Community Lives: Bridging the gap

When we go to the supermarket to stock up, the one item we’re mostly oblivious to is the shopping cart. That’s the way I think of us in the language community and our place in the global business marketplace. Without us, corporate and cultural “shoppers” would have their arms full and have to leave stuff on the shelf. We facilitate a real shopping spree. But we don’t seem to receive the credit for our critical role in facilitating commerce around the world.

The fact that everyone uses languages for a host of purposes without giving it much thought means that we are not as visible as we should be. One consequence of this that does concern us all is that we are challenged to attract and develop talent. This was the subject of a session at the LocWorld conference in Barcelona in June of this year.


Attracting and Developing Talent (ADT) started several years ago and was inspired by a specific panel during a LocWorld conference discussing the evidence of talent shortage in recruiting language professionals. A small group of hiring clients and recruiters who were facing such issues was quickly created and discussions started to identify the causes and finding a common ground to formulate solutions. Who better to lead this early advisory group than Ulrich Henes, president of Localization Institute and co-organizer of LocWorld? Henes was fascinated by language, cultural differences and global business after having spent his early career organizing campaigns against the arms race, apartheid and promoting respect for differences among people, countries and languages. Henes’ background in the early days of localization helped him realize that there was a serious lack of quality training and learning opportunities, which he is filling with his certification courses for professionals in the language industry. The aim of ADT is to gather together people invested in hiring talent such as recruiters, clients and vendors, as well as university professors responsible for developing educational programs and facilitating a sustainable strategy to address job categories, career paths and increasing incentives.

Although the initial group has been replaced by a growing number of regular attendees, meetings take place during the LocWorld conferences three times a year. The first few meetings focused on the first identified roadblock, which was to establish open discussions between industry and academics, understand each other’s challenges and facilitate solutions. Attendees from prominent universities have shared their ideas to help create open channels to the industry. A second roadblock that was identified was the visibility of the language industry to the outside world and was addressed during the last LocWorld conference in Barcelona in June 2017. A third and final roadblock due to be addressed during the next LocWorld conferences is retaining talent by addressing issues on the available career paths and incentives.

Henes regards himself as the facilitator of the ADT initiative and would like to see more industry professionals step in and get involved on a sustainable, regular basis. When there are enough participants and contributors from all sides of the language industry and from all geographies, the ADT initiative can create a truly impactful, long-term strategy for the benefit of the entire industry.

Facts and figures

Although our industry is not the only one affected by a skills shortage, we are nonetheless in the unique position of having an increasing demand for language services, as well as a steadily increasing number of language students in our academic institutions, and yet we still experience a skills shortage. To shed some light on this conundrum I spent a few hours searching for data on numbers of language students and any information I could get on their career paths after they graduate. I didn’t find any public information on this — perhaps professional associations across the world can join forces and address this question collectively.

However, I found some 2011 Canadian data on undergraduate language students studying to become teachers versus translation students. Only a quarter of Canada’s total language students study translation. We can easily assume based on Canada’s relatively high-profile translation industry that a worldwide average would fall to something closer to 10%.

If there is already an upward trend for language degrees, how can we attract more of those students to the translation services niche? It would surely be easier to attract future language teachers to translation services than to create awareness and visibility to nonlanguage students.

Although we don’t have a clear picture for undergraduate students and their career paths, we do have new information for graduate students of translation. Keeping in mind that only a small percentage of language students continue their studies in specialized translation master’s degrees (University of Leeds estimates 30%), we can safely assume that these students have already committed to a career path in the translation services sector and this is reflected in their early employment. The master’s institutions have a closer tab on their graduates. The European Masters in Translation (EMT) network has started a more rigorous process of researching the employment conditions of the graduates from EMT universities, and their data from 1,519 respondents sheds light on the chosen career paths of the graduate respondents in the EU (831 respondents were working in the language services industry, 209 in education and 84 in advertising and marketing, to name only the top three categories) as well as their salaries. The majority were working in-house either part or full-time, earning between €10,000-20,000 per year, followed by another group of in-house professionals earning between €20,000-30,000. Many either had a job before graduating (38.03%) or found one within six months (40.73%).

We do not seem to have much certainty about what happens to new language graduates when they enter the workplace, and whether they jump fields to work in other capacities with more defined career paths. In particular, I have concerns about those passionate individuals who pledge to join the ranks of the freelance translator community, but find themselves battling to make a living in what can be an unforgiving environment of providing language services as an independent contractor without experience, contacts, business knowledge or specialization. So, if you are a new graduate determined to wield your hard-won professional skills, but cannot or do not want to work in a large organization and decide to work for yourself, how on earth do you go about it? If that isn’t a challenge, I don’t know what is.

Academia’s point of view

To find answers to that very question, I turned to Dragoș Ciobanu, assistant professor of translation studies at the University of Leeds and program manager of the MA in applied translation studies. He also chairs the Professionalization Talks series, a program connecting MA and senior undergraduate students with language industry professionals. Ciobanu is also a board member of the EMT consortium aiming to improve the quality of translation training and provide help for young graduates entering the job market. In his early career days in 2003, he joined a new project, eCoLoRe, a three-year, EU-funded project whose consortium of universities built freely-accessible training resources on computer-assisted translation  tools and language technology for students, professors and language professionals. At this time he was also pursuing his doctorate in computer-assisted language learning and teaching at the University of Leeds Centre for Translation Studies (CTS). Although the eCoLoRe projects went dormant in 2009, he is part of a group reviving them through Translation Commons and participating in a pilot to enlarge the scope by involving students. He is also involved with his colleagues Alina Secară and Caroline Reiss in the DigiLing EU-funded project, building freely-accessible training resources for tomorrow’s digital linguists. He is currently also researching automatic speech recognition (ASR) and a professional translator’s output.

