How the rise of technology has changed the lives of translators

By Maeva CifuentesMaeva Cifuentes


Sometimes people tell me how easy I have it as a freelance translator: I can work in the comfort of my own home, on my own time, and maybe even in sweat pants if I feel like it. Despite the fact that we do a lot more than reading and writing in our pajamas, the translator’s job hasn’t always been so comfortable. I’m not speaking of the translation practices of ancient priests and medicine men, whose practices were certainly even more different in comparison; I am simply referring to the last three decades, when revolutionary developments took place that would change our lives and the translation industry forever.

When the PC and Internet were invented in the 1970s and 80s, the globalizing world was hit hard. Through these new means, translators were able to send and receive documents electronically. To find out more profoundly how this affected life for translators, I interviewed eight seasoned translators, all with 10-25+ years in the industry. The differences are like night and day. While now, freelance translators can work from home, before they would have to be on their feet for a major part of the translation process. Thirty years ago, projects would be typewritten or even written in longhand. Before the Internet, translation clients would have to find their translators locally, and likewise for translators finding clients. It was virtually impossible to outsource translations to linguists outside the client’s city or area; the translator would have to drive or take the train to collect the document to be translated and then return to the location to deliver the translation on a typewritten document. The other option was simply to work as an in-house translator, a trend that is now slackening at best.

To paint a picture of the lifeline of one translation project: a client would have to dial more than 20 times to reach a phone in the translator’s town. Then somebody would have to go into that town to find the translator, followed by him dialing another 20 times to reach a line to accept the translation job only for the client to have to dial another 20 times to fax the text to be translated. Finally, he would travel hours by train or car to deliver the completed translation to the end client. And this whole process is only to receive and deliver the translation. Within the actual process of  translation, research would have to be conducted by physically going to a library, or consulting experts, or even going directly to various embassies to discuss the meanings of particular words. Needless to say, the translation process could take weeks, and time pressure was  something that was yet to be felt. As one of my interviewees put it: “you had to do the work, but it got out when it got out.”

The rise of the Internet came as a gift to translators. We are now able to receive and send our documents, conduct our research, and even find our clients from home. Being able to do everything from home has changed the world of translation as we know it. Now clients and translation agencies can outsource to anywhere in the world to find the person who is best fit to translate the document. Furthermore, globalization is facilitated, and any business, small and big alike, is increasingly able to operate on an international scale. As for us translators, taking a look at what it was like 30 years ago, we can appreciate our home offices, pajamas and coffee just a bit more.

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Category: Translation Tools

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