Western Europe’s new translation community

The translation industry in Western Europe is reinventing itself, with a much greater community feel among professional translators and interpreters in 2014 than ever before.

However, the West European translation market is far from being a homogeneous one (Figure 1). Differences in competitiveness, export strategies, culture and approaches to official and minority languages make for very different translation markets.

Personal experience says that there is new vigor within the industry. Reliable European market research is not available to confirm this, however. The industry does not have its own precise market sector. As a result, its growth, activities and importance to the economy are obscured with extraneous data or arbitrary divisions between sectors. Different countries record data in different ways, making comparisons or combined figures difficult. Without reliable data, the sector cannot compete successfully with other sectors for investment; draw up convincing individual business plans for start-up loans; or campaign effectively for national government and European Union (EU) attention.


United Kingdom

The United Kingdom’s translation community faced considerable challenges in 2013. Professional court interpreters held fast in their opposition to the Ministry of Justice’s Framework Agreement with Capita Translation and Interpreting (formerly Applied Language Solutions). Unable to earn a livable wage in their chosen field, many professionals have had to diversify or leave the industry.

The Chartered Institute of Linguists said: “The majority of professionally qualified and experienced justice sector interpreters will not work for Capita on principle and it appears that those that are working for them are feeling mistreated. Meanwhile the number of complaints is rising and our country’s reputation for delivering justice and the right to a fair trial is in jeopardy.”

The European Commission adopted a directive in 2010 establishing the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. It has recently become binding in national laws. It guarantees all citizens involved in criminal proceedings in the EU the right to have justice delivered in their own language. The EU’s Justice Commissioner has been reported in the Irish Times as saying that the Commission would “not shy away from naming and shaming” states that did not implement the new directive.

Fighting under the umbrella of the Professional Interpreters for Justice has brought the previously disparate UK language bodies closer together. The two main language institutes in the UK are the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL), with over 6,000 members, and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), with over 3,000 members. The CIoL includes language professionals from the fields of business and education, as well as from translation and interpreting. The ITI is primarily for translation and interpreting professionals, although it has some corporate members too. Many translators and interpreters are members of more than one professional association. Both the CIoL and ITI include members based in countries outside the United Kingdom.

There is a widespread assumption in the United Kingdom that “everyone can speak English.” Research has shown that the UK shortage of foreign language skills costs the economy around £48 billion per year, or 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Britain is now addressing the problem by such measures as introducing languages at age seven in schools, although there may be an issue with finding skilled teachers, as the Netherlands has discovered. Demand is not just for professional linguists speaking Western European languages. There is a demand for professionally trained interpreters in a wide range of the world’s languages. Figures in the 2011 UK census showed that London’s cosmopolitan population spoke over 80 different languages.

Within the United Kingdom as well as in Europe in general, the journey to becoming a professional translator remains difficult. Mentoring schemes are on the increase, although more are needed. Modern restrictive employment contracts and social media policies do not make it easy for second career translators to make a gradual transition while maintaining an adequate income. It generally takes three years for a business to become well established, and some exit the industry as a result after their training. Greater recognition of professional qualifications between countries would help, such as a European Commission (EC)-backed central database of professional European translators and interpreters.



Ireland is recognized as a global leader in localization, partially because commercial, legal and technical language courses have been under threat of closure or have closed in the United Kingdom. The Irish universities of Dublin and Limerick are encouraging the development of high caliber graduates with the blend of language, business and technology skills required by its growing localization industry. As a result, many of the world’s largest software and web companies are attracted to Ireland. This brought an estimated €680 million to the Irish economy in 2012.

Multinationals often use Ireland as a base to serve customers in the rest of Europe. Its corporate tax laws came under criticism on both sides of the Atlantic in 2013. Ireland has argued that if it changed its approach to taxation, other low-tax European countries such as Luxembourg and Slovakia would simply take its place.

The Irish are taking advantage of Horizon 2020 to boost innovation. Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU research and innovation program ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020). The flagship Digital Agenda for Europe will improve internet access and speeds in rural areas. It is estimated that a 10% increase in broadband penetration increases GDP by 1-1.5%.



The French translation market has been adversely affected by the economic crisis. It has had the same consequences on translation budgets as other countries. New translation degrees have been developed alongside more established courses in France. As a result, more language students are entering the translation community.

The creation of a new, simplified legal status to start a small business (the “auto-entrepreneur” scheme) has helped professionals launch their businesses with lower tax rates, provided their revenue is below €32,600 annually. The primary aim has been to simplify otherwise complex procedures and reduce moonlighting. The scheme has not been well received in all professional circles. Some have voiced anger that lower tax rates result in unfair competition.

As in many other countries in the world, translation in France is not a regulated profession, meaning translators can establish themselves regardless of experience, qualifications or credentials. The French national statistics office figures for 2010 show that there were just over 11,000 registered translation businesses in France. This figure includes both translation companies and freelance professionals.

France has three major translation associations. Société française des traducteurs has about 1,500 individual members, the Association des traducteurs littéraires de France has about 850 literary translators, and the Association des traducteurs et adaptateurs de l’audiovisuel has about 220 audiovisual translators.

