Monday, March 1, 2010


I recently received an email from my friend and colleague Bernie Bierman about an internet posting made by a translation agency asking "experienced Portuguese Translators and Proofreaders" to submit their rates for "no match, repetitions, and 75-99% match". He also reminded me of then-ATA president Jiri Stejskal's article "On Statistics and Competition" in the February 2008 ATA Chronicle and suggested that I take another look at it.

Basically, Mr. Stejskal's article is what we call a "feel-good" piece, as are most Chronicle articles, telling translators that they need not fear competition from abroad, or for that matter, any competition at all. The Stejskal article states that "inexpensive translation from developing countries can be viewed as a threat...only insofar as translation is perceived as a commodity that can be produced regardless of location and supplied without qualitative differentiation across a given market." (my emphasis) He goes on to tell us that to "make sure translation is not traded or perceived as a commodity...we need to specialize in order to differentiate our translation or interpreting work qualitatively."

At the time, I wrote a commentary in the Gotham Translator about the absurdity of thinking of specialization as being a way to prevent the commoditization of translation, but I was thinking about outsourcing then. I was not thinking about the role that translation memory software would play, indeed, has played in the commoditization of translation. So, what exactly does it mean to "commoditize" something? Investopedia defines it as follows:

"The act of making a process, good or service easy to obtain by making it as uniform, plentiful and affordable as possible. Something becomes commoditized when one offering is nearly indistinguishable from another. As a result of technological innovation, broad-based education and frequent iteration, goods and services become commoditized and, therefore, widely accessible." (my emphasis)

That definition seems to be a fairly accurate description of what translation software does, and I think that we could go so far as to say that, more than outsourcing, the imposition of translation memory software on translators (with Trados appearing to be the most required software product for more and more jobs) is leading inexorably to the commoditization of translation. This trend is accelerated by the fact that translators have been seduced by sales pitches such as you will never have to translate the same sentence again". What is more troubling and worrisome is that this translation memory software has been used not just as a tool of efficiency, but as a kind of combined rotary saw and sledgehammer on translation rates and, therefore, translation earnings. The brutal fact of the matter is that today's independent or freelance translator who must adhere to the non-negotiable requirement that he or she use a CAT tool, quickly finds out that there is absolutely no payment or a pittance of a payment for the words in that sentence that are viewed by the program as "repeats" or "quasi-repeats" or "semi-quasi-repeats", say nothing of the fact that perhaps the "same" sentence actually should be translated differently in a different context. Although translation memories can, under specific circumstances, provide greater consistency, the consistency just may be all wrong. Inaccurate translations become part of translation memories and, as such, are perpetuated ad infinitum. It indeed seems to me that if we use Investopedia's definition, industrial (as opposed to literary) translation is well on its way to being commoditized.

To support his proposition that "specialization" will somehow prevent translators from becoming victims of the commoditization process, Stejskal gives former ATA president Marian S. Greenfield as an example of a successful translator who specializes in financial translation. In reality, she may be an excellent example of a translator who has successfully capitalized on the commoditization of the translation industry. Earlier this year many translators received an email from SDL-Trados which contained the following testimonial:

"I just completed [sic] a 34,501 word project in 10 hours thanks to AutoSuggest, Context Match and the other nifty time-saving features within SDL Trados Studio 2009 SP1. That's without having much of anything in the pre-existing TM!" --Marian S. Greenfield, Translator and Trainer.

When other translators expressed some doubt as to whether what she had done could actually be called "translation", it was revealed that she was working with an Excel file with many repetitions--in essence, the sort of document that translation memory software handles quite well. Nevertheless, thinking about this "feat" from a financial point of view, 34,501 words in ten hours at $0.10 per word (which, believe it or not, was on the low side a scant ten years ago) would indeed make her a financially successful translator! However, one might ask how much she actually was paid for all those repetitions, if she was paid at all for them. Also, one might wonder about the "qualitative differentiation across a given market" that Stejskal says is so important. It looks a little like Ms. Greenfield's "specialization" may have been the promoting of Trados software.

In closing, I do not want to leave readers with the impression that I am against translation memory software, for this is definitely not the case. It certainly has its place in today's technological scheme of things, for in the case where a translator is asked to translate a second document (a shop manual, for instance) from the same end client, the TM software might be quite useful. I do have doubts about its being used for all types of documents as some companies are now doing. Under those circumstances, no amount of "specialization" can prevent the commoditization of translation which, in turn, is bound to change the face of the translation industry itself, if it hasn't changed it already. But setting aside the discussion as to when or where translation memory software is or is not useful, the bigger question remains whether TM has become the instrument by which to drive down translator income to the point where translation practitioners become nothing more than extension of the clerical furniture, translating a "new" word or phrase here and there, and receiving a token payment for what is, in effect (at least in the eyes of the translation buyer), a token effort. These are things that all translators should be thinking about and discussing if we are to be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.


  1. As far as I am concerned, Mr. Stejskal makes a logic error by thinking that specialization can protect translators from commoditization.
    Even "specialized" translation jobs are offered for inferior rates on most translation portals... And what do Mr. Stejskal and ATA mean when they speak/write about "specialization"? Only medical/financial/legal translations!

  2. And this about MT:

  3. You say: "Mr. Stejskal makes a logic error by thinking that specialization can protect translators from commoditization."

    The thrust of my original article was that we all "specialize". It may not be medical, financial or legal, but I don't know a single translator who does not specialize in something. In spite of that we are all under constant pressure to lower rates. Isn't that commoditization?

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