A Hostage Situation or Driver’s Ed?

Innovating tech is easy. Innovating society is hard. That’s what is going on in our industry right now.

Of course, “easy” here is relative. Building any tech is hard, arduous work. Building Bureau Works the platform has been intellectually and emotionally challenging, but it has been easy compared with building Bureau Works the idea. The idea is that our relationship with technology in translation needs to change. Building this new relationship is orders of magnitude harder than building the tech itself.

Evolving our relationship with tech is difficult for a variety of reasons:

  • Relationship to our ego
  • Relationship to our money
  • Relationship to change

Relationship to Ego

Add a little bit of body textBeing a beginner is tough, and nothing makes us feel more like beginners than tools we don’t know how to use. Being a beginner is tough because we tend to value expertise and decisiveness in ourselves and others. This becomes doubly true when it comes to work, and even more so in intellectual work like translating.

New tools and technologies in our industry often have two impacts when it comes to expertise. First, they undermine it, and second, they obscure it. In translation, tech undermines expertise by doing the work that was once the translator’s. Machine translation has this “undermining” effect because it causes people to discount the translator’s expertise.

The latest tech innovations (Generative AI tools) are heavy on this undermining effect. They aim to complete tasks on their own, make intellectual decisions, and influence the thinking of the human in charge. As an analogy, this is like a saw asking a craftsman “You sure you want to make that cut? In Augmented Translation, it is a computer semantically verifying the translators decisions, and then making some of them before the translator even gets to that segment.

No wonder this is a challenge to the ego. In a world where we are supposed to dominate our tools, be decisive, and act independently to show our mastery, it is easy to feel intellectually undermined by generative AI.

Even for those who do not feel threatened by Gen AI, the second impact of Gen AI tools on our ego is inescapable. It would be difficult to find a translator who has not recently felt that certain buyers or people outside the profession don’t understand the necessity of translators. Their expertise has been obscured by the tools that try to imitate them; that masquerade as their replacements.

With all this going on behind the scenes of technological innovation, no wonder it is a daunting task to evolve our relationship with technology. To many people, this feels like asking them to develop Stockholm syndrome. Especially when we consider that our relationship with tech influences much more than just our egos.

Relationship to our money

As a result of challenging our expertise, new tech also challenges the way we have been making our livings. The challenge to our expertise when we perceive it is a threat to our egos. But, when it is perceived by those paying us for our work, it is a threat to what they are willing to offer us. New tech, in many ways, is facilitating new pay structures that do not initially seem favorable to the translator. The first part of the economic change that we feel is the lower rates, which results in lower pay. This is a stress on the pockets of freelancers, LSPs, and just about everyone who isn’t an end buyer.

Lower pay directly lowers quality of life in many ways, so being asked to reframe our relationship with the tools that seem to cause this drop feels again like being invited to develop Stockholm syndrome, but this time as a financial hostage rather than an intellectual one.

Relationship to Change

In addition to the perceived threats to identity and finances, there is a simple constant that makes developing a new relationship with tech difficult: Change sucks.

Adapting to new ways of working sucks. Having to shift strategies of personal finance sucks. Feeling untethered sucks. Basically, moving from security to discomfort sucks. Always. But, the discomfort comes from changes that can’t be reversed or avoided, and learning to navigate these changes is how we find our way back to security. Evolving our relationship with tech is how we turn this all from a threat into an opportunity.

To update my analogy based on this perspective, it is not about developing Stockholm Syndrome. It is about realizing that we are agents, not captives, of this new technological paradigm. We are the drivers and the new tech is the vehicle. It feels like we are trapped inside until we realize we have the keys and we can take it wherever we want. We may still be learning how, but we are on our way.

We aren’t in a hostage situation, we are in Driver Education.

The New Relationship

So what is this “evolved” relationship with machines that feel so intrusive, so imposing? It is a relationship where we let them be what they are and do what they do best. The result of this is that we, the humans, can do the same.

In the past 3 decades, translators have been made to feel like machines. Translation work has become a forest of typing speed, segment confirmations, TM updates, edit distance, and everything else that we know gets in the way of thinking about the text, the audience, and the message. To evolve our relationship with this tech, we need to realize that the machine can do many things much better than we can. We also need to realize that it can not take editorial ownership of the project like we can, and it can not contemplate the best ways to bring a message from one language to an audience in another.

We need to see that the relationship between us and our tech will be like a carpenter guiding a powerful saw, instead of dragging an old saw back and forth across the wood. The latter may give the carpenter a satisfying sweat, but the former creates much cleaner and more efficient work.

When we realize that our role as translators is going to be a role of curation and editorial judgment, we will be able to lean further into our talents that will not be replicated by the machine: Our talents as great copywriters, cultural liaisons, and living bridges between experiences. If we get stuck with the idea of ourselves as transmitters of data, that is where we will be in perpetual competition with the machine. Moving away from what translation has been is a step towards intellectual directorship and a step away from mechanical execution. It is a move towards our humanity, not away from it.

Then, when the line between humans and machines is more clearly defined, we can be compensated for those uniquely human traits that drive value. I see this as meaning that translators will make more money in the new paradigm, not less, because they will not be competing against a machine who does not need food on their table and a roof over their head.

This is the evolved relationship with the machines. It is a gift wrapped in some very spiky wrapping paper- getting to the gift will be painful, but once we are there we will be happy we went through the unwrapping. Our work will be even more valuable, from both an intellectual and a financial perspective.

The Spikes

If you are close to the translation industry, I likely don’t have to explain what the tough parts of this evolution are. Declining rates, more MTPE and less end-to-end translation, bad tech being hyped up as the best thing since sliced bread, more unemployment etc.

No industry evolves without spikes like these, but that doesn’t make them any less painful. No happy ending negates the painful parts of the story, and the ending only matters to those who make it. Nothing can be said to make this truth less difficult and sad.

What can be said, however, is that there is a time when the turbulence will calm down. The dust will settle, the volume will drop, and humans and machines will no longer be in opposition. We will be in collaboration, doing better work and living better lives because of it. If we see this innovation and evolution through that lens, it will make the difficulties along the way seem a lot more manageable. And, it will make us better drivers of the tech further down the road.

Topics: translation, ProZ.com, AI, Artificial Intelligence, generative AI

Gabriel Fairman

Written by Gabriel Fairman

Gabriel Fairman is the Founder and CEO of Bureau Works , a cloud-based TMS that leverages generative AI to enhance the human authorship and translation experience. Gabriel has been translating professionally for 20 years. To hear more about AI and translation, follow Gabriel on LinkedIn, Substack, and on the Merging Minds podcast.

Subscribe to Email Updates

    Lists by Topic

    see all

    Posts by Topic

    see all

    Listen to the ProZ.com Podcast


    Recent Posts