The Rolex of Translation: Switzerland’s Federal Language Services

Switzerland is located in the heart of Europe, bordering Germany and Austria to the north and east, and Italy and France to the south and west. The country, which is not a member of the European Union, has a population of slightly over 8 million and four official languages: German (63.5% of the total population), French (22.5%), Italian (8.1%), and Romansh (0.5%).

While the French and Italian spoken in Switzerland tend to be fairly close to the standard variety of France and Italy, the German-speaking part of Switzerland speaks Swiss German, an old dialect that can be hard to understand for speakers of Standard High German. For writing, the Swiss resort to the standard variety of German.

Naturally, all this linguistic diversity requires translation. This article will provide a short primer on the Swiss Federal Government’s translation operations.

Being a staunchly federal country, where the individual cantons (Think: US state) run many key parts of government, Switzerland runs a fairly small administration on a federal level with a budget that consumes less than 10% of GDP.

The Federal Administration’s Translation Service

The translation service of Switzerland’s federal administration is also, perhaps, surprisingly small for a quadrilingual country that is among the world’s top 25 economies. A total of 330 translators (263 FTEs) are employed across all federal government departments, with 143 FTEs for French, 90 FTEs for Italian, 20 FTEs for German, and 10 FTEs for English (Romansh, presumably, is sourced externally).

There is no central translation division that services all seven government ministries and the over 90 departments, although the Federal Chancellery’s language services unit does coordinate certain activities on behalf of the seven ministries. Each government ministry and many of the larger government departments run their own language services units.

Top Dollars for Full-time Translators

The administration points out in its website that the skillset required of a translator at the federal administration goes “far beyond what is generally assumed.” Those skills do not come cheap. According to a news report, federal translators fall in the salary bands 22 and 23, which correspond to an annual total compensation between CHF 132,313 and 138,773 (USD 133,000 to 140,000). A source at the federal administration who Slator spoke to, said these salaries are for translators without any additional management responsibilities.

Some of the World’s Highest Rates

Since translation volumes are unpredictable even in otherwise very stable Switzerland, the federal administration also works with a network of freelance translators. In accordance with a directive on the use of language services dated November 14, 2012, “external translators may be used in case of excessive workload, extreme urgency and only if all internal resources have been exhausted.”

According to the source Slator spoke to, work is generally outsourced to freelancers with only a few language service providers in the mix.

The freelancers lucky enough to work for the federal government get to enjoy what are likely some of the world’s highest per-word rates. Below are the rates according to the official rate card available on the administration’s website.

Standard texts: CHF 0.40 (USD 0.40)
Standard texts (rush jobs): CHF 0.50 (USD 0.50)

Difficult texts: CHF 0.42 (USD 0.42)
Difficult texts (rush jobs): CHF 0.52 (USD 0.52)

Proofreading: CHF 90 (USD 90.6)

For good measure, the rates above are without VAT.

The same source Slator spoke to praised the freelancer’s quality, saying most are experienced  subject matter experts and professional linguists. The source mentioned that, while in previous roles in the private sector, translations would often require significant revisions before publication, the work produced by this group of linguists requires hardly any changes.

The Technology

According to the source, the use of language technology varies among the different ministries and departments. Some use Star Transit, others SDL Studio. Project management is often run through proprietary, but fairly basic, internal ERP systems.

The Cost

So how much does the Swiss federal administration spend on language services? It is hard to tell. Since each ministry and even single department runs its own language unit, the costs for translation are absorbed into their respective budgets.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation would put the cost for the internal translation staff alone at around USD 40m. There are indications that external services are widely used as well. “Translation costs” are mentioned 28 times in a comment on the 2016 federal budget, with these costs typically referring to translations sourced from third-party vendors.

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