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What Has "COVID -19" Meant for Translators? Sadly, Nothing Well

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

The world of translators, especially freelance translators, has been changing at an incredible pace thanks to the changes in the economy, technology and globalization, yet the rate of change we have witnessed for the last 2 years is incomparable to the previous years. It surely made a huge and generally devastating impact on many occupations throughout the world but what about the translators? What has Covid-19 truly meant for the people who are working in the translation industry, whether they are freelancers or full-time employees?

According to Wikipedia, the starting date of the COVID - 19 pandemic is the 17th of November 2019. So to understand the changes in the translation industry, and considering it started in the last quarter of 2019, it would be a wise idea to take a look into the market analysis before it started, including 2019.

A Holistic and Brief Market Overview Before the Pandemic

With the world becoming more and more interconnected, the need for translation for various purposes has also increased at a rapid rate. Statistics show that the translation market size has doubled and even went a bit beyond that in the last decade. As can be seen from the chart above, the market value was $23.5 billion in 2009 and the U.S. held the biggest share in the market in terms of revenue by 62.1% followed by E.U with 16.8% and the UK with 14.9% ( Ranking of Top 30 Language Services Companies” (Common Sense Advisory, Inc.).

Unfortunately, getting a clear picture of the number of translators worldwide is quite challenging. The data is scarce and scattered. Due to the difficulties of making accurate estimations, most industry reports rarely mention or make citations regarding the numbers of professional translators and interpreters.

An estimation made by Allied Business Intelligence in 1998 states the number of professional translators worldwide were 393,396 and this number does not include interpreters.

In 2005 Boucau pointed out that these numbers did not include the technical and administrative staff working in translation companies. He estimated that about 250,000 people were working in the “global translation industry”, of which about 200,000 were freelancers.

According to a report called "State of the Translation Industry 2009", Common Sense Advisory estimated that there were 700.000 translators around the world back in 2009, a much higher estimation compared to the others. To see much more detailed analysis, you can check the report called "Studies on translation and multilingualism" published by the European Commission.

After 13 years, these numbers might not mean much to anyone but this little piece of information is crucial to make a comparison between past and present and to come up with certain conclusions which might make those who are in the industry or those who are considering going into this industry thing twice. Due to the economic crisis in 2008, companies were looking for new ways to expand overseas to increase the revenue they lost and obviously, the most sensible option was to use the power of the internet and to reap the benefits of this expansion, what needed was services such as translation, localization, subtitling, etc. By looking at the market growth, and the estimations and projections to the future, we can easily conclude that this trend is still going on. Thus, one could think that about the growing market and the demand, there should be an equivalent supply to meet the demand and naturally, the number of translators & interpreters should have increased, even if it is estimated.

Current Situation

Although there are no 100% accurate data about the industry size due to its rapidly growing nature, the estimated market size by different researchers is $55 billion on average. According to a projection in "The Nimdzi 100 Annual Report", the current market value is $57 billion and is expected to grow by 35,08% and reach $77 billion in 2025. Another projection done by Statista indicates the current market value is between $54.8 billion and $57.7 billion.

Again, making an accurate estimation about the number of translators worldwide is next to impossible but according to TranslateMedia, there are currently about 640.000 translators worldwide.

What Does This Mean?

As you can see, there is an unimaginable change regarding the estimations of the number of translators worldwide. While the estimated number of translators were 700.000 in 2009, the estimation is now 640.000 in a market that doubled in size over the course of the same years. It is simply unbelievable that the amount of supply to drop down in a market where demand has drastically increased over a decade and is still expected to grow further. Can this be an unexpected side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The first reason that comes to mind could be the prominence of Machine Translation. Machine Translation is a translation process where a text that needs to be translated is translated b computers or software specifically designed for translation purposes. It has been rapidly evolving and making more and more accurate translations compared to previous years and it is natural to think that the machines are taking over yet another aspect of labour. Compared to Human Translation, it is definitely faster and easier and yet the accuracy is still questionable. Especially when it comes to services such as localization, machine translation is not a reliable source as a human understanding is still needed to design content that is suitable for the needs of the target audience and machine translation algorithms still can't compensate for it.

Then what could have caused such an inconsistency between the supply and demand in the translation industry?

With the emergence of the COVID-19 came social restrictions. Businesses shut down, lockdowns were declared and schools were closed. This might not be the case all over the world but unfortunately, the social security systems in a lot of countries are not that successful and many people were left with no means to get by. The only viable option for such people was to earn a living while they were confined in their homes if they could and remote working is nothing new to the translation industry. Obviously, a lot of people, whether they were directly involved in language studies or not, started working as a translator over the internet. Teachers, guides and many other people that especially work in the private sector turned to translation business as a means of income and naturally, most of them were not associated with any kind of translation body or received any kind of translation training thus it is next to impossible to estimate how many people that are not translators but work as a translator in the industry.

With this limited data on the industry side, it might not be a good idea to conclude so let's take a look at the situation from the actual labour side.

How The Translators Were Affected

According to the "European Language Industry Survey 2020 Before & After COVID-19" survey conducted by the European Commission, the pricing continues to plummet among language service companies and the previous optimistic expectations of professionals also flattened out after the rate stagnation in 2019.

Taken from the same report, just as it is expected, the certification requirements for the companies had a downward trend.

But at the same time, the amount of translation staff has increased.

And their security requirements also have a downward trend.

In a sentence, recently, although the number of translation staff of companies has increased, the certification and security requirements have gone down. In other words, the quality of translators in companies is low compared to previous years.

A survey conducted by French Translators Association (SFT) between June and July 2020 uncovered that 57% of those who participated thinks that the pandemic had a negative impact on their work and another survey conducted by CSA Research Institute on freelance translators over 97 countries showed similar trends. The survey revealed that the translators are complaining of reduced rates, fewer job opportunities, and declining workload. %65 of those who participated also believed that the crisis changed the market temporarily and 25% believed it changed the market permanently.

In a market, where the demand is doubled and the number of estimated labour dropped, let alone increased, these survey results are indicating a simple fact. The market has been flooded by an unqualified workforce and the number of translators who are not actual translators has definitely increased. And the result is low rates and low workload.

Just like any other product or service out there, when there is a surplus of supply, the value of the product or service is sure to plummet. And that is what the translators seem to be suffering at the moment. On top of it all, the language service companies appear to be taking advantage of this situation. The reports indicate that although the number of language staff increased, the certification requirements went down and this is because they are purchasing the services of these unqualified or underqualified people who stepped into the translation industry may be out of desperation, necessity or simply because they saw an opportunity for extra income.

In a nutshell, things are looking bleak for the professional translators out there. If the current trend in the market takes a permanent place, this extra and unexpected workforce will surely keep dragging the rates down. The survey of the French Translators Association (SFT) indicated that 7% of the participants considered quitting the industry permanently and due to the current market state, this percentage will undeniably increase in time.

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