Why translators should be more disruptive There’s no blueprint for survival, but there’s one for extinction.

  • Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

    The smart phone, the electric car and the digital camera differ widely at first glance, but they still have something in common. The introduction of these products led to an increase in similar products and sparked a great discussion about their right to exist and the future of their respective industries and competitor products. They were, in one word, disruptive. Disruption seems to be everywhere nowadays and is sometimes explained as the only way to survive. That raises the question of whether translators should be disruptive as well.

    How disruption puts industries in fire

    Last year an acquaintance of mine started out as a estate agent. After having worked in the industry for a decade he decided that he could do better. So he did. As a first of its kind in the local market he introduced website addresses for each property he was selling. Furthermore, he successfully introduced drone videos to attract maximum attention to his portfolio. Many of the properties he sells – on average €400,000 each – are sold within a month after being published on property websites. His clients are even so enthusiastic that they develop into real ambassadors, consistently recommending him in their own networks. Half a year after launching his own business he is drowning in work and has even hired his first employee.

    As the new broker started in my own town I witnessed something really interesting. His new company first met with some sneers and sarcasm, but with his success there also came trouble for his competitors. The largest one quickly introduced a new corporate identity, while another one copied the idea of a website for each new property (and even introduced ‘a first of its kind in the region’). Other marketing campaigns and ideas mimicked it as well in an attempt to maintain market share. Others kept silent, obviously hoping that the first disruptive storm would blow over and that the shift in market share would settle down.

    Disruption in the translation industry

    Disruption has been seen in the last years mainly in technology-related industries, like the IT and automotive industries. These industries are dealing with a large number of technologies and clever minds that are constantly looking for new opportunities to ruffle their competitors. In the translation industry the situation seems somewhat different. There are many technologies and developments, but real game changers seem to be lacking. And when they sometimes set the industry on fire, the industry still does not shake at its foundations like other industries.

    Of course, there are still some disruptive companies and technologies that are shaping the future of translation (and interpreting). A couple of years ago Smartling was one of the first companies that started out as an online translation platform where companies could have their website translated without much hassle. I remember the speech from founder Jack Welde, and his vision on the future of translation, where he saw much room for services that improve the customer experience and speed up the translation process. Smartling did a great job of that at the time. However, the company did not introduce any disruptive innovations afterwards.

    Last year Lilt.com, an online translation platform, came into being. The platform introduced an innovative technology with adaptive machine translation, which learns on the fly from your translations and post-machine edits, and applies them to segments that still need to be translated. This technology speeds up translations and case studies by Lilt have been shown to greatly improve productivity.

    In the wake of the cloud-based platform, competing online translation environments introduced support for different file formats, like Studio packages, as well. They do not all support groundbreaking innovations like adaptive machine translation, but Lilt seemed to set the standard for supported file types.

    Then there is machine translation. This technology has already been available for some decades and is continuously improved. However disruptive it can be in practice, there are still many translation agencies and translators alike that are anxious for it and that do not use it to be disruptive themselves. Big companies like Google and Microsoft are using the technology in their offerings to end users (Google Translate) and translators, but the industry is not keen to embrace the technologies. Ambassadors of machine translation and technology lovers are still predicting a disruption when MT is finally adopted by translators, but the pace is too low for MT to be a real disruptive power.

    Why translators should be disruptive

    Summarizing the symptoms of disruption in the translation industry, we can conclude that there are disruptive trends happening but they lack the power to overturn existing technologies and structures.
    At a translator’s level it can even be questioned if there is disruption. The above example of the estate agent clearly shows how a single company can shake up the (local) market by using a different approach and introducing new and creative ways to attract clients. In the translation industry, professionals mostly launch a website to make themselves known and buy a licence for a CAT tool to increase their productivity levels. The only real disruptive force is the introduction of lower prices, which already results in downward spiralling rates that place a high burden on translators.

    But what if those ever decreasing rates are a matter of fact that cannot be easily ignored? Then there are two options: translators can neglect that fact and be disruptive by offering greater service (higher productivity, better support and shorter deadlines) or they can follow that trend and make sure they can still translate for their living (increasing their productivity to compensate for the lower rates). When disruption from a technological perspective is impossible for translators, they should be disruptive in their business practice.

