The world is currently experiencing a financial and economic crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While all sectors of the economy are affected, some suffer more serious blows than others, depending on their capital needs and their susceptibility to business and consumer behaviour. The translation sector is suffering a decline in volume and worse may be to come, but its fundamentals are sound.
The good news for translators is that their sector is, by its very nature, in a strong position to weather the economic storms and to emerge relatively unscathed. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, translation is a labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive business. To keep the basic translation processes going, translators need very little in the way of operational investment or overhead compared with a host of other industries. This means their dependence on banks and other financial service providers is extremely small – which is a reassuring thought given the current hesitance or indeed inability of many banks to accommodate those that depend on them.
Secondly, translations are not generally regarded as luxury products. In times of economic hardship, businesses and private consumers alike can be expected to economise on items or services they can do without, and to postpone purchases or acquisitions that are not crucial to their short-term survival or well-being. In most cases however, translations are business necessities that are crucial for effective communication in an international context. A manufacturer that wants to sell its products in China will need to ensure that the Chinese know what it wants to sell and understand their business proposition (and vice versa). And despite the global crisis, globalisation is an ongoing process. Corporations with employees all over the world rely on English as their central language of communication, but they operate in a variety of language areas and will have to translate all their critical correspondence, documentation and publicity accordingly if they really want to engage their employees and customers and keep their business running smoothly. Without translation, business would grind to a halt – and it would not take long for that to happen either.
This is not to say, of course, that the translation industry is immune to the effects of economic crises. Obviously, if companies in other sectors suffer declining business volumes, their need for translations to accompany operational processes will necessarily diminish. At the same time, there will be a negative knock-on effect on orders for non-essential translations. Examples include company brochures, staff schemes and facilities, publicity documents and the like.
Whatever the case may be, however, a company doing business overseas will have to be able to communicate effectively and will, therefore, have a sustained need for basic translation services. The tendency to rely on self-made English will grow, which may suffice at a very basic level of communication but will obviously have to be supplemented by more advanced and professional services for effective communication in formal operational and legal contexts.
In summary, the economic crisis will fuel a shift in emphasis in the translation business, away from non-essential documents and publications towards core business communications that are operationally vital to enable transactions to take place. Inevitably, this shift will leave its mark on translation agencies’ revenues. How should they respond?
It is often heard in business that people are a company’s most important assets – a cliché voiced in particular by executives when they are in a flattering mood, or in union statements intended to prevent management boards from making unwelcome decisions. But it is completely true – and perhaps even more so in the translation sector than in many other companies. In hard times, the most important thing to bear in mind for a translation agency is that it simply cannot exist without experienced translators. For that reason, any agency whose first reflex in response to declining revenues is to make its translators redundant, is in fact digging its own grave. An ice-cream manufacturer who decides to sell its ice-cream machines in response to a drop in income may be able to buy new equipment once the crisis is over, but experienced professionals are not so easy to find and when they go, they take a part of your company with them.
When figures are falling and the order portfolio is getting thinner, there are all sorts of employment or semi-employment arrangements that can be considered, including freelance contracts, to carry on the relationship with your principal translators even if you can no longer offer them full-time permanent employment in the foreseeable future. Whatever you do, do not sever your ties with your translators, nor suggest that that is what you want to do. Instead, try to find ways of moving your staff on to more flexible types of contract, possibly allowing them, for example, to work for other agencies as well.