[ Essay ] How can translation survive?

Lost In Translation by tochis, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  tochis 

This blog post (Japanese) tells us that one of Japan’s largest toy companies, Bandai-Namco (they have the cult classic Ghost in the Shell), is retreating from retailing anime products in the U.S. market, due to sluggish sales. Bandai blames their failure on on-demand streaming of pirated videos with cheap, quickie subtitles.

The blog author, a translator himself, warns that the Bandai case is an example of a long-term trend in the translation industry: translation is becoming interpretation. The market is demanding fast, real-time bridging of communication, than time-consuming but accurate reconstruction of the original content.

I have converted into a “streamer” myself. Long gone are the days of devouring shelves in a suburban outlet; YouTube and Pirate Bays are the new HMV and Tower Records. They have the fastest, latest, and most exciting videos (We can’t find gems like the one below in a DVD shop, can we?) with practically zero cost.

Well, as a technical writer and occasional translator myself, this is also MY business: how can translators make living in the 21st century, if no one is paying for translation? The aforementioned blog proposes the inevitable: add value. I agree (or to be precise, I have no choice but to agree). Ask Thomas Friedman, the guru of the flattened world. He has posted a thoughtful column.

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Well, yes. The question is, what is the extra value? Translation is just…translation, right? The general answer to this type of question is always the same: Outrun your competitors.
  • Faster: Bring the Just-in-Time process into your work system.
  • Wider: You may format, design, or print the document in addition to translating. Hey, why don’t you write the original content too?
That’s it. You will stay ahead of the game, your clients will love you, and money flows in. Just make sure you have protected yourself by adding a clause against death by overwork in your health insurance (Except that it’s too late). And that is our real problem: The above two options are just two sides of the same coin called More. We need to do more. And more.

When the dead-end called “more” is the only solution, we are usually asking the wrong question. The real question is not “How can we translate better?” Take a look around us: Everybody speaks, or at least listens, to English. The English language is becoming that single language used by biblical people to build the Tower of Babel. There will be no need for translation in the long term, period.

We should rather ask “What is translation?” Translation is the bridging of communication by expressing meaning in a different language. What’s disappearing by the ubiquity of the English language is the latter. But the former, communication barrier, will remain—probably forever. And herein lies a way for a translator to make a living: smoothing out communication glitches. As a translator, you have been thinking harder than most people about what exactly a person is trying to express, what truly are behind his messages. What’s obvious to you is not so to other people—that’s where you can add value to your clients.
Translation will survive by broadening the focus, not narrowing it down to the language-to-language element. As countless love stories attest, true understanding between two human beings will always remain the Holy Grail. That also means there will always be demands for communication bridging.