The role of translation in globalizing trade for developing countries

Mehdi Asadzadeh

Mehdi Asadzadeh is a faculty member at Islamic Azad University, Maragheh, Iran, and has many years of teaching experience in different universities in Iran and abroad.

Tayyebeh Ahmadi

Tayyebeh Ahmadi is a sworn translator and is now in charge of the Official Translators Affairs Office, Directorate General, Documents and Official Translators Affairs, Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


ince the emergence of translation studies, many have attempted to conceptualize how it fits into other disciplines. Here is an interdisciplinary look at the interaction between translation and trade globalization in light of its significance in Iran’s foreign trade as a developing country.

Translation service providers (TSPs) in emerging economies such as Iran need to reassess, rethink and revise their underlying trade policies. Additionally, the authorities and trade policy-makers of Iran seem not to be paying due attention to translation when designing their global trade strategies. However, strengthening the ties between trade sectors and TSPs is not only a win-win, but also a necessary step to be taken by countries such as Iran that encounter communication barriers in their foreign trade.

Generally speaking, globalization denotes an interconnectedness and interdependence among nations. This may result in the homogenization of the global system and low-cost, flowing communication. Integration of trade, finance, people and ideas in a global marketplace means that overseas business and investment play as the main actors of globalization.

The technological advances that led to a considerable reduction in the costs of transportation, computation and communication have also enabled many countries to locate various phases of production in different countries. This comes with a scale-up of the liberalization of trade markets — meaning many countries are currently leaving their economic doors open to foreign economies and exchange.

One of the important elements of globalization is communication. Communication is also what we, as translators, deal with the most. In fact, translation has communication as its core.

It is quite clear that unless a country has the tools, it can’t fight in an economic war based on developed countries taking advantage of the penetrable markets of developing countries.

Translation service providers in Iran

Let’s review the market condition and strategies for key TSPs and their connection with trade sectors in Iran as a developing country. According to my interview with the Officials of Directorate General, Documents and Official Translators Affairs of the Judiciary of Iran (2018), in Iran there is less chance for translation activities to enter into a transition from a segmented home-based activity to a coherent, systematic and developed industry. Of course, a very limited number of TSPs are preparing themselves for this.

Looking at the financial indicators of globalization, three could be numbered:

International trade in goods and services.

The transfer of money capital from one country to another.\t

The movement of people across national borders.

For any of the above to happen, an appropriate communication channel would be needed. That communication could be in any language, but trade-wise, the companies do really need to communicate in a lingua franca. This is the point that TSPs should be well aware of, since it could initiate a new financial trend for them.

Translation has always been a peripheral activity to most of the world’s companies, and thus regarded as a hidden cost for most businesses. That expense will grow with most companies, as globalization means that their products and services are exposed to more people around the world, each with their own translation requirements. This presents an opportunity for TSPs to have access to an unbelievable financial share in trade sectors — and the requirement that companies communicate in multiple languages.

The market for translation services has grown consistently over the last decade. Market research firm CSA Research estimated that the language services market in 2018 would turn over $46 billion, of which $29 billion was translation-related. In its report, “The Language Services Market: 2018,” the firm details the findings of its comprehensive analysis of the language sector, drawing on its global database of tens of thousands of translation, interpreting, localization and language technology companies. Topping its 2018 list of the largest providers around the globe was TransPerfect with reported revenue from the previous year of $614 million, followed by Lionbridge with $590 million. Table 1 shows the market share across regions, each steadily increasing in revenue.

Clearly, the global translation market is quite an eye-catching one that TSPs in Iran should take note of.

As we studied the companies that were actively involved in foreign trade, we noticed that only a rare number of them had come to the point that multilingual communication would grant them more success in a globalized world. This was the point that led them to look at translation not as a cost, but rather as a success tool.

IRITEC, for example, is an engineering company in Iran that provides services at national and international levels (see Its managing committee has started using translation services to compensate for lack of enough knowledge of trade lingua franca among their staff who participate in the foreign affairs of the company.

