Macro/Micro: Untangling the deemed export mess

War is one heck of a macroforce. Let’s face it, there are fewer things on this earth that impact more aspects of people’s lives than war. Whether or not countries are getting along, and to what extent, greatly controls the outcome of almost everything it touches: world politics, the economy, even translation.

I’m not talking about language services for the defense industry, even though that’s clearly a way in which the macroforce of war and peace impacts our work worlds. I’m talking about exporting. Exporting, you say? Yes, deemed exporting.

In the United States, the federal definition of a deemed export is an export of technological information that is “deemed” to take place when it is released to a foreign national who’s within the United States or to a foreign national who’s — well, logically enough — in a foreign country. In other words, if you send software code, design specs or similar information abroad for translation, the US government considers you to be an exporter, and that information to be an export. And there are rules surrounding exporters and exports that change depending on who the United States is at war with, used to be at war with, thinks it might go to war with — aw, heck, let’s just say it — pretend for the moment that countries are people. Now ask yourself if people always get along.

I’ll admit, war is an extreme word to use in these circumstances. But our industry’s prior lack of attention to this matter could get a lot of companies and their clients in big trouble.

Here’s what happens: The US government doesn’t want innovative information, public or private, sent out of the United States and into countries it doesn’t get along with. As translation providers, we are constantly sending our clients’ information all around the world. If that information gets sent from the United States to a country the United States has sanctioned, we and our clients could get fined or go to jail. Like real jail. The kind with bars and stuff. Got your attention now?

In all seriousness, according to a University of Texas at Austin 2009 report, “[V]iolations of the EAR [Export Administration Regulations] are subject to both criminal and administrative penalties. Fines for export violations, including anti-boycott violations, can reach up to $1,000,000 per violation in criminal cases, and $250,000 per violation in most administrative cases. In addition, criminal violators may be sentenced to prison time up to 20 years, and administrative penalties may include the denial of export privileges.” This affects both translation client and translation company, which is why many of In Every Language’s manufacturing customers and others are now building deemed export clauses into their contracts and purchase orders. Because no one wants to go to jail over a translation — or at least I don’t — so they make us sign something saying that we won’t break deemed exporting regulations and that if we do, they can always show where they told us not to.

As the owner of a translation company, when I first found out about this, the whole concept seemed unfathomable to me. Personally, I tend to think of translation as a peaceful thing, and ideology aside, some languages just aren’t spoken in countries that the United States does get along with. For example, as of this writing, Myanmar is on the US no-no list. But where else do they natively speak Karen, Chin and Burmese? Perhaps we could find a professional translator in the United States who speaks those languages, but according to federal regulation, giving information to a foreign national living in the United States is just like giving it to someone still in that country. I’m not an attorney (and nothing in this article is meant as legal advice whatsoever and if you think for one minute I’m an attorney it’s your own darn fault), but it’s my non-attorney understanding that the translator would have to stop being a citizen of Myanmar and start being a citizen of the United States or of a country we get along with. Of course, this being said, Burmese, Chin and Karen are most likely not at the top of anyone’s most-needed languages list. But before you think this is a minor issue just affecting languages of limited diffusion, think again. They speak Spanish in Cuba, another country on the no-no list. So where else is on the list? At the time of this writing, Iran, the Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Belarus, the Ivory Coast, Iraq, Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Palestine.

Now, let’s take this up a notch, lest you think only these countries will be affected. In addition to deemed exports, you have what are called deemed re-exports. That’s right: re-exports. According to the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), a re-export is when you send something to one country, then someone in that country sends it to another one. For example, an American client sends the document for translation to a company in England that then sends it to a freelance translator in Cuba. In other words, going back to our countries-as-people analogy, you may know better than to tell your secrets to Bob, but if you tell them to Mary, knowing that Bob and Mary are friends, the federal government thinks you should have the wherewithal to not be surprised when Mary tells Bob. This means that exporting information to practically any country may be in risk of putting you at risk, unless, of course, that country has the exact same set of friends the United States does.

I don’t know about you, but by this point even I am shocked and confused, and I’m the one writing the article. Basically, as the person sending information out of country, the US government believes you have the responsibility to make sure that information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Whose hands are the wrong ones? Well, that depends on what the information’s about and on the current political climate. If you really want to learn more, “The Deemed Export Rule in the Era of Globalization” (, a US Secretary of Commerce document, makes for an especially descriptive nighttime read. I highly recommend it if you’re an insomniac who prefers homeopathic cures to prescription medication.

Personally, when my company is in doubt, I just pay a trade consultant to tell me where we can send materials. According to the BIS, you can also apply for special treatment under EAR99, seek a license exception or get a special exporter’s license.

When I write this column, I try to look for larger issues in the bigger world and then hone down how they affect us in ours. This is one issue I freely admit I will never be an expert in. But I don’t have to be an export expert to see how clearly this can impact the translation industry. Translation companies send materials where the best professionals are for the project. Sometimes the only person who speaks Cuban Spanish, specializes in technical translation, and can deliver in CAD format with translation memory by 10 a.m. Eastern Time next Tuesday lives in Cuba. Our industry is a remarkably fine-tuned one and many of us involved in it care more about people than we do place. But at the same time, we have to be aware that the US government cares very much about place and I’m willing to bet that if we started looking into other governments, there are a heap of them that care very much about place as well.

This deemed export mess is real. It has the potential to affect the availability of languages and specializations that we offer our clients. It has the potential to affect the price of translation itself, as freelance translators in okay countries might charge more than ones in sanctioned countries. It has the potential to affect transparency, as due to deemed exporting, clients may have a legal incentive to know precisely who their translation is being contracted out to and where those translators live. It has the potential to affect quality, as the home country’s language most likely will have changed since the native speaker left it and became a US citizen. Yes, one heck of a macroforce.