A Maturing Industry
Not too long ago, the localization industry was a misunderstood and mysterious industry. This was no surprise because demand for translations did not significantly change until the advent of globalization. Thomas Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat,” first published in 2005, provides a good perspective on the events and drivers of globalization. These all started to accelerate around the turn of the millennium.
Advancements in information technology and the expansion of the Internet flattened traditional global supply chains. And with it came a greater demand for language services to support new market conditions. This in turn propelled the localization industry into the spotlight of procurement departments.
Today the localization industry is a multi-billion-dollar business. It continues to experience sustained growth year over year. In addition, buyers of translation and interpretation services have become much more knowledgeable and savvier, too. However, there are still some myths about the localization industry that continue to linger.
Myth 1: “Translation” and “Interpretation” are interchangeable terms
People outside the industry frequently refer to interpreters as translators. They often assume that “translation” and “interpreting” mean the same thing. Just the other day, I heard a news outlet that was covering an international meeting between country representatives refer to interpreters as translators.
Fact: Translators convey the meaning of written content in written form, while Interpreters convey the meaning of spoken content in verbal form. Both roles represent two different services and professions that require different skill sets. However, a person can be both a translator and an interpreter if she is skilled enough to offer both services. The localization industry includes translators and interpreters.
Myth 2: The localization industry makeup is like other established industries
Many buyers of translation or interpretation services project their understanding of familiar industries on the localization industry. This can lead to false expectations and misconceptions about the industry makeup.
Fact: The Localization Industry is a “cottage” industry. That is, the localization industry is mostly a splintered fraction of individual freelancers and small Language Service Providers (LSPs). The majority of Language Service Providers (LSPs) have 25 or fewer direct employees. Only few industry players have more than 250 employees with a handful having over 1,000 employees. Translators and interpreters are usually not direct employees of an LSP. In most cases they represent external, contract resources. An LSP’s employees primarily work in project management or in another non-linguistic capacity (e.g., desktop publishing, localization engineering).
Myth 3: Offshoring translations lowers cost
This myth is likely based on the experience buyers might have with other industries. The manufacturing sector has greatly benefited from offshoring production tasks to low-cost regions. However, one cannot simply offshore the translation task to another region. All high-end translations continue to depend on the skills and talent of a human translator located in the target language country.
Fact: Generally speaking, the majority of professional translations involve native speakers of the target language who reside in the target language country. This ensures language proficiency and allows a translator to stay immersed in the culture as terminologies and languages evolve over time. For example, a Swedish translator who translates from English into Swedish would be located in Sweden.
However, this translator could also reside outside her target language country, for example, in the United States. This setup would offer a more convenient timezone for US-based translation buyers and allow faster services for urgent projects. Still, most translators reside in their target language country and are the primary go-to resource for an LSP. All LSPs, even those based in a low-cost region, will have to work with the same pool of translators spread across the globe.
Myth 4: The translation rate should be the same regardless of language combination and direction
Interestingly, this myth continues to persist even with more experienced translation buyers. For example, many buyers assume that the translation rate for English-into-Simplified Chinese should be the same as for Simplified Chinese-into-English. Or that there shouldn’t be a major difference between the rate for an English-into-Icelandic translation compared to an English-into-Spanish translation.
Fact: Translation rates closely correlate with the location of the translator and applicable market conditions. Factors such as the cost of living, supply and demand, and subject matter determine the rates that translators charge. For example, a translator located in China would typically prepare an English-into-Simplified Chinese translation. The cost of living is different compared to a US-based translator who translates from Simplified-Chinese into US English.
Another example is Icelandic vs. Spanish. There are far fewer Icelandic translators than Spanish translators, which is the main reason why Icelandic translations are significantly more expensive. Likewise, the required subject matter could reduce the available pool of qualified translators and further increase the translation rate.
Myth 5: A language service provider can guarantee the use of the same translators across my projects
Although both the translation buyer and the LSP benefit from utilizing the same translator(s) across projects, LSPs cannot guarantee it. Translation buyers tend to disregard the fact that the majority of translators are freelancers who work on a contract basis. This means that translators typically move on to the next available assignment to avoid downtime. Unless a buyer (client) is willing to pay the LSP to cover the translator’s downtime, there is no guarantee of having access to a preferred translator.
Fact: There are many reasons why most LSPs will find it impossible to guarantee access to preferred translators at all times. To name a few:
- Because most translators are not direct employees, LSPs do not have exclusive access rights to translators. In addition, multiple LSPs might be utilizing the same translators (first-come, first-served principle).
- The volume of work from the same client might be irregular and insufficient to keep a translator busy on a consistent basis—for this reason, preferred translators might be already assigned to another project or client.
- The volume of work (or project) is too large for one translator to complete within a desired timeline—as a result, multiple translators might be allocated to establish the needed throughput.
- The LSP’s pool of qualified translators might be too small to allow a dedicated pool of preferred translators per client, or the client’s demand for language services is too small to justify the allocation of preferred translators.
- Regional holidays might limit the number of preferred translators for selected languages during certain times of the year. This requires LSPs to use alternative translators instead.
The industry as a whole has matured and continues to evolve. In addition, translation buyers have become more sophisticated in their procurement of language services. Nevertheless, some confusion continues to persist. These five myths are just a few examples that highlight misconceptions.