The smart phone, the electric car and the digital camera differ widely at first glance, but they still have something in common. The introduction of these products led to an increase in similar products and sparked a great discussion about their right to exist and the future of their respective industries and competitor products. They were, in one word, disruptive. Disruption seems to be everywhere nowadays and is sometimes explained as the only way to survive. That raises the question of whether translators should be disruptive as well.
How disruption puts industries in fire
Last year an acquaintance of mine started out as a estate agent. After having worked in the industry for a decade he decided that he could do better. So he did. As a first of its kind in the local market he introduced website addresses for each property he was selling. Furthermore, he successfully introduced drone videos to attract maximum attention to his portfolio. Many of the properties he sells – on average €400,000 each – are sold within a month after being published on property websites. His clients are even so enthusiastic that they develop into real ambassadors, consistently recommending him in their own networks. Half a year after launching his own business he is drowning in work and has even hired his first employee.
As the new broker started in my own town I witnessed something really interesting. His new company first met with some sneers and sarcasm, but with his success there also came trouble for his competitors. The largest one quickly introduced a new corporate identity, while another one copied the idea of a website for each new property (and even introduced ‘a first of its kind in the region’). Other marketing campaigns and ideas mimicked it as well in an attempt to maintain market share. Others kept silent, obviously hoping that the first disruptive storm would blow over and that the shift in market share would settle down.
Disruption in the translation industry
Disruption has been seen in the last years mainly in technology-related industries, like the IT and automotive industries. These industries are dealing with a large number of technologies and clever minds that are constantly looking for new opportunities to ruffle their competitors. In the translation industry the situation seems somewhat different. There are many technologies and developments, but real game changers seem to be lacking. And when they sometimes set the industry on fire, the industry still does not shake at its foundations like other industries.
Of course, there are still some disruptive companies and technologies that are shaping the future of translation (and interpreting). A couple of years ago Smartling was one of the first companies that started out as an online translation platform where companies could have their website translated without much hassle. I remember the speech from founder Jack Welde, and his vision on the future of translation, where he saw much room for services that improve the customer experience and speed up the translation process. Smartling did a great job of that at the time. However, the company did not introduce any disruptive innovations afterwards.
Last year Lilt.com, an online translation platform, came into being. The platform introduced an innovative technology with adaptive machine translation, which learns on the fly from your translations and post-machine edits, and applies them to segments that still need to be translated. This technology speeds up translations and case studies by Lilt have been shown to greatly improve productivity.
In the wake of the cloud-based platform, competing online translation environments introduced support for different file formats, like Studio packages, as well. They do not all support groundbreaking innovations like adaptive machine translation, but Lilt seemed to set the standard for supported file types.
Then there is machine translation. This technology has already been available for some decades and is continuously improved. However disruptive it can be in practice, there are still many translation agencies and translators alike that are anxious for it and that do not use it to be disruptive themselves. Big companies like Google and Microsoft are using the technology in their offerings to end users (Google Translate) and translators, but the industry is not keen to embrace the technologies. Ambassadors of machine translation and technology lovers are still predicting a disruption when MT is finally adopted by translators, but the pace is too low for MT to be a real disruptive power.
Why translators should be disruptive
Summarizing the symptoms of disruption in the translation industry, we can conclude that there are disruptive trends happening but they lack the power to overturn existing technologies and structures.
At a translator’s level it can even be questioned if there is disruption. The above example of the estate agent clearly shows how a single company can shake up the (local) market by using a different approach and introducing new and creative ways to attract clients. In the translation industry, professionals mostly launch a website to make themselves known and buy a licence for a CAT tool to increase their productivity levels. The only real disruptive force is the introduction of lower prices, which already results in downward spiralling rates that place a high burden on translators.
But what if those ever decreasing rates are a matter of fact that cannot be easily ignored? Then there are two options: translators can neglect that fact and be disruptive by offering greater service (higher productivity, better support and shorter deadlines) or they can follow that trend and make sure they can still translate for their living (increasing their productivity to compensate for the lower rates). When disruption from a technological perspective is impossible for translators, they should be disruptive in their business practice.
This is not a plea for ever lowering translation rates. This is also not advocacy for changing what has always worked very well. However, in 2017 the market is no longer the same as in 1990 – or even 2010. Despite the resistance of translators to lower rates and new technologies, developments are still going on. Of course there are still many clients who are willing to pay great rates and who can afford to wait a day longer for their translation, but disruptive inventions like Google Translate and disruptive services like ‘same-day’ and ‘overnight translations’ are gaining market share. Chances are great that it is only a matter of time before disruption is the only possible move in order to survive in an ever changing market. Companies that can wait a day longer can now change that attitude if they find out that there are ways to deliver earlier. And clients can put pressure on you to lower rates when they discover that they can save a third on each translation project. Disruption is then the best leap forward, no matter whether you choose to improve on services or on productivity.
How to be disruptive as a translator
The most important characteristic of disruptive technologies and companies is that they changed the market and survived. Being disruptive is great, but it only pays off if you can reap its fruits. So it is important to be creative in your business. The great and difficult aspect of disruption is that there is no blueprint for it – especially not when it comes to doing business. The common denominator of disruption however is that it provides an illuminating example of how to generate business. If you are really disruptive by inventing services, propositions and business procedures that endure over time you can rest safely in knowing that swimming against the tide will protect you from extinction.
But don’t be overly disruptive. Disruption has its drawbacks as well. Nothing shows that better than the video below.