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Staying positive about disruption

By Sam Berner

Disruption is staring us in the face. We read about it online, hear about it in the news, and participate in it almost on daily basis. Using Uber? Paying by touching your smartphone? Checking out at Woolworth through self-checkout? Booking accommodation on BnB? Telling a cafe owner off by threatening a one-star review on TripAdvisor? Zooming into meetings? All these and more are in a way or another disruptions to how things were done in the not-so-distant past.

Yet as translators we are led often to believe that disruption must be about doing translations better and faster for cheaper. In fact, preferably for free. This is not totally correct. Disruption is primarily about innovation. It also about coming up with solutions to things that could not be done before or to things that were annoying and inefficient in the way they were done.

Remember the days of bulky typewriters? PCs that weighed a ton? running out of RAM? printers that were so slow they encouraged coffee breaks? Xerox machines with perpetual jammed hiccups? fax machines that ran out of carbon paper in the middle of an important job? I am sure few of us would want to go back to working that way.

Everything that improved our modus operandi - from the access to knowledge and professional networks online to CAT tools and electronic termbases - disrupted the way we work. However, it wasn't all positive. The same portals that open global market opportunities to us, also expose us up to global competition.

If we were once big fish in a small pond, we are plankton in an endless ocean. The widening of our horizons meant we are better informed, provided we can deal with information glut. The speeding up of communications means we can access help at our fingertips, but it also means that the clients expect us to be accessible at their fingertips 24/7.

Disruption brought with it TM and its anagram MT. Both help us work faster if we know how to use them, but with these tools come the dubious blessings of ambiguous intellectual property and post-editing. Many practitioners complain that translation quality is suffering and this is also abetted by the disruption known as crowdsourcing.

As I write this, more disruption is predicted, this time from artificial intelligence and machine learning. Welcome to the possibility of Neural Machine Translation (NMT). For the uninitiated, a simplified explanation would be that we are teaching computers to use language like humans do.

Dr. Henry Liu, President of the World Federation of Translators (FIT), called NMT all “hype” during his presentation at the University of Bristol in February 2017. In its position paper on the future of the profession, FIT was more circumspect about what effect. NMT will have on translators – yes, there is progress, but no, it won’t happen tomorrow and meanwhile we must continue working and strengthening the profession.

In the next paragraph, however, is a call to action:

“professional translators have to adapt, be creative and develop business models that make the most of the latest technologies. These models could include various types of added value or involve translation services provided as part of a diversified offering. New innovative ideas are needed.”

In short, disruption is here, we just won’t call it by its name.

Disruption is a two-sided coin, but we do have a bit of say on which side we want it to fall. That ability to decide is called learnability. In January this year, a survey of 18,000 employers across all sectors in 43 countries, published at the World Economic Forum in Davos, showed that,

“One in five employers (19%) expect technological disruption to increase jobs as they adapt to the future of work and six in ten employers (64%) expect to maintain headcount if people have the right skills and are prepared to learn, apply and adapt.”

This means that, regardless of how artificial intelligence will develop, we cannot just continue doing what we have always been doing, the way we have been doing it. The learn, apply and adapt principle is about learning to code, applying the code creatively to our work, and constantly adapting to an environment in which change is exponential.

In August 2017, AUSIT will host FIT’s 21st Congress in Brisbane, and the main theme is, you guessed it, disruption. A golden opportunity to listen to people in the know, to debate and to enrich your professional knowledge.

Remember: learnability is the key.

Sam Berner is currently the principal partner of Arabic Communication Experts, one of Australia’s leading translation and cross cultural training services specializing in the Middle East. Having spent over 30 years translating, Sam continues to mentor and motivate many aspiring translators to expand their vision globally. She is also an active AUSIT member and a former national president.