The end of linguistic diversity? Or a bonanza of new opportunities for translators?

Politecnico di Milano

In 2004, I remember picking up a magazine from a street kiosk in Milan because it had an article which predicted that within 10 years or so, Italians would be speaking English at work and the local language would only be used socially and at home. I found the idea somewhat amusing but dismissed it as preposterous.

Then a few days ago, one of Italy’s most prestigious universities, the Politecnico di Milano announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses will be taught and assessed entirely in English rather than in Italian. The BBC’s comment was that

[t]he waters of globalisation are rising around higher education – and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution. [1]

A few days after that announcement, greeted me with the headline “Workers told, ditch local languages for English” [2]. This article documents how growing numbers of multinational companies, outside the English-speaking territories from Denmark to Japan, are insisting that their employees should communicate only in English at work.

Are we facing a catastrophic collapse of linguistic diversity?

It is estimated that our planet is losing human languages at an accelerating rate currently at about 2 languages per month. CSA writes:

From a probable peak of 20,000 we are already down to only 6 or 7 thousand extant languages. Experts estimate that of these, 3,000 more will become extinct in the next 30 years… [3]

The continuing advance of English as a global lingua franca adds to the fears of many professional translators, already appalled at the rapid rise of crowdsourcing and machine translation, that these sorts of global changes will ultimately impact on their livelihood.

Although it may appear to be somewhat counterintuitive, there is much informed opinion that the prospects for human translators are brighter now than ever they have been. In a recent blog, CSA writes:

Given the US$31.4 billion in language service revenue booked in 2011, it may seem counterintuitive to state that high-quality human translation may soon become a scarce, if not more expensive, offering. However, in our recent report on translation providers, we saw a coming shortage caused by burgeoning demand for translation, a chronic shortfall of qualified language specialists… [4]

The current growth in the volume of material requiring translation is unprecedented and according to CSA has already outstripped the ability of human translators to meet the demand [5].

Earlier this year, 6 years after Google Translate was unleashed, Google’s official blog claimed:

In a given day we translate roughly as much text as you’d find in 1 million books. To put it another way: what all the professional human translators in the world produce in a year, our system translates in roughly a single day. [6]

Translating the equivalent of a million books a day! Whew!

A statement like this is hard to fully comprehend. Irrespective of what we might think about the output of Google Translate, there has never been such a demand for translation in human history. But this is clearly not translation work that you and I would otherwise have done – we simply do not have the capacity! Something else is going on here…

Rather than seeing machine translation and crowdsourcing by amateur translators as a threat, human translators might well see these developments as legitimate responses to new demands which lie outside or parallel to their professional field. Irrespective of what human translators may think about it, machine translation is here to stay and will undoubtedly continue to develop, evolve… and thrive. It’s not that it can really compete with what we humans are able to do (depth of understanding) – but on the other hand, we humans cannot compete with the undeniable benefits machine translation offers to its users – volume and speed. It’s my view that there is little real antagonistic competition here – what we are we are witnessing is a paradigm shift in what customers need, want or are prepared to accept.

A recent news report describes how an Italian economist, a top forecaster of Italy’s most-watched economic indicator, routinely reads Germany’s Bundesbank research in German via Google Translate [7]. Presumably this level of gisting provides useful information that would not otherwise be available in a timely manner or at an acceptable cost from human translators. [See 8 for a contrary view].

As for crowdsourced translations by amateur linguists, they appear to fill an important gap by providing useful information to underserved linguistic communities. The foreign language captions for the TED videos [9] would seem to be a great example of translation that serves a socially useful purpose which just would not be done except for amateur involvement.

The optimistic view of the rapid expansion of machine translation and crowdsourcing is that these developments are not really at the expense of human translators trying to make a living at all. In fact it has been argued by some that these very developments are opening up exciting new opportunities for human professionals. The unprecedented expansion in the demand for translation means that the need for high-quality professional human translation is likely to grow (not shrink) in parallel with crowdsourcing and MT.

Will Google preserve linguistic diversity?

We might even speculate that the likes of Google Translate will contribute to the preservation of the profession of the human translator well into the future. Given that global business demands rapid, real-time communications, we either need a technological solution to handle the massive volumes of translation (that humans simply do not have the capacity to process), or we adopt the wholesale use of a lingua franca like “international English” and accept an inevitable withering of linguistic diversity. Will technology such as efficient, real-time machine translation interrupt this apparent evolutionary path? If machines are able to take care of routine information transfer between languages, and stem the tide towards a less linguistically diverse planet, then this leaves human translators free to do the more difficult, creative work that they are so good at.

As demand continues to exceed the supply of human intelligence to do the work, we may at last see the unique and rare skills possessed by translators recognised and rewarded in a manner that is long overdue.


[1] BBC: Italian university switches to English

[2] CNN: Workers told, ditch local languages for English

[3] Language Death and Why It Matters, Benjamin B. Sargent, Common Sense Advisory Blogs

[4] Translation Demand-Supply Mismatch, Donald A. DePalma, Common Sense Advisory Blogs,

[5] The Business Case for Machine Translation, by Donald A. DePalma and Nataly Kelly, Common Sense Advisory, Inc,

[6] Breaking down the language barrier—six years in

[7] Top German economy forecaster uses Google Translate

[8] You can find a compelling critique of Google Translate on economic matters by Miguel Llorens M.  here:

[9] TED – Ideas worth spreading

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7 Responses to The end of linguistic diversity? Or a bonanza of new opportunities for translators?

  1. Paul, I missed your posts! Thank you for sharing. Now I definitely have some very good food for thought.

  2. Larissa says:

    Wow, an amazing article!!

  3. Interesting thoughts. Clearly, Google Translate and professionnal translators provide a different service, catering to different needs.

  4. Pingback: Can crowdsourcing coexist comfortably with professional translation? Or is it a threat? #xl8 | The translation business

  5. Thanks for sharing your views. It is indeed an interesting approach on where translation is heading to in a time of crowdsourcing and MT. I also share your take on the irreplaceable role of human translators when dealing with high-quality translations. This is a point I am trying to defend in collaboration with a web designer in our manifesto ‘Translation is UX’. You can have a look and tell me your thoughts, te estaría muy agradecida.

  6. Pingback: Weekly favorites (June 4-10) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  7. Pingback: The end of linguistic diversity? Or a bonanza of new opportunities for translators? | Professional Translation |

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