Translation and the Financial Crisis

Talk of the financial crisis and political instability seems to lead to one question: is economic Armageddon coming? As job security hangs in the balance, economic commentators disagree on which occupations are likely to suffer the most and experience decreased demand in the future. In this economic environment, translators are left to ponder: will my services still be needed?

The market for translators, although not completely immune to economic downturns, is more stable than may appear at first. In economic jargon, it may be characterized as “countercyclical,” meaning that the demand for translating and interpreting services fluctuates in the opposite direction to the swings of the business cycle. The more complex international business environment implies that there is a growing reliance on foreign investors and international financiers. Translators and interpreters, employed in almost all of the sectors of the economy, are integral facilitators of the globalization process, especially in times of limited consumer confidence, declining revenues, and borrowing constraints. In addition, international migration, estimated at about 200 million, and popular movements to liberalize immigration barriers create a constant demand for translators. In fact, the international market for translation services is growing at an impressive rate of between 5 to 7 percent and is expected to continue growing faster than the average of all occupations.

It is an interesting fact that as more and more people worldwide become aware of the benefits of acquiring multilingual skills, there doesn’t seem to be an impact on the demand for translation services. One would expect the global demand to fall at the same rate as the acquisition of English or Spanish rises. Recent statistics, however, offer a different view: the use of English as a language of cross-cultural communication is growing, and yet demand for English translators does not fall.

There are several possible explanations of this paradox…

First, the cost of translation services may be declining due to new cost and time-saving technologies: for instance, some estimates suggest that administrative costs of translation services in the European Union have declined substantially, constituting 15 percent of the administrative budget in 2002 compared to over 40 percent in the early nineties. Second, there is an issue of time: although more people are learning a second language, mastering a foreign language and being able to use it professionally is a lifelong commitment. The issue becomes a simple short versus long-run consideration for a short-term business contract, and in the short-term, there is usually not enough time, and therefore little incentive to master another language. Of course, acquiring second or third language skills does not usually make an individual qualified to produce high quality professional translation or interpretation services, as these professions require their own training and skill sets that go far beyond simple language acquisition.

In the midst of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes famously proclaimed: “In the long run we are all dead” to encourage more immediate and active government intervention. Although it is less clear whether we are currently facing a new Great Depression, one may consider a profession as a translator to be a safe bet, at least for a while.

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