Long-term outlook for translation industry

I recently read two books with rather gloomy outlooks for our future civilization: The Ecotechnic Future and The Long Descent. Both books predict that when the petroleum runs out, human civilization will go back to pre-industrial levels.

While I don't necessarily agree with all the conclusions of these books, other than the obvious fact that the oil and other resources are indeed running out, it got me thinking about the long-term future of the translation industry, going out 50 years or more.

I think that three factors will have the most impact on the translation industry over the rest of the century: decline of the United States as a superpower, artificial intelligence, and peak oil.

End of United States Hegemony

The global dominance of the US is in decline. As the dominance of the US declines, so will the dominance of English. Of course, there will be a lag, with English retaining its prestige for some time after US power fades, but in the end I think we'll see a much more multilingual world.

Currently, English is to a large extent the foreign language that is learned. One Italian engineer once told me, "English is not a language to study, it's a language to know." German or French you might study; you're expected to know English.

As a result, English is something of a lingua franca for translation, with English translations being made for non-native speakers of English. For example, multinational corporations will often translate their manuals into English only, and then use those in all locations worldwide.

For the case of Japanese as a source language, it's also fairly common for a document to be translated into English, and then from the English into other languages, even if the English translation will never be used. This is because it's apparently easier to find Japanese->English translators, and then translators from English to another language, than, say, a Japanese->Spanish translator.

The waning of US power will be followed by a decline in English. I think that the end result will be more overall translation, but somewhat less translation into or out of English. Instead of just creating English versions of documents, future clients will be forced to translate into many different languages; conversely, the role of English as a lingua franca or intermediary language will decline.


Despite a continual tide of bold predictions, machine translation isn't appreciably better than it was 30 or even 40 years ago. The problem is that beyond a certain rudimentary level, the process of language translation requires the full intelligence of a human brain. This is why translation is an AI-complete problem. And general human intelligence has remained a far-off goal since the field of AI was invented.

But machines are getting inexorably more powerful, and consequently they're getting smarter as well. One by one, the cherished set of skills reserved to human intellect are being overtaken by computers.

In the 1990s, an IBM computer conquered the skill of chess. IBM is now attempting to do for Jeopardy what it did for chess (Youtube video here). Yes, this is just a mechanistic and rather simple-minded application of rules and data to simulate human trivia knowledge. On the other hand, it's getting us a lot closer, performance-wise, to the kind of general intelligence needed to perform tasks that are today "uniquely human." What will scientists be able to accomplish when computers are 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times more powerful than today? (Yes, it seems certain that at least a 1,000-fold increase in performance will be possible, barring the end of modern civilization — see below)

It's entirely conceivable that computers will reach the level of general intelligence needed to perform translation as well as or better than human beings. The funny thing about general intelligence, however, is that it's general: such a computer could also perform surgery, write sonnets, and swindle little old ladies out of their pensions. If you think that's far-fetched, remember that even today, computers are driving cars on our streets, flying and landing airliners, diagnosing diseases, and performing scientific research.

It's very hard for me to picture what such a future society would look like. It would be nearly impossible for human labor to compete with machine labor — every job that can be done by a computer seems unavoidably destined to be performed by a computer.

Our current economic system would no longer function in a society where human labor has no value, and the only value was derived from the capital required to purchase computers and resources. Would it be a post-scarcity utopia, or a hell of marginal, meaningless existence for all those but the capital-owning elite?

Peak Oil

We probably reached peak oil in 2005, and there is still no viable alternative source of energy to replace it. Since oil supplies will dwindle over the same curve that they rose, over the next century the price of oil will gradually increase, until it will be far too precious to burn in a combustion engine.

And that gives humanity a century to come up with alternative sources of energy. Unfortunately, demand for energy is currently rising, rather than falling. Even though rising energy prices will stimulate energy efficiency (global petroleum consumption fell by 15% during the oil crises of the 1970s), we're obviously going to need a lot of relatively cheap energy to keep modern society as we know it running.

