Michael Reid is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant with over 20 years of experience. He works as the assistant editor of MultiLingual, and speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competency.
Translation is a booming field, but for smaller economies that rely on tourism, the drive to use English as a lingua franca can mean leaving other languages off the menu.
There are few industries that weren’t shaken to their cores when the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in 2020. The translation industry seems to have been robust enough to withstand some of the worst shocks, but even this otherwise resilient industry has not been left unchanged.
While translation as a whole may be booming, even in the face of COVID-19, the tourism industry was brought to its knees in 2020, suffering a 74% drop in international tourist arrivals, representing a $1.3 trillion loss in export revenue, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Even venerable hotel and resort chains were offering steep discounts in the hopes of luring what paltry handful of travelers there were to fill their rooms, while some smaller operations were forced to close up shop entirely.
Tourism, for all the money it generates in normal years, is an ecosystem made up of some whales (the Hiltons and the Booking.coms), some sharks (the TripAdvisors and the AirBnBs), and hundreds of thousands of smaller fish (the local mom-and-pop tour company, gift shop, or tourist restaurant, the likes of which one would see in Harajuku in Tokyo, or Monastiraki in Athens). The whales and the sharks are large and robust enough to withstand a few shocks, even fairly deep ones. The smaller fish, meanwhile, are far more vulnerable to smaller shocks.
Tourism translation, the branch of the industry that focuses on the translation of hotel, restaurant, museum, and cruise ship content, suffered as well, though perhaps not as acutely as the rest of the tourism industry in 2020. The budget constraints imposed by the economic slowdown from the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 exposed a trend long present not just in tourism but in all international business: the tendency to use, or attempt to use, English as a default language, and even to avoid translating into languages other than English as a cost saving measure.
Again, this isn’t exactly new. No less august an organization than the European Commission, though theoretically offering documents and communication in any official language of an EU member state, and having three supposedly co-equal working languages — English, French, and German — con-ducts the majority of its business in English.
On the face of it, there is a certain economic logic to this. English, for good or for ill, finds itself on top of the linguistic food chain due in part to the perception that it’s a “universal” language, a lingua franca that allows you to communicate with anyone in the world. Of course, the marketing far outstrips the reality in this case — for all its reach, English is still only spoken by about 20% of the world’s population when one combines the numbers of both native and non-native speakers.
Translators, certainly good translators, don’t often come cheaply, and rightly so. Translating all of your various content into the languages most represented in your client base — most likely Mandarin, English, German, and French — could quickly become prohibitively expensive for a small local business. Having a lingua franca into which you can translate your content essentially reduces your translation costs by 75%, a value proposition that no small tourist operation can resist, and with good reason.
The only way it will make economic sense for the smaller fish of our above example to invest in French, or Mandarin, or German, is if speakers of those languages start demand-ing content in their language and not English — and if they bring in more revenue than those willing to accept content in English.
The 800-pound English-speaking gorilla
The hegemonic nature of English’s role in the world hasn’t gone unnoticed. Journalist Jacob Mikanowski referred to English as a “bully, behemoth, loudmouth, [and] thief” in a 2018 article in the Guardian examining the pernicious pervasiveness of English.
English is promoted by both Anglophones and non-Anglo-phones as a gateway to economic success, often in ways that seem at odds with the objective reality of the job market. Witness how common it is for companies in Japan to ask for an applicant’s Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score at an interview, often irrespective of how likely it is that the candidate will ever do any work that requires knowledge of English. In other countries, like Italy, English is a mandatory subject from grades one through eight, meaning students are required to learn, or at least sit through, English lessons long before all but the most precocious will have any idea what they want their future career to look like.
English imposes itself in softer ways as well. From becoming the default language of international “expat” communities, to causing parents to wonder if they should teach their children English instead of their heritage language, to — in a supreme irony — functioning as the default working language of language services conferences and polyglot gatherings, English insinuates itself into positions not just of power, but of perceived indispensability.
Whether this indispensability is real or not, people believe it’s real, and that’s enough to drive a whole sub-economy based on the teaching of English, educational policies on a national level that mandate the learning of English, and company policies that require proof of English ability.
This, along with the pervasiveness of English language media, of course creates a surfeit of people who are anywhere from conversational to proficient in English in addition to speaking their native language. The predictable result of this, for the translation industry, tourism included, is that translators from English into X language can be found in relative abundance, whereas translators from non-English languages into other non-English languages are fewer and farther between. This happens even in cases where the source language is the language of a tourism reliant country, and the target language is the language of the world’s biggest source of outbound tourism.
