The Art of Translation reduced to Data

by Tadhg Mac Eoghain

In order to survive as a freelance translator in today’s hostile climate, I’ve had to take a Jekyll and Hyde approach to my work. On the one hand, I very happily collaborate with a team of other like-minded, caring and politically driven translators as part of Guerrilla Media Collective (GMC), a feminist, commons-oriented, worker-owned translation and communications cooperative. On the other hand, in order to make ends meet, I also participate in the predatory, machine-led and profit-driven world of corporate agency translation, where I reluctantly contribute to cultivating AI technology that is specifically designed to make me and my colleagues obsolete. While navigating between these two very opposite worlds, I manage to eke out a living, but no matter which end of the spectrum I find myself in, precarity seems to prevail.

With all of the MTs and evaluations that we provided for free, we were simply digging our own graves. With every machine translation that we edit, perfect and humanise, we are strengthening our artificially intelligent oppressor. This is the hostile industry environment endured by most freelance translators these days.

I get to be Dr. Jekyll when working with GMC, where we explicitly refuse to use CAT (computer assisted translation) tools, preferring to exercise our craft of translation in a more traditional way, giving every text the custom-tailored attention it deserves. We also work on every translation as a pair – one translator and one editor – which means that the translation process takes the form of a collaborative conversation. This generally costs more than typical computer-assisted agency translation, but our clients are happy to pay a bit more for a higher quality end product, as well as to show solidarity with us as artists and activist workers with a social mission.

GMC also enjoys a curated clientele, built up over years of cultivating relationships with clients that produce content aligned with our ideals and values. This includes foundations, public institutions, universities and large cooperatives that have a budget for translation, but also smaller cooperatives, individuals and academics who benefit from our tiered pricing scheme and periodic pro-bono translation work. In short, we work with inspiring people and content that interests us. It sounds ideal, except that we very gravely feel the pressure of competition with translation agencies operating under more extractive corporate business models.

I know something about this other world as well, as it is where I am forced to seek employment – wearing my ill-fitting Mr. Hyde mask – in order to supplement the much more satisfying feminist cooperative translation work. Luckily I hold a rather privileged position, as far as European freelance translation goes, as an Irish-language translator. Irish became fully recognised as an official EU language in 2022, meaning that suddenly there was not only a new daily avalanche of institutional documents to translate, but also a years-long backlog of material to work through at a slower pace. There are now probably close to 200 Irish translators employed across all EU institutions, but freelancers like myself are still needed to help keep up with the massive workload. Typically, agencies will tender an agreement with the European Commission or European Parliament to procure large work contracts and then scramble to find translators and editors to do the work. For me this means regular work with minimal competition and a window into the world of agency translation.

This also brings along the advantage of getting to work with a protected minority language and being a part of the Irish-language revitalisation movement. To a certain degree, I see this as decolonial work, bringing more visibility, opportunity, employment and status to a language that was largely outlawed in its native land for centuries by a violent occupying regime. It is a matter of personal pride for me to see Irish recognised and valued at this level of government, and it contributes greatly to the modernisation of the language, particularly in terms of vocabulary. Irish now enjoys top-quality terminological and translation resources because of the vast corpus of translated legislation and other texts available. A far cry from its former reputation as a rural “poor tongue”, Irish is now innovative, versatile and modernised thanks, in part, to the support and funding it has received from the European Community.

EU translation, however, is entirely unlike the kind of activist-oriented, personalised translation work I do with GMC. The language is very dry, formulaic and often governed by strict document templates, standardised translations of specific terms and the conventions of ‘legalese’.

To handle this level of inflexibility and demand for consistency, many AI-powered tools are used, including CAT tools, machine translation (MT), term bases (TB) and translation memories (TM). All of these work together to extract segments of language – ranging from individual words to entire paragraphs – from previous translations and repurpose them to translate identical or similar segments in new documents.

You often find that a brand new assignment is already 45% translated for you, based on previous TMs. Sounds great, except that this marks the beginning of a slippery slope that ultimately ends up hurting rather than helping the translator. It may seem that the translator simply has 45% less work to do in this example, and as translation is usually paid according to a per-word rate, one should really only be responsible for the words they translate anyway. However, the reality is that the translator is generally responsible for reading, proofing and ensuring consistency within the entire document, including the already translated text coming from the TM. This is simply expected as a matter of course and is not compensated in any way. The unpaid work does not stop here though. The translator is also generally expected to update TBs with any new terms that appear frequently but are missing from the database. This takes time, mental load and will also mean that future instances of such terms will likely be counted by the CAT tool as translated and therefore not fully compensated. Many agencies will also ask editors to complete evaluation reports of the translated texts they review. This is understandable from a quality control perspective, but the time spent on these assessments is not compensated. They are simply expected.