French translation associations do not offer a certification program. They require members to show proof that they are legally established. The process for becoming a sworn translator or interpreter is mostly an administrative one, with local court variations in the application process. The process is not based on translation skills. The legal situation is not regarded as being as critical as in the UK; however, French sworn translators and interpreters have voiced their concerns that a non-professional could be called upon to provide support in cases under the new EU directive.

France has long been protective of both its language and its culture, partially because of the Académie Française, the appointed guardian of the French language. Some of its suggestions are derided, especially in the ever-changing IT or media sectors. For example, in 2013, the Académie suggested the use of mot-dièse for the English hashtag. Most people did not understand that this usage would only be limited to official French documents. The recommendation was not intended for the general public.

Additionally, a French law (Loi Toubon) requires that all foreign language text in TV or printed advertisements must be rendered in French. In November 2013, 43 advertisers were called to account under this law.

In 2013, French President François Hollande gained the right to a “French cultural exception” within the EU. Trade ministers agreed to his request that the French audiovisual sector be excluded for its protection from a free trade agreement with the United States. This sector has been severely hit during the economic crisis. Falling movie revenues, endless replays of old programs on newly-created digital TV channels, and the widespread use of illegal film and TV streaming has placed severe constraints on the whole industry, and on audiovisual translators in particular. A new generation of amateur translators known as “fansubbers” has emerged, producing speedy and sloppy translations of programs that have yet to be released or have just been shown on American TV.

Germany and beyond

Germany has four translation and interpreting associations: the Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer (BDÜ), VÜD, ADÜ Nord and ATICOM. The BDÜ is the best known outside Germany. In Germany, translation rates are calculated differently. They are based on target lines of 55 keystrokes including spaces.

At the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies conference in Brussels in 2013, Ralf Lemster of Germany’s BDÜ gave an interesting presentation on how specialists are able to compete and command higher prices than non-specialists.

The Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs/International (FIT) is the voice of the international translation community. It brings together over 100 professional associations worldwide, representing 80,000 translators in 55 countries. Its twentieth World Congress will take place in Berlin, Germany, between August 4 and August 6, 2014, and Germany’s BDÜ will be acting as host. Androulla Vassiliou, the EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth will be the conference’s patron. A full list of European translation and interpreting associations not already mentioned in this article can be found on FIT’s website at www.fit-ift.org/?p=370.


Role of the European Union

Europe as a political entity is much broader than the Western European countries that are our focus. The EU now has 28 member countries and represents just over 505 million inhabitants with 24 official languages.

All language versions of an EU law carry the same legal weight. In this way, the EU aims to ensure that there is no discrimination between European citizens on the basis of language. It does not matter whether their language is widely spoken. They have the right to documentation and a reply in their own language.

The EC translated a total of 1,760,615 pages in 2012. The majority was translated into English (14.92%), followed by French (8.25%) and German (6.45%). In the same year, 2,273 were employed in translation and interpretation by the EC on a permanent or temporary basis. The annual cost of translation and interpretation is about 1% of the EU budget, or a little over €2 for every citizen.

Most of the daily work of the various EU bodies (Parliament, the EC, courts and so on) is in the main working languages of English, German and French. There have been complaints about poor quality English, French and German within European institutions. Indeed, it is stated that “Eurospeak” has become a language that is only understood by insiders. In a multilingual environment, speakers borrow from each others’ languages and the clarity of their native tongue can be lost. As a result, the EC has produced an English guide on “How to write clearly” to deal with the problem.

Inside the EC, the Directorate-General for Translation (DG Translation) has several translation-related initiatives. These include terminology (the IATE portal and the activities of the TermCoord unit); translation masters degrees (EMT, a quality label for university translation programs); and machine translation with the MT@EC program.

According to an EC study, up to 11% of small to medium enterprises (nearly a million firms) have lost contracts with potential clients in other EU countries because of language barriers. Recognizing the shortage of language skills, the EC is proposing that by 2020, at least 50% of all 15-year-olds in Europe should speak one foreign language as an “independent user” and 75% of all pupils should learn two foreign languages at lower secondary level.

Launched in January 2014, Erasmus+ is the new EU program aimed at boosting skills and employability between 2014-2020. Erasmus+ will provide opportunities for over four million Europeans to study, train, gain work experience and volunteer abroad. This has been built upon the original and very popular Erasmus program and other EC schemes. The updated scheme has been given a 40% increase in budget. For language students, this program is an invaluable opportunity to practice their foreign language skills and become immersed in another country’s culture.

Eighteen of the 28 EU countries use the euro as their currency. The euro has been welcomed by many European translators and agencies as it reduces the need for currency exchange. Concerns about late payment or even non-payment of invoices remain a factor in translators’ reluctance to work with direct and agency clients in other countries. Professional indemnity insurance for European translators to work with US and Canadian translation agencies is higher, while rates may be lower.

Many experienced professionals are concerned that the many translation portals take advantage of new, inexperienced or unqualified translators and drive down rates. There have also been concerns about résumé scamming.


