covid 19 language industry zhaw angewandte linguistik

COVID-19 and the Language Industry

Like economies and sectors the world over, the language industry has been taking a long hard look at performance and prospects during the COVID-19 pandemic. The blurred outlines of a picture are beginning to emerge.

By Gary Massey, Director of the IUED Institute of Translation and Interpreting

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit a growing language industry. As Slator reports, 2019 was a positive year, with double-digit growth for many of the leading players. Major language service providers like industry leader TransPerfect or SDL posted very solid growth in 2019, and TransPerfect even saw its best ever Q1 revenues in 2020, 14% up on the same period last year at USD 190m.

Rising storm?

But stormy times may well lie ahead. TransPerfect’s CEO Phil Shawe has spoken of “significant headwinds” as the language industry, like many others, enters a period of worrying uncertainty from its position of relative strength.

The tentative mood is captured in a recent blog post by TAUS, the influential translation industry think tank and language data network. Inviting industry players to join in a collective planning exercise, it sketches out four likely scenarios for the post-Corona industry in the summer of 2021, Will there be a redux (a dip in revenues, but largely business as usual), a reshuffle (a short recession, consolidation, some job losses but no fundamental changes), a recession (the worst case) or a re-invention (significant changes to the global economy with a major shift towards innovation and automation)? The jury will be out for some time yet.

The European language industry in 2020

This is the context in which the results of the 2020 European Language Industry Survey were presented mid-April. The survey, conducted by the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies (EUATEC) in partnership with ELIA, FIT Europe, GALA, the EMT university network and the European Commission’s LIND platform, covers industry expectations, concerns, challenges, obstacles and practices from the multiple perspectives of language service companies (LSC) and freelancers across Europe. Unsurprisingly, this year’s main survey included annexes on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Overall sentiment before COVID-19 was generally positive, despite a slowdown in LSC and freelance business in 2019 and continued pricing pressures. Growth, however, has been unevenly spread, with disproportionate increases among larger companies and the strongest decreases in the small-size segment. This has been accentuated by the outbreak. For example, 58% of freelancers say that revenues have “fallen off a cliff” and 39% report business as slow.

The appeal of language professions

The language industry’s operating model is ideally suited for remote work, and this is likely to continue cushioning the worst effects of the pandemic confronting other sectors. Indeed, the survey reveals that medium-sized enterprises plan to increase use of virtual meetings and remote work post-COVID.

Going forward, LSCs have not put lay-offs or rate reductions high on the agenda, though medium-sized companies will be trying to lower their fixed costs, and smaller companies will be reducing risk by diversifying activities or moving into different ones. In order to boost revenue after COVID-19, LSCs of all sizes plan to increase sales and marketing efforts; they are also more likely to accelerate planned operational changes.

And what do the independent professionals say? Depending on their location, some freelancers might currently find themselves in a precarious financial position. Only 43% report that they can receive financial support during the outbreak, and the vast majority say that they only have sufficient means to survive three at most months without support. Nevertheless, their work and independent status remain overwhelmingly attractive: a huge 95% want to continue working as freelancers after the crisis – a resounding testament to the immense appeal of the language professions.

Language industry – quo vadis?

Although freelancers and small translation companies have been hit harder than larger LSCs, the industry as a whole has been somewhat less impacted than other sectors with comparably high concentrations of SMEs. As LSCs are already equipped for remote working and as language service provision spans all sectors of economy, the language industry has proved to be less vulnerable than others. In some cases, the crisis situations have even generated modest amounts of additional work, most obviously in the life sciences.

So what does the future hold? According to Konstantin Dranch, a localization industry researcher based in Prague, the keys to success will be agility, cloud-based management, increased post-edited machine translation output to meet pricing pressure, wider scale remote working – including remote interpreting – and more diversified services.

But only time will tell – and paint a clearer picture.

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The Institute of Translation and Interpreting (IUED) specialises in multilingualism and language mediation. We teach, research, advise and offer other services in these fields.

IUED’s BA in Applied Languages and MA Specialisations in Professional Translation and Conference Interpreting are focused on professional practice.

IUED has a worldwide reputation. We are a member of prestigious international networks like CIUTI  and EMT, and have close ties with numerous partner institutes and universities in Switzerland and abroad.

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