    This is not a plea for ever lowering translation rates. This is also not advocacy for changing what has always worked very well. However, in 2017 the market is no longer the same as in 1990 – or even 2010. Despite the resistance of translators to lower rates and new technologies, developments are still going on. Of course there are still many clients who are willing to pay great rates and who can afford to wait a day longer for their translation, but disruptive inventions like Google Translate and disruptive services like ‘same-day’ and ‘overnight translations’ are gaining market share. Chances are great that it is only a matter of time before disruption is the only possible move in order to survive in an ever changing market. Companies that can wait a day longer can now change that attitude if they find out that there are ways to deliver earlier. And clients can put pressure on you to lower rates when they discover that they can save a third on each translation project. Disruption is then the best leap forward, no matter whether you choose to improve on services or on productivity.

    How to be disruptive as a translator

    The most important characteristic of disruptive technologies and companies is that they changed the market and survived. Being disruptive is great, but it only pays off if you can reap its fruits. So it is important to be creative in your business. The great and difficult aspect of disruption is that there is no blueprint for it – especially not when it comes to doing business. The common denominator of disruption however is that it provides an illuminating example of how to generate business. If you are really disruptive by inventing services, propositions and business procedures that endure over time you can rest safely in knowing that swimming against the tide will protect you from extinction.

    But don’t be overly disruptive. Disruption has its drawbacks as well. Nothing shows that better than the video below.

    Pieter Beens

    About Pieter Beens

    Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

    3 thoughts on “Why translators should be more disruptive

    1. Hmm, whenever I hear the words “disruptive, disruptor, disruption” with this revolutionary zing I’m thinking I’ve encountered another colleague enamored with the Silicon Valley philosophy.

      Blame it on the English language (and on those marketing writers who never got past a C minus in English writing) to come up with such a clumsy use for the words disrupt and disruption.

      I am almost certain that there’s a SEO sense at work here: how to write an article, a blog posting, etc. with really cool SEO words? I know! Let’s use disruption, disruptor, etc. That’ll get lots of eyeballs and clicks.

      In my 26 years of professional work as a translator, I’ve seen rates go up and down and I’ve seen translation companies (or intermediaries) appear and disappear, or being absorbed by bigger ones (what is called consolidation in the business world). In the meantime, translators have been using different technologies to do their job, from pen and paper to typewriters to computers.

      I’m afraid that there are more ways to keep working as a translator in this century than just adopting a snazzy slogan or throwing buzzwords around, or buying a subscription to Fast Company. We translate texts, not bits or bytes; we write our translations, no matter how we organize our thoughts or what steps we go through to arrive at a written solution.

      So, it’s not a matter of disrupting anything or of being disruptive: kids can be disruptive in class; some newcomer company like SpaceX can ‘disrupt’ the space industry or the whole business of sending supplies to space stations or repair aging satellites. Let’s not fool ourselves: there may be new ways of marketing our services or reaching out to new market segments, but the way of doing translation remains basically the same: collect your thoughts before, during and after reading your text, and write down your translation.

    2. Disruption can also come from the process of identification!
      On eazylang.com, clients choose their translators based (partially) on the terminology contained in their translation memory files. Its reinsuring for the client and it helps providing jobs to translators directly in their main domain of competency!

    3. Great post, Pieter! To me the word disruption will always associate with some rapid technological advancement as you have demonstrated in your examples. Even in the example with your friend he used technology (creating websites for each and every single property) to differentiate himself from the competition.

      When applied to translators, though , I think we can be disruptive in a variety of ways. We can use available technology to speed up the delivery or develop new services (like machine post-editing or gisting). We can use marketing to stand out from the crowd and market our services directly to clients. Or we can turn ourselves into an agency and increase our revenue by offering more language pairs and more services (provided that we also have some sort of added value to differentiate ourselves from competitors, like specialization or very complicated and strict QA process).

      It should be noted though, that none of the above is disruptive enough to change the landscape of an entire market. However it can make a difference in individual translator’s income and market share, so I guess we can call it a micro-disruption or self-disruption.

      I don’t believe though that a single translator will ever be able to come up with something so revolutionary that it would turn an entire market on its head. But I’d be happy if someone could prove me wrong 🙂

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