A quick search on freelance translator portal Proz.com returns 759 results for Greek to English translators, while a search for Greek to Mandarin Chinese translators yields only eight.
For this reason, English is often used as what’s called a pivot language: an intermediary language into which text A can be translated and from which text B can then be translated. As any linguist can tell you, this method can be quite error prone but is often the only choice available when competent linguists for a given combination can’t be found.
The reason Greek to English translators outnumber Greek to Mandarin translators by a factor of 95 is not because English is intrinsically easier to master, more culturally neutral, or more expressive than Mandarin; it’s because Greek schoolchildren are required to learn English starting in grade one. Might there be more such translators if Greek parents were given the option to place their children in Mandarin lessons instead? Perhaps. Might there be more if Mandarin was a compulsory subject in Greek education? Almost certainly.
Follow the money
Mikanowski refers in his article to the work of Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan, whose “global language system” theory divides languages into the peripheral, smaller community languages that make up the majority of the world’s languages; the central, spoken by a large portion of the world and used as languages of government, media, and education in their home territories; the supercentral, consisting of 13 languages that serve as connectors between speakers of central languages (of note is that one of these languages, Modern Standard Arabic, has no native speakers); and the hypercentral, a language that connects the speakers of the supercentral languages. As of right now only one truly hypercentral language exists: English.
Tourism translators I spoke with who work in combinations that don’t involve English had several observations. The first was that their overall volume of work hadn’t declined in the long term due to COVID-19, though some attributed this to the fact that they translate into German, a market that tends to prefer native language content. The second was that, even in their work that did involve English, what they often received were texts translated into English from, for example, Manda-rin, which they were then tasked with translating into their target language. There was a third, more general observation. Language expectations have “certainly been pushed further towards English because of the circumstances,” said Jeanette Brickner, a German to English translator.
“At the moment, with how decimated tourism is, most businesses are trying to cast a wide net just to survive. Targeting travelers from specific areas isn’t really an option, and the people coming from non-English speaking countries who are still traveling don’t seem to have any expectation of using their own languages rather than English,” Brickner said. Indeed, faced with unfavorable economic circumstances and absent a noticeable demand on the part of the customer, adding complications and costs in the form of content or staffing in languages other than English simply isn’t viable for small or midsize operations.
In these conversations, a projection kept bubbling to the surface: the industry will follow one of two trajectories in the post-COVID era.
The first trajectory would see translators who don’t have English as a working language progressively shut out of the translation market. This could be because the demand for translation into non-English languages becomes so suppressed that only niche-within-a-niche (think wine tourism) translators with an established clientele are able to make a living, or because the English as a pivot language system has become so entrenched that clients no longer bother to look for, for example, Spanish to Japanese translators, but instead contract with Spanish to English and English to Japanese translators separately.
The second trajectory would see a sort of tiered system develop. High-end on-the-ground tourism services (as opposed to online-only players like Kayak and Booking) will allot a portion of their budget to translation into the major languages of their clientele — tourists from Berlin will get their Wegbeschreibung zum Strand and tourists from Japan will get their 海への行き方 — because their clients demand it and because their pockets are deep enough to subsidize it. The budget traveler, meanwhile, will be forced to make do with “directions to the beach,” whether they’re proficient in English or not.
To be sure, many of these budget travelers won’t be terribly annoyed by this. They’ll either have English as a native language or as a proficient enough language that they’ll be perfectly comfortable, or the aspirational nature and market-ing of the language will actually make English preferable to them. International travelers, including voluntary expatriates, digital nomads, and tourists, are being conditioned to accept English as their medium of communication. Indeed, operating entirely in English can make these travelers feel “inter-national,” even when English is the very thing keeping them from interacting with the host culture on a deeper level. For all its conveniences, however, there are questions to be asked about whether this flattening of our linguistic topography is actually desirable.
In defense of Babel
There’s more at stake here than it might appear at first blush. The potential impact on the livelihoods of translators aside, there’s also the issue of language diversity and the survival of some languages. Historical sociologist Johan Heilbron speaks of a “world system of translation.” This system also has English in the hypercentral position, as it’s the language from which 55-60% of the world’s books are translated, but relegates different, and unexpected, languages to the periphery. In Heilbron’s conception, even languages like Mandarin and Japanese, with their hundreds of millions of native speakers combined, find themselves in a peripheral position due to the fact that less than 1% of the world’s books are translated from those languages.
The literary translation ecosystem is different from the tourism translation ecosystem in important ways, but some important lessons can be gleaned from this idea.
Whether in literature or tourism, the role of English as a hypercentral language remains unchanged. Whether businesses use it as the sole non-local language because the cost of multiple translations is prohibitive, or simply because their clientele haven’t yet demanded it, other languages, and the people that translate into them, find themselves in sec-ond place — sometimes distant second — to the Germanic juggernaut.