Ciobanu shared with me that he is gratified with initiatives such as ADT. He states that the industry’s criticism of a serious lack of standards in training has been addressed by initiatives such as the EMT, which collaborates closely with the industry through LIND-Web, the body that represents Elia, EUATC and GALA. Moreover, inviting students to the annual Translating Europe Forum in Brussels also raises the profile of the profession among students, professors, international organizations and industry alike.  The CTS has had a large number of language service providers (LSPs), EU and United Nations linguists, linguist associations and various industry professionals give regular webinars, master classes and small courses adding significantly to the students’ understanding of the language industry and the career paths available to them. The CTS was able to share with other universities some of the streamed webinars and talks created by Google and Belén Agulló. He also stressed the huge difference that LSP representatives such as Anu Carnegie-Brown and Raisa McNab from Sandberg Translation Partners (STP) — recently joined by Kim Harris from text&form — have been making by proactively funding, supporting, designing and delivering practical sessions or even entire short courses in localization project management to academic partners. He is now convinced that there is a strong bedrock of players committed to the quality, relevance and sustainability of translation training.

Overall, Ciobanu sees more opportunities for collaboration and urges both sides to attempt to understand the challenges that the other side faces. Specifically, the industry will need to appreciate that academic studies are not merely theoretical but also focus on applied issues such as technology optimization, productivity and quality, among others. Although academics are willing and able to change their curricula to reflect the industry needs, it takes an average of a year to have changes approved. And even when they do change their programs, it is impossible to address all issues due to their limitation on language-specific resources. Many universities with limited knowledge of language technology face an even more challenging issue to educate their professors or acquire new talent themselves, which poses new problems in matching industry talent with academic background requirements.

Perhaps the biggest issue that universities are not able to address is the skillset requirement for various career paths within the language industry. It seems that currently there are no set requirements. For example, for a project manager, the job description will vary from a large company to a small one; from an LSP to a tech corporation; from one geography to another; and definitely from one specialization to another. In Ciobanu’s opinion, the best way forward is to create internship opportunities for both professors and students and open up channels of communication on a regular basis. This could be an incentive for professors whose academic careers are dependent on research publications, as an involvement with language companies could help them include real-life research in their work.

However, Ciobanu is also clear that universities need to recognize that partnerships with industry will help them and their students. Academic language institutions that do not prepare their students to work on translation technology are inadvertently making them less employable than their counterparts who have been trained on tools. Individual professors need to be able to contact automation providers and ask for free academic licenses for their students, even if doing so is out of their comfort zone. In the same way, professional linguists are more than willing to volunteer a few hours to help students get a real-life glimpse of what to expect when they graduate, as long as they get asked.

Ciobanu summarized: “Everyone in our industry has a slightly different perspective on what needs to be done to increase our collective visibility and status. Yet few have the patience to seek the full story. We can no longer afford to indulge in a game of pass-the-blame, and instead we should recognize the significant effort which representatives from academia, industry, and international organizations have been making for several years now to ensure graduates are in the best place possible to join the language services industry as freelancers or in-house professionals. We should appreciate this work, build on it and steadily strive to improve on it for the sake of our students, our businesses and the whole world population who rely on language services to understand each other and prosper together.”

A solid bridge

Clients have requirements and the job of translators is to meet them. The requirements of multiple products and services, multiple audiences, multiple competitors and multiple markets in multiple languages demand meticulous organization in strategic positioning. The needs we fulfill are international and global in their reach. Imagining that our universities can prepare translation students for the multitude of real-life requirements and that when they graduate they will be as good as the veterans we seek them to replace is unrealistic.

Today the universities are preparing professionals in translation services with an advanced understanding of technology and specialties. I am always pleasantly surprised to experience the high standards of language proficiency that our graduates master during their studies today. Most of us had to learn on the job merely because we were the only ones who could do it at the time. Whatever happened to “training on the job”? It seems to have vanished when all the in-house positions were outsourced. We need to see LSPs creating internship opportunities and matching experienced translators with graduates for mentoring. We cannot complain of skill shortage when it is up to us to mentor and provide internships to help young graduates acquire the experience we demand them to possess before we entrust them with our work.

I would like to suggest we look at the issue from another angle: what is it that we are asking for and not finding in prospective candidates? Are our requests and job descriptions too narrow? Are the hiring processes too impersonal and automated? Do we ask for at least three to five years of experience without having created the means for graduates to earn it? To build a bridge we need to start from both sides.

So what is it to be? Do we want a rope bridge, Indiana Jones style? Or an iconic Golden Gate style structure, resplendent with moveable lanes, safety nets and a nonstop stream of traffic? We all want the latter. We all want to see the language community building solid lines of communication within and attracting the admiration of a translation-hungry world.