The language industry in the post-Covid world

translator covid mask

Although the end of the pandemic is still far away, the continuous launch and spread of new vaccines might help accelerate the process of overcoming and stopping it. Maybe not in all areas and not fully, but life might return to its normal form already in 2021. Until that happens, it is worth examining what our industry has learned from these interesting times. Just like a number of other branches of the economy, the services and, in particular, the language services sector has been forced to adopt a lot of cardinal changes, many of which could be here to stay.

Moving online

It is a commonplace that 2020 was a year of moving into the online world, as almost every aspect of our personal lives from education to shopping was infiltrated with digitalization. Moreover, translation and language services in general are an area where a lot of processes (orders, management, linguistic tasks, delivery and payments) had already been performed mostly online. So, what new changes have we faced?

First of all, the physical offices of service providers have lost their importance even more: like one can see from the empty office buildings of insurance or architectural design companies, many sectors simply do not require the presence of the employees. Even if they do partly return to their offices, we can be certain that more flexibility in work (including the place and time) will be a fundamental requirement on behalf of workers.

On a related note, printed translations (including certified copies) are getting less relevant. There are several possibilities nowadays to electronically certify and sign documents. It would be irrational for authorities to insist on stamped and signed paper copies when the same process is just a few clicks away online, and the signature is authenticated just as securely.

Thirdly, there may be much fewer conferences and meetings with the purpose of sales, networking or professional education. 2020 (and so far, 2021 as well) was a “conferenceless” year, yet the world kept turning: conference organizers will have to assess if there will be a need for such events involving expensive travel, accommodation and other costs in their traditional form. Of course, some events that require personal attendance will remain, but many of them could vanish, and hybrid (online+personal attendance) approaches may appear. 

As for sales, it is important to notice that now suddenly all actors of the industry have only the same tools for growth: those of online outreach. Unless business travel, client visits and partner meetings become possible again without limitations, we may witness some kind of equalization: the winner will be the one who stands out the most online, and not the one who manages to appear at the most events.

Speed

The acceleration of the services sector has been a long tendency, and it would have surely continued even without a pandemic. The more young people of generations Y and Z appear on the labor market, the more accepted immediate responses and same-day or next-day delivery of services become. In the case of most services, the most alienating issue for clients is waiting, so a real advantage can be gained by those who can confirm and process their incoming orders in the fastest way possible. The question is, how the giant language service providers (LSP) that work 24/7 and their smaller, regional or single-language vendors and linguists will be able to harmonize their differing work schedules and rhythms.

The impact of this continuous acceleration on quality remains to be seen. Traditional translation has a very fast and free alternative: machine translation (without post-editing). If we compare the two, quality is the only aspect where human translation (or human-like, post-edited machine translation) can overcome its rival. Thus, it would be crucial to have a commonly accepted “entry level” quality that can be differentiated from free but low-quality translations.

One thing is for certain: there are already some surveys that show that freelancers are experiencing a decrease in incoming work and an even faster spread of machine translation. They also expect to see similar tendencies in the future: 64% of the 607 freelancers asked by the Common Sense Advisory think that well paid jobs will become more scarce, and 86% expect to meet more machine translation projects.

Disappearing and new markets

Not only working methods and project types are changing: subject matters are too. Many industries suffered so greatly from 2020 (and are still so far from recovery) that they cannot afford any translations. Tourism and the hotel industry are typical examples, but certain parts of event management and the music and entertainment industries also belong here. 

On the other hand, some branches (including the “online part” of the entertainment industry, such as streaming services and other internet-based forms of show business) are flourishing, and the Covid situation has not just spared them, but even strengthened them. In this sense, what we see is not a traditional economic depression or slowdown, but a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon, a restructuring of the economy. Linguistic service providers and translators that can react to the reshaping of the economy in an agile way can become big winners of this troubled situation.

The abundant new media content and online services have contributed to the fact that the language industry has not shrunk in the last year (according to Nimdzi, it has grown almost by 7%), but its growth has slowed down. This year will be a game changer in many ways: we will see whether it will be remembered as the year of stagnation or the year or recommencement, and whether the language industry is really unstoppable in terms of growth. We keep our fingers crossed for the latter!

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Brigitta Huszka