Not many people know that there is a global industry that derives its revenue from helping businesses overcome language barriers. But when those who know talk about the language industry, what and who do they refer to? One way to define this is to look at what the global language industry does.
Providers of language services and technology
There are two main areas where the stakeholders of the language industry operate. The larger one is the provision of language related services. These services range from translation and localisation to interpreting, multilingual terminology creation and management, content creation, content testing, training of artificial intelligence to deal with language related tasks, and even consultation services that are related to the global aspects of doing business.
Thus, we can say that the companies that provide some of these services operate in the language industry space. Research shows that 97.5 % of the businesses that call themselves “language service companies” provide translation and localisation services.
Who do they do this language related work for? Over 70% of the language service provider companies work for clients in the technology, IT and software sector. Almost 70% also work for clients in the life science sector, while another 66% work for companies in the financial and legal sectors.
These figures show that the technology and regulated industries drive a lot of the business in the language industry. The other key area of the language industry is language related technology. Companies that develop technology that enables or supports the provision of language related services make up a growing part of the industry. Examples of such technologies include translation environments that utilise translation memories and machine translation engines; systems that make it possible for interpreters to work remotely from the people they are interpreting; tools for translating audio-visual content; quality management tools that look for errors in translations, and technology that converts speech to text and text to speech.
In summary, the language industry consists of companies who either provide language related services or develop technology related to those services.
Other industry stakeholders
The industry contains other stakeholders as well: people or organisations that have a vested interest in language services and language technology.
Clients are key stakeholders. They are the companies who buy language services and own the content that is created, translated, localised or adapted. And beyond them are their clients – the people who are the ultimate audiences and consumers of the multilingual content. These content users can be very powerful in determining whether the language services provided are fit for purpose or not.
There are also other service companies that play a role in the provision of language services. A Desk Top Publishing company is a good example, as most language service companies have a DTP partner as a part of their service solution. And, of course, the industry has a huge number of individual language professionals who work as sole traders and freelancers. (Not) surprisingly, most of the actual linguistic work in the world is carried out by them.
Then there are membership organisations. These associations specialise in supporting the different stakeholder groups, and they operate at different levels: some at the national level, some regionally, covering for example Europe, and some globally.
There are also market research organisations that specialise in the language industry and publish research into what’s happening there.
Last but not least, the industry has academic partners: the university programs that teach translation, localisation, language engineering, and interpreting. By collaborating with academia, industry professionals are able to contribute to what skills and background the people working in the industry in five- or ten-years’ time will have.
The market for language services
When we assess the size of a language services market, we either try to measure it by the money the content owners in that market spend on language services, or by the revenue language service companies report from that market.
These estimates vary. Market research expert Nimdzi reported that the global content owner spent in 2020 was 55 billion USD but added that maybe only 60% turned into an income for the language industry.
There are approximately 20,000 language service provider companies in the world. A company is defined as a setup that has at least two employees, so the figure does not include sole traders and freelancers. The largest companies are approaching an annual revenue figure of one billion USD. To be included in the global Top100 rankings, however, a language service company needs an annual revenue of over 10 million USD. This shows that the majority of the 20,000 language service providers are small companies.
How language service providers differentiate
A language service company can choose its position in the market in different ways. The most common one is to select its clients based on a vertical focus. This means specialising in serving companies in a specific industry sector. Examples of verticals that the industry has traditionally specialised in include the automotive industry, the legal sector, healthcare, entertainment, and games.
Then there are companies who do not specialise in a vertical language offering, but in a narrow one. They translate into a limited number of languages, which can become their expertise and their unique selling point. A company like this tends to be regional rather than global and to specialise in the languages of their own country or region.
A language service provider may also focus on providing a specific service or a range of services. For example, a company could provide remote interpreting solely or a company, that in the recent years has shifted its focus onto services, could aim at training artificial intelligence. The offer of services like data tagging and sentiment analysis and other tasks that enable AI to process human output in different languages would be other cases in point.
The global language industry is collaborative, and this collaboration is characterised by a disregard for hierarchy. The size of the language service companies does not always matter because specialisation lends importance to the smaller players. The roles of who is the client and who is the supplier may alternate and be reversed in the complex language service supply chains. Furthermore, the constant need for innovation drives language companies into forming R&D partnerships and technical alliances.
*Anu Carnegie-Brown is a C-suite professional based in the UK with 30 years of authentic experience in the global language industry. She has expertise in the Nordic market, creating and communicating strategy, building teams and growing translation companies from modest start-ups to streamlined organisations. She is also managing director at Sandberg.