An interesting correlation can be teased out of this data: many of the countries with languages on the periphery, in terms of percentage of the world’s books translated from them, correspond roughly to those countries where English is the dominant tourism language. Those countries may be economic powers like Japan, or smaller, more tourism-dependent economies like Greece, but they are united in their tendency to use English for touristic functions.
And from this correlation, we see another phenomenon develop, one that gives us hints as to the possible futures for tourism and the place of English and other languages.
Mandarin Chinese is, in the world of literary translation, a peripheral language. This despite having the largest number of native speakers of any human language. Tourism is a different story, and China was far and away the largest player on the outbound international tourism market in 2019, with roughly $254 billion in tourism-related expenditures in 2019, according to the UNWTO. Combine this with the fact that China ranked 38th (“moderate”) in the Education First global ranking of non-Anglophone countries by English skills, and we can see that the economic incentives for companies of all sizes to adapt to the Chinese-speaking market are evident. They’re also already being felt; Rea Gutzwiller, a Swiss tour-ism translator I spoke with, said she’s been learning Mandarin partly out of a desire to add it to her already-large repertoire of working languages.
An airport arrivals sign in four different languages.
This trend has been observable for some time. When I was in Santorini, Greece, in 2014 it was fairly common to see signs handwritten in Chinese directing tourists to the intercity bus ticket window in the larger villages — and seems only to be increasing. Gutzwiller, for her part, related that, on the day of one of our conversations, the Swiss train system had just launched “an in-app service in AliPay and WeChat so they can buy tickets and get info on the trains [there] via their native apps.”
Whether Mandarin will dethrone English as the language of international tourism remains to be seen. Though economic forces do push in Mandarin’s favor, the allure of English in the age of omnipresent media diffusion isn’t solely economic. Parents may encourage their children to learn English for economic reasons, seeing it as the sine qua non of economic advancement for reasons we’ve already covered, and compulsory education in English is commonplace in many countries, particularly in the EU, but young people often evince great willingness to learn English for reasons that have little explicit relationship to economic benefit.
English is the language of Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, Elon Musk and Tim Cook. Of Disney — and everything owned by Disney — including the ubiquitous and ever-expanding Marvel and Stars Wars properties. English is the vehicle by which YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon made their entry into global consciousness. And even though they have since been thoroughly localized into other contexts and cultures, they can be argued to carry with them still the ineffable aura of cool that accompanies so much Anglophone, specifically US, media. China, though inarguably a cultural powerhouse for millennia within its sphere, hasn’t quite managed to achieve the same aspirational status that English has. Unseating English will mean challenging, or at the very least disentangling, the economic motivations for its use from the cultural motivations.
English is seemingly everywhere, largely because of the story it tells about itself, and encourages others to tell about it. It’s the language of both rebellion and mainstream consumerism. The jargon-laden form of business English born in the crucible of late American capitalism has infiltrated boardrooms from Madrid to Montreal, Rio de Janeiro to Riyadh. It is, out of proportion to its true size, inescapable.
It’s also insidious. While researching this topic, I noticed I searched for references in English almost unconsciously. It wasn’t until I realized that I was ignoring one of my most fundamental skills, the ability to look for information in multiple languages, that I was able to find richer, far more in-depth sources of information. Even for those of us who live our lives in multilingual, multicultural environments, English becomes our default way of interacting with the wider world, often to our disadvantage.
English isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor should it. The poetic majesty of artists as diverse as James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, and Public Enemy are gifts to the patrimony of our species and we are better for them. But as beautiful and soaring as their use of language is, it is not unique to English. Language is the means by which we communicate what it means to be human, to have our experience of the world; language is how we take what is inside, as banal or as inspired as it may be, and make it something legible to the outside. Languages may vary in reach, in economic power, in status, but they are all equally capable of performing that particular bit of alchemy. When we elevate, consciously or unconsciously, one language above all others, when we make it the sun around which all others must orbit, when we treat one expression of the human experience as a skeleton key that will magically let us unlock all the others, we do ourselves no favors, whether we’re native to the hypercentral linguistic community or not.
COVID-19 will pass. We are a peripatetic species and tourism will doubtless rebound. A bright future for travel and cultural exchange will dawn. That future will be brighter if it speaks with multiple voices, in whatever language they choose.
Hristina Racheva, VP of localization at Skyscanner, spoke about the impact COVID-19 has had on their business, how they view the road ahead, and why they remain firmly committed to localization. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why is it important to Skyscanner to have localized content?
