Tuesday, June 13, 2017

From Reasoning to Storytelling - The Future of the Translation Industry

This is a guest post by a frequent contributor to eMpTy Pages, Luigi Muzii, on the future of translation, written in what some may say is an irreverent tone. I like to hear his opinions because he has a way cutting through the bullshit and getting to core issues quickly.  Getting to core issues matters, because it helps then to get to the right questions and the right questions can sometimes lead to meaningful and impactful answers. And isn't that what evolution and progress are really all about?

For those participants who add very little value in any business production chain, the future is always foreboding and threatening, because there is often a sense that a reckoning is at hand.  It is easier to automate low-value work than it is to automate high-value work. Technology is often seen as a demon, but for those who learn to use it and leverage it, it is also a means to increase their own value addition possibilities in a known process, and increase one's standing in a professional setting. While translating literature may be an art, most business translation work I think is business production chain work. These are words translated to help you sell stuff, or help customers better use stuff that has been sold to them, or now increasingly it is a way to understand what customers who bought your stuff think, about the user and customer experience.

While it is important to ask big questions like “What is going to happen in the future?",  it is also important that some questions should be held in the mind, that is in a state of attention, for an extended time, to really allow a deeper investigation and inquiry to happen. While I am an advocate of technology where it makes sense, I also have a deep respect for what makes us truly human and special, beyond our work, and I am still skeptical that technology can ever fully model deeply human experiences. Language is just the tip of the iceberg of what is hard to model, though, most business content is easily modeled. This is perhaps why I play music, and mostly why I play improvised music, as it can lead to flow states that are truly uplifting, liberating, and often mysteriously irreproducible but yet truly meaningful, and thus deeply human. Thus, many human activities are somewhat impossible to model and replicate with technology. However, the singularity and VR/AR crowd are all focused on even trying to change this.

I recently came upon a quote I really liked:

‘Wisdom is a love affair with questions, knowledge a love affair with answers … we are so attracted by knowledge that we have lost concern for wisdom.’

Subsequently, I found this little snippet of audio (spoken by J Krishnamurti), probably recorded 35+ years ago, particularly intriguing and insightful, even though the AI/VR technology revolution images have just been added to the audio this year. He was an observer, who asked big questions mindfully, and pointed out things that are happening with technology today, which were already apparent 50 years ago to his keen observation. Krishnamurti has been a seminal influence on me, and thus I add this video, though it is somewhat tangential to the main theme of this post. It asks a big question and then stays with the question, refusing to rush to an answer.  Asking questions to which you don't know the answer,  triggers a flow of attention and observation, and if one does not rush too quickly to an answer, one might just find, that things in the bigger picture begin to get clearer and clearer. Mostly, from the steady flow of attention that we sometimes are able to bring to especially big questions.

The emphasis and call-outs in Luigi's post below are all mine.


Storytelling is the new black in written communication. It entertains rather than informs, aiming at influencing the reader’s perception rather than being thought-provoking. Storytelling replaces reasoning with a narrative.

The boundary between storytelling and fabulation is fleeting. This phenomenon does not affect politics only and comes from marketing and advertising.

Sometimes, with their fabrications, unknowingly or not, storytellers rationalize the arguments of the many laudatores temporis acti who crowd this industry, and not just that.

Translators have been having the blues at least for 35 years. Judging from how many people in the translation community have been struggling so far, it seems that they really “crave attention.”

The “wrenching change” the industry is undergoing is not new and is not due to the Internet nor to machine translation or technology at large.

For at least the last 35 years, that is well before the spread of the Internet, translators have been complaining about rates, the dominance of intermediaries, the working conditions, the trifling influence of their role in the society despite the importance of translation in many daily tasks.

And yet, through the 80’s and the 90’s, many could make a more than decent living on translation, raise children, buy a house, and enjoy summer holidays every year.

Neither globalization nor technology has made the competition any fiercer. The major technological innovation of the last three decades has been translation memories, which are still being illustrated to the general public and roughly taught in translation courses.

Many—if not most—freelancers who thrived on translation during the 80’s and the 90’s, as well as most of those who extoll the wonders of the improbable Eldorado of the so-called premium market made no use of translation memories. Why improbable? Because these people seem to forget that they have been in business for at least two decades, that they started their career in prosperous times, and that they are English native speakers, possibly expats, and/or working in highly sought-after language combinations. Also, these people strictly avoid providing any sound proof of the existence of this premium market—actually a segment—or samples of their work for premium customers, or their income statements.

Anyway, premium customers really exist, of course, but they are fewer and harder to reach than imagined. Also, they could show erratic, the marketing effort required to win one could prove draining, and the attention to pay to keep one could be more than intense.

Therefore, it looks at least weird that an otherwise watchful observer of this industry can so naively take the storytelling of these people seriously and offer it in his column for a magazine of international importance.

