The Future of Publishing 2020: Translation and Publishing in the 21st Century

In my last article on TIPM, I talked about how digitalization and The Self-Publishing Honeypot has helped transform publishers from the role of curator and educator to one of facilitator and provider. The transformation is far from complete, and many within the industry—in spite of digitalization heralding the age of disintermediation and the rise of alternative methods of publication for authors—still hold fast to the belief that publishers, as we commonly understand them, will be around for many years to come. It’s not a view I wholeheartedly agree with, though, I do believe there is a place for publishers in the future as long as some are prepared to embrace the streamlining digitalization offers to operate more efficiently, while also managing to reunite their new role as content providers with readers, authors and the broader literary community.
This means publishers will have to invest a great deal more in both local and global lines of communication with readers and writers beyond the format of a printed book and first-time single language publication. To do this, publishers will have to concede something of the drive they have shown towards slavishly reacting to consumer market trends and filling supermarket shelves with commodity book products. The new publishing model beyond 2020 won’t facilitate a profit structure focussed on ten percent of the publishers list and on the sales of books alone—whatever the format. The role of global publisher will no longer be executed from the exclusive confines of an office on Madison Avenue or Mayfair.
We live in a world today where the dimly lit bedroom or living room can place author and publisher alike in touch with the best editors, designers, marketers, champions and facilitators—and what’s more—in a way that has far more to do with the mavericks of publishing decades ago. I’m thinking of some of the publishing forefathers of the modern industry like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Calder, Roger Straus, George Routledge, Barney Rosset, Maurice Girodias and Victor Gollancz. I suspect publishing would not be where it is today had most of these mavericks been still at the wheel. Instead, our industry is guided by media conglomerates and CEO’s who seem more adept at getting the most out of a grain of ore than the syllables or words in a sentence. What this illustrious list of publishing mavericks shared was vision (literary and business), publishing as a force of curation and education, but above all, they saw publishing outside of the language borders the industry has now imposed upon itself.          
In my previous article, The Self-Publishing Honeypot, I suggested that while publishers may believe their hands are full at the moment with digitalization and the wake-up call authors and publishing service providers are now delivering to the industry; there is actually a far greater challenge awaiting them in the coming years. It’s the the gradual shift I spoke about at the end of the article—the move from publisher and curator to content manager and service provider—may not be enough to survive because sometimes the grey clouds cover the real storm about to hit and challenge the industry.

From The Self-Publishing Honeypot:

“It is time to spread around a little more of the royal jelly. Publishers will be in deep trouble if they are still struggling with digitalisation in twelve months time, because the next big challenge for publishers and authors alike on the horizon in the coming years is how to deal with global translation and its developing technology. By then, The Self-Publishing Honeypot may be empty and authors en mass may have long filed their divorce papers.”

(This is how the publishing world looked before the Self-Publishing Honeypot)

Just like self-publishing several years ago heralded the age of publishing as taking control and managing content; a number of the most forward-thinking and savvy self-published authors are beginning to turn their attention to global translation. They are no longer prepared to settle for the second set of gates in the publishing industry having found a way to circumnavigate around its grand and lofty submission gates. There still exits a territorial and language divide, whether for physical books or e-book editions. Publishers can stomp about the house every evening, still fixated on DRM, piracy and pricing, the devil Amazon, but some self-publishers have already stopped brooding.
The Future of Publishing is now.
In a few weeks the publishing industry will descend on Frankfurt in Germany and in private and public forums will trash out the same issues it has been debating for the past five years—pricing, the decisions of the US Department of Justice, Amazon, e-books and whatever else they were talking about five years ago. What will be different, and has grown in recent years, is the number of agents representing self-published authors abroad who have published in one territory and are looking for publishers and translators from other countries. If one thing is clear in the publishing world today; it’s that agents—while uncomfortable initially with their clients’ self-publishing endeavours—are starting to appreciate the new-found flexibility and sword they have to brandish if an author has established a sales record in one territory and language, even if it is only through a digital edition. There is one thing I’m sure of over the next ten years—beyond 2020—and it is that authors will need agents and PR representatives more than they may need publishers. Years ago, a hardy and enlightened Irish author of many books told me that getting hold of a good agent was far more important than getting a publishing contract.

“A good agent can be for life. A good publisher never lasts that long.”

Agents might at first appear to be serving the needs of your publisher, but mostly, they are a collective of individuals, and their instincts to survive and thrive will long outlast any publisher that ever flutters its eyelids in your direction.

