Raging against the machine: is it worth it?

Raging against the machine: is it worth it?

Most readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the taxi service Uber, which has quickly established a presence in many of the UK’s larger cities and internationally.

For the benefit of the uninitiated (which included myself up to a few months ago), Uber is a taxi service ubertaxithat operates on the basis of an app that can be downloaded to a smartphone. The app allows users to hire an Uber-registered taxi driver who is close by and to receive an estimated quote for their journey. The taxi will normally arrive very quickly and users will automatically know, via their smartphone, the driver’s name and the car’s registration number.

Technology – competition or convenience?

The fares charged by Uber drivers are generally lower than black cabs and all fares are automatically charged to an account linked to a credit card. Once the journey has ended, a receipt will be emailed and the user will be able to rate their driver and add comments, in a similar way to the rating functions on eBay and TripAdvisor.

Millions of people worldwide are already using the Uber app every day as it is seen as a modern, affordable and user-friendly way of travelling around their cities and as an alternative to licensed or private taxis.

Perhaps understandably, licensed taxi operators are very unhappy with the arrival of this unwelcome newcomer whose drivers, they claim, are not properly regulated and have lower overheads, making them unfairly competitive. There are have been strikes worldwide and, in the UK, Transport for London is taking legal action to determine whether Uber is acting in breach of the regulations governing “plying for hire”. [Stop press: Uber has just won the latest High Court ruling].

In London and elsewhere, black cabs are required to be licensed and drivers often need to pass tests (including London’s famous Knowledge test) to show that they have an in-depth knowledge of roads, routes and major landmarks and buildings.

There seems to be an obvious parallel to be drawn with the translation industry. Although our industry has never been regulated, it was once the case that the only option for someone needing translation services would be to hire the services of a professional translator, someone who – like the licensed cabby – has developed their expertise through years of study and hands-on experience.

In our industry too, we have seen the emergence of technology not only in TM software programs such as SDL Trados and MemoQ but also in online programs like Google Translate. For Joe Public, Google Translate can be a valuable tool as it provides an instantaneous translation at no cost, prompting comments along the lines of: “OK, the translation is not perfect but I can more or less understand what the text is saying“. It’s the same thing with Uber: “I can get to where I want to go quickly and cheaply“.

Rising Uber and above the rest

In both cases, technology has started to play an important role in the process but it should be emphasised that the contribution of technology towards the overall service will always be limited. In the case of Uber, technology has improved the hiring, navigation and payment elements of the service but there is still a need for someone with the skills to drive the car safely… well, until driver-free cars are invented! In the translation world, technology has primarily facilitated the process of translation but, as is clear from the patchy results obtained with Google Translate, there is still – and there always will be – a need for a human element.

There is no doubt that professional translators have lost income as a result of the availability of free online solutions in the same way that black cabs have lost income to Uber drivers. But should we sit and cry into our coffee cups? No. We need to realise that technology will not disappear; in fact, it’s only going to play an increasing role in our industry. What we need to do is embrace the opportunities offered by technology and to incorporate these opportunities into our offer of services.

 Human Translators, Uber alles

We need to focus our attention on the market segments that need and are willing to pay for professional translation. We have to be out there demonstrating the merits of professional translation and showing the differences between cost-free models and human translations. We can play our part by acquiring the initial qualifications, by practising our craft regularly and by constantly investing in our own futures through professional development but we also need to build our presence both individually and as an industry. We need to show that our translation services can be enhanced by technology but not replaced by it.

A similar challenge faces black cab drivers. They may ultimately be saved by regulation but perhaps the time has come for black cabs to embrace technology too. There is certainly a need to highlight the qualities that make them different from less qualified operators and enable them to provide a better experience for the end user: knowledge, professionalism, expertise. Sound familiar?

Time to rise Uber and above the rest!



  1. Thank you for sharing this post, Andrew. I agree with you. We need to adapt and up our game. For some people it can mean embracing the technology, for others it can mean developing/strengthening their creativity and their niche markets, whilst perhaps adopting some of the technology (social media technology for content marketing, for instance). We mustn’t let fear or anger stop us from moving forward.

    I see that you compare Google Translate to Uber. Have you heard of Gengo and Transfluent, the “Ubers of translation”?

  2. Great article! I completely agree! We only need to wake up the customers and tell hem where are the differences between technology and quality. It’s up to them to decide what they want: fast and cheap or good quality. I am posting a blog about how a professional translator is working today (for now only available in Dutch).

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