The amount of unpaid care-work that is expected of a freelance translator, who is explicitly paid by the word only, is alarming enough, but it is not nearly the biggest injustice involved in this type of translation work. By now you will have noticed that all of the above-mentioned tasks involve the collection of data in one form or another, and beyond helping to improve the end product, this data is being harvested in order to streamline the work process and allow the agency to make as much profit as possible while spending as little as possible.

TBs and TMs grow with every translation completed, and are shared across EU institutions. As the corpus of translated work grows, it is fed directly into AI-based algorithms that are being trained to do the translation work themselves. This brings us to the inevitable topic of machine translation.

Perhaps precisely due to the large bilingual body of both national and European legislative texts and other bilingual data being used to fine-tune AI-based translation tools, machine translation between Irish and English is alarmingly accurate. It is, naturally, no replacement for a human translator – especially considering some of the grammatical and lexical idiosyncrasies of the Irish language – but it nonetheless renders fairly accurate, largely intelligible results. This, of course, was the goal all along, as it creates a very profitable situation for the translation agencies investing in this very technology.

Supposing that a translator charges €0.09/word for translation – note that per-word rates have, at best, stagnated in the past decade and are, for many language pairs, much lower than 20 years ago – an agency will see no point in paying them this rate when they could simply run the text through machine translation software and then pay them half (or less!) to edit the machine translation. The client still pays the agency the same price, but the agency pays the freelancer less money for a faster turnaround. This service is called machine translation post-editing (MTPE), and it is becoming increasingly common.

TBs and TMs grow with every translation completed, and are shared across EU institutions. As the corpus of translated work grows, it is fed directly into AI-based algorithms that are being trained to do the translation work themselves. This brings us to the inevitable topic of machine translation.

In certain translation sectors, MTPE will soon be standard practice, and some agencies are shamelessly forthright about this. For one large agency client, I have been – as far as I can tell – the only German-to-Irish translator they were able to find to handle the needs of an important client of theirs. I recently received an email stating that all translation jobs for that client will now be MTPE jobs, an automatic 50% pay cut for me despite the fact that German-to-Irish machine translation does not yield very good results and the ensuing post-editing process is often more of a headache than simply translating the text from scratch. When signing on with a new agency, I am now generally asked to provide rates for translation, editing and MTPE. To me these requests read like a threat: if you dare ask for a fair translation rate, we will simply machine translate everything and pay you even less.

Those with a permanent translation position are not spared either. The European Language Industry Survey 2023 reports that around 30% of professional translation is now done via machine translation, which is expected to take over most professional translation work by 2030 at the latest. Brussels is hiring fewer and fewer in-house translators while the workload only grows, a trend which has resulted in a reported increase in burnout and mental health issues among permanent staff in the European Commission’s translation unit.

The worst part is that every translator who has ever worked with CAT tools (most of us) knows that the data extracted from our own labour has fine-tuned this weapon of capitalism, which is now being used to render us completely obsolete.

With all of the MTs and evaluations that we provided for free, we were simply digging our own graves. With every machine translation that we edit, perfect and humanise, we are strengthening our artificially intelligent oppressor. This is the hostile industry environment endured by most freelance translators these days.

The market has become seemingly saturated with translators looking for work, and employers take a predatory approach, asking us to lower our already deflated rates. When lowering our rates is no longer a viable option for us, agencies simply feed the work to the machine and find someone who is happy to get any work at all, post-editing included. According to the European Language Industry Survey 2020, 40% of freelance translators reported that they were unable to earn enough income from translation work, a clear sign that something is rotten in the industry. Indeed, the 2023 Survey confirmed that human translation was the area of the entire language industry to suffer the most in the previous year. So how do we push back against this?

In my case, the Irish language itself accords me a uniquely privileged position. Translating into a protected minority language with a legally stipulated workload and a limited pool of professional translators definitely elevates my status to a certain degree and puts me in a position to call the shots more than someone translating between English and French, for example. In the instance of that one agency switching all German-to-Irish translation work to MTPE, I simply informed them that I do not do MTPE. I saw several posts online the next day seeking German-to-Irish translators and am waiting to see if they find someone or if they will come crawling back. Perhaps I’ve lost that client for good, but I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my dignity instead – for the time being, anyway.

