Behind the Scenes

Lobbying for Language

Terena Bell

Terena Bell is a reporter covering the language industry for MultiLingual, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and others. In a past life, she owned In Every Language, an LSP, and served on the GALA and ALC boards.

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hy do you work in localization? For translators, this answer may be more obvious. Translation itself is an often-underappreci-ated job; the general assumption is most people do it for love, not money. Translators themselves tend to be smart enough to have their pick of industries: a legal translator could have easily become a lawyer; marketing localizers are perfectly capable of writing source language blogs and slogans. According to a 2020 Common Sense Advisory report, 42% of global translators and interpreters came to the industry from another profession and more than half originally studied something else. Greek translator Christos Flo-ros, for example, majored in political science, but says, “My love of languages made me choose this industry.”

So what about those jobs that have nothing — or very little — to do with language? Take the person who codes translation software: she could just as easily program enterprise sales platforms or dating apps. Or the person who does write those blogs and slogans, except for translation companies instead of for clients: why does she work in the language industry?

The fact is, there are a lot of people who keep localization moving without translating a single word. Who are they? Why do they do this?

Welcome to “Behind the Scenes,” MultiLingual’s latest column. Over the course of 2021, we’ll take a look not at localization’s unsung heroes so to speak, but at its often-overlooked ones. Together, let’s shine a light on the non-language, language professions.

This issue gets us started with Bill Rivers, lobbyist for the Association of Language Companies (ALC), the largest trade association for language services companies in the United States. Rivers was appointed to the role last August after working as executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), a US lobbying group representing translation and language education. For those outside the United States, that means Rivers “asks elected and appointed officials to take action on behalf of someone — in my case,” he explains, “on behalf of the language industry.” The first amendment of the US Constitution grants all Americans the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While individuals often do this on their own, writing and calling their elected representatives, industry associations typically hire a pro. Rivers approaches local and federal government leaders with information about the language industry, advocating for its needs.

In 2020, for example, one of Rivers’ major projects was the continued fight against California Assembly Bill 5. Passed in 2019, this state law required “gig workers,” including translators and interpreters, be classified as employees, not freelancers. According to US-based training group InterpretAmerica, more than 5,000 of California’s linguists work freelance — and 75% worldwide per Common Sense Advisory’s 2020 report. At the time of interview, Rivers was advocating for a language industry exemption.

Lobbyists represent a myriad of industries, from manufacturing to real estate to agriculture. The job title itself actually comes from President Ulysses S Grant who needed something to call people waiting in the lobby, vying to get his attention. For Rivers, language came first, lobbying second: Early in his career, he worked as a Russian translator.

“I’ve only ever lobbied on behalf of the language enterprise,” Rivers says. “Coming from the industry, being multilingual and born overseas [in Bavaria, Germany] gives me a certain perspective on what we do.” What makes lobbying for this industry different from others, he contends, “is that everything we do

is for the greater good.” Translation provides life-saving healthcare communication, life-altering social services information, and drives the international economy.

Rivers says, “Everything we do is for the national interest. I firmly believe that, and our story is an easy sell on Capitol Hill,” the area of Washington, DC where senators and congresspeople work. “As Hans Fenstermacher said years ago,” Rivers adds, “we’re the biggest industry that nobody knows of. We’re part of every vertical in the US economy; you can’t design a product or service for global sales without us. We’re present in every community in the country, providing language access. But at the same time, there are outdated ideas about the industry that need to be constantly challenged,” and many of these ideas are prevalent among today’s US government leaders: “Not everyone is learning English globally and — of the 600 million or so who are — very few will learn it well enough to communicate effectively.”

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Bill Rivers

Still, Rivers says people are often surprised to learn language industry lobbyists exist, “even in DC, where it seems that every imaginable group has a lobbyist.”