Petrochemical Commercial Company (PCC) is another company that has adopted the same system in its export procedure (see Understanding global market needs correctly, they have turned their attention to multilingual communication.

Table 1: Language services and technology share by region, 2017 to 2021. Source: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

The promising news is that TSPs are gradually redesigning their system of services. According to the statistics provided by the Official Translators Affairs of the Judiciary of Iran (2017), less than 5% of translational jobs in Iran are performed by professional TSPs and the others are done by freelance translators, who mostly translate unsystematically without having any special financial aim. This in turn leads to poor translations.

The other side of the coin is trade sectors. In a developing country like China, where language services have already carved out a niche for themselves, the outlook toward translation changed because it was understood that training all employees to communicate in a lingua franca required an excessive amount of money and was thus not justifiable.

Turning back to Iran, according to internal statistics, the volume of documents for translation has been gradually and steadily increasing.

IRITEC, PCC and a very rare number of companies that play active roles in the trade sector of Iran (National Iranian Oil Products Distribution Company, or NIOPDC, for example), are now applying strategic alignments in their future foreign trade policies in order to overcome possible language barriers. As per their strategic planning, they have as their very first step determined which texts and into which languages translation will be needed. They have started employing translators with field knowledge and have started applying global outreach in a “linguistic article” of their charter.

Lack of adequate professional translators

In the trade sectors, there is a lack of enough translators for numerous specialized fields and particular language combinations. This has stimulated international companies like IRITEC that make use of translation services to take adequate measures to avoid any disconnection in their communication that could create significant financial loss. So, what do they do to cope with it?

This lack of translators and interpreters is evident in other developing countries also. For instance, a report provided by the Chinese Embassy in the United States notes that “Despite the growing popularity of foreign language study throughout all age groups, China still suffers from a major lack of competent translators and interpreters.”

The translation industry in China employs around 500,000 people, including retirees, college students and returnees from overseas universities who work as freelancers, “but only 60,000 professional translators can produce accurate translations from Chinese into a foreign language,” the report states. China has nearly 3,000 registered translation firms, according to the Translators Association of China. But as the report points out, many of them are “briefcase companies” with only a telephone, a computer and one or two full-time employees.

A lack of adequate professional translators and interpreters is an issue that has to be dealt with duly. Supporting better and more consistent academic training for freelance translators and interpreters could bridge the gap to some extent. Inviting well-known scholars in translation studies to conduct classes in Iran is another solution to the problem.

The latter is the strategy some developed countries have also made use of. For example, Aston University in England has a center for translation studies where teaching staff from different countries have joined together with professional translators involved in international sectors.

What may be deduced from a study of the present status of the TSPs in Iran could be summarized as:

  • TSPs could carve out a place for themselves in trade markets by employing well-developed strategies in the professionalization processes.
  • Though smaller in number, specialized translation centers win greater market share than general freelance translators.
  • TSPs that have adopted global policies are executing their strategies much more efficiently than those that adopt traditional policies and, thus, are able to service a larger scope of customers.
  • TSPs that employ technology in their services and make use of professional translators are far more successful than TSPs that depend only on the knowledge of freelancers.

TSP involvement in the trade sector of Iran

TSP involvement in a trade activity has certainly got its own specifications both for TSPs and trade sectors. Trade sectors should note that translation is vital to success when companies take on multicultural markets. In a fierce competition in global markets, the trade sectors need every advantage when launching or promoting their services or products. To reach out to global customers, they have to employ professional translation services in their international marketing plans.

Figure 1: Stages in the growth of a TSP (Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown 2006).

TSPs in Iran should have trade experts on staff if they wish to be involved in trade sector activities. To go global, they should note that trade and financial language may vary and carry different connotations in different countries, necessitating them to employ professional financial translators who have deep knowledge of the format and terminology of trade activities.

The TSPs in Iran can have a bigger portion of the translation market if they do a few things:

First, their expertise in translation services depends on only offering language pairs for which they have professional staff. Limiting the services doesn’t mean limitation of their service scope, rather choosing not to prefer quality to quantity.

