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When You Only See Giants

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 16, 2018

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

The world is dominated by the power and the discourse and the strategies of the giants. In every field, a relatively small number of multinationals strut to the front of the stage and render every other struggling, striving business mere bit part players. We might think that, but we would be wrong.

Take the events industry. As in every industry, there are huge corporates, constantly vying for attention. Faced with this power, what do the smaller entities do? They specialise, they innovate, the offer unparalleled customer service. They break the rules and the create experiences that leave clients desperate for more.

Here in the UK, there are a handful of giant High Street banks. But their hegemony is under threat, not because of regulation or legislation but by a new generation of nimble, responsive small banks. Faced with the power of the banking giants, these smaller entities are specialising, innovating, offering unparalleled customer service.

The story repeats in so many industries.

And yet, in translation and interpreting, an industry that is, by any measure, actually dominated by the individual supplier, the sole trader and the micro boutique agency, there is still the temptation to focus on the will and might of the giants, who are far fewer and who, despite all their strutting on the stage, are still at the whim of the individual translator and interpreter.

Take the research of Common Sense Advisory into the “Language Services Market”. To even qualify to take part in their survey, an entity must have “two or more full-time employees, a minimum level of revenue that varies by country, and visible market activity” (The Language Services Market:
Research Methodology 2018).

It may be a neat methodological trick to make the research more manageable but it is deeply problematic. Excluding the individual freelancer means explicitly leaving out the people who are adding the most value across the industry and deliberately sidelining any data and ideas produced by the most flexible, creative and innovative part of the industry.

(Only a real cynic would point out that the segment of the language services market surveyed corresponds almost perfectly with the target market likely to pay for any reports sold.)

The problem with only seeing the giants is that the giants don’t see everything. Go to any conference for professional translators and interpreters and within five minutes, you will notice a trend for the more experienced and more highly skilled translators and interpreters to push for their own direct clients, ignoring precisely the entities who would qualify for the CSA survey. Go to events aimed at interpreting buyers and you will discover that there actually seems to be a shortage of specialists able to deliver when it really matters.

There may well be large multinational corporations hungry to get millions of words translated quickly with minimum cost, but equally there are companies now publicly saying that they only want to work with freelancers directly. There are big companies looking to leverage the power of neural machine translation but there are others still looking for pure human creativity. There are companies hungry for remote, on-demand interpreting and there are others for whom carefully organised in-person meetings still matter. To only see one side and not the other is to risk being blind-sided.

It may be hard to capture the trends and innovation of individual freelancers but the long-standing work of professional associations such as ITI, CIoL and by researchers across the world shows that it is by no means impossible. The biggest barrier is will, not skill.

No-one who wants to know a sector can or should ignore the work of its giants. No-one who carries out market surveys can or should ignore the trends among those creating the work that powers the market. You don’t get to know a market by ignoring any side of it.

This is why I am deeply cynical of any forecasts that this or that technology will render prior art obsolete. Markets are too complex for that and clients to heterogeneous. This is why I am deeply suspicious of any market report that excludes individual suppliers. This is why I would love to speak at a forum aimed at the giants of translation and interpreting and explain the world to them from the perspective of an individual consultant.

This is why I am deeply cynical now of any research that only takes note of the views of companies above a certain revenue level. Because right here, in the land of the small fry and the one-person band, that’s where the energy is.

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