In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate in the translation industry about the roles and duties of providers in the sector. Some have even expressed views that translation agencies are a completely unnecessary intermediate stage in the industry and will eventually disappear altogether.
It is true that the role and the tasks of translation agencies should be discussed, since the structures of these services are changing. Traditionally, the role of a translation agency has been related to coordination in particular; the client does not have to find or test translators for every language they need or make sure that a multilingual or multi-stage project stays coherent. The same coordination benefit is felt on the translators’ side – in particular as the chance to concentrate on the actual work. Instead of freelancers having to find their own customers or order language reviews from acquaintances, one, two or three translation agencies may provide them with enough work and take care not only of finding the customers, but also of providing them with quality assurance.
However, these traditional benefits may be crumbling. Translation assignments are increasingly being brokered – like other forms of commerce – online, where buying and selling is easy, fast and efficient. Simultaneously, internal competition in the translation industry is continually getting tougher. What is more, machines are surging on the flanks: machine translation has taken great strides in recent years and an increasing proportion of translations are being done at least partially automatically.
What then is the task and role of translation agencies in this changing landscape?
There are surely many good answers, but at the very least agencies must develop their services in the direction of consultation services in order to create true added value. Customers need easy ways to buy without compromising on quality. Few customers wish to spend their valuable working hours on correcting bad translations or hunting for the cheapest price among the multitude of translation services offered online. Translation agencies can help in determining the process and quality indicators as well as finding the right purchasing channels – even when the translation in question is acquired from some other translation agency.
Delivery reliability and trustworthiness are also among the priorities of translation customers. While it is quick and easy to buy things online or translate using Google, it also entails a great deal of uncertainty. When cooperating with a translation agency, the service has a face and responsibility. And even though the same applies to individual professional translators, they are only responsible for their own work, not for the entirety of the service or tool package.
Is the sun then setting on the translation business? Will it still exist in thirty years or will all translations be produced by machines or crowdsourcing? Or will our globalized and networked world produce new multilingual needs which require professional translators and translation agencies to meet them?
Time will tell, but personally I am confident: we will have plenty of work.