(This is how publishing looks now, and will for several more years)

I suspect there will be little talk of where modern translation is today in Frankfurt. Most agents and publishers will be too fixed on selling whatever title they can and running for the plane and return contract in the email when they get home to care about where the translation industry is at the moment. Right now, the only form of translation that matters to publishers and agents is the work carried out by trusted ‘real’ translators fretting away over every word and nuance of language. I suspect the same industry professionals had the same casual view of e-books and the implications of its future relevance at trade shows and ‘meet-ups’ several years ago.  Suggest the same ‘don’t worry-be happy’ carefree attitude to many freelance translators and they might well provide you with a very different reading on the status of their industry and its future.
Like publishing, translation is also going through a sea change at the moment and technological advances have played a great part in this change, including the move from paper to digital; the emergence of crowdsourcing and collaborative translation; the value of the professional translator’s role; the growth in market competition leading to lower translation service pricing; as well as new work tools like translation memories and terminology management systems. I also see a distinct parallel between traditionally published authors and self-published authors in the book industry as I do with how traditional translators value their work against the continued advancements in machine translation. While some authors and publishers see the democratisation of the publishing industry as a good thing, some believe the value of books and literature itself is being dumbed down.

“The demand for translation has been increasing steadily over the last three decades due to the explosion of content made possible by information technology. This growth will continue—and this is no prediction! Content is doubling every year and this growth is outstripping the rate at which translators are entering the profession: it takes many years to create a professional translator. The only way to handle this growth in content is by increasing translators’ productivity, but the translation industry remains a relatively low-tech industry where the “do more with less” philosophy is an imperative that very few can (or are willing) to follow.”

Like the translation market, demand has now outstretched resources, and the book world is being flooded with new content (and authors) at an alarmingly high rate, and the role of content evaluation is being pushed further down the user line—sometimes all the way to consumer and reader. However, the early signs are that the translation industry—and its direct commercial clients and customers—look better positioned and equipped to deal with this than the publishing industry. While the publishing industry is historically an insular and elitist beast, the translation industry lives and breathes on collaboration, adaptation and community. In essence, translators were our first global networkers.

“I’ve been thinking this exact concept about the media/publishing industry for a few years. We are at crucial juncture of enormous change in consumer demand and the advertising-supported business model. Business-school basics tell us that today’s giants literally can’t change gears to tear themselves apart and build models for new realities.
Part of this reality in media, I believe, is due to not bringing in enough new talent from other industries. We think this industry so different from others that we shun the idea altogether. Instead, we could learn so much from how other industries approach and solve similar problems.”

While publishers have spent much of the past twenty years resisting the imposition of digitalization on their traditional practices, translators have been far quicker to seize the new frontier and lingua franca—or at least the path which leads to it. Translation is one aspect of communication, and no matter how perfect or as near perfect a translator can make a text—the reader is the final interpreter in the chain. Translation is simply an earlier level of evaluation and understanding of a text—not an exact science. If it were—machine translation would have long taken over from manual translators.
Nicholas Ostler, in his book, The Last Lingua Franca, believes that English is the last true lingua franca, that it will decline, and advances in MT (Machine Translation) technology will unite all languages across the globe sooner than later. His view may be controversial, elicit cynicism from every traditional-thinking editor and translator as to the future of their respective industries, but the march forward in this direction shows no signs of abating. Development is already well underway with projects like Microsoft’s Collaborative Translation, utilizing customer cloud-based features. Let’s MT and TAUS are two European-based companies driving the development of collaborative database translation engines. MT is by no means the whole future for the translation industry, but it will play a fundamental part within it.

“Ostler sees a key role for MT in this new environment. Just as the print revolution changed the ‘ground rules of communication’ in 16th century Europe, he expects that language and translation technology will revolutionize global communications tomorrow, removing the need for a ‘single lingua franca for all who wish to participate directly in the main international conversation.’
Put another way, this means that automatic translation is taking over as the new ‘lingua franca’. In the not too distant future everyone will be able to write and speak in their own language and ‘the world will understand.’ No more frustrating language barriers; all we need is compatible software.
Ostler is fully aware that he is treading on highly sensitive toes by making such bold statements about MT. Most interestingly, he blames the chronic dissatisfaction with the performance of MT systems on evaluator “naïveté”. These people do not seem to realize that humans have always been able to understand partially formed languages – especially lingua franca – and this is equally valid for MT.”

[You can hear Nicholas Ostler discuss his ideas in The Last Lingua Franca here at the TAUS summit in Paris, 2012]

For the moment MT may only show it presence in the broader sphere of social network marketing for publishers and self-published authors through the automated integration engines we see in places like Facebook (Bing), but working daily with automated translation (and collaborative cloud-based services) will become part and parcel of the role of a translator working in the publishing industry. I don’t for a moment accept Ostler’s vision of MT being the next (or replacement) for English as a lingua franca. I think writer and reviewer Laura Marsh’s opinion of the future of translation (and publishing) holds true. Below is some of her review of Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca in The New Republic.

