The growing interpreting market

Interpreting services and technology will represent 16% of outsourced language services in 2015, according to Common Sense Advisory (CSA) Research’s annual market study. In a separate survey the firm conducted with buyers of interpreting services from 25 countries, a hefty majority of 66% have seen their organization’s demand for interpreting increase for one or more language pairs over the last five years. They noted a steady rise in demand, driven by both the growing number and longer duration of interpreting assignments. Respondents cited changing populations, legislation, awareness, globalization and force majeure as drivers for this five-year growth spurt.

First off, some buyers experienced growth in a specific community of speakers in their area. For example, the arrival of refugees from another country added to the list of languages they needed to support.

Next, legislation requiring language access gets the attention of organizations providing certain services. For example, health care, legal entities and emergency response teams become more insistent on providing access to interpreters as they gain a greater understanding of the legal or regulatory requirements.

In turn, the general public also becomes more aware of its rights to access an interpreter. Internal staff education efforts have led to interpreting beneficiaries increasingly redeeming their option to receive language assistance, often at no cost.

Growth comes also from general economic and business trends. Whenever a company enters a new market, it often adds language capabilities to support external client and prospect needs, and to enable training and communication across internal teams. Meanwhile, economic changes can alter the need for language support in current markets. For example, one respondent tied the increasing need for interpreting support to the growing number of unemployment compensation claims.

And last but not least, force majeure disrupts language priorities. Respondents cited examples of natural and political events ranging from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the accession of new countries joining the European Union.

This increase in demand observed by buyers of language services finds its counterpart in the growth of the service offerings. CSA Research’s monitoring of the largest and fastest growing language service providers (LSPs) shows that interpreting-centric companies often grow faster than their translation-centric counterparts. But not all interpreting providers are progressing equally. LSPs that enable or deliver remote options — namely telephone or video interpreting — tend to show the most vibrant growth rates.

After learning about past trends from survey respondents, CSA Research turned to the future and asked buyers of language services how they see their demand for interpretation changing in the next three years. Only survey participants who already use a specific type of interpreting — on-site, over the phone (OPI) or video remote (VRI) — could respond to the question.

While the majority of respondents for all three types of interpreting see a rosy future for the practice, the survey did find significant discrepancies in their projection for these offerings. Around 60% of respondents expect the demand for on-site interpreting and telephone interpreting to increase. In contrast, 90% of the sample expects VRI demand to rise. This more recent, more convenient, but more disruptive offering explains in part the forecast of a slowdown in on-site interpreting (see Figure 1).

Three reasons emerged as drivers for buyers’ increased reliance on remote or virtualized interpreting modes such as OPI and VRI.

First, basic business needs favor VRI over on-site interpreting. Cost, immediacy and convenience explain the shift. Buyers seek to minimize expenses, but they also want to get interpreting on demand without the hassle of prescheduling a physical appearance by an interpreter.

Next, the supporting technology for remote interpreting has arrived. Users need access to the technology that supports OPI and VRI: dual-handset telephones, webcams, high-speed broadband, or 4G and LTE phone connections. However, specialized devices will gradually be eclipsed as providers adapt widely used or newly available technology — such as a robot interpreter that holds a tablet that displays a VRI interpreter, smart wearables to deliver access to the service without the need for staff to learn a brand-new system, and emerging solutions melding speech recognition and machine translation.

Third, the virtualization of businesses will change the nature of demand. Some respondents who forecast a reduction in interpretation needs link it to the use of English for corporate meetings. On the other hand, some survey-takers who see a shift to remote interpreting modes link their plans to corporate efforts to reduce the number of people physically attending meetings and appointments. They plan to reduce the cost of international travel and provide support, such as VRI, for faraway participants.

The bottom line is that the various types of interpreting won’t all experience the same steady growth. On-site interpreting is under siege by providers of OPI and VRI. Part of that market will succumb to these less costly alternatives, which often have the additional benefit of being available on demand. Even conference interpreting could see some of its work converted to VRI. However, buyers won’t eliminate any interpreting type from their communication tool portfolio. CSA Research expects further efforts by LSPs and technology suppliers to devise systems that connect a variety of interpreting resources — such as in-house linguists, interpreter networks, OPI and VRI vendors, and increasing automation possibilities — and enable buyers to prioritize the order of deployment of resources based on the use case and urgency.