Time for a Return to Slow Translation

The impact of technology and the need for creativity in translation

Had you told me thirty-some years ago that I'd be a translator when I grew up, I’d have thought you were crazy. Translation to me was like a mystical art, accessible only to an elite few, and evoked images of archeologists toiling over ancient scrolls, working hour after hour to unlock the secrets within. I figured you’d need at least a couple of PhDs before you could become a translator, and I had no intention of staying in school my whole life.

Actually, that idea I had of the translation industry wasn’t too far off the mark back then. There was no internet, so you had to drag your butt to the library and stick your nose in piles of books just to figure out how to translate a term or two that had you stuck and to make sure you got the right word for the context. And you didn't necessarily need a bunch of PhDs, but the barriers to entry were much like they used to be for authors trying to get that big break with a publisher.

Then life happened, and the internet came and changed everything, so I found myself actually starting to become a professional translator nearly two decades ago. Technology had made it so that pretty much the only obstacle to becoming a translator was being fluent in a second language. No more gatekeepers, no more libraries, and customers as far as the “Information Superhighway”—as it used to be called—could reach.

The downside, as we are seeing in all sorts of industries, is that translators now compete almost entirely on speed and cost. It is true that computer-assisted translation (CAT) can help a translator be more efficient and translate more quickly, and this can help to increase your effective hourly rate. And machine translation (think Google Translate) combined —one would hope —with “post-editing” has now taken that a step further for many.

The result is a sort of commoditization of translation services whereby low cost and almost immediate availability are the only things a customer cares about, and understandably so. This is especially true in the translation industry where it can be difficult — if not impossible — for the customer to judge the quality of a translated text, even if they cared. The “gig” economy has taken this trend to its logical conclusion, to the point where the perceived value of translation is approaching zero for many.


Given this rise of the freelance economy, how does a professional translator stand out from the crowd and convey the importance of quality and skill in translation? By getting back to our roots and promoting the principles of “Slow Translation”.

Technology can’t really make human translation any more efficient than it already is. In order to continue being recognized as master wordsmiths, we translators need to focus on the segments of the market in which potential customers are able to appreciate the creativity of our craft and the value we can bring. We are already seeing this in “transcreation”, or “creative translation”, in marketing and advertising, but it’s something that can, and should, be applied to a whole range of other fields too.

Content (or editorial) translation is heading in this direction already, but really any text that is going to be published and will help convey the identity and image of the creators of the text can benefit from this sort of translation. Financial reports, environmental and sustainability reports, social-responsibility reports, technical manuals — and on and on— all should be translated in a way that gives the reader of a given culture the right “emotional experience” when reading the text. How that is achieved goes beyond just translating the words from one language to another, which is really all Google Translate or a “hack” translator can do.

Technology certainly has a role to play in this “Slow Translation Movement”, but we need to make better use of it. CAT tools need to help us see the big picture, rather than focusing on the individual sentence, phrase or word. Automated, machine translation needs merely to inform our craft and not be used to do the bulk of our jobs for us. And cloud platforms need both to help translators communicate directly with the producers of the content and to help content producers find, select, and coordinate the right translators (and writers, editors, and proofreaders, for that matter) for the job.

Multilingual document creation is an incredibly complex process, but it is also necessarily a human process. There is still enormous potential for innovation in the translation industry, but let’s not forget that quality communication must be backed by knowledge, experience, research, calm deliberation, and a human touch. Slow Translation is a critical part of that process.


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