“Bulk versus premium”: this was one of the constant refrains at this year’s ATA Conference in Chicago. The market for language services appears to be shifting into this dichotomy, with freelance translators and interpreters caught in the middle.

The bulk market is understood to mean services rendered in large quantities, over short time frames, and typically requiring software to get the job done. The bulk market is being gobbled up by the largest translation agencies and technology firms, making use of machine translation and crowdsourcing jobs. The result is downward pressure on prices, in a race to the bottom. Many speakers at the conference felt that freelancers won’t be able to survive here for long (nor should they try).

The flip side is the premium market; a place where direct clients hire the services of freelancers to do specialized translation and interpreting in everything from nuclear reactors to surgical procedures and international finance. The pay is well above average, and job satisfaction tends to be quite high. Of course, this is where all translators and interpreters would like to be.

So what is the catch?

There are only so many premium jobs out there, and many translators and interpreters are competing for them. Who will get these jobs? The consensus seems to be: those professionals who invest heavily in their own specialization and expertise. Speaking multiple languages is just the bottom rung on the premium-market ladder. To climb higher, translators and interpreters need to become experts in a specific field, which means getting more education and real-world experience.

Which direction are you headed in the language services market?