In the comments to one of the posts below, I raised the point that America’s prosperity owes a great deal more to its economic integration rather than to any particular shared value system, and that this was part of logic behind the founding of the EU. I want to demonstrate exactly how important a point that can be by using my own line of work as an example.
I work for a medium-sized Belgian translation firm. We have a handful of full-time staff and some 200 freelance translators who take work from us. Our freelancers can and do take work from other sources, what we do is mostly dealing with clients. Like all good middlemen, we make it possible for businesses to negotiate a single price for their translation work and we act as an insurance policy. Avoiding the middleman may sometimes cost less, but if your freelance translator is sick or busy and you have a deadline to deal with, you have to scramble to find a substitute. If you deal with us, we have many translators on tap and someone will always take your work. Few firms – only a few very large ones – still keep in-house translators. Translators generally agree to charge us less than they would charge clients directly because we can bring them a great deal of work, and we take away the cost of billing and accounting. We charge customers a bit more because we simplify billing and guarantee schedules. This is pretty much how modern translation firms operate.
The thing is, working this way raises certain problems. The first is that the bigger you are, the more you can offer your translators plenty of work and the less money they’ll demand as a result. Size matters. Second, you have to offer certain additional services, because when different translators handle your work, the results can be inconsistent. The best translators are generally not very specialised in a single field, so two different translators may not all use the same terminology for the same translation job. It’s usually better to make sure that the same translator does all of your work if possible, but the essence of this business model is that we can’t promise you that will happen. There are ways of addressing this latter problem, but unless you’re really interested in translation theory and computer-human interaction, they’re not very interesting. Dealing with these issues is basically what I’m paid to do.
The ability to charge less for translation, and to invest in technologies that enhance translation productivity and quality, depends quite closely on the size of your firm. As recently as the early 90’s, it was still rare to find pan-European translation firms. The translation market in the EU wasn’t very integrated, and as a result, firms tended to be fairly small. The large, integrated markets – the US and Japan – are monolingual; they don’t do very much translation.
Now, things are different. Translation in Europe gets contracted more and more on a continent-wide basis. The possibility of large, integrated translation firms is much more real. If we relied exclusively on the Belgian market, we could not justify the capital spent on us or the money we’ve poured into technology development. We’re beginning to make real progress in raising productivity in this industry. This has only become possible because of European integration.
So, let me offer you a bit of investment advice: We’re going to need that increase in productivity very badly, because the demand for translation services is growing. Precise figures on this industry are hard to come by, but estimates of its size range from EUR10 billion to EUR30 billion in annual revenue. The common consensus is that this industry is seeing rapid growth despite the current global economic downturn. And, in the next decade, it’s going to grow at an incredible pace.
Let me explain why:
- The expansion of the European Union is acting as a stimulus to growth in this industry. The ten new members have eight new official languages, not counting Maltese, on top of the existing eleven, not counting Irish, Letzeburgish and Catalan. This does not just mean that EU official documents have to be translated, it means that manufacturers who are going to start exporting to those countries also have to translate mountains of information, from instruction manuals to maintenance guides to regulatory declarations.
- The decline in the value of the US dollar means that American firms that have not exported very much in the past will begin to do so. American companies don’t do translation. Many of them – the kinds of small and medium sized firms for whom the falling dollar is a big opportunity – many of them have never exported. They don’t know about language and don’t want to know, and they are going to want some single firm to come along and take care of all their language problems for one price.
- Rapid growth in key developing markets – India, China, southeast Asia and Russia in particular – is also a factor in the rising fortunes of the translation industry. Each one has its own language laws and regulatory requirements, and even less ability to use documents in English than most European states.
- The regulatory environment in the EU is the biggest reason to be bullish on the translation industry. With tighter integration, the European Commission and the EU member states themselves are increasingly explicit about language requirements in labelling, documentation and government submissions. These requirements tend to increase rather than reduce translation requirements, and this trend shows no evidence of abating.
One particularly good example of this last point is the EU directive 98/79/EC, covering a variety of medical devices. When it goes into full effect on December 7, 2003, it will require virtually all medical technology vendors to receive the “CE” label before being able to distribute their products anywhere in the EU. Obtaining this label means, among other things, complying with the language and labelling regulations of every single EU member state. Of the current 15 members, nine require all mandatory documentation in their national language and all of them require it for at least some of the documentation. The new members will doubtless make similar impositions.
The new European Patent Office is also an excellent example of how regulatory requirements are driving companies to spend more on translation. The new system streamlines the process of obtaining a Europe-wide patent and lowers the price dramatically. However, it has not eliminated the need to translate patents into whatever languages the member states individually mandate. The initial patent application can be in English, French or German, but once the patent is issued, a translation has to be prepared and deposited with each of the national patent offices, in whatever form and language they require. Twenty-two of the twenty-seven contracting states mandate that the whole of the patent be translated, one state requires only that one section be translated, and the remaining four states have not yet published regulations regarding European patents.
These translations aren’t examined – the EPO examines the original application and unless someone challenges them, the rest are taken as accepted. You need only pay a filing fee of €50 to €100 in each member country. This is negligible compared to the price of filing a patent for examination (~€50,000), so the total cost of a European patent is now far, far smaller than it used to be. Many more firms will take out European patents than before. But, the translation load is even larger under the EPO scheme than back when you would only file patents in a few countries.
There is also more and more reason to see product liability as a motive for document and translation quality control. A rather infamous train accident at Paris’ Gare de Lyon in 1988 focused attention on layout and structure as a factor in text comprehensibility. French investigators ruled that the accident had been caused primarily by the failure to use clear layout in maintenance documentation, leading to incorrect servicing and ultimately to the deaths of 56 people. I don’t know of any comparable case involving a poor written translation, but it is only a matter of time before this issue is gruesomely highlighted.
EU regulations already make poor translations subject to product liability law. Although in principle the translator can be held liable for poor quality work, in practice this virtually never occurs. However, clients who commission and distribute bad translations are at present strictly liable. Manufacturing and service regulations focus more and more on issues of quality rather than specifications, and semi-voluntary standards like ISO-9000 focus heavily on quality issues. This means that not only will having translations matter, it will matter more and more that they be good translations. Good translations cost more than cheap ones.
This is why economic integration is going to make the translation industry much more productive and much larger in a decade than it is today. It is why integration – and not just free trade in the form of eliminating duties on imports – is worth pursuing.