Translation, diversification and corporate communications

Translation, diversification and corporate communications

Digitalisation and globalisation are diversifying roles and contexts for language industry professionals – but also driving convergence with other professions. Translation and corporate communications are a prime example, as research at ZHAW’s School of Applied Linguistics shows.

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

Gary Massey Leiter IUED Institut für Übersetzen und Dolmetschen an der ZHAW
Gary Massey, Director of the IUED Institute of Translation and Interpreting

The multiple challenges presented by digitalisation, technologisation and globalisation are diversifying the roles and working contexts of language industry professionals. At the same time, language mediation is intersecting with other communication professions to create new interprofessional fields of work.

A case in point is the interface between translation and international corporate communications, which has been the subject of a pilot study conducted in ZHAW’s School of Applied Linguistics. In the rapidly shifting landscapes of the language and communications professions, it is important to identify such fields – and address the educational needs and opportunities they generate.

Diversifying profiles and jobs in the language industry

Three years ago, a survey conducted among universities represented in CIUTI (Conférence internationale permanente d’instituts universitaires de traducteurs et interprètes) identified

  • technology,
  • competence development,
  • work context and
  • role diversity

as the fastest growing challenges to their graduates on the market. Particular challenges were clustered around technologies and skill sets related to

  • NMT,
  • post-editing,
  • MT literacy,
  • evaluation, adaptivity and creativity,
  • consultancy and management, and
  • services in paraprofessional and interprofessional contexts.

Some of the roles that were named included

  • data scientist,
  • computer linguist,
  • MT evaluator,
  • premium translator,
  • transcreator,
  • intercultural mediator,
  • interprofessional collaborator and
  • language adviser.

The diverse range of activities in the language industry is reflected in recent handbooks such as the Bloomsbury Companion to Language Industry Studies or the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Technology. Localisation, transcreation, multimodal and audiovisual translation, user-centred translation, accessible barrier-free communication, revision, pre-editing, post-editing, terminological services, linguistic intercultural mediation, public service translation, language and communication consultancy are just some of the areas in which the professional group that is still called ‘translators’ works.

Stunning variety of industry titles and profiles

Last year’s 2020 Language Industry Market Report issued by the influential language industry news and intelligence platform Slator presents a list of no less than 700 buyer job titles. It builds on a 2018 study, where some 600 titles were identified.Titles are grouped by function into eight categories, spanning language and quality, translation process management, localisation and operations management right through to marketing and communications. Together they reflect the “stunning variety” of job titles, profiles, roles and responsibilities in the industry. The core “language and quality” category alone contains over 50 separate titles, including such diverse designations as consultant, (digital) content editor, localisation specialist, lawyer-linguist, various types of specialised translators and interpreters, engineering manager, quality manager, terminologist, technical writer, copywriter and communications officer. “Translation process management” embraces even more – some 110 titles. The multiplicity of tasks and activities that translators are asked to undertake has already been recognised in newer frameworks and profiles for translation competence. Of the thirty-five competence descriptors in the influential competence framework developed by the Europe Master’s in Translation network (EMT), only fourteen refer to translation competence per se. The framework has also absorbed some of the added value services once listed separately in international quality standards for translation services like ISO 17100:2015.

More than translation

The growing diversity of jobs is also reflected in emerging profiles with their own models and quality standards. Post-editing, for instance, now has its own dedicated international standard (ISO 18587:2017) and specific competence models are also being developed for post-editors (Nitzke et al. 2019). Another added-value service under ISO 17100:2015 with a new independent identity and profile is transcreation. It has been marketing itself as just that, namely a service that adds value by being “more than translation” and “transferring brands and messages from one culture to another”, with its own distinct set of agent roles, processes and skill sets (Pedersen 2014).

Fuzzy edges at interprofessional interfaces

Core activities like post-editing and transcreation can still be said to be situated firmly in the traditional scope of translation work. Less obviously, some of the outer edges of what we prototypically associate with ‘translation’ are becoming fuzzy. Fields into which translators are – and are capable of – moving can also be found at the interprofessional interfaces of translation and other communications professions with which it is not always universally associated. The Slator job lists contain multiple references to types of technical writer, and the connections between technical communication or writing and translation have long been a focus of scientific, educational and professional interest.

More recently, researchers at ZHAW’s School of Applied Linguistics have also been exploring the interdisciplinary interfaces between translators and the organisations using their services, with a particular focus on international corporate communications (Massey & Wieder 2019). It is no coincidence that one of the eight Slator job categories is communications and marketing, and that the field also figures repeatedly in the other core job groupings.

