How does the current recession affect the translation business? Which segments are particularly badly hit? What instruments do we have to retain our customers? Do translations belong to the category of luxury goods or are they essential to business? The purpose of this article is to address these questions and help translators find ways of surviving the current economic downturn.
The United States, Western Europe and Japan as well as countries in many other parts of the world are in the throes of recession. The current slump is affecting not only the financial sector but the broader economy, including many companies that use translators’ services. Statistics have yet to emerge on how this is impacting the sales figures of translation agencies and self-employed translators, but as we depend on our business customers their hardship is bound to be reflected in our results sooner or later.
Clearly the need for translations will not dry up altogether. This is because translation services are often closely intertwined with a company’s core activities. International commerce inevitably requires translation, in the form of business correspondence, promotional brochures, legal documentation and the like. Stopping that would be cutting off the lifeblood of a company’s operations. On top of that, the investments involved in translation services tend to be small in proportion to a company’s overall capital outlay. From this point of view, there is no reason to fear that the translation business will suffer severe decline.
This is not to say that there is not a single cloud on the translator’s horizon. In fact, several different developments and trends do pose a clear threat to the translation industry. For one thing, customers are becoming more inclined to either shelve or abandon non-essential translation projects. A glossy sales brochure is an excellent marketing tool, but a Polish translation may not be vital to the company’s short-term survival. And while staff training remains essential, translating the training material into seven local languages may not necessarily be so. A company celebrating its 25th anniversary may decide that an English version of a complimentary booklet to mark the occasion suffices, even if it is also sent to French, Dutch and German clients. Countless more examples could be given of typical translation jobs that are frequent in good times but easily dispensed with under less benign conditions.
Another threat is a certain DIY tendency, especially among second-tier businesses, when it comes to translations. Given the current conditions, a company that used to engage a translation agency for its correspondence may well decide to ask the secretary or other knowledgeable staff to do the translations – especially if they have little else to do. In such cases, the drop in the linguistic quality of their communications is simply outweighed by the need to save costs.
Neither should we forget that the current climate will make many local businesses think twice about expanding abroad. Company expansion is a great generator of translation activity in many fields – legal and commercial in particular. However, for many companies that are struggling to survive on their home ground, the prospect of expansion is more like an exotic dream than a realistic business opportunity. As a result, actual growth in the translation sector seems unlikely, at least for the time being.
In fact in some translation segments a downturn already seems to be crystallizing, such as in finance and engineering. Unsurprisingly, these are the sectors that have also been hardest hit by the recession so far.
Many institutions in the financial industry are facing imminent collapse, have drastically cut down on expenditure and are restructuring their operations. These moves also inevitably entail a reduction in their need for certain business services. And since the stock markets have lost much of their appeal to investors, the need for translations of investment fund recommendations, trends and outlook reports – an important source of income for financial translators – has fallen sharply. As regards the engineering industry, companies here too are battling to weather the storm. Both consumer market and business-to-business sales have dwindled, which means that the need for translated promotional and contractual documentation will likewise tumble.
Even so, companies and other organizations with international contacts will continue to have a need for high-quality professional communication in English, simply because it is vital to their image or business. Universities and other colleges of education are a case in point. Educational institutions increasingly compete at an international level. In this sector, image is extremely important – at least as important, in fact, as it is in trade and industry. If universities are to attract foreign students and staff they will have to make their brochures and programmes available in English, and if the quality of that English is not up to scratch their audience is a class of people who can be expected to mind. Their image will suffer as a result, which is the last thing they can afford. Seen in this light, high-quality translation is anything but a luxury commodity: it is an essential requirement.
Translators are well-advised, therefore, to focus their efforts on those segments of business and public life whose operations hinge on high-quality communication with foreign buyers, users or readers, and to continue to serve their existing customers as best they can. Of course this also involves a willingness to accept lower margins if it means persuading a customer to give the go-ahead for a translation job.
As long as there is business there will be a need for high-quality communication, both for substantive and image-related purposes. This is why the current economic crisis may actually be a blessing in disguise, as the market will continue to offer opportunities for the best, shrewdest and most adaptive translators.