Internationalism Prompts Boom In Language Business

By Patrick Gillespie
McClatchy Washington Bureau.


It’s a high-stakes, multibillion-dollar industry with tight deadlines, demanding clients and lives at risk.

Any miscommunication could cause a deep financial loss or death. Some in the industry work in war zones while others have cozy home offices.

“The stakes can be huge,” said Lillian Clementi, 55. “There’s tons of time pressure.”

The business is language. And it’s booming.

The number of jobs for translators and interpreters doubled in the past 10 years while their wages steadily grew before, during and after the recession.

Jobs are expected to grow 46 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the Labor Department, making it one of the nation’s fastest growing occupations.

During a period of stagnating wages across the labor market, the language-service industry with its 50,000 jobs is a bright spot in the jobs outlook.

Clementi is a French translator who works in corporate communications from her home in Arlington, Va. Clementi is routinely on tight deadlines to submit translated material.

One of Clementi’s former clients, a French company, routinely would send her legal documents to translate at the end of France’s workday, about midday on the East Coast.

Clementi would translate the material and email it to another translator in Australia to double-check it.

Then the Australian translator sent the translated documents back to France before the company’s offices opened the next day in Paris.

“It had literally gone around the globe,” said Clementi, who translates French into English. “This has been going on forever in this industry.”

In some cases, a proper translation or interpretation is vital. If a user’s manual for medical equipment is not translated well, it could lead to confusion during an emergency.

Soldiers in conflict areas require excellent interpreters to speak with community members. Any change of tone or context could put lives at risk.

Translators’ and interpreters’ relative immunity to the nation’s economic downturn also highlights the growing demand for multilingual speakers in an increasingly globalized economy, experts said.

“Good translators who specialize in a particular subject and become really good at it can really make six-digit figures annually,” said Jiri Stejskal, spokesman for the American Translators Association.

“The professional translators and interpreters . . . they are pretty happy right now because the economy is good and the jobs are there.”

The estimated value of the language-service industry worldwide, including technology language services, this year will be about $37.2 billion, according to Common Sense Advisory, a market research firm in Boston.

That’s a 6.2 percent increase from 2013. Common Sense Advisory predicts the industry will be worth $47 billion by 2018.

Multinational corporations, U.S. demographic changes and the Internet economy raise the need for translated and localized information.

Companies increasingly want their content tailored to the tongue of the town, even between dialects of the same language.

For instance, trousers in London are pants in Miami. And of course, words like pop and soda can seemingly vary by the neighborhood.

“As more people have access to the worldwide economy, that’s going to drive more commerce, and that’s going to drive more language services,” said Bill Rivers, executive director of the National Council for Language and International Studies in the Washington region.

The number of translator and interpreter jobs went from about 25,000 to 50,000 between 2004 and 2012, according to Occupational Employment Statistics, a Labor Department subsidiary. The OES figures do not include self-employed workers.

But another Labor Department survey, Employment Projections, counts self-employed workers. Altogether, there were over 63,000 translators and interpreters in 2012, Employment Projections reported last December.

Ted Wozniak expected to earn a lower-middle-class wage when he started as a freelance translator 15 years ago.

Wozniak, 57, translates German financial documents, such as Adidas’ earnings report, into English. For the past 10 years his salary has hovered around $100,000, he said.

“I expected to make a mediocre, medium living,” said Wozniak, the translators association treasurer who lives in Harlingen, Texas. “I know several translators that are in the six figures.”

Companies in Western European countries, such as Germany, are required by law to translate their financial documents into English, Wozniak said. That requirement creates a demand for his services.

Adjusted for inflation, the median annual salary for translators and interpreters rose from $44,500 to $53,410 between 2004 and 2012, according to Labor Departmentdata.

The majority of full-time workers are freelancers and they are paid by the word, ranging from 7 cents a word to 30 cents, depending on the language and specialization, according to association.

“It can be rewarding both intellectually and financially, but it’s not a free lunch,” said Clementi, the French translator.

Qualifications for translators, who work with text, and interpreters, who work with spoken language, are not as simple as they may seem.

Speaking two languages does not mean a person can work in the language-service industry, experts said. Learning how to translate or interpret is a separate skill beyond knowing the language.

Furthermore, the most successful translators and interpreters maintain a specialty, such as legal documents, quarterly earnings reports or an industry expertise.

Margaret Rashidi Kabamba translates in four different languages for an American mining company that has operations in the African Congo.

Kabamba recently penned an essay, in English, on the complexity of translating for the mining industry.

“I spent a lot of time with engineers,” said Kabamba, who speaks French, Swahili and Lingala. “I understand the (mining) industry quite well.”

Technological advances may cut jobs in some industries, but online translation services like Google Translate actually raise demand for human translators and interpreters, experts said.

“Even Google doesn’t use Google Translate for their business documents,” said Clementi.

Online sales companies also drive demand for translation.

“It’s things like eBay and Amazon,” said Rivers, the language lobbyist. “Because they have a presence everywhere and they’re interacting with customers in their language, that really drives behind-the-scenes work in translation and localization.”

President Bill Clinton spurred demand for language services domestically with an executive order in 2000.

The order incorporated language services into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Clinton’s order makes providers of federally funded services, such as Medicaid, offer service in the person’s native language.

Since the Affordable Care Act passed, health care providers are gearing up for an influx of insured patients by hiring more translators and interpreters, Rivers said.

The Hispanic population in the United States makes up one-third of all uninsured Americans, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

Stejskal, the American Translators Association spokesman, said there are very few people who translate and interpret.

Many translators are introverted, working with text, and interpreters are extroverted, Stejskal said.

Economic prosperity aside, translators express high interest in their jobs.

“That’s the beauty of translation. You learn every single day,” said Kabamba. “It’s an exciting job.”

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