Translation and Language Industry Observations

by David Grunwald, GTS Translation

I just tuned-in to a Q&A session on LinkedIn with Lionbridge CEO John Fennelly, which was hosted by translation industry guru Renato Beninatto of Nimdzi Insights. It was a very interesting, insightful and well-run online event thanks to the efforts of Tucker Johnson.

Before I get into it, I owe a public online apology to Renato, who I have had the opportunity to meet several times over the years. He sent me a tweet a few years ago which upset me, so I sent him a nasty tweet in response that included the F-word. Of course I had no justification in doing that, which just goes to show you what talking politics can do to people. Renato, let’s stick to business from here on.

John Fennelly is a nice man

I never met Mr. Fennelly. But my impression was that the CEO of Lionbridge comes across as being a very nice guy. Of course it could all be an act and he may be a real bastard. But my gut tells me that he is a genuinely nice person. John inspires trust, confidence and he seems like a great person to work with. Disclaimer: GTS does not now nor ever before worked with Lionbridge and that’s just fine.

AI is the New MT

Industry jargon has a way of evolving and morphing in ways that seem perplexing. Renato mentioned that the term medical and pharmaceutical translation became Life Sciences translation, even though there is little difference between the two terms. In a similar fashion, MT seems to have morphed into AI. Is there any difference between the two terms? Well yes and no. But mostly no, since MT is really a subset of AI in the broader sense.

Which leads me to repeat the mantra I have been saying for years. MT, AI or whatever you want to call it will never replace human translators. And I found it ironic that Mr. Fennelly was just repeating the same stuff I heard twenty years ago about how the industry is at an inflection point and that the technology will be a game changer.

Has MT improved? Certainly. Is it being use for more mission-critical jobs? Of course. But the fact remains that professional translators are safe in their chosen professions and will have plenty of work for years to come. In fact, one of the points raised by Mr. Fennelly was that MT/AI was creating more and more work in the translation supply chain and that even today there is a shortage of professional translators. A shortage that is certain to grow in future years.

Will pay for translators rise?

Most certainly, if we are to believe Mr. Fennelly’s statements. When there is a shortage of translators, the only way to recruit more people into the profession is by offering better wages. So if you are professional translator, things are looking up.

Money is Smart!

Mr. Fennelly was bullish about tech startups in the translation industry. He pointed out that there is no shortage of money to fund such startups. Money is smart, said Fennelly, and the fact that investment money is chasing these startups is proof of the great potential that lies in the translation industry.

It’s about people

Mr. Fennelly stated the obvious: that the big are getting bigger through M&A of smaller LSPs. And that there is consolidation in the industry, just like in other mature industries. But this is also a double-edged sword, as people who may feel frustrated with their inability to achieve their dreams in a big company will eventually splinter off into a smaller one. Mr. Fennelly also said that when Lionbridge looks to acquire a company, the most important factor is the human talent which they are getting-more so than the technology or the clients.

Bespoke Translation Services

Another word that Mr. Fennelly likes to use is bespoke. For those of you who never heard this word before, bespoke means custom-made for a specific client. The word is mostly used in the fashion industry (as in a bespoke shirt or bespoke shoes). Mr. Fennelly said that the classic Lionbridge model is the bespoke one, and that is what they do best. But he also said that Lionbridge is trying out different models and that one such case is their acquisition of online translation company Gengo, which targets a different set of clients.

Translation companies do invent stuff

I want to take exception to one thing stated by Renato: that translation companies just serve clients and don’t create anything new. That is just untrue. The development of much of the software and technology that we are seeing today and yesterday is/was driven by translation businesses. While it is true that the basic function of translation has not changed, the underlying technology has changed dramatically and will continue to do so for the better.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

What really has changed in the translation business? The demands continue to climb as companies in the tech, gaming, media and other industries are growing at lightning-speed rates. Now, there are many more VC-funded startup companies in the translation space than ever before. The big LSPs keep getting bigger through M&A. But for most of us, the translation industry remains a place where we can make a nice living, have reasonable job security, work with interesting people and have fun at the same time.


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