Interacting with international corporate communications

The complex interactions between organisational communication, corporate communications and translation are an under-researched area that richly deserves more attention. Results from the ZHAW study’s survey of communications and translation professionals in Switzerland demonstrate that the work done in corporate communications holds promising prospects – if you have the linguistic, cultural and intercultural competences linked to language mediators. Interviews with senior communication managers reveal concerns about overly complex processes between headquarters and local units in international communication management, which they put down to a lack of cultural and linguistic knowledge among most communications staff. Professionally educated translators thus have the distinct potential to play a much more integral part in co-developing output and assuring its quality.

The “hidden power” of translators

So far, it is organisation studies that has taken the lead in researching the many subtle connections between language mediation and the organisations where it is used. In corporate contexts, the “hidden power” of translators (Piekkari et al. 2020) has become increasingly recognised as they reshape meaning through the chain of interpretations they make when they translate. Their privileged position as interlingual, intercultural players gives them a strong agentic role in the communications of organisations operating in more than one language  – and, by extension, in the way that the organisations can present, brand and market themselves and their products in other linguistic cultures.

But findings from translation studies show that this potential is inhibited by two major factors. Both are closely connected with traditional conceptualisations and practices inside the translation profession itself.

  1. The first is the persistent self-induced invisibility of the translator’s role, only partially nurtured by a public misunderstanding of what translation involves. Tellingly, Piekkari et al. (2020) contrast the creative and innovative approaches adopted by paraprofessionals who do not work principally as translators, “more visible on the organisational scene”, with the “invisible activity” of professional translation.
    Venuti (2019) observes that such an “instrumentalist” conceptualisation has been promoted by a widely held professional self-concept of neutral, non-interventionist translation. This has been sustained by mainstream translation theories, training practices and professional ethical codes. Survey data (Katan, 2011, 2016; Massey & Wieder, 2019) have indeed shown that a large proportion of professional translators themselves have not had a professional self-concept conducive to more adaptive, creative mediatory and advisory roles. The situation is neatly summed up by Lambert (2018), who criticises the “fictional construction of the translator as a neutral conduit” that these unrealistic codes perpetuate. He claims that they should be adapted to “proliferate an empowering image of translation as an active, multi-faceted activity that requires expert knowledge and judgement, while openly exploring its inevitably manipulative basis”.
  2. The second factor is the relatively strict linearity of prevailing models that guide translation service provision. Translation typically takes place after a source document has been produced. Translators are rarely involved at the document drafting stage, receive only limited feed-forward, and can only rarely provide feedback or advice directly (Massey & Wieder 2019). Their downstream position considerably restricts the agency of translators as linguistic and intercultural experts in the production processes of international corporate communications.

Seen from this perspective, organisations clearly need to draw more actively and engagingly on the resources at hand to harness the hidden power of their translators. It will enable them to perform more effectively in today’s communication ecologies. But it can only work if the models currently underlying translation service provision are adapted to move translators upstream in the production processes – and if the translators themselves can cast aside an inhibiting self-concept of neutral conduit-like fidelity to invariant source-text meanings.

An educational imperative

Bringing about such changes falls to education, suitably informed by much-needed additional interdisciplinary research at the translation-organisation interface. Institutions like our own are called upon to systematically promote competent translatorial agency among their students as future professionals working in and for organisations. Moves at ZHAW are already underway to exploit educational synergies between the Professional Translation and Organisational Communication Specialisations in its MA in Applied Linguistics, with shared modules and joint projects transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. In a world increasingly characterised by participatory communication across linguistic and cultural borders, we all need to do more to overcome artificial distinctions between professional fields that, like corporate communications and translation, harbour distinct employment potential for our graduates.


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The IUED Institute of Translation and Interpretingis the ZHAW competence centre for multilingualism and language mediation. It is actively engaged in conducting research, offering degree programmes and continuing education courses, and in providing services and consulting in these fields.

The BA in Applied Languages and the specialisations in Professional Translation and Conference Interpreting within the MA in Applied Linguistics are practice-focused degree programs for the communication experts of tomorrow.

The IUED has a strong international reputation. It is a member of prestigious international networks, such as CIUTI and  EMT, and it has close ties (link in German only) with institutes and universities in Switzerland and abroad.

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