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Looking at Trends for the Language Professions

Nobody can predict the future, but it is certainly worth looking at some trends for translation, terminology and interpretation.

By Barbara McClintock, Certified Translator

Will translators, terminologists and interpreters still have jobs 10 years from now? Those who are flexible probably will. Change is a given and, as professionals, we know that languages that evolve and are constantly enriched retain their vitality and sustainability. Here are a few ways this evolution may take place.

Trend: Expansion of languages other than English

International relations will continue to support the language professions. In 2019, the official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, whereas at the European Union, all 24 languages of member states are considered official. Keeping that in mind, let’s have a brief look at possible changes in the latter.

The Brexit debates which are still raging will likely have an impact on languages and translation trends for the next decade. English is currently the lingua franca at the European Union, but that may change if the UK pulls out. It is highly possible that, post-Brexit, the focus will be on French and German.

English speakers tend to believe that English is the global language of business, which could explain why the British and Americans are generally poor at learning foreign languages as compared to Europeans. An article in the Guardian newspaper stated that “Only 6% of the global population are native English speakers with 75% of the world unable to speak English at all. But three-quarters of UK residents can only speak English.”1 The concern expressed in this quote is that people who are reluctant to learn foreign languages are losing commercial opportunities since the winds of change are now blowing and English is losing ground in the business world.

However, to the benefit of language professionals, this lost opportunity cost can be offset by high-quality translation. In the post-Brexit era, Britain will need to remember that translation is an integral part of trade around the world. A British Council report titled Languages for the Future. Which Languages the UK Needs and Why (2013) stated that the languages with the most benefits for the UK’s “prosperity and international influence” are Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese, in that order.

As for Canada, it has traditionally traded with Commonwealth and Francophonie countries. The fact that many Canadians speak the country’s both official languages (18% of Canadians are bilingual according to the 2016 Census) is a huge advantage for trade. Given that Canada’s top trading partners are the U.S., China and Mexico, the most important foreign languages for Canadian trade are Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish.

Trend: Artificial intelligence and robotization

Artificial intelligence and robotization will continue to be the number one trend in virtually every sector. The transportation and manufacturing industries are most likely to lose jobs after the introduction of driverless vehicles and robots in the coming decade. Will automation cause unemployment in the language services field? There is little risk that the demand for high-quality, confidential translation work will disappear where international relations and trade are involved. At the moment, automatic translation can do part of the job, especially in pre-translation, but human intervention is necessary at least in the final stage. Of course, automatic translation is getting better, which logically points to the transformation of the role of translator to that of a “posteditor” of machine output.

Trend: Shortages of interpreters in rarer languages

Human interpreters will always be needed for confidential and high-level meetings or conferences where the exact meaning of discussions is of the utmost importance. Relying on machine translation output—no matter how good it is—would be too high a risk in such settings.

Last year, the need for court interpretation was highlighted in the news. A judge was quoted as saying that the shortages of qualified court interpreters in major languages in a multicultural society, such as Canada, were becoming intolerable. The demand for foreign languages, including non-European languages, such as Asian, Indigenous and rarer languages, will continue to expand, particularly for community, court and simultaneous interpreters. According to the Commissioner of Official Languages, the top five languages spoken in Canada in 2018 were English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese and Punjabi.

Trend: Goodbye lean, hello agile

The new trend is agility, rather than leanness, in order to adjust to rapid market changes. Organizations that are too lean and allow, or even encourage, experienced workers to leave so they can be replaced by younger, less well-paid workers have no room for error or change. Moreover, the rapidly aging workforce could lead to a brain drain if experienced employees retire before new people have been hired and trained to replace them. In the next decade, organizations that have staff shortages will need to consider that it takes several years to train a professional translator and thus recognize the value of the knowledge and experience of the professionals they already employ.

Trend: Client service will continue to be king

Business customers will continue to want a convenient, seamless experience, as well as quality, publication-ready documents. Companies will improve customer satisfaction in new ways, and those that are dependent on suppliers will seek to improve relations with them.

What will our professions look like 10 years from now in Canada?

If the current trend continues, automatic translation will do the “dirty” first draft and posteditors will clean it up by checking the correspondence between the two languages involved, verifying the terminology, correcting the grammar and spelling and making sure it reads well and is idiomatic. To supplement postediting, translators may offer localization services to ensure that advertising copy or other types of writing are suitable for the targeted readers and regions. Plain language writing to promote good communication will continue to be popular. Moreover, translators will offer editing of unilingual documents in their target language as a complementary service. Comparative revision, which is the careful comparison of texts in different languages, and proofreading of a next-to-final document are other services that translators will offer in the future, as well as writing and terminology support.

Translation, terminology and interpretation will continue to be important to communicate between people who speak different languages, and many translators, terminologists and interpreters will add communication and writing to their toolbox of skills. Increasingly, those professionals will be considered language advisors and consulted by clients. As usual, their ultimate goal will be to have satisfied clients who occasionally say that the translation reads better than the original!

1. “British ‘Linguaphobia’ has deepened since Brexit vote, say experts”, The Guardian, May 28, 2018

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