We look back on the corona crisis of well over a year ago and happily conclude that it was not as severe as it could have been. Economies came back to life after a lockdown of a few months, and people started traveling again in June-July 2020. Most translation companies experienced a dip in revenue, but it wasn’t devastating. And now, a year later, everything is more or less back to what we call the new normal. Time to start revisiting all those aspects of the industry that are ready for change, revitalization, or improvement?
That’s how we imagined the future in our initial survey, and this captured 50% of the votes out of the four crisis scenarios.
A vote for a major change makes sense: even the best-established players would probably like to revisit and adjust one aspect or another of the existing trans/localization business paradigm. But reinvention means a more radical step forward than reshuffling or simply re-energizing the industry after a shakeup.
Why? Because this COVID-19 crisis impacted entire economies, from large sectors such as air travel, vehicles, film production, and sports events down to small retail stores. And it left millions with uncertain job prospects and no funds for shopping. Is this the reason for reinvention - because the “old” industry somehow played a part in this crash? Or is it merely a handy occasion to finally embrace changes that were waiting to happen?
For example, reinvention could represent a language industry equivalent to a genuine step-change - how, for example, the badly-hit hospitality industry could resurrect itself by aligning itself with a greener, more environmentally-sensitive agenda. But it might simply mean getting rid of excess fat and inefficiency after hitting an unexpected speed bump.
Here then are some takeaways to chew over: all plausible, but which ones matter most?
There’s widespread agreement that the industry was already poised for reinvention – or at least some kind of radical change - before the corona crisis. So the effect of this year is to offer a grand opportunity to accelerate improvements or reorientations we’ve been dreaming of.
There’s widespread agreement that the global need for translation and multilingual communication is not likely to change much, judging by current opinion and experience. But our methods and priorities will surely evolve as part of a larger business cycle.
New winners and losers inevitably emerge from a sudden economic crisis and most voters agree that less-agile smaller suppliers and a broad range of individual translators will suffer from the crunch. This will be due either to inevitable changes in industry-internal affairs (e.g. takeovers and bankruptcies) or to radical shifts in demand from buyers in certain COVID-unfriendly markets.
But there’s a bigger story here: fully reinventing an industry is a big-picture process that means moving fast and creating things. For example, Robert Etches (Exfluency) suggests that a “handful of unknown players will launch new workflows that fundamentally challenge the way things are currently done. Within a maximum of five years, one or two of these will emerge as industry leaders.”
The takeaway, then, is that this pandemic will focus corporate minds to both react strategically to a business crisis and in doing so inevitably experiment with new processes, resources, or methodologies to build version 2.0.
The art of navigating this reinvention will involve calculating how far new business orientations, client needs, and technologies will drive your longer-term ambitions. And perhaps how softer issues such as sustainability and diversity will have an influence (though no one mentioned this).
So reinvention becomes the unique concentrate of necessary changes that businesses would have had to make anyway. So seize the moment, but choose the right targets!
No prizes for guessing that digital technology is set to be the main enabler in a reinvention scenario largely driven by the consequences of automation. Tech’s critical benefit is of course to deliver scale.
For many, the surge in online working, virtual presence, and WFH in general, has become the signature tune for a reinvented industry, even if these trends were underway before the crisis. Interpretation is typically cited as one process that will need to (partly) shift to remote. Yet this communication pivot will also have to create new business opportunities.
For Alison McDougall (Amplexor), “one-on-one connection with prospects and customers will become even more important for companies. And a focus on multilingual SEO, "high touch" content, account-based marketing strategies and content analytics will become even more critical.”
We have actually been talking about automation and connectivity, says Gerd Janiszewski (Across Systems), for the last decade. He reckons the future will open up such directions as “creating text in 40 languages simultaneously,” requiring advances in data processing and machine learning. As well as in training newbies for the workforce. Others predict there will be more use of chatbots and AI, MT for "good enough" translations in the mix, along with extensive multilingual telehealth services and the like.
This suggests that one aspect of reinvention could be a more sophisticated remix and scale-up of services, both internally to LSPs large and small and externally to certain clients. A pivot towards 360° digital-first language “experience” and “design” could lead to more real-time delivery, broader integration of translation with voice/ video media, optimal feedback on message efficiency and bias, and a scaled-up, massively multilingual data supply chain business.
This, in turn, would require new jobs and skills, thereby impacting training requirements and reimagining language career “paths.” So people too, not just tech.
Interestingly, no one mentioned the emergence of blockchain as a post-trust, secure data-sharing, and payment solution.
Is the translation industry the same all over the world? Does it matter where we’re located? And where will the markets be anyway? Can we even reinvent part of the industry’s clientele?
There is a shared perception that the “flat world” globalization is now under pressure. This is due to the rise of populism, new trade wars, and doubts about the sustainability of supply chains resulting from isolationist policies and the environmental agenda. Both the ecologically-minded and the new nationalists are encouraging people to “buy local.”
De- (or Neo?)-globalization’s impact on the geography of translation could, however, be very mixed. The recession in the US and Europe, suggests Konstantin Savenkov (Intento), could drive some economic activity to other regions, which will “make many companies move out of the ‘English as a default language’ paradigm.” This will force businesses to be more global than before (or vanish) But this will be a “different kind of ‘global’, whereby translation becomes more important than ever.”
There is a risk, though, with such a shift: the new focus on local markets, and the dependence on local resources might over the longer-term reduce the overall need for translation. Instead of producing the same product for multiple (language) markets, large operators might rise to the “consume local” challenge.
Yes, we will be living in a massively multilingual world, but each location will have its own small spread of languages and human profiles. Encouraged by the new wave of virtualized business and shorter supply chains, production & marketing could be tailored to operate more autonomously in a range of different locations. Farewell globalization as we knew it back in late 2019?
Beyond the loss and fear, the pandemic cloud is evolving into a launch platform for economic, social, and political change. It has caused many a translator, product manager, MT developer and CEO in the industry to weigh up the odds between radical change and just weathering the storm... until the next creatively destructive pandemic. But remember that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk – all those ideas are now out of the bag! Time for your own attempt at wising up reinvention!
Long-time European language technology journalist, consultant, analyst and adviser.