“But there is a chance that machine translation will come to be used in the manner that Ostler describes, and he appears unconcerned by the huge cultural losses that such a development would bring. Quite the opposite: he claims that casual users are already taking advantage of the new technology, and that “the actual future that awaits it… is not an inglorious one.” Even if this is true, the needs of casual online users may be more or less satisfied by a technology that could make costly mistakes in business or diplomacy. Such technology would be of little use in face-to-face meetings, which count for a lot in both of these fields, and would be still less useful for informal, personal conversations.”
“…The ideal of effortless communication is understandable, but it is mythical. In reality, it means irritating misunderstandings, an impoverished cultural exchange, and technological dependency. This situation evokes the Babel story too, the disastrous confusion of a world in which there is no shared language. Such confusion should be avoided, even if the current dominance of one language seems overwhelming or unfair. The most interesting and responsible question now is what kind of lingua franca, or more likely lingua francas, will replace it.”

Marsh is on the button in her assessment of a 2020 future with several core lingua francas, though, it does make the phrase—in its literal meaning—somewhat redundant. You can’t have a functioning global market—for the translation or publishing industries—with multiple lingua francas, but what you can have are massive open-source translation engines based in the cloud facilitating any industry, while still serving and promoting the growth of many secondary languages. Maybe this is closer to Ostler’s utopian view of languages post 2020. What is certain is that languages outside Western Europe and America like Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Mandarin have benefitted greatly from the growth of the Internet. We are entering an age where minor languages have an opportunity to thrive and disenfranchised cultures can be celebrated rather than dwindle and die. I don’t for a minute believe MT will ever replace the role of traditional manual translation in the publishing industry, but I do believe we are going to see far more collaborative translation processes being utilised by publishers, and in particular in the field of self-publishing. If MT can continue to develop at the speed it is at the moment, then I don’t see why it won’t play some significant role in the field of STM publishing in the future. For the serious self-publishers, collaborative communities of translators introduce the opportunity to reach a readership never before considered.
The shape of publishing is changing—rapidly. In the first image above, we saw how the publishing industry was, Pre-Honeypot, and in the second image, Post-Honeypot, we can see only subtle changes in regards to roles and hierarchy. The difference between the two is that authors will have more choice; they will be able to circumvent agents/publishers by using publishing service providers, go directly to readers via distribution channels and retailers. In our final image, 2020 and Beyond, we see a dramatic change—a universe of distillation and disintermediation. We have content creators taking their product, quickly and efficiently, to readers and consumers, with translators having a primary role in the process. The idea of releasing a creative product to the populous, territory by territory, one language at a time, will seem utterly absurd.
Beyond 2020, we won’t have publishers, film studios or record companies—just managers of media content. There may be room for writing or artistic co-operatives, but for the most part, creators will simply have the choice to work with a content management group or work and finance their output independently by going straight to product facilitators and retailers. Readers and consumers will feel much more a part of the creator’s output because they will connect and sponsor a project at a much earlier stage—sometimes from the moment of conception. This will be an age when the idea of a fan or follower will take on a greater meaning, involvement and importance.
One thing I am sure of as we move further into the 21st Century is that the translation industry stands to play a greater role for authors as well as ordinary consumers in their everyday lives. Publishers right now—in varying degrees—are still struggling to make sense of a digitalised world where choice, speed and efficiency are paramount. Curation is no longer the sole ticket to survival. Publishing is no longer the sole preserve of publishers. Just like translation, publishing is a part of a greater process to deliver information, ideas and experience as faithfully as possible. It is no longer an institution. It is now a tool—an instrument to deliver a message or a gift—and not a commodity or possession for ownership. I’ve felt for several years that publishers see the disruption digitalisation has brought to the industry as a momentary distraction—something to survive rather than the real alarm call it means. And like a dominant political party in power during an economic downturn; publishers are waiting and watching for a sign that normal service can resume—oblivious that greater challenges like global translation lie ahead. I want to scream at them and say: DIGITAL DISRUPTION IS JUST THE TEST RUN! If my worst fears are realised, then the publishing industry will be waiting a long time for salvation.
I’ve been following the translation industry intently in the past two years, but I don’t have the same ominous feeling about its future. The translation industry, though fearful of its place in the future against digitalisation and the added might of automated engines, if anything, still sees a central and renewed role for translators. It is the reason why I moved publishers from an essential role in the Pre-Honeypotimage to a non-essential role in the Post-Honeypotimage.
Ultimately, I can call it as I see it, but publishers have still a great deal to do to convince authors, readers and sellers, that they have a pivotal role to play in the future of publishing, post 2020.  

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