The State of the Language Industry as Coronavirus Goes Global

Covid19 Impact on Translation Industry and Interpreting Industry

The coronavirus situation is evolving at lightning speed. This article provides a snapshot of how the language industry has fared so far this week and what market participants think the next few weeks will bring.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Later that same day, US President Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on travel from most of Europe to the US.

Individual initiatives by national governments have varied based on the number of identified cases in a given location. But, generally speaking, the goal is to curtail the movement of people, thereby “flattening the curve” of infection.

Language industry professionals across the globe have already started to experience fallout from the pandemic.

In Mainland China, where the response to the coronavirus outbreak is regarded as being five to six weeks ahead that of other countries, a February 2020 report stated that many language service providers (LSPs) have been able to continue most of their operations remotely. The report also said that 76% of respondents expected to return to the office by early March; but those in hard-hit regions with strict epidemic control measures in place only plan to return once the disease is “over.”

Meanwhile, Italy has expanded national quarantine measures until March 25, 2020. Italian member associations of FIT Europe, a regional branch of the International Federation of Translators, made a joint appeal to request support for 5,000 language professionals after they incurred losses of EUR 10m (USD 11.1m) in just one month.

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A snapshot of select players in the global language industry suggests the experiences of LSPs and language professionals depend on both location and the type of work handled.

Uneven Impact on Interpreting

Naturally, interpreters who typically work face to face have been hit the hardest, so far, by containment measures as events and conferences across all industries are postponed or canceled.

“The worse the global situation gets (and country governments react accordingly), the more clients rely on the force majeure argument to try to avoid any cancellation fees” — Alexander Gansmeier, Troublesome Terps

Alexander Gansmeier, a German conference interpreter and co-host of the Troublesome Terps podcast, told Slator that the timing of the outbreak has led to a bleak situation in Germany.

“March, usually conference ‘high season,’ has been swept by a wave of cancellations. Furthermore, the worse the global situation gets (and country governments react accordingly), the more clients rely on the force majeure argument to try to avoid any cancellation fees, which only worsens the economic impact,” Gansmeier said.

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According to Gansmeier, professionals who work with Chinese as their language were hit first; but, at this point, interpreters working in all languages have been affected. He said the German government has yet to extend substantive support to interpreters, although it has already announced helpful measures for the manufacturing industry, such as short term labor and tax incentives.

He explained that, in Germany, the BDÜ (German Translators Association) and the VKD (German Association of Conference Interpreters) are working to highlight the serious negative impact this current environment has had on self-employed and freelancing service providers.

On an international level, FIT Europe has appealed to associations and institutions to include language professionals in different measures to alleviate the fallout from coronavirus. The organization has also asked member and non-member associations, via Twitter, for feedback on how coronavirus has affected language professionals, with the goal of gaining government attention and support.

In contrast to on-site interpreters, companies that specialize in remote interpreting technology solutions stand to gain substantially as clients, who typically rely on on-site interpreting (outside of events and conferences), experiment with other setups.

“We are hearing that some hospitals and large healthcare organizations are beginning to advise their on-site interpreter staff, as well as their contract interpreters, to stay home or work remotely” — Dieter Runge, Boostlingo

Boostlingo, a San Francisco-based remote interpreting technology solutions company, has already seen an increase in inbound inquiries regarding its platform.

“In times of chaos like this, access to language support is critical,” said Dieter Runge, Boostlingo’s co-founder and and current VP of Marketing and Business Development.

In the short term, Runge sees a tactical need to engage remote interpreting until the outbreak is effectively contained. In the long run, he believes it will show the importance of remote interpreting solutions and strategies that can be mobilized quickly.

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He noticed inconsistent messaging to interpreters, Runge said, which varies state by state, country by country, leading to a general sense of confusion and to some interpreters avoiding on-site assignments.

“We are hearing that some hospitals and large healthcare organizations are beginning to advise their on-site interpreter staff, as well as their contract interpreters, to stay home or work remotely,” Runge told Slator. “Those who are already set up for telephonic or VRI (video remote interpreting) support are well-placed, and we would expect that they will see a sharp increase in their remote interpreting requests and workload in the ensuing months.”

New York City LSP Geneva Worldwide has already seen an uptick in the demand for remote interpreting, and continues to recruit interpreters at this time. Multilingual conferencing platform KUDO, meanwhile, has advised potential clients to consider alternate solutions before deciding to cancel meetings.