Integration of technological elements to their job is also a must for the TSPs of Iran. With the emergence of modern IT resources, the art of translation has also undergone dramatic changes. Technological advances have allowed translators easy access to translation memory tools designed to support translation.

Additionally, project management skills are core to the activities of any TSP. When the translation project involves rendering a few general texts, it is readily manageable, but when it involves translating technical texts, management becomes difficult — and even more difficult when more than two languages are involved.

Related to this, human resource management is a recognized attribute of successful TSPs. Iranian TSPs have to adopt academic strategies when conducting such management. Unfortunately, this is rarely observed in management systems of TSPs in Iran.

Finally, quality control and marketing strategies should be integrated into the translation activities of TSPs of Iran.

Considering the overall process of translation jobs being carried out in Iran as a developing country, and taking note of the characteristics a TSP should have in order to indulge in the trade sector’s activities, it is essential for Iranian TSPs to:

  • Create proper networks (such as forums, research communities and industry focus groups), and include freelancers, translation tools and trade sectors in them.
  • Expand their language resources in order to cope with unpredictable trade developments — for example, to expand their terminological resources.
  • Develop training programs cross-disciplinarily and move the education continuum toward modernization and incorporation of advanced technologies.
  • Require knowledge of trade and globalization as a prerequisite for freelancers to take part in related translation projects.
  • Focus on the process rather than any specific language. This could be done by, for instance, establishing language research centers that could offer the latest developments in language-related issues to TSPs, allowing them always to be up to date.
  • Adopt new platforms and patterns of communication. After all, advances in technology and existence of multimedia necessitate accordance.
  • Be cost-effective enough to stimulate trade sectors to make use of their services widely.

In fact, TSPs have to follow the Figure 1 pattern for expanding their service area.

Authorities, translation policy-makers and trade globalization

Globalization as a complex set of economic practices has posed certain challenges to the traditional boundaries of the economic policy of developing countries. As an influential phenomenon, transnational frameworks decenter state-oriented trends and vividly challenge the methodological nationalism of much prevailing economic policy.

Policy as a process has assumed international characteristics in that it deals with levels beyond nation-states.

Existence of systematic contacts between policy-makers, both in the trade sector and the translation realm, could surely result in further development of both spheres. In Iran, there is not an academic approach toward achievement of such a goal. According to a random survey of the related documents in the Directorate General, Documents and Official Translators Affairs of the Judiciary of Iran (2018), we noticed that less than 5% of TSPs’ policy-makers have relationships with the government, where decisions and policies about translation are made. The employment of translators and making use of translational activities offered by TSPs should also be taken note of in trade policies.

The case of China demonstrates well how a comprehensive policy could result in success of TSPs. In “The Influence of the Market on Translating—A Tentative Study of the Market-oriented Translation in China,” Tian Chuanmao states that: “The implementation of the open-door policy since 1978 resulted in a higher and higher frequency of international exchanges in all fields including politics, economy, culture, science and technology. Translation services became more and more needed. As a response to this demand, translation companies began to make their debut in the translation market.”

Chuanmao specifies that some of these companies developed out of the translation department of the government or state-owned enterprises. Others were established by bilingual individuals, translation professors or former full-time translators from government institutions. This new “translation career began to open to everyone and in recent years it has become a very profitable industry due to the accelerating globalization and increasing exchanges between China and other countries.”

It is mandatory for the policy-makers of Iran and similar countries to capitalize on the experiences of developing countries that have been successful in integrating translation services into the body of their economy. To do this, they should do a number of things. First, provide for the establishment of translation associations and promote interaction between them; second, facilitate translation associations’ connections with other organizations and institutes (particularly trade organizations). They should also promote standards of academic training for those who are interested in translation. They may even want to encourage scholars to conduct further research into establishing new interdisciplinary courses of education related to translation studies. A possible area could be between trade and translation in consideration of globalization.

Finally, they should promote TSPs’ status in society by revising existing policies that see translation as peripheral and not a main branch of academia.