A brief look into the translation and interpreting industry in the United States. We’ll look at its history, current state and where it’s heading.
With today’s world more globalized and connected than ever, the United States has remained as one of the key players in the translation and interpreting industry worldwide. According to Statista, its translation market size stands at $9.73 billion and there are around 52,000 interpreters and translators operating there. On average, the state with the highest interpreting and translating employment is California, while New Jersey offers the highest wages in the industry. As one would imagine, there are many reasons why translation is big business in the USA and we’re going to take a look into them as well as charting its past and making predictions for its future.
Ever since its declaration as an independent nation, the USA has required translators. As the new Americans dealt with the French and the Spanish over land, translators would have played a crucial role in negotiations. Later, with the increase of trade from all over the world, various documents such as invoices, contracts and permits would have needed the attention and expertise of a translator. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a boom in immigration mainly from Europe, which meant that translation services would be required in order to build bridges among the new arrivals. By the 1970s, many large US companies had become multinationals, increasing the demand even further for all types of translation and interpretation services.
Roughly speaking, translations can be classified into the following areas: Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, Media, Architecture, Engineering, Administration, Science, IT, Medicine, Manufacturing and Commerce. All these are relevant when it comes to the demographic shift that has been taking place over the last 50 years or so in the USA. While the increase in African Americans has had very little impact on the US translation industry due to the majority of them using English as their first language, the rise in the Hispanic population has affected it greatly. For many Latin Americans living in the USA, English has proved to be too tall a task for them to master and use in their daily lives. The USA does not in fact have an official language, and while English is spoken at home by 78% of the population, it is only known as the de facto national language. Anecdotal accounts from English speaking Americans suggest that many Hispanic people who have lived in the country for decades have made no effort to learn English and rely solely on Spanish for their daily communication.
Unlike previous non-English speaking immigrant populations of the past such as the Germans and the Polish, many children of the US Hispanic population do not appear to be adopting English as a first language. In a 2014 study, it was predicted that by 2050 there would be 138 million Spanish speakers in the USA, and with the soft policies put in place at the US Mexico border recently, that number could be far higher. Latin Americans are therefore transforming the demographic landscape of the country, lowering the average age of the overall population and affecting the economic climate. As US Hispanics have become a target market for advertisers, huge opportunities for translation service companies and the translation job market have opened up. It has been clear over the years that language is key when it comes to reaching out to minority groups. In reaction to this, US companies are investing in developing techniques to penetrate this flourishing market. The demand for translators has therefore increased, especially regarding certain products, manuals and advertisements, which need to be adapted to meet cultural and societal trends among Latin Americans.
As well as demographic change, the US translation industry has been at the forefront of technological developments over the past 50 years or so. The first series of ideas for machine translation were put forward in 1949 by Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation. By 1954, a machine translation system was completed and presented at IBM in New York although it was seen as little more than a “toy”. In the 1960s, further attempts were made to incorporate machines into translation, but the 1966 ALPAC report concluded that the machine translation of the time was more expensive, less accurate and took more time than human translation. As the years went by, the technology improved and by the 1980s, newly developed systems such as Systran, Logos, Ariane-G5 and Metal were being used in the USA. A few years later, Japanese electronics firms found their way into the industry creating more reliable machines, which used what is now known as example-based machine translation, relying on the manipulation of large text corpora.
In the 1990s and 2000s machine translations were used regularly in PC software programs and in the 2010s, the method of Neural Machine Translation was developed, most notably by Baidu in 2015. This involves using seq2seq (sequence to sequence) consisting of both encoders and decoders to generate the target sentence based on the previous encoding vector. Advancements of this are the types of chatbot apps available today. This doesn’t mean to say that we can be completely reliant on machines alone. Human translators possess rational and analytical abilities that machines simply do not have right now. Maybe at some point in the future we will experience machine learning with such capabilities but for now, the human translator is here to stay. Good quality translators have a rich vocabulary, solid knowledge of different variants, registers and nuances of the same language as well as excellent cultural historical and social awareness.
So, with all this on board, we can look to the future and be able to grasp what’s in store for the US translation industry in the coming years. Bearing in mind the demographic changes taking place in the USA and the fact that the technology is still nowhere near replicating the human brain, things will be pretty rosy for translators and translation companies if they are able to adapt to current trends. Their goal is to create and develop quality control mechanisms and ensure professionalism in the industry. There certainly is a risk that standards could drop leading to a reduction in quality if the right people for the job are not discovered. There has been a lot of talk recently surrounding the ”dumbing down” of Americans as universities make it easier to enter and graduate as a result of their striving to create a more “inclusive” environment. With this in mind, it is up to the translation companies to have that eagle eye for quality and select the best candidates for the job.
More than ever, there is a growing need for trained professionals, and we are seeing some encouraging responses to this in the US education system. Foreign language faculties now run programs specific to translation and interpreting. These courses vary in terms of certification and may feature specializations in specific fields such as law, medicine and finance. What is encouraging is that they are becoming increasingly popular among students, with faculties looking to recruit students from all backgrounds who wish to increase their skills and apply them to specific fields of expertise. The demand is there but it is up to the new translators to be up to the tasks presented to them and the translation companies to not settle for second best. We can therefore see that despite facing stiff competition from emerging markets around the world, the USA’s multi-lingual domestic social landscape will ensure that it will remain a major player in global translation for years to come.