Recently, I learned from a freelance Spanish translator that many of her colleagues doing externally contracted work for the European Commission were abruptly informed that they had been replaced by eTranslation, the EC’s own machine translation tool. Curt emails were received stating that it was a final, non-negotiable decision and they would not be receiving further work. Instead, the following statement can now be found on the EC’s website:

This translation is generated by eTranslation, a machine translation tool provided by the European Commission. Machine translation can give you a basic idea of the content in a language you understand. It is fully automated and involves no human intervention. The quality and accuracy of machine translation can vary significantly from one text to another and between different language pairs. The European Commission does not guarantee the accuracy and accepts no liability for possible errors.

This missive just about sums up the industry attitude. Instead of clear, well thought out translation, it is sufficient to get “a basic idea of the content”, with no guarantee of accuracy and, tellingly, no accountability when their system inevitably does get it wrong.

Since walking away from the German-to-Irish project, I’ve made it a point to say not only that I do not offer MTPE services, but also that I refuse to do so, both on principle and in support of translators’ rights to fair working conditions and a living wage in face of the pressures created by AI-based technology. Responses are mixed, but I feel it is important to explicitly push back and state clear reasons. Let the agencies know that at least some of us are not going to simply endure abuse without resisting. If I lose a few clients because of my cheek, so be it. Perhaps it will make a project manager think twice next time about offering a poverty wage to the freelancers whose labour ultimately pays their salary.

I am also often asked to lower my translation rates, to which I generally reply with a curt, ‘No.’ On a good day, I may elaborate something along the lines of, ‘I am not willing to reduce my rates, as translation rates have not increased in many years and the cost of living is skyrocketing worldwide. In solidarity for the fair treatment of workers, I would request that my initial rate be respected, as it is the going rate that all my other clients pay for similar translations into Irish. Thank you for understanding.’ Thus far, this has worked to my advantage because most agencies are hard pressed to find another Irish-language translator, and I generally get the job anyway. Sometimes I even get some words of support from the project manager. With the rise of MTPE, though, I am not sure if this will continue to be a viable strategy.

As for the expected unpaid care work that goes along with industry translation, I simply do not do most of it. If Irish is stipulated for a project, chances are every other official EU language is included, and the poor project manager is generally not going to notice or have the time to hound me if I fail to return a TM, do not add to the TB or ignore the request for an evaluation.

It may not seem like much, considering that I still do complete translations of documents that are being used to enhance the abilities of machine translation software, but I still have bills to pay and recognise that there are limits to how much I can resist. In an age where we all but breathe data, it is nearly impossible to completely control when and where it is harvested, whether you work online or simply walk down an urban street. Just existing makes you a data worker these days.

This is precisely why I make sure to give Dr. Jekyll some space to roam and live freely. As a Guerrilla Translator, I get to practise my craft in a supportive and respectful environment, where what we call ‘care work’ (admin work, social media, mutual support, invoicing, project development, etc.) is made visible, clocked and compensated. I get to discuss the subtleties of translation with other humans, instead of correcting robots and thanking faceless project managers for gracing me with the opportunity to develop the tools of my own demise. I get to feel seen and valued and use my talents for something that I believe in.

The more I think about this split in my professional life, the more I see that it ultimately boils down to community and togetherness. As an independent freelancer, you are isolated, faceless and replaceable. You are data. As a cooperative member, coworker and creative professional, you get to be a worker and a human. Imagine that! This lets you develop a sense of emotional security and purpose that helps you endure and hopefully overcome the financial precarity seemingly inherent to our profession. Nowhere is safe in this industry, but banded together we stand a much better chance than we do as isolated individuals.

Recently, a new project has begun to blossom out of Guerrilla Media Collective. Led by our very own Sari Escribano, Translators Against the Machine is a call to action to discuss, brainstorm and share ideas around the proliferation of AI-powered technologies and other exploitative practices in the translation sector. The newly formed group is made up of freelance translators hoping to learn from and support each other in resisting the extractive nature of the capitalist translation industry. By banding together we have also learned of and connected with other similar initiatives such as En Chair et en Os, a French collective dedicated to educating translators and translation clients about the damaging effects of machine translation. The collective calls for a mass boycott of this AI-fuelled technology and has gathered nearly 7,000 signatures on its manifesto.

Translators Against the Machine, on the other hand, is still very much in its infancy, and it remains to be seen where it will lead us. One thing, however, is already crystal clear from the response of participants: freelance translators are isolated and scared for their futures. Most of us got into this line of work out of a love of living languages and the richly nuanced differences between cultures. In reality, though, we’ve slowly been turned into data processors, and it won’t be long before we are nothing more than data ourselves.