The progress toward intelligent machines will depend greatly on how expensive energy is. If we succeed at creating a generally intelligent computer, but it consumes as much power as a small town, then depending on the price of energy, it might be more cost-effective to employ a town-full of people instead.

As energy grows more expensive, R&D will also slow. A lot of our technology is also tied to cheap energy, from the machines used to extract resources, to the trucks used to transport them, to the factories used to make our shiny new widgets. Our technological future is therefore going to depend greatly on whether we can find alternative sources of energy that are cheap and plentiful enough to supply the energy required by our modern society.

Or course, translation was a viable profession long before the industrial revolution, so it will remain a viable profession no matter how energy-starved our future civilization becomes.

Translators will also do quite well in an eco-conservative future, where it is much cheaper and more efficient to move around information than widgets. Translation is quite amenable to remote work.

The only future scenario in which translation as a profession will end is one in which machines take over virtually every form of labor currently performed by humans. Thus as long as computers don't put us out of work entirely, there will be ample work for the translators of the future. And if computers do put us out of work, at least we'll have plenty of company.

6 comments to Long-term outlook for translation industry

  • The emergence of real AI is basically the Singularity scenario—when you say “It’s very hard for me to picture what such a future society would look like,” well, that’s pretty much the definition of the Singularity. It’s called that because it’s impossible to know what happens on the other side.

    I don’t take it for granted that the progress toward AI will be hitched to the availability of cheap energy. At least not in a linear fashion. The watts-per-megaflops ratio of CPUs keeps improving, and unless I’m mistaken, is accelerating. My own hunch is that if we see genuine AI, it won’t come out of a single, intentionally designed chip or cluster, but will be an emergent property of a much larger network.

    And when you say “Translators will also do quite well in a eco-conservative future, where it is much cheaper and more efficient to move around information than widgets,” my first thought is that a lot of translation demand is driven by the manufacture and sale of widgets. If that drops off, it’s not clear that there will be other sources of demand to replace it.

  • @Adam
    my first thought is that a lot of translation demand is driven by the manufacture and sale of widgets. If that drops off, it’s not clear that there will be other sources of demand to replace it.

    I was envisioning a system of centralized design but local manufacture. In that system, the designs, specifications, and documentation (information) would be transmitted worldwide, while the actual atoms were moved around locally.

  • Nick C

    It seems you included ‘peak oil’ as an important factor because you just read two books all about oil. If you were to ask 10 other smart career translators about the biggest factors, how many would list peak oil? I’d guess zero. The other two factors seem much more sensible.

  • @Nick C

    These are my own take on the big factors that will affect our industry, so they probably do reflect my personal biases. But you’re mixing cause and effect: I read “The Ecotechnic Future” and “The Long Descent” because I’m interested in a post-petroleum (and other fossil fuel) future, not the other way around.

    It’s not an exaggeration to say that the 21st century will be shaped by the fall of petroleum production like the 20th century was shaped by its rise. Think of the wars that have been fought over oil (WW II largely qualifies), and how many more will be fought (are being fought) when the supply is shrinking rather than growing.

  • Good stuff, Ryan! Very interesting how you tied together oil, AI, the translation industry, and the outlook for both our profession and the world. As a home-based entrepreneur/translator who drives a hybrid car, at least I don’t feel like I contribute substantially to the energy problem (although petroleum is, of course, used for many other things too), but I won’t be able to rest on my eco-laurels if we really run out of petroleum; which we certainly will. Speaking of eco-translation: I recently wrote an article profiling Sara Brown of Argentina, who works out of Patagonia on a 100% eco-farm. It was published in the ITI’s Bulletin. If you would like to read it, e-mail me and I will send you the PDF.

    I also agree that our profession very certainly has a solid future, although I personally would guess that because of MT we might see more growth in interpreting than translation — you really can’t replace the human in any way, shape or form in the interpreting booth.

  • Peter Deal

    Hi Ryan,
    It’s interesting you talk about a more multilingual world. I feel like we’re going the other way: Toward a unilingual world where everyone speaks English. That would really kill the market for translations!

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