Between crisis and opportunity

2016’s Translating Europe Forum found cause for cheer amid the advance of automation, and the late 2017 edition of the conference was equally lively.

The theme was ostensibly ‘New skills, new markets, new profiles’, but technology remained a hot-button issue at this year’s Translating Europe Forum, held from 6-7 November in Brussels. Meanwhile, the question of what skills today’s translators need took a turn for the existential as participants asked what constitutes a translator in the first place.

What makes a translator a translator?

The first panel of the conference, ‘New professional profiles in the translation industry’, assembled a broad array of speakers from industry and academia to discuss how to train translators. In a future where ‘soft skills’ such as communication with clients are becoming ever more important, how much time should universities devote to teaching translation itself? Participants voiced fears that technologies such as Google Translate are diminishing the status of translators and forcing them to double as project managers and data analysts rather than deepening their linguistic and subject-specialist knowledge. However, speakers like Miguel Sevener from LSP BeatBabel were quick to point out the opportunities available in a changing translation industry – despite the advance of machine translation, annual turnover is on the rise. Ultimately, the panel served as a rallying cry for translators and other language professionals to take pride in their own work and insist on the value of their specialist knowledge.

The second day of the forum delved even more deeply into the question of how far the translators of the future will have to diversify, with panellists including SDL’s Andrea Stevens proposing new roles such as machine translation consultants. Meanwhile, academia’s inability to keep pace with the rapid rate of change led participants to emphasise the value of ‘metacompetencies’ that will enable students to adapt to the state of the market once they graduate.

Much ado about machine translation

In an age of increasing mobility, flexibility and digitalisation, the pressures facing the translation industry are hardly unique, as a keynote speech from Peter Flade of Gallup highlighted at the beginning of the conference. As was the case last year, speakers emphasised that the future of translation lies in an alliance of human and machine rather than in pure mechanisation. Jaap van der Meer, the keynote speaker on the forum’s second day, predicted the splitting of the industry into three strands: purely mechanical translation, ‘good enough’ translation post-edited by human translators, and high quality ‘boutique’ translation. While this may not seem like the most promising vision of the future, he pointed out that the ubiquity of cheap, bad translations will only drive up interest in creative alternatives. In addition, sectors of the market involving high risk, such as contracts and crisis communications, are unlikely to undergo the same level of automation as lower-stakes areas.

The times they are a-changing

Several topics were notably absent from the forum’s schedule: as audience members pointed out, the ethical and legal implications of machine translation for client confidentiality are becoming ever more significant, yet these were only mentioned in passing by panellists. Similarly, although professional organisations such as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Linguists play an important role in translator training, they were underrepresented among the roster of speakers. As the pace of change intensifies, it will be interesting to see how Translating Europe grapples with these issues.

Cover image via Pixabay (CC0)

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