Sisyphus was lucky

Once again, Gabriel Fairman invites us to analyze contemporary struggles with a perspective from distant times and to think how we, as humans, can reinvent ourselves and get messy!

We are fighting a giant, not rolling a boulder

Many voices in the translation industry feel that we are going too far, too fast, and in the wrong direction. AI is getting better, tech providers are getting rich, and translation rates are lower every time you look. None of it shows any sign of slowing down, and holding onto our careers feels like rolling a boulder up a hill.

But, we aren't just rolling a boulder up a hill. We are fighting a giant. The story of translators in the age of big tech is a David and Goliath tale, but we still aren't fighting it the right way.


Give them an inch

I often find myself in conversations about the ethical implications of my work- building an AI-Augmented TMS. The tool makes translators faster (among other things), and therefore lets them process more words and make more money. The question is, is this the right goal? Should we be trying to speed translators up to keep up with rate decline and price wars, or should we be slowing the industry down so that the rates can come back up?

Ethically, I like the sound of both. But practically, I have a lot more faith in the former than in the latter. It will be much easier for us to speed ourselves up than to slow everything else down. The issue here for many translators is they feel that if we give big tech and exploitative agencies an inch, they will take a mile. They will continue to drive down rates and use tech as a scapegoat.

But, if we don't give them an inch they will take everything.

This is because the boundary between the ethical and the practical is artificial. Not adapting ourselves to this new world of AI in order to not "give an inch" seems like the ethically responsible choice, but in reality it hinders our ability to make ethical progress. It takes energy and attention away from strategies that have the potential to create improved outcomes, and it turns discussions about AI in translation into all-or-nothing standoffs. True ethical progress is about making life better for more people, not dying on a hill as it becomes worse.

In our industry, this means that opposing the technology that helps translators to keep up is inherently unethical, even if it is done in the name of the translator's best interests.

Sisyphus on a deadline

The allure of Sisyphus is that he is tireless. He pushes his boulder forever, only for it to roll down the hill time and time again. His situation never improves, but it also never gets worse. His eternal damnation is mercifully consistent. Our struggle as translators is not Sisyphean because it is neither endless nor unchanging; it will get more difficult over time until it is over.

Unless we reframe.

Translators are not living in the Sisyphus myth, we are living in a David and Goliath moment. However, we need to be careful that we don't interpret our Davidian status as an excuse for bravado or hubris. The story isn't just a lesson that the little guy can win, it is a blueprint for how. David did not beat the giant by brute strength, he used tools.

Just as David used stones and a sling to take down the giant, we need to use tools that will make our job possible in light of the pressure we are facing. We need our tools to knock out the threat of being replaced, and, in order to adopt these tools we need to be agile. Being agile means building and using the tools that allow humans to work with language professionally, despite all of the challenges. Ethical agility is not letting our ideal of perfection get in the way of what is functionally good.


Heroes are always agile

Examples of agile heroism don’t only exist in mythology. We look to the great David and Goliath stories of history and see that conquerors with more resources are only ever brought down with clever, guerilla tactics. They are not overpowered, they are outmaneuvered. We as translators need to use AI to outmaneuver AI. AI tools that make us faster and more accurate while maintaining our human edge are our guerrilla tactic.

This is where the ethical conundrum becomes the most complex- In order to escape destruction at the hands of AI, we need to keep it in our hands. Keeping it any farther away puts us directly into striking distance. We need to keep our enemies close, especially at the hour of attack, and we need to recognize that our existential situation supersedes more vague ethical concerns for the time being. Not using AI to save ourselves from AI is like starving to death because you oppose factory farms. If we let ourselves go away there will be no one left to advocate for those who are left behind.

The cynicism of individual experience

Inevitably when I discuss these opinions, I hear from some translators that do not feel as though their careers are in danger. Some are making more money than ever, and even more say that they would rather leave translation than adapt to using AI tools.

To all of this, I say congratulations. I am genuinely happy that there are translators who can make a good living working in exactly the way they like, and I respect their decision to change careers if they ever choose. However, I also know that their experience does not represent the broader industry. Many translators are struggling to make ends meet, and they will do what it takes to save their careers. And, plenty are genuinely excited to use new tools and learn new ways of working.

Maintaining old work habits without seeing a decline in income is wonderful, but it is also the privilege of a relative few. It is the privilege of those who have been in the industry long enough to specialize deeply and build good relationships. Newer members of our community need ways to work without relying on the experience and connections that others have. That is why they need the tools that many opposing voices do not. It is not because they are inferior linguists or enjoy low rates or are less ethically pure, it is because Goliath has his eye on them and is closing in fast. While some will manage to escape his attack, others will need to find their slingshots and take him down.

Augmented translation tools are that slingshot. They will keep us moving quickly enough that we can keep up with a changing market and still make a living.


I have been called a pessimist for the way that I think about this situation, but I counter that I am an optimist. Where I see a Goliath, I believe in David; Where I see a big tech empire, I believe in the revolutionary translators who will adapt as needed. And, when I imagine those who would rather let our industry die than adapt, that is where I see the real pessimists.

True optimism is active, true ethics are complex, and true survival is messy. Pessimism is passive, simple, and clean. It's time for us to get messy.

Topics: translator tools, translation industry, AI, Artificial Intelligence, translation work

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.

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