By Gwenydd Jones MA, DipTrans, MCIL, Chartered Linguist
Since I have no functioning crystal ball, this article is my opinion in 2024 about the future of translation. If you’re asking yourself whether AI is going to replace translators, I’d like to throw a couple of questions back at you:
If you can tick these two boxes, then you’ll know as well as I do that there’s no immediate danger of AI replacing translators. As far as my experiments have shown, a translation produced by AI in 2024 isn’t going to get anywhere near obtaining a pass in the DipTrans.
AI is good at producing translations considering that a computer is doing the work. But translations produced by a computer are different to translations produced by a trained human translator. Where accuracy is concerned, AI may manage to produce a more accurate translation than some human translators, particularly untrained ones.
However, if the competition is about who can write a more idiomatic translation, a trained human translator will win. It must also be noted that AI sometimes writes nonsense. AI lacks certain abilities and excels at others. But that doesn’t mean it can do an expert’s job better than an expert can.
This is where the second question I asked above comes into play: how well have you honed your translation skills? Having taught more than 200 translators of differing levels on our translation courses, I can assure you that some professional translators don’t always translate accurately. In fact, it’s one of the biggest problems we have to contend with when an experienced translator asks us to help them prepare for the DipTrans exam.
Linguists who became translators without proper training have often developed bad habits. Many will draft too quickly without really thinking about word meaning and then fail to check their draft properly for accuracy. They also often edit to the point of rewriting and scan rather than proofread. This can lead them to produce a host of inaccuracies including basic mistakes like miscopying names and numbers. I see humans producing basic inaccuracies so frequently that I suspect it’s one reason why low-paying translation clients think AI can replace us.
If accuracy is what you’re looking for, AI is nothing but accurate. It should be noted though that this accuracy may give rise to literal translations. It may also be based on mistaken logic and so you end up with nonsense. AI translates what’s on the page to the best of its ability, and its ability can often be found lacking.
The way I see it, for AI to replace translators, we’d have to reach the point of singularity, where the technology gets smarter than us. I have no idea if we’ll ever reach that point. But if we do, it won’t just replace translators. It’ll replace any human who works with a computer, including programmers. Life as we know it will end.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not going to pursue a career option because you’re worried about AI putting you out of work, choose a career that has nothing to do with computers, like becoming a dairy farmer in the Alps. I have a friend who does that successfully without even owning a smart phone. A better question is how is AI changing the work of a translator? That one I can comment on.
The job of a translator is changing because untrained AI is now capable of producing a reasonable draft translation. The quality of this draft will depend on how difficult the software finds the text in question. Difficulty for AI could relate to trying to understand syntax structure, words with multiple meanings, nuance, real-world context, emotion, writer errors, specialist subject matter, creativity, minority languages and numerous other things I haven’t thought of.
In many areas, it’s getting good enough that it can produce an acceptable first draft of a translation. Acceptable means that the quality of the draft will lead to a satisfactory final translation being produced faster than if a human does the drafting. As a result, translators are being increasingly moved into the role of post-editors.
The process to produce a quality professional translation can be broken down into four stages: drafting, checking the draft for accuracy, editing the draft (possibly with multiple edits and accuracy checks) and proofreading. The post-editor does all those things except for the drafting. Post-editing well can be harder than translating well because you have to know how to adapt your skills to literal computer output. Untrained translators don’t know how to check, edit and proofread translations properly. Added to this, a certain percentage of translators are terrified of technology.
Being able to speak two languages, being a language teacher or being a language graduate are all qualities that mean you have the profile to become a translator. But they aren’t enough to know how to translate, post-edit or pass the DipTrans exam (This is where our course in the foundations of translation comes in).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find professional translators who don’t update their skills. If a translator has never completed any proper translation training, never obtained an official translation qualification, never learned how to use translation technology and never marketed themselves, they’ll probably be finding today’s employment climate rather chilly.
The future of a professional translator in is 2024 is to be highly skilled. It’s to be flexible and adaptable. It’s to learn about technology and grow with it. It’s to be proficient in one or more foreign languages. It’s to do a job that’s misunderstood and underrated by most people. It’s to hear some older translators tell you that there’s no future in translation. It’s to hear informed language professionals tell you that it’s an exciting world with prospects.
It’s to earn good money. It’s to enjoy job flexibility and working from home. It’s to bridge gaps. It’s to train and qualify. It’s to do continuous professional development. It’s to be a writer. It’s to be a mouthpiece. It’s to be an expert on punctuation. It’s to subtitle. It’s to hear continuously that AI is going to replace you. It’s to learn the ins-and-outs of things you never dreamt you’d read about in your life. It’s to make mistakes sometimes. It’s to aim to get the DipTrans.
It’s to have wonderful colleagues all over the world. It’s to join competitive tenders. It’s to post-edit. It’s to be a creative. It’s to have a wide range of job opportunities. It’s to diversify. It’s to specialise. It’s to travel. It’s to work for international organisations. It’s to help people communicate. It’s to have continuous intellectual challenges. It’s to sometimes not know the answer. It’s to have clients. It’s to update your CV every year and keep sending it out.
It’s to market yourself. It’s to think like a businessperson. It’s to work in house. It’s to sit competitive exams to work for the EU or the UN. It’s to freelance. It’s to work for agencies. It’s to work for end clients. It’s to diversify into interpreting. It’s to join associations and attend conferences. It’s to blog. It’s to have a social media presence. It’s to be a digital nomad. It’s to be an editor. It’s to be a proofreader. It’s to be an expert on style. It’s to get an MA, or not. It’s to be driven by passion.
It’s to love what you do. It’s to be brilliant.
Gwenydd Jones MA DipTrans MCIL Chartered Linguist is the founder of The Translator's Studio, lead tutor and course creator and translator of Spanish and French into English.
Views expressed on CIOL Voices are those of the writer and may not represent those of the wider membership or CIOL.