The End of the Translation World as We Know it

by Translation Guy on December 14, 2012

Since it’s the world is scheduled to end next week with the end of the current Mayan b’ak’tun ,  I thought it would be a good time to make some predictions about the future of the translation business.

You may have heard that the ancient priest kings of the Yucatán predicted the end of the b’ak’tun to fall on Dec 21 this year. And since that marks the end of time, it’s a red-letter day of doom for the human race. So I wanted to do my business planning while I still had a chance.

So, in keeping with the apocalyptic spirit of the season, I thought  the best way to read the fortunes of the translation business would be with some Mayan-style priestly divination. But then I was having trouble finding stingray spines, which made me think about where I would have to stick them if I did find them, and, I started having second thoughts.

Plus, the translation business already has a high priest, Kirti Vashee of Asia Online and the eMpTy Pages translation technology blog.

So I skipped the blood-letting and sat down with Kirti in his sacred cenote, where we took turns blowing powdered hallucinogenic mushrooms in each other’s face while we talked shop. Or maybe I saw that in a movie, and just cribbed all the translation stuff from his last post… I’m not sure. (I was hallucinating, for Pete’s sake.)

Kirti tosses a handful of copal on the brazier, and through the sacred smoke a glimpse of the translation future appears, a monstrous shadow flickering on the wall of Kirti’s cave, this  navel in the center of the world.

He proposes that the translation business is no longer intermittent for most business purchasers. The old “localize it and forget about it” strategy no longer applies. Multilingual communication is now a two-way street, an open channel.

More content is getting translated. And since translation decisions are no longer being made top-down, technology makes it easy for everyone to participate and drives translation efforts.

Automation and collaboration will increase. Automation is more than just machine translation. It will all be about streaming content through creative and distribution channel.

Kirti waves his sting-ray spine. “And everything is going to be in the cloud.:

I look up from my own jabbing. “Everything is already in the cloud, Kirti.”

“My point exactly.” Deep.

These are known knowns, shared beliefs. Kirti has a lot more to say on his blog, with summary of the thinking of many industry opinion leaders. Very nicely done and worth a read.

Kirti claims that to meet these challenge requires an agility the industry is currently lacking. The old project management model is becomes a model of process integration, heavy on collaboration and automation.

Lean, quick, and cost-effective is the future, and innovation is coming outside the industry. This compared to ” the traditional LSP sales and TEP process hype, where the customer is often treated like an idiot that needs to be slapped into shape.”

What!!?? Talk about a buzz-kill. Traditional LSP sales hype is my core competency. But I haven’t yet managed to slap any customers into shape. Often overlooked in analysis of the translation business is project manager value-added. The partnership that emerges between client and PM take a long time to develop. The stickiness of these relationships is the source of the only profit and pleasure this business affords. Customer experience is the brand builder, Service is what a service business is all about.

But on the other hand, the end of the world tends to minimize the importance of customer retention.

I’d write more on this, but time is running out. Best wishes for the end of the cycle on, (Dec. 21st) and a happy new …. umm… never mind.

Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s version of the last Mayan apocolypse, is spoken entirely in Yucatec by a very talented amateur Mayan cast.


  1. Ken

    I should clarify – you are clearly not the kind of LSP I was talking about when I said what I said (maybe too carelessly). You should not lose your buzz since I mostly had the biggest LSPs in mind when I spoke. But I have often heard comments about how customers do not “understand what they want” and how they underestimate what quality entails which is probably all true, but we live in a world where it is very easy for customers to switch (especially with 25,000 LSPs to choose from) so getting a more customer-centric view I think is important. So part of the sales process that you probably follow is to make sure that customers understand the alternatives and trade-offs in a way that makes sense to them rather than you the LSP. Surely that is not an unreasonable point to make.

    Anyway thanks for taking my comments seriously – I did since I was seeing so many trends and forecasts articles on the future.

    I especially like the parts where we hallucinate together in your post 😉

    And like any forecaster I understand that I present the world many opportunities to show how and why I am wrong — to me that is what learning is all about.

    • Ken says:

      I wish those big LSP-losers would shed a few more push-over clients my way, Kirti. Until then, keep your eyes on the translation skies for our next loco-localization vision quest.

