At last week’s AILIA 2014, the Canadian language industry trade show, tools and standards dominated the speakers’ schedule. How best to survive in a difficult market dominated conversations during the breaks. Throughout the event, the deep rift between established stakeholders and relative newcomers was palpable. Both sides of the great divide struggled with what to do about The Machine. Rather than finding consensus, however, fundamental contradictions emerged as well as renewed enthusiasm for Canadian exceptionalism in the face of globalization.
First, the big news: AILIA, Canada’s language industry association, is now an independent industry organization. Bankrolled by the federal government since its founding in 2003, the organization must now survive on its own merits. That means that, to fulfill its mandate, AILIA will have work hard to grow and support its membership. Despite claims that the language services sector is thriving worldwide, currently less than 50 companies have joined. Still fewer adhere to the Canadian industry standard.
The withdrawal of funding might explain the low turnout at the event. The beautiful but cavernous upper floors of the Marché Bonsecours, the event venue, only compounded the sense that there was no there there. Hats off to AILIA president Lola Bendana (Multi-Languages), Maryse Benhoff (BG Communications) and Kim Pines (Translations.ca) who, under difficult conditions, pulled out all the stops to boost attendance. Not an easy task particularly when you have translation companies to run.
So who was there?
Attendees hailed primarily from the Ottawa area, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto. Most were executives from translation services companies. Representatives from OTTIAQ and ATIO, the professional orders in Quebec and Ontario respectively, attended. Freelance translators and colleagues from academia were thin on the ground. Exhibitors included a handful of translation and workflow technology companies from Canada and abroad, global industry giants SDL and Lionbridge (natch), Traductions Serge Bélair and the federal Translation Bureau (TB).
Two speaker tracks featured sessions on translation technology and industry standards. In addition, attendees learned networking tips from Donna Messer (ConnectUS) and market research basics from Steve Letofsky (LBC Consulting). Merling Sapene (Bombardier) discussed project and change management. Shibl Mourad (Google Montreal) demystified machine translation algorithms.
Of contradictions and Canadian exceptionalism
Donald Barabé, for years the TB’s top talking head, now retired and an honorary member of AILIA’s board, put in an appearance. He reiterated his belief that creating a reserved title for translators is the only way to push back against falling rates He served up impressive stats about translators working in Canada but, despite AILIA’s mandate to promote business stakeholders, had no data on the number of translation companies operating in Canada. No one could dispute that the number of companies that adhere to the Canadian industry standard is underwhelming.
Why are Canadian companies so reluctant to get on board with the standard? According to one translation company owner, until the standard becomes a bid requirement for buyers (including the TB), the returns don’t justify the cost. Interestingly, translators frequently make the same argument when asked why they are not a members of the professional order. Indeed, selling both professional accreditation and adherence to standards in an unregulated industry seems to be an uphill battle.
Undaunted, another translation agency executive insisted that translation buyers increasingly demand proof that translators be certified or, at least, qualified. According to her, translation service vendors should stop talking about tools and focus on quality. Her remarks garnered enthusiastic head nodding from peers. I bit my tongue and didn’t ask why tool vendors were doing most of the talking, and selling, at the trade show.
Overall, old guard translation agency executives seemed to embrace the notion of a national effort to require translator accreditation as a way to help the Canadian language industry resist downward pressure on prices. A suggestion that such a strategy might jeopardize the industry quickly landed me in the evil low-baller camp. A reminder about stiff global competition was shrugged off.
Relative newcomers to the industry seemed more pragmatic. In some quarters, sighs and eye-rolling met Barabé’s speech and jocular if tired reference to “herding cats”. Attendance didn’t flag at sessions presented by translation technology vendors. The Google Translate presentation, surprisingly well-attended, elicited few questions. It did, however, convince one owner of a Toronto-based business to shift gears. His plan: work with the machine instead of against it. He figures he still has about 10 years to make some money before machine translation guts the industry.
In short, openness, fresh ideas, creativity and innovation were in short supply at AILIA 2014. As vast and diversified as the industry is, black and white seemed to be the colour scheme du jour and the middle road no where to be found.