Language: the hidden lubricant of international trade

Geoffrey Bowden
- Leadership - Apr 04, 2016

With the global language industry projected to grow to a remarkable $39 billion by 2018 and the UK ranking within the top three largest language industry markets, Geoffrey Bowden, General Secretary for the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) discusses the opportunities and challenges facing the sector.

It is clear that the value of translation, localisation and interpreting services are being recognised and capitalised upon both at home and abroad. Organisations of all sizes and across all sectors, from digital services to life sciences, are constantly looking to expand the markets in which they operate and meet the needs of a growing global population.

To do so successfully they must engage with people in their own language. Language Service Providers (LSPs), wherever they are based, act as the hidden lubricant for international trade and the provision of public sector services. They provide organisations with the invaluable support they need to communicate effectively in a wealth of languages and as we look ahead over the next 12 months, there are a number of international challenges and events destined to keep the industry firmly in the limelight.

Across Europe, the demand for language services resulting from tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict zones continues to grow. According to UN estimates for example, almost 350,000 Syrian applications for asylum within the European Union have been received since 2011.

With mass movement comes the urgent need to both process entries and manage the integration of refugees into host nations, placing pressure on public and private sector services to rise to the challenge. LSPs, whether commercial or charitable, such as Translators without Borders, sit at the heart of the solution and it is only with their support that European societies can embrace and benefit from increasing diversity. 

2016 also brings a significant opportunity for the global language industry to support economic growth in the form of the Rio Summer Olympics. Over 8,000 linguist specialists have already volunteered to help Protocol and Language teams manage athletes and delegations in more than 30 languages. In addition there are a wealth of commercial opportunities resulting from the games, as international brands, whether official sponsors or not, try to capitalise on Olympic fever within their marketing strategies.

The successful activation of such strategies, as with any international campaign, is reliant on professional and accurate translations which recognise the unique cultural references of each countries language(s). And it this need for brands to portray a thorough understanding of cultural variations which is driving one of the most significant debates within the language service industry at present: man v’s machine.

Machine translation is being embraced by a host of leading international brands for the benefits which it can bring in terms of efficiency and consistency across suites of corporate communications, and is itself a growing sector within the global language industry. There are however significant limitations which must be recognised and addressed, primarily that the translations provided are often very literal and can’t compete with the delicacy and local knowledge of content translated by a human.

A more sophisticated solution sees machine translation engines which are actually trained by humans. Professional linguists both input relevant content and monitor and edit machine output to prevent errors, providing accurate translations for more tailored marketing content which necessitates that all colloquialisms and cultural references are correct.

So, what does the future look like for the language service industry? In a nutshell: bright, with plenty of opportunities for the sector to support international economic growth and in doing so realise the potential for its own continued expansion. However in a sector which is trying hard to reinvent itself in line with 21st century capabilities, competition is fierce and I fear only those willing to embrace the inevitable changes to come will continue to prosper. 

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