  2. Laurie says:

    You couldn’t find stingray spines but got your hands on powdered hallucinogenic mushrooms? Well at least your priorities are straight.

  3. I think that the issue of automation being more than just machine translation is a point that needs to be expounded upon, and clarified so that many outside the industry can realize the possibilities out there.

    • Ken says:

      I expoundon that all thetime on my sales calls. And that’s usually about the time they start all glassy-eyed and start dozing and such. But I agree with you. There is a need.

  4. Gautam Vir says:

    So any suggestions for smaller operators moving into this brave new world?

    • Ken says:

      There is plenty of low-cost technology that will provide productivity gains that dwarf the benefits of tools pitch to the larger players. for example, any translator who has not mastered a dictation tool is throwing away half their income. For an industry so dominated by Trotta, the number of linguists we run into without even the most basic competency in this most basic of technologies is astounding. But all the technology New World is no substitute for good service. Good service will always be rewarded the matter what else may change.

  5. A good read and the links were certainly worth following too, keep up the good work. Hopefully there will be more in the new year, fingers crossed.

  6. Carol Young says:

    Great piece, hopefully there will be more beyond next week.

  7. I’ve never run across Mr.Vashee’s blog before, but thank you for bringing it to my attention, it certainly looks like an interesting corner of the web.

  8. Suzie Cheel says:

    I’d just like to slap my customers, not necessarily into shape. All kidding aside, I do enjoy your thoughts, and others on the direction of innovation in the translation industry.

    • Ken says:

      Kirti always has interesting ideas on the state of the industry, and has been able to attract and summarize contributions from other thoughtful leaders.

  9. Dirk Horbach says:

    I really did try to sit through Apocalypto, I do enjoy foreign films (would a Mel Gibson made movie done in a not widely spoken language count as foreign? It’s still made by Americans) but really I couldn’t do it. It seemed more about trying to use language to make some strange art movie.

  10. James Stein says:

    I for one am quite excited about the coming years, as the communication needs of business increase across the globe and things become more real time, that translation and intrepretation will become core essentials to all businesses looking to operate on any significant level beyond merely local.

  11. Ngwe says:

    I worry about the lack of agility within the industry, and that customer will look to technological innovation to try and stay cost effective at the cost of jobs.

  12. My worry is that moving forward smaller players are going to get squeezed out of business due to inefficiency, so there has to be some real innovation on that front.

    • Ken says:

      it’s really the smallest players who backbone of the industry, and I don’t think that’s likely to change. Translation agencies that onlyaggregate vendors rather than add value are the ones that face stiffest competition from new technologies and ways of working in the years ahead.

  13. Well, this was a more optimistic outlook than I thought it would be given the headline.

    • Ken says:

      Misleading headlines are my forte. I find it good for readership.

  14. I think moving forward that the frgmentary nature of the industry needs to change, and business models have to be addressed. There needs to be better standards for quality and efficiency, but ask me how we do that, and I couldn’t tell you. I just know that we could all be more successful if we could make it happen.

    • Valentin

      You may find the essays on standards in the Big Wave interesting and a good way to get more specific on what standards might matter

      Standards in & for #Translation Industry” incl. “Developing Meaningful Standards in Business #Translation” by @kvashee

    • Ken says:

      I don’t know, Valintin. I like my markets like my grenades — fragmented. Otherwise you’re just blowing smoke. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I think standardsare a challenge not only because of fragmented industry but because of fragmented customer base. As much as we try, it’s hard to put every single requirement in the same box. This is, and I believe will remain, a service industry. That’s the only thing that makes an interesting to me, frankly. thanks for your comments. More please.

      • This last point is so often overlooked. Thanks for raising it (and allowing me to emphasize it). Our customers do not all want the same thing, or we would not find it so difficult to understand, articulate and eventually deliver “quality”. We should spend far less time trying to convince them what they want, and far more time trying to understand the nuances of why “what they want” differs from our preconceived notions. That kind of attitude (along with a flexible technology infrastructure such as Kirti mentioned and a capable customer-centric PM such as Ken mentioned) is a winning trifecta.

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