The European Charter on minority languages

The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights states that the Union “shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.” The Council of Europe is made up of 47 European countries, including all 28 EU member states. Although a separate entity from the EU and EC, it works closely with them and handles most of the work on minority/regional languages.

It was the Council of Europe that initiated the European Charter on Minority Languages. This international treaty was adopted in 1992. It has so far been ratified by 25 countries, including 17 EU members. It has not been ratified by France, Belgium, Ireland, Greece or Italy.

The 24 official languages of the EU do not provide a comprehensive picture of the number of West European languages. Different sources give very wide variations in the number of fluent speakers and those with some familiarity with a minority language (Figure 2).

Irish Gaelic is an official language of Ireland and of the EU. Yet fewer than 100,000 people speak it on a daily basis. By contrast, Catalan is the official language of the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia. It can boast at least 7.2 million native speakers.

Thus, the treatment of minority and regional languages appears inconsistent. Some are in active use. Others are threatened by extinction. When a “minority” language gains official status, it creates an internal and niche market for translators and interpreters working with it. Some question expenditure on minority languages in tough economic times. Catalan and Basque are established well enough to have their own professional associations — the Associació Professional de Traductors i Intèprets de Catalunya and the Euskal Itzultzaile, Zuzentzaile eta Interpreteen Elkartea, respectively.

The Welsh language is an official language in Wales. The official status means that legally Welsh should not be treated less favorably than English in Wales. There is an association for Welsh translators and interpreters, Cymdeithas Cyfieithwyr Cymru or Association for Welsh Translators and Interpreters.

The 2011 census revealed that despite best efforts to promote Welsh, the number of Welsh speakers had fallen in the previous ten years. According to the census figures, 562,016 claimed that they were able to speak Welsh, while 2,393,825 of Welsh residents were not able to speak Welsh.

Non-indigenous languages are not generally given formal status or recognition in EU countries. Instead, immigrant communities may receive EU funding to help them integrate into their new countries of residence through its social and regional development programs.


Translation and interpreting standards in Europe

A sign of the maturing industry is the introduction of standards. The current European standard EN15038 has an increasing uptake among translation companies and has greater visibility among freelancers. New ISO standards will provide the translation and interpreting professionals with the long-awaited opportunity to differentiate their services worldwide. They will be able to demonstrate their added value in the standards language that clients understand and value from other industries.

The ISO Community Interpreting Standard is expected to go live toward the end of 2014 or early 2015. While this standard is viewed as most acutely required in the US and Canada, it will also be much welcomed in Europe. It will enable differentiation between professional community interpreters and those who are merely bilingual. The standard underlines the wider knowledge and experience necessary to provide a professional service. Its introduction should help raise the profile of the whole industry worldwide.

Built upon EN15038, the ISO Translation Services Standard should also be published toward the end of 2014 or early 2015. A more general interpreting standard is anticipated to be some two years away from publication.

Many of the translation agencies that originally favored IS0 9001 over the EN15038 are now recognizing the merit of the industry-specific European standard in the interim. A revised ISO 9001 is due in 2015 and will involve a major shift in emphasis. It will concentrate on the process approach and managing risk, as well as its fundamental objective of customer satisfaction and improvement.

The United Kingdom’s ISO TC37 Committee has been keen to address the concerns of freelancers regarding EN15038. A presentation and training materials have been worked out to encourage small companies and freelancers to follow the future ISO standard once published. These materials have already been subjected to preliminary trials and feedback.

There is a strong market demand for a transcription standard. Professional transcription services appear to be under the greatest threat from low-cost amateurs. The request for a transcription standard originated from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Also underway is a standard for the post-editing of machine translation. Many in the industry would like to see the same strict standards applied to post-editing as apply in the translation standards. It will only apply to the human element of post-editing. Machine translation technology is felt to be advancing at too fast a pace for standards development at this stage.

Among freelance translators, there is a pervasive view that to cooperate with machine translation is “suicide.” Similar reluctance occurred with translation memory systems on their introduction. Many translators remain unhappy with the way translation memory fuzzy matches were used to impose discounts on them. Today, translators feel that post-editing of machine translation is being used to impose discounted rates on them again, without full understanding of the creative and cultural aspects of their role.

The future

It is apparent that today’s translation community does not operate on a purely local or national basis. Communication and collaboration take place across European borders as never before. This new dynamism and spirit of cooperation is particularly marked among the new generation of professionally trained, technically competent and commercially aware translators and interpreters.

The EU is a great supporter of multilingualism, and this could be taken even further. Perhaps in these difficult economic times, with worryingly high youth unemployment in particular, there should be an adjustment in the cultural language emphasis of the Council of Europe. Language skills are a great facilitator to trade and international understanding, and greater recognition of professional qualifications between countries would assist new translators to become established. An EC-backed central database of European translators and interpreters would assist the recognition of trained professionals. A strong translation community with recognized status and standards would be uniquely positioned to help Europe and the world emerge from financial austerity.