Since about 1980, the United States has lost about 40% of the manufacturing jobs that used to be plentiful here up until the late seventies and that used to pay a higher salary than most jobs in the service industry, first to countries such as Mexico, more recently mostly to China. As China is becoming wealthier, the labor cost in that formerly communist country, now in many respects more capitalist that the US as the socialist mindset expressed in privatized profits and socialized losses after the bailout of Wall Street and car makers does not seem to exist in China, is becoming more expensive. Multinational corporations will probably be moving their production facilities somewhere else as soon as the next suitable countries with low labor costs are identified.
Words like “capitalism”, “socialism” or “free enterprise” no longer have the same meaning that they used to have just a few years ago, before the world discovered the consequences of the concept of “too big to fail”, namely that we are all indentured servants of big banks and major corporations because their money gives them a complete control over our government.
So what happened to the translation industry so far in the 21st century in this and other countries? How is it different from what it used to be 10 or 20 years ago?
The answer would probably depend very much on what kind of translation we are talking about, in what field and in what language direction. Translation work in some fields and some language combinations was probably outsourced to a large extent from countries with a high cost of living to countries with a lower cost of living.
But in my particular field, namely translation of patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages to English, the main difference between the situation now and 10 or 15 years ago is that thanks to the Internet, the entire world is now my market.
Although the majority of my clients are still in the United States, this week for instance, I was asked to give a price quote for translating Japanese patents to English to potential customers (who are not translation agencies) in Israel, Slovenia, and Germany, while working on a job for a client in England. Because English is still the lingua franca of this world at the beginning of the 21st century, it makes more sense to have a Japanese patent translated into English instead of into Hebrew, Slovenian or German so that people in several countries could read it.
While millions of manufacturing jobs have left this country, and many of them probably for good, the situation is not necessarily quite as gloomy in the part of the service industry represented by the translation business, depending on your language combination and your specialization.
It would seem to make sense to outsource my job to a country with a lower cost of living such as China or India, and you could probably find quite a few translators in these countries who claim to be able to translate for example Japanese to English. Although the chances are that most of translations obtained in this manner are likely to be considerably better than what one can expect from machine translation, they will probably not be nearly as good as what one can expect from an experienced patent translator who has decades of experience in a given field and who is a native speaker of English, or at least writes at the level of an educated native English speaker.
Several other factors also work to my advantage. First of all, the money that patent law firms spend on my translation is not really their money. It’s their client’s money. Before a translation is ordered, I usually have to give them my cost estimate that has to be approved by their client. The law firm is thus not necessarily interested in a lower cost of translation as long as the cost is OK with their client.
On the other hand, the law firms that I work for can only use my translations if they are accurate. I made one mistake a few months ago in a translation of a long Japanese patent, more than 25 thousand words. Because there was a typo in one date on the cover sheet in my translation, I had to correct the date, issue a new certification of my translation, and send a new file as a new certified translation to the client. You can’t have typos in a translation that is used as evidence in court.
While the cost issue is important, since other issues, accuracy in particular, are more important in my line of work, I don’t think that my job will be outsourced to a cheaper supplier as long as I don’t make stupid mistakes.
I am just guessing here, of course, but I think that many translators, in different countries, different translation fields, and different language combinations are in a similar situation to mine if their translations are considered important for one reason or another.
Although it would seem that it should be easy to outsource translation to a country with a lower cost labor, this is not necessarily the case.
In spite of the complicated logistics and transportation costs inevitable in the manufacturing industry, it is probably in most cases easier to outsource blue collar manufacturing jobs to countries with a lower labor cost than white collar (pajama color?) jobs in the service industry, such as the job of a specialized translator.