Middle East

Iran: Asia’s next big thing in translation (maybe)

Neil Payne

Neil Payne ran a translation agency for over ten years before moving into training and consultancy. He now runs Commisceo Global, which specializes in global business skills, and Accensus, which provides training to the translation industry.


few months ago, the title of this article would have been a lot more confident in its assertion. The world of politics, however, feels as though it changes course daily, denying anyone any sense of certainty for what the future may hold.

Iran is a case in point. Earlier this year it seemed the world’s political leaders had gotten to grips with the regime in the Islamic Republic, coaxing them through the JCPOA (known to us mortals as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”) to drop their ambitions for nuclear energy in exchange for a relaxation of economic sanctions that have crippled the country in various guises since its revolution in 1979.

The dangling carrot seemed to be working with the prospects of some sense of economic normality encouraging the Iranian regime to put much-needed prosperity above political dogma. Central to their ambitious plan to upgrade the economy (outlined in the “2025 Vision”) is foreign investment and inviting the world in. Globally, the feeling was that Iran was back in business, which would have spelled a boom in the translations needed to service the activity in/out of the country.

In May 2018, however, this all changed with President Trump announcing that the US was pulling out of the deal. Not only that, but the US was also going to be reimposing sanctions that are due to start in August this year. The announcement has led to brands and businesses canceling business with Iran, all leery of finding themselves on the wrong side of US law.

In response, the EU is busy formulating the “Blocking Regulation” that will legally require European nationals, businesses and institutions to ignore the US sanctions and to provide protection against potential repercussions. Whether sanctuary in such statutes is sought, or not, will ultimately come down to an entity’s dealings with the US — in short, the less you have to do with the US the less you need to worry.

So, although Iran’s prospects may have been dented, they are far from destroyed, creating an opportunity for those in the translation industry with no ties to the US keen on capitalizing on future trends.

Iran’s potential is huge. It currently boasts the second largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa. It has one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon and mineral reserves, as well as significant and diversified non-oil sectors including agriculture, industrial production and services. Since 2014, and despite sanctions, the country’s resilience has paid dividends with economic growth projected to surpass that of Saudi Arabia and Turkey within ten years.

With a population of some 78 million people, 64% are between ages 15-54, literate, educated, tech-savvy and well-informed. A middle-class consumer base has created a buoyant marketplace for goods and services with increased income equality, helping drive consumption across the classes.

As well as serving a hungry consumer economy, Iran is also desperate to bring in foreign help to assist in exploiting its oil and gas reserves, improve manufacturing and industry, invest in its transport infrastructure, lift its banking and finance sector and to create innovation in environmental solutions.

This all spells good news for translation — the more companies, organizations and entities working in or with Iran, the more demand there will be for language services, whether translating user manuals, marketing messages or magazines.

The first to benefit will be Iran’s beleaguered translation sector. Forty years of pariah status has impacted the country in many ways, with the sector perhaps illustrating perfectly what the consequences of sanctions have been.

Students have been unable to travel, study and learn and, as such, take back the ideas, solutions and best practices that are so important in driving any sector forward. Work has been restricted due to the very limited trade and economic activity that can happen with Iran. As a result, Iranian translators have been deprived of the massive variety of texts that their counterparts might be using elsewhere. Being cut off from the world has deprived them of knowledge and access to solutions, which has dramatically suppressed any modernization of the sector. Paper and pen is still the default method of translation for many; computer-based translation tools are but a dream.

Economically, sanctions have all but strangled Iranian freelancers’ abilities to make a proper living from the profession. For one, getting paid is a major headache. Bank payments are impossible, which leaves freelancers with one or two online payment solutions that either charge them extortionate exchange rates or can suspend their accounts without notice. The only other alternative is to find “brokers” who receive payments but then, of course, take their cut.

A further result of the sanctions is that Iranian agencies and freelancers are losing business to foreign agencies. Unable to work directly with Iranians, large buyers of Farsi translations are forced to go through vendors in places such as India and Egypt to avoid direct contact. The result is a loss of income for the Iranians as well as a loss of ownership over the process and interaction with the end user.

It may therefore come as no surprise to learn that Iran’s translation sector is highly fragmented. The private sector is dominated by small agencies and freelancers who all serve a diverse customer base across the country from the government to academia to business. The translation economy is very much based on who you know, with personal loyalties and connections guaranteeing business. Somewhat of a Wild West, the private sector lacks regulation, standards and leadership resulting in a disparate array of services and solutions plagued by low rates, external competition and unqualified translators.

Within the public sector, work is carried out by “certified” translators, linguists who receive official recognition from the National Judicial System to put their stamp on completed translations. Unfortunately, the system is abused by some certified translators who have simply become stamping machines — they stamp other translators’ work in exchange for payment as opposed to doing the translation. The result is inconsistency and an undermining of the profession, which is felt very strongly both within and outside the sector.

Trying to represent the sector within Iran are the IACTI (Iranian Association of Certified Translators and Interpreters) and ITIA (Iranian Translators and Interpreters Association), both of which put on a limited number of events and try to provide support to their members. Progress, for all the reasons discussed regarding sanctions, has been slow, with skepticism among practitioners regarding the purpose of such organizations not helping.

Although the picture being painted is not overly positive, neither should it be interpreted as overly negative. Let’s remember this is a sector that has had one hand tied behind its back for decades. In fact, it is this handicap that has forced the Iranian translators into being creative, resourceful and self-reliant.

One simple example is the fact that, despite international copyright laws, Iranian translators have felt an obligation to keep their compatriots in touch with the latest ideas, technology and fashions through translation of thousands of foreign books, novels and texts. Working with poor resources and overcoming major IT challenges, it is these translators who have grappled with new terminologies, concepts and formats helping not only the country, but also keeping the translation tradition alive and kicking.

Alongside this, there has also been the need for Iran to learn new languages. Traditionally reliant on French and English, the country was forced into learning the languages of new trade partners such as Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, which has now created a talent pool offering extremely niche language combinations.

If anything, this should be the takeaway message — that Iran is both resourceful and ready. Its potential has been severely crushed for decades, yet it has always managed to punch above its weight. With its shackles removed and well-intentioned outside help, the translation industry in Iran is ready to explode — in a good way. For the global translation industry, Asia’s next big thing (maybe) is something to look forward to, giving us all an injection of future promise and profits.

At a political level, although things are turbulent, there is currently a window of opportunity not only in terms of new markets, clients, partners and income streams, but also for the industry as a whole to provide support to colleagues and peers in Iran through collaboration. Their arms are wide open and welcoming… it’s now down to us.