As an organization, we operate globally and our product is available to users everywhere in the world as a localized experience in over 50 markets, so serving our products in the local languages and providing relevant local experiences is critical for us to maintain our strong position within the travel industry. Without mentioning exact numbers, more than 50% of our travelers come from non-English speaking countries, so it’s crucial that we continue to connect with them.
How important is it for Skyscanner to have not just linguistically but regionally and culturally relevant copy (Golden Week specials in Japan, August 15th specials in Greece)?
This is something that has been even more critical for us in the travel industry than ever before. With COVID-19 impacting travel, and with travel restrictions continuously changing, closely following travel restrictions per market or region and understanding travelers’ sentiment has been critical for content strategy. For example, we can’t launch a marketing campaign inspiring people to travel if they are not able to leave their country. Or if they are able to do so legally, but feel reluctant to travel. So, since the very early days of the pandemic, we’ve started gathering traveler insights per market through surveys and interviews. In particular how likely they are to travel, when, and where. We base our marketing campaigns on that — for example, if we know that in some markets users are more open to travel, we might send them emails with travel deals, while in others where users are reluctant to travel, we might just send travel inspiration. So I’d say serving local copy goes beyond local holidays, and should follow user preferences and needs. This is certainly an approach that can and should be applied beyond a global crisis.
How do you prioritize which languages/markets to localize into?
We’ve recently gone through a market and language prioritization exercise at a company level; it wasn’t just defining which markets to go to but also reviewing our current priority markets and tiering process. The main goal of this was to establish a framework that can be used to continuously review market decisions. This involved senior leaders from various disciplines within the company such as directors of brand, paid marketing, SEO, and localization. This was just another example why defining which markets and languages are priority markets doesn’t, and can’t sit, solely within the localization team. There are so many data points and angles to be taken in consideration. For example, understand-ing the general industry size in a given market, what share of that your company owns, and how strong your position is. So for me it was amazing being part of this group, as it gave me broader business perspective and understanding, and I was able to bring localization into the conversation at the right time.
Do you try to make sure all new features and functionalities appear simultaneously in all relevant regions/languages?
Most of our product features are launched in English and all other languages at the same time, and most of our product is translated for all 35 languages by default. Sometimes there are exceptions depending on the product/feature — for example, recently we’ve launched travel insurance as a new vertical.
Insurance as a product is very complex, and enabling it in new markets goes way beyond the language translation and localization process. It requires following local legal requirements, building partnerships with local legal entities in some cases, and many other things. All of that requires time and additional effort. This is why when launching the insurance product we did it one — or several — markets at a time. Examples like this demonstrate that going global and launching products in different markets takes much more than just translating the content or localizing the product. I like to use it in discussions when some of our localization colleagues state that localization is a main revenue driver and expansion enabler — there is so much more beyond that, and I personally don’t see why as a discipline we try to take all ownership and strive to prove our value at all costs; it’s a combined and company-wide effort where localization is just a piece in a very big and complex puzzle.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your company?
There’s no denying that it has affected us a lot, as travel is one of the most impacted industries. We’ve done a lot of work to address the situation and not only survive but thrive. For example, it’s been more critical than ever to understand users’ needs per market and respond to them individually, per market — this refers to what I shared above on the question for serving local content. Similarly, we’ve looked at what it would take for people to travel again, what the new reality would look like, and tried to adapt our product offerings. We want to enable people from around the world to travel again and give them peace of mind when they do. We build new product features like a travel map that shows travelers the type of restrictions in the country they want to visit, or the insurance product that provides additional protection when traveling.
What is your outlook for the eventual rebound of the tourism and travel industry?
We all have a strong conviction that travel will return and that there will be even an stronger desire to do so than before, based partly on personal experience. We are Skyscanner employees, but we’re also travelers ourselves, and just like our users, we can’t wait to see the world again. Of course, we also base that view on other data points — one thing is ongoing user surveys and interviews that we run in dozens of markets regularly. We see the strong desire to travel again. We also see changes in travel patterns. For example, travel has rebounded in some markets or different travel patterns have emerged — in some countries in Asia there is a surge in domestic or regional travel, while in the past international travel was more popular.
Do you think demand for localized content will go up, go down, or stay steady post-COVID? Do you see the answer to this question being different depending on the location/market?
I’m not sure if COVID-19 has led to an increase in demand for localized content. For example, in our case, we saw some sort of increase at the beginning, mostly for marketing and communication content when we needed to connect with and support our travelers in the early days of COVID, when they would have been impacted by the situation. However, today our localization needs aren’t directly impacted by the situation, but rather continue to respond to our product offerings and marketing initiatives.