect with potential clients in their desired language and range of expertise. The prediction remains true, but the increased opportunity evens out the threat.

Prediction #2: Software Will Soon Replace Human Translations

American Standard may soon use software to translate its intranet into the 16 languages spoken by its 61,000 employees. ”Human translation is too expensive,” said Jonathan Reavis, a Trane international marketing executive in La Crosse, Wis.

Allow us to determine the validity of this prediction today with a counter question. Have you ever tried using a machine translation software, even for technical texts, and run the results past a native speaker? The results today, as they were 15 years ago, are not pretty.

Languages exhibit countless subtle differences and nuances that translation software simply cannot pick up on. We are still far away from artificial intelligence technologies that can find and translate these contextual nuances. And if we ever do get there, increased competition for freelance translators will be the least of our worries. We doubt Skynet or the Matrix’s Agent Smith would care much about translating texts, anyways.

Prediction #3: Big Firms are Squeezing Out Independent Translators

Translation companies compete fiercely for clients. That has kept their rates low and thus made it harder for translators to push through their own rate increases. Their union — the Translators and Interpreters Guild, formed in 1991 — offers certification and referral service, but has only attracted about 350 members.

Regardless of industries, competition from larger corporations will always be a threat to small businesses and independent professionals. But we would argue that as the internet has continued to evolve in the last 15 years, this threat has not increased, and perhaps even decreased.

The above-mentioned marketplaces allow translators to essentially run their own business, complete with payment structures and marketing opportunities, without the traditional expertise required to do so. In addition, freelance translators can easily connect with larger agencies for partnership, doing contractor work while benefiting from the agency’s established client relationship.

Freelance translators, in short, are far from an endangered species. On the contrary, the continued proliferation of the internet has allowed them to thrive without needing to be attached to larger agencies and brands, competing for translation jobs and projects around the world. So if you are looking for quality translation work, don’t worry that based on predictions from 15 years ago, you will not be able to find the right partner. Instead, contact us.

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