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The Translation Industry Interprets 'Recession-Proof'

Miss Genie Lee Neal reading a perforated tape at the Western Union telegraph office

Photograph by SSPL/Getty Images

Miss Genie Lee Neal reading a perforated tape at the Western Union telegraph office

I’m looking into starting a translation business, but I worry that with online translation services getting better, my company may one day be obsolete. How well do I have to speak another language to do translation, and is the industry considered recession-proof? —submitted online anonymously

If any industries can be considered recession-proof, the field of interpreting and translation may be one, especially as business transactions across borders increase. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report projects 42 percent growth in the industry from 2010 to 2020, outpacing average growth for other occupations studied by the BLS. “Employment growth reflects an increasingly diverse U.S. population, which is expected to require more interpreters and translators,” the report states.

“Translation is one of the few industries that has seen minimal impact from the global economic downturn,” says Nataly Kelly, chief research officer with Common Sense Advisory, a Lowell, Mass., market research firm. A report (PDF) Kelly co-authored last month shows that the market for outsourced language services is $33.5 billion in 2012 and has seen a compound annual growth rate of 12.17 percent. This is a fragmented market composed of more than 26,000 companies around the world, according to her report, which shows that only nine had more than $100 million in 2011 revenue.

Free Web-based translation programs such as Google (GOOG)Translate, have not dented the market for translation services. “Machine translation—especially the free, online kind—serves as an awareness campaign, putting translation in front of the average person,” says Susanne Evens, founder and chief executive of AAA Translation in St. Louis. While automated translation can quickly scan and summarize large bodies of text, reduce cost, and improve consistency, humans will be needed to use it intelligently and proofread the results, at least for the foreseeable future.

Interpreters and translators should embrace technology, says Kelly: “Research shows that with online content exploding and the expansion of  globalization, the industry may actually face a shortage of qualified human translators soon. Technology is part of the solution.” Technology-savvy translation companies are growing at much faster rates than those companies that are reluctant to embrace technology, her research shows.

Adopting technology won’t help much in the absence of fluency and experience. Individuals must not only speak, think, and act in two languages fluently to be translators and interpreters, they must also write so as to “translate meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process,” Evens says. She says successful translators and interpreters are highly educated, with many holding advanced degrees and training in linguistics, translation, or a specialty field they intend to concentrate on in their work.

Malcolm Duff, chief executive of HTT, a translation company in Rouen, France, adds two additional requirements: Sufficient knowledge of the subject matter in order to understand the source text and sufficient cultural experience to convey  the “niceties of language used.”

The American Translators Association, a professional organization, offers a certification exam as well as guidance and a directory for freelance translators.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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