The translation industry has always been a truly open market, with no entry barriers, in which all economic actors can trade without any external constraint. Information asymmetry is its bogey. Even where local regulations apply, typically concerning sworn translation and court interpreting, these are no guarantee of remuneration and working conditions. In other words, the enormous downward pressure on prices does not come from a broadening of the offering. On the contrary, in the world, there are more lawyers and journalists than translators; there are even more doctors than translators, and, keeping with the countless articles that daily describe the devastating impact that artificial intelligence will have in the immediate future, they are equally at risk.

True, not everyone seems to share the same catastrophic predictions; there are also those who include the translator profession among the seven professions that won’t have to fear the future.

A few weeks ago, an article in the MIT Technology Review presented a survey reporting a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years. Specifically, researchers predict AI will outperform humans in translating languages by 2024, writing high-school essays by 2026, writing a bestselling book by 2049, and working as a surgeon by 2053.

As a matter of fact, in the last decade, machine translation has improved the perception of the importance of translation, thus exposing translators to higher demands. At the same time, the quality of the MT output has been steadily improving, and now it is quite impressive. This is what most translators should be afraid of, that expectations on professional translators will be increasing.

Unfortunately, dinosaurs can be found rather easily in translation, mostly among those who should be most “excited about technology and the possibilities of scale it offers.”

Are translators to blame for not being passionate about technology? Of course not. And not just because many of them really are almost obsessive with the tools of the trade. What so many outsiders much too often choose to overlook is that translators, still today, are generally being taught to consider themselves as artists, mostly by people who are never confronted with the harshness of the translation market in their lives.

Furthermore, with very few exceptions, translation companies are generally started and run by translators who generally lack business administration basics. On the other hand, the largest translation businesses that are typically run according to best-class business administration best practices do not certainly shine in terms of technological innovation, unless this is functional to maintain appreciable profit margins. And this is usually done by compressing translator fees and by using low-priced technologies.

So, why would translators be having trouble thriving or even surviving? Does it really have to do with technology? Has disruption come and gone in the translation industry and we didn’t even notice?

Technology has profoundly altered the industry, but the stone guest ("the elephant in the room") in the translation industry is in the translation process and the business model, both as obsolete as translation education programs. Even translation industry ‘leaders’ seem more interested in reassuring those working in the industry than in driving a real change. Morozov’s “orgy of amelioration” has been affecting translation too, without having seen any disruptive or even substantial innovation coming from inside.

The most relevant innovations have involved translation delivery models, not processing or business models.

So, it is not surprising that, given the premise, an outsider may think that “literary translation is under no threat.” It may also be true, as long as it is tied to the publishing industry. However, representing no more that 5% of the overall volume of translations, it is generally quite hard to find anyone making a living of literary translation only. And this is definitely not about technology.

Furthermore, from a strictly academic point of view, it is true that “a good translator may need to rethink a text, re-wording important pieces, breaking up or merging sentences, and so on”.

Unfortunately, in real life, a professional translator who tries to make a living out of “commercial translation”, most of the time, to be generous, does not have the time. Of course, in this respect, namely for the sake of productivity, any translation technology is of the greatest help for a translator willing to exploit it.

Unfortunately, even here, nonsense is on the agenda. Machine translation, shared data, and post-editing, for example, are no “dirty little secret.” Getting suggestions from machine translation, edit them and use the results is a good way to exploit translation technology. And it is possibly incorrect to say that “everybody is doing it, but no one wants to talk about it.” This charge can easily be addressed to those intermediaries seeking to exploit as much as possible the information asymmetry typical of the industry and, among them, there are no freelancers.

Transparency is another victim of marketing and storytelling, maybe the first victim, and a typical product of deceptive marketing tactics based on a lack of transparency is ‘transcreation.’ This is an empty, all-solving word forged to scam buyers. Every translator should ‘transcreate,’ by default, to make two cultures meet. It is a service invented by marketing people to create a false differentiation and recover the losses due to pressure on the prices of basic services. It is definitely not “another market.” It is just another one of those “new trends and buzz words” that “pop up every now and then, only to be forgotten among the presentations at the usual conferences or the blog posts of self-defined experts.

On the other hand, it is no coincidence that another narrative is emerging around the alleged analogies with the pre-Internet advertising industry. And it is no coincidence that many want to get it. But have you ever noticed how many online services are still advertised on media that were given as doomed?

In the same way, a survey on a less than a statistically insignificant sample of volunteer respondents is certainly not the best way to gain any insight. But it is definitely good storytelling.

In the end, being sanguine about translation technology and seeking protection for not being overwhelmed did not help produce antibodies against the unexpected virus of a technological shift.

And no storyteller can cover the uncertainty of the future of the translation with his narrative. Certainly not from here to five years.

