Why Pay for Translation if You Can Get it for Free?

It was nice to wake up this morning and see this article in the New York Times about the emergence of machine translation and volunteer translation (aka crowdsourcing). These are two very important developments that every companies needs to be aware of — and possibly champion.

That said, I do wonder how this article is going to be received by the translators of the world who actually expect to be paid for their services.

For example the for-profit, invite-only conference company TED saved about $500,000 using volunteer translators. Clearly TED could have coughed up the money.

I can see this article spurring on CEOs across the land to think that they too can get free translations.

One thing I mentioned awhile back is that you need to be translation-worthy to get away with pro-bono services, particularly if you’re a for-profit company.

Facebook, Google and, now, TED appear to be translation-worthy. But I wouldn’t expect to see, say, General Motors succeeding in this area (though they could certainly use the help).

But the larger issue here is to the extent that volunteer translation for companies that can afford to pay for translation undermines the translation industry. I don’t believe machine translation undermines human translation because companies generally use it to translation text they would never have hired people to do (or they use it as a first pass before bringing on the human translators).

But volunteer translation is different.

Are  volunteer translators taking money away from their colleagues? After all, TED and Google and Facebook certainly can afford to pay. Or are volunteer translators raising awareness for the value of their work, thereby benefiting the translation industry as a whole?

Personally, I think we’re entering a dangerous area where companies that don’t know better are going to think they don’t have to pay for translation. This all reminds me of Seinfeld‘s George Costanza’s aversion to parking garages: Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?

The end of translation as we know it

The translation industry has undergone significant change over the past two years — and not just in terms of consolidation. The changes are structural. Offices are more decentralized, as is the technology used to support workflow, and machine translation (once widely derided by the translation industry) is now the star attraction.

What’s the reason for this sudden transformation of the industry?

I believe the changes are due to the simple fact that the translation agencies are no longer leading the industry. The technologists have taken over, and they have a different vision for the future.

By technologists, I’m referring to software vendors, such as Idiom and Language Weaver and Clay Tablet. I’m also referring to the buyers of translation services, buyers who have seen how technology can make their lives easier and want to see their vendors make full use of this technology — from hosted project management software to machine translation.

While linguists focus on the “art” of translation, technologists focus on the “science” of translation. And that’s why we’re seeing the rebirth of machine translation as statistical machine translation (SMT). SMT brings the power of brute force computing to translation, to a degree that the pioneers of machine translation could have only imagined forty years ago.

SMT is not by itself going to disrupt the translation industry. But SMT, along with early adopter clients (by way of the Translation Automation Users Society), and the efforts of Google, are likely to change this industry in ways we can’t fully grasp right now.

The Translation Automation Users Society (TAUS) conducted a brief survey recently of its member companies and interested observers. About 55% of the 200+ respondents were translation vendors, while 30% were buyers of translation services.

TAUS asked if the “per word” pricing model used by the industry was outdated, and 65% of respondents agreed that it was. However, there was no agreement as to what model should replace per-word pricing. Respondents were evenly split between per-word pricing, per-hour pricing, and capacity (annual service agreement) pricing.

What this says to me is that we are standing at an exciting point in the industry — where there is a clear need for a new direction but no clear direction in which to head. In other words, the industry is searching for leaders, which is why the technologists have had so much sway lately.

The TAUS survey also found that 68% of respondents were in favor of the sharing of translation memory data. Not surprisingly, TAUS is going to make the sharing of memories a priority in 2008, and technology will play a key role.

The most definitive finding from the survey was that 75% of respondents felt that translation agencies should take the lead in investing in translation automation. I have seen recent signs of agencies doing just that — but only after companies such as Idiom and Language Weaver paved the way.

I do not believe it will be agencies that take the lead in translation automation.

I think it will be Google that will do more than any other company to promote the next generation of translation.

Many tech pundits say Google is in the process of “becoming the Internet” by not only powering search but by hosting content and applications and facilitating financial transactions. Right now, the search engine is just a means to the end — your company’s Web site. But what if Google became both the means and the end?

That is, what if Google became the multilingual interface to your company’s Web site? It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next year or possibly even this decade. But I think it will happen, and when it does happen, the translation industry as we know it will be changed forever.