Thursday, July 6, 2023

What has the AI impact been on translation?

Via Matt Yglesias' blog Slow Boring, this piece by Timothy B. Lee on the translation employment market: 

...“We’ve been ‘in danger’ of being taken over by AI for 10 years now and it still hasn’t happened,” Eybert-Guillon said. “But we keep getting told that it’s going to happen.”

There are two big reasons AI hasn’t put many human translators out of work. First, human translators still do a better job in specialized fields like law and medicine. Translation errors in these fields can be very expensive, so clients are willing to pay extra for a human-quality translation.

Second, there has been rapid growth in hybrid translation services where a computer produces a first draft and a human translator checks it for errors. These hybrid services tend to be about 40% cheaper than a conventional human translation, and customers have taken advantage of that discount to translate more documents. Translators get paid less per word, but they’re able to translate more words per hour.

But while AI software has not put human translators out of work the way pessimists might have predicted, this isn’t an entirely positive story for translators either.

“I think rates for translators have stayed largely the same for 10 or 12 years,” said Mark Hemming, a translator in the United Kingdom. “I think it is harder to get work now. I think it's harder to get well-paid work as well.”

...Barbara Leon is a freelance translator in Spain. She focuses on translating legal documents like contracts, trusts, immigration records, and divorce agreements between English and Spanish. There’s a robust market for human translation of documents like this because errors can be expensive. Moreover, some of the documents Leon produces are submitted to courts or government agencies that require sign-off by an expert human translator.

To translate a legal document accurately, Leon doesn’t just need to be an expert in the English and Spanish languages. She also needs a deep understanding of legal systems on both sides of the Atlantic. 

I think this is broadly good news for employees, but I note that a decade-long trend of wage stagnation isn't exactly good news either. (I have had some personal experience with this in translating a Chinese patent. While the Google translation will get you most of the way there, it was a character-by-character search that allowed me to get the key detail that I was interested in.)

I broadly think that "human/AI hybrid" (i.e. humans working with/through AI output) will be how quite a bit of this stuff gets handled in the future, but I'm broadly not too concerned that this will have a major impact on the American chemistry employment market for the next 10 to 20 years. Hard to say, though - my crystal ball doesn't work so great sometimes...  


  1. As someone who grew up playing video games that often appeared to have been translated from Japanese to English by drunken monkeys, I expect AI to be as good as or better than many human translators. Anyone remember Simon's Quest, for example?

    1. All your translations are belong to us


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20