The Industrialization of Translation*

The race for the title of the planet’s largest language services provider is in full swing. A case in point: Lionbridge’s recent acquisition of CLS Communication (owned by Lexi-Tech). However, the mergers of such industry giants also speak to how industrialized the translation market is becoming, a process that has been underway for some time now.The introduction of IT into the language industry revolutionized the translation market. On one hand, it gave language professionals access to valuable, time-saving tools , which may have helped make up for the fact that translation rates have been stagnating for at least 20 years. On the other, some clients have used IT to generate cost savings by forcing their subcontractors to use specific tools and accept discounted rates. In this scenario, clients pay the full rate for “new words,” applying discounted rates to text segments with some similarity to segments in a translation memory or database. The discounted rates vary with the level of similarity (“match rate”).

In concrete terms, the industrialization of translation unfortunately depersonalizes service, leads to tasks being split among multiple translators, and inevitably lessens the quality of the result. It also generates price wars, and even a form of cannibalism among the translators themselves. For example, the federal government’s Translation Bureau (TB) systematically awards contracts to the lowest bidder. This in turn favours translation agencies that are able to turn a profit by translating astronomical volumes at low rates. Such agencies outsource the translation around the world, using people who are willing to work for ridiculously low rates. Certain TB editors deplore the situation because they sometimes have to completely rework the shoddy translations they receive.

Some of these agencies’ clients—for example, multinationals that need product manuals in several languages—are not always in a position to judge the quality of the translations they receive, with the result that end users are once again left to deal with the fallout: incomprehensible instructions. This can have serious consequences if the product in question is a machine. What if a drug’s dosage has been mistranslated? And these are just two possible situations.

How did some parts of the industry lose sight of the professional nature of a translator’s work? Contract templates may be available online free of charge, but this does not mean we can dispense with the services of lawyers and notaries. Beyond the text itself, language professionals play an advisory role, something no machine can do.

*Text translated by Sébastien St-François and Alison Newall