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Another push toward remote interpreting may come from a US bill funding an emergency response to coronavirus. The bill expands telehealth solutions to patients on Medicare, leading some in the language industry to wonder whether those services would include remote interpreting.

Impact Depends on Industry

It might seem that translation, usually carried out by specialists working from their own homes, is lockdown-proof. But the impact of coronavirus is not limited to logistics. Demand from end-clients is highly industry-dependent, and not all sectors have been affected in the same way or to the same extent.

It is currently difficult to make an industry-by-industry assessment of any impact on translation demand. The share price movement of listed LSPs, however, may provide some clues as to how the market sees this playing out, for now.

Alan White, Business Development Director for UK-headquartered The Translation People, told Slator that they are seeing increased demand from certain clients due to the pandemic. This includes translating internal communications related to health information, travel advice, and hygiene guidelines into different languages for global businesses.

“One of our biggest clients in the food logistics industry, which has reusable containers, needed client communication copy-translating, which explained that their cleaning processes are robust enough to mitigate the effects of the virus,” White said.

Other clients, such as businesses specializing in personal protective equipment, have seen surges in sales and inquiries, leading to more translation work as clients engage new customers around the world.

“Most of our clients had their corona policies prepared and translated” — Krzysztof Zdanowski, Summa Linguae Technologies

Containment measures have already changed day-to-day operations at Poland-based LSP Summa Linguae Technologies (SLT). Employees currently work from home instead of the office, which is helpful for those who need to be with their children since schools have also closed. A board meeting scheduled for mid-March 2020 will be held remotely.

SLT CEO Krzysztof Zdanowski told Slator that the mid- and long-term impact of coronavirus is difficult to judge at the moment. And, so far, any changes in demand seem to be a mixed bag.

“Most of our clients had their corona policies prepared and translated,” Zdanowski said, adding that they have seen a significant increase in demand from e-commerce and retail clients.

Similarly, most large, ongoing data collection and annotation projects are actually getting larger, with clients asking for faster delivery. But SLT has seen localization for IT, multimedia, and e-learning postponed as product releases have been put on hold.

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Streaming, Dubbing, Planning Ahead

It is, as yet, unclear whether coronavirus will increase demand for localization services for over-the-top (OTT) providers.

Some news outlets have indeed turned to streaming services to provide more continuous coronavirus coverage. Additionally, Imperial Capital analyst David Miller predicts significant growth for Netflix in terms of subscribers in the US and Canada, thanks to the “cocooning effect” of coronavirus containment measures.

“For dubbing, our cloud platforms enable the recording of voices for each project to be performed at distributed locations” — Stuart Green, ZOO Digital

However, it currently seems unlikely that major movie studios will replace theatrical releases with debuts via streaming services — unless the US follows China and Italy in shuttering theaters.

ZOO Digital CEO Stuart Green told Slator that, thus far, he has not noticed a difference in demand for services; and is confident it will be business as usual regardless of containment measures.

“For dubbing, our cloud platforms enable the recording of voices for each project to be performed at distributed locations, thereby obviating the need for voice actors, dubbing directors, and others to travel significant distances or to be co-located while working on a project,” Green said.

“In the impacted countries, we are taking the recommended steps, which include disinfecting equipment every time a new voice actor comes to the room, maintaining general cleanliness, and making hand sanitizer readily available” — Mark Howorth, SDI Media

Subtitling work, typically performed by professionals working from home, has continued per usual for both ZOO Digital and SDI Media; but the latter has had a very different experience with dubbing, according to CEO Mark Howorth.

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“In the impacted countries, we are taking the recommended steps, which include disinfecting equipment every time a new voice actor comes to the room, maintaining general cleanliness, and making hand sanitizer readily available,” Howorth told Slator.

According to the SDI Media CEO, “In Hong Kong, some actors have been recording while wearing face masks without significantly compromising recording quality, and we are in communication with our specific customers about this. In Italy, dubbing work is impacted due to government restrictions.”

Howorth said SDI Media is currently exploring remote recording solutions that would allow recording from home; but the practicality of these options will depend on cast size, security concerns, and acoustic quality.

As with clients and end-users, LSPs are unsure about what news tomorrow may bring.

“We are anticipating there may be other ‘Italy’ situations in the coming days in Europe,” Howorth said. “In those cases we are planning on how to expedite projects that are near-completion, and then focusing on how to prioritize and schedule the work when restrictions end.”

Slator will provide additional coverage on the impact of coronavirus on the language industry in the coming weeks as the situation evolves.