How the Public Sector and Regulations Shaped Language Services Demand in 2017

The demand side remained strong in 2017, buoyed by at least three factors — the continued pooling of translation spending in the public sector that has led to many large contracts awarded during the year, an ever-expanding linguistic diversity across the world that underpins the need for governments to increase translation and interpreter spending, and a whole gamut of legislative and regulatory policies meant to standardize translation procurement and introduce reforms.

The opening salvo for the year was the awarding of a GBP 100m (USD 134.7m) contract by the UK’s National Health Service. Fourteen language service providers (LSPs) won the bid for the framework contracts for face-to-face interpretation, over the phone (OTP) interpretation, document translation, and one-stop-shop translation.

Meanwhile, the UK’s giant court interpreting contract awarded in 2016 with an estimated four-year spend pegged at GBP 232.4m (USD 289m) through 2020 went into full swing in 2017 under a new LSP contractor. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reported a 98% fulfillment rate in its mid-year report, with an estimated 36,000 to 40,000 translation requests per quarter.

The single agency model or the pooling of translation spending by big public sector organizations in the UK has been controversial as it is believed to drive prices down and deemed detrimental to LSPs such as the case of the London-based Perl Linguistics which filed for bankruptcy in March. However, other countries in Europe have been following suit.

In Scotland, the government has awarded a GBP 12m (USD 15.6m) contract for interpreting, translation, and transcription services translation and interpretation contract to two Glasgow-based LSPs under the same single agency model.

In Finland, despite an 83% drop in asylum seekers, which have been driving the demand for over-the-phone (remote) and on-site interpretation, the government awarded a major interpretation contract worth EUR 37.5m (USD 44.5m) in March only to cancel it a month later in April.

Spain and Ireland were more successful. In August, the Catalonia Police awarded an EUR 5.6m translation and interpretation contract to cover areas where the General Police Directorate (Direccio General de la Policia) does not have enough staff or resources to meet translation and interpretation needs. In the same month, the Office of Government Procurement in Ireland also awarded a contract worth EUR 5m (USD 5.9m) to build up the translation of government documents and manage translation projects across the public sector.

In Dubai, a major translation project is now in full swing as the government ordered to translate mathematics- and science-focused educational content for use by 50 million Arab students by 2018.  

EU Demand, Pricing Still High

Despite the increasing use of machine translation across industries and across countries, there is still a good pipeline of translation and interpreting contracts coming from the European Union.

In September 2017, Slator reported that the Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union (CdT), the provider of linguistic shared services to EU agencies, expects to translate 763,212 pages in 2018, a mere 0.3% increase from 2017, but still with a budget projected to reach EUR 47.7m (USD 56.3m) by 2018.

What is most striking in CdT’s report is that even with a new pricing structure enforced starting 2017, translation per page at CdT will still average EUR 82 (USD 97.6) per page for ordinary documents and EUR 34.5 (USD 41) for trademarks in 2018. Video subtitling will also cost EUR 41 (USD 48.8) per minute.  

The EU is also continuing its push for a digital single market and has continued to award contracts within the language services space throughout the year, including a EUR 5.8m (USD 6.9m) Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) automated translation contract and the EUR 1.9m (USD 2.2m) project to integrate the EU’s existing machine translation platform into various multilingual, cross-border digital services.

US Translation Spending

Eleven months into the year, Slator reported that US government spending on translation at USD 517.2m has already surpassed spending for the whole year of 2016 (USD 497.7m). The bulk of these translation contract (over 77%) was won by just 20 companies, including SOS International, ABM Government Services, and Worldwide Language Resources.

Earlier in May, Slator also reported that the US language industry has doubled its headcount within seven years from 15,484 in 2008 to 29,720 in 2015, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Total payroll also rose from USD 0.76bn in 2008 to 1.33bn in 2015. Job creation was found to be most active in the West of the United States (California, Texas, Arizona).

This augurs well for an industry that is thought to be consolidating further. As spending grew, however, other challenges surface, including wage and labor issues as well as project delays.

Expanding Linguistic Diversity

The impetus for sustained and even growing translation spending in the public sector is the ever-expanding linguistic diversity across nations.

New York City has expanded language services to citizens with limited English proficiency (LEP) through a local law that will require government agencies to translate documents in four more languages — Arabic, French, Urdu, and Polish, bringing to 10 the number of foreign languages now supported by local governments.

The choice of languages was based on data from the US Census and the Department of Education that more New Yorkers now speak a foreign language than before. The addition of four more languages as part of government services is expected to benefit 86% of New Yorkers.

Similar initiatives have been introduced in the cities of Florida and Ottawa and the state of Victoria in Australia. But as Slator reported in January, the next frontier of language services is India, with 22 official languages, about 122 major languages, over 1,599 dialects and other languages, and multiple writing systems.

A KPMG-Google report released in April even cited the role of LSPs and freelance linguists in India’s digital language ecosystem. The report projected that with the continued increase in Indian language internet users in the world’s second most populous country, there will be a corresponding increase in “hyper local consumption of local content,” which will require more translations.

In Canada, Census data shows that more people are now speaking a language other than English and French, the country’s two official languages. The government will definitely have a role in expanding language access. Translation in the public sector, however, was beset by turmoil in the 83-year-old Translation Bureau throughout 2016.

Recovering from various setbacks this year, the bureau, which still handles 80% of the Canadian government’s translation volume, appointed a new CEO in May, who is now driving the agency’s second wind and charting new directions for the agency on a revised business model that is more in step with the times.

Legislation and Other Reforms

Legislation is a thorny issue in California. Recent amendments to the state’s Labor Code had California interpreters in an uproar over what they claimed as undercutting of professional interpreter fees as a result of a provision in the law that allows doctors, lawyers or insurance providers to use the services of provisionally certified interpreters instead of professionals.

In May, an advocacy group of interpreters lost their bid to challenge another set of provisions in the state law that tightens procedures for claiming payments for interpretation services in government. The court insisted that the legislation is meant to curb rising incidence of medical fraud and raise the quality of interpretation standards.

Another law passed in 2016 meant to improve California’s medical interpretation services, however, has yet to be implemented as Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), which is tasked to implement the new law, was still in the process of hiring a project lead when Slator reported the issue in August.

These issues were important as California is home to the largest number of language industry employees in the US, which was estimated to reach 6,085 in 2015, according to the Census Bureau. In terms of pay, however, California’s annual average income for language industry professionals at USD 41,000 per annum lags behind New York’s USD 64,000.

On a more positive note, a new bill approved in October is expected to improve access to health care language assistance services available to LEP individuals in California. Meanwhile, California’s state courts may be using more virtual remote interpreting (VRI) technology to benefit LEP clients in the state.

Meanwhile, a heated debate in Australia erupted mid-year due to the government’s move to introduce a different system of accreditation to qualify professional interpreters and translators beginning January 2018. The state regulators insist that reform is long overdue and the initiative would raise the standards for translation and interpretation in the country.

In September, the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity (JCCD) also published a comprehensive guideline on how interpreters should be selected for their work based on their level of skills and experience and closely aligns with the new system of accreditation.

Indeed, there were challenges and opportunities and many of these issues will continue to play out in 2018.