Luigi Muzii's profile photo

Luigi Muzii has been in the "translation business" since 1982 and has been a business consultant since 2002, in the translation and localization industry through his firm. He focuses on helping customers choose and implement best-suited technologies and redesign their business processes for the greatest effectiveness of translation and localization related work.

This link provides access to his other blog posts.


  1. Luigi, you write: "Because these people seem to forget that they have been in business for at least two decades, that they started their career in prosperous times, and that they are English native speakers, possibly expats, and/or working in highly sought-after language combinations."
    Much of this is right as a description of my career.
    I started freelance translating in the 90s (although I was mainly in the low price agency segment for the first 10 to 15 years, so my prosperous times started rather later than you suggest).
    I am a native speaker of English, with a British university-level education.
    I am an expat, i.e. I have lived in Germany for over 30 years.
    My language combination (German to English) is in demand, and over the years I have developed a couple of subject specialisms which are needed by specific groups of direct clients.
    So I agree that there are a number of circumstances which have worked in my favour. Some of these factors were beyond my control (e.g. being born and educated in the UK), others (such as further training) I have cultivated deliberately.
    So I am not typical of the translation "industry", and I do not tell translators to do exactly what I have done.
    But I exist and my career exists. My "story" is valid for me, and some people may be encouraged to apply some elements of this story to their own career pattern.
    Your "story" is equally valid for you, and by telling your story I am sure you help others to apply some elements of your experience to their own situation.
    The world of translation is big enough and diverse enough to accommodate both of our approaches.

  2. Nina Sattler-HovdarJune 15, 2017 at 12:15 PM

    Hi Luigi,

    I invite you to check out my various presentations on transcreation, most recently the one done as a webinar for ecpd (, which goes a long way to illustrate why "transcreation" (or whatever label one would like to use for this particular kind of service) is by no means "an empty, all-solving word forged to scam buyers".


    1. Hi Nina, I think it might be more useful to provide a reference where we are not expected to pay to see what your point is, otherwise this reference actually turns out be a kind of deception for the reader as well.

      Surely, there is a reference you could point out that does not require payment.


    2. Yes Nina, You really should flag that you are offering paid content in your post, otherwise it can be considered very cheap (but not in the sense of the cost of your video!). Especially as a comment on a post that was thought provoking and free.

  3. Nina Sattler-HovdarJune 15, 2017 at 11:40 PM

    I am sorry and apologize that I didn't include the 21 GBP price tag. Somehow I thought it was clear it would cost a little bit (the ATA sells its webinar on the topic at 65 USD). Anyway, this presentation is the result of 25 years of work and insights, not some article with often-heard arguments. I have done so many presentations for free over the years and the demand for my seminars has become so strong that I can no longer just do it "on the side". I do have bills to pay myself. Having said that, I am often surprised how little translation professionals are prepared to invest to learn more. But I guess that's part of the problem that the industry is facing. Everything, even top quality work by experienced professionals, should be free or cost next to nothing.


    PS: I do not have much material in English, since most of what I present is in German. Here is a link though to an interview that I recently gave to a German outfit (the interview was provided in German, but they seem to have come up with an English translation):

    The webinar of course is much more in-depth and hands-on. But since "free" is all you want...

  4. Nina Sattler-HovdarJune 15, 2017 at 11:58 PM

    Percy Balemans touches on the basics of transcreation in this (free!) ATA article, when saying: "You could say that transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing". See:


  5. Well, I'm really sorry to say that I'm totally unconvinced here. I can't but reiterate my views on "transcreation": I have the impression that "transcreators" are sour grapes copywriters. I wonder whether they would succeed as copywriters or even whether they would be just accepted as such by the industry.
    Transcreation reminds me of literary translation, with one exception: Literary translators could possibly be wanna-be or even failed writers, but they do not rename their work pretending it looks different, or that they are different. They could see themselves as artists and peers of the author(s) they translate, but this is another kettle of fish.
    A translator receiving a typical education in translation should remember to have, at least once, heard of "adaptation," (in translation theory, Übersetzungswissenschaft-brrr!, or traductologie) that is exactly what "transcreation" is supposed to be.
    Anyway, "transcreation" is just a tiny fraction of this post, which focuses on how poorly translation community members actually consider their work and industry, if they feel the need to deceive customers with such trivial tricks.

    1. Luigi, I am intrigued by your brand of logic. Here, you accuse two respected and acknowledged experts of charlatanery and deceit. I have met both Nina and Percy, and I have great respect for both.
      The only reason you give for your absolute condemnation is that they do not fit in with your "views on transcreation".
      In a comment on Kirti's previous blog post you speculated about my relationship with Galileo (and other things), although you knew that your statements had no factual basis.
      I am curious as to why you engage in such speculative statements rather than presenting your own position in a logical, reasoned and cool-headed manner.