A Sleeping Giant: The Language Industry in China Moves Forward
A major translation event few language professionals heard of occurred in Xi’an, China on April 27. Sponsored by Xi’an International Studies University (XISU)’s Collaborative Innovation Center for Silk Road Language Services, the 2019 Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Degrees in Translation conference for educators in masters of translation and interpreting (MTI) programs in China brought together approximately 600 professors and localization professionals for a day of discussion about education and the language industry. I was fortunate to be invited to give a speech on the future of CAT tools to this audience and to get a taste of the dynamic and growing language services sector in China.
Some of the approximately 600 attendees at the annual conference for MTI educators in China (Source: CSA Research)
China Ramps Up Even as the West Slows Down
At a time when the United States and Europe are seeing precipitous declines in enrollment in language studies, China is headed in the opposite direction, with increasing numbers of translation students enrolling. Currently, approximately 300 universities in the country offer MTI programs, with a similar number providing undergraduate programs as well. If 15 students graduate each year from these programs, this means 4,500 new Chinese translators are available for work each year. Many of them are learning their trade in new electronic classrooms that would be at home in any leading university.
New translator training classroom at XISU (Source: CSA Research)
Many of these programs are affiliated with universities that cover many fields of study, but others are associated with specialist universities that have a track for language studies in their special focus area. This contrasts with American and European universities where translation is typically an autonomous field of study in the humanities department. For example, a Chinese university of mining technology might offer an MTI program that specializes in the needs of mining and mineral companies. These programs often work closely with language service providers – both domestic and foreign – to provide real-work experience for the students that emphasizes the requirements of particular domains. Graduates emerge as subject matter experts and translators.
China Finds Its Own Road
As with much of what happens in China, the development of the language industry in that country is taking a direction quite different from that of the West. Western institutions emphasize that language professionals translate into their mother tongue, but burgeoning demand for localization in China and limited knowledge of Chinese in other markets means that there simply are not enough translators from Chinese to French, German, Russian, or other major market languages at a price point that Chinese enterprises are willing to pay. As a result, these Chinese students translate from Chinese into their second (or third or fourth languages) and then send the results to revisers responsible for fixing errors. This approach – coupled with the domain knowledge mentioned above – provides cadres of translators positioned to meet the needs of Chinese industry at conditions they are willing to invest in. As graduates enter the workforce, they will transform the linguistic outreach of companies in Greater China, which is currently the area most likely to have domestic or regional (rather than global) outlook.
A delegation from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) visits the Collaborative Innovation Center for Silk Road Language Services (Source: Corey Cao (XISU))
Why is China heading in this direction? Part of it is a matter of government policy. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government is interested in projecting Chinese “soft power” to other regions, and supporting the language needs of their exporters is one way to accomplish this goal. Given the small number of qualified translators from Chinese into other languages, the market would be unlikely to meet demand at a reasonable price point without this support.
The presentations and exhibition at the 2019 Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Degrees in Translation also show that China has developed a robust domestic industry to produce teaching solutions specifically for the needs of MTI programs. Rather than looking outside the country for options or adapting products developed elsewhere, the universities find ones from domestic suppliers with deep knowledge of the needs of Chinese students and teachers. Many of these companies are not marketing outside the huge and growing Chinese market. At the same time, MTI programs are keen to use CAT tools and want to adopt standard language technologies. Although Chinese LSPs have traditionally been competitive based on low cost of labor, development of the economy means that they are facing the same pressures to automate and gain in efficiency that are driving language companies in other regions.
An Opportunity for LSPs If They Approach It Right
Global LSPs that want to expand to China need to understand the particularities of the market and should plan on close collaboration with universities in the region. They should also adapt their business models – at least for translation from Chinese to other languages – to reflect the unique needs of the market. As Chinese enterprises transform from producers of commodity goods into global brands in their own right, the opportunity is significant for those companies that can get it right.
The broad capacity just now coming online in China is also a direct challenge for complacent LSPs in the West. While such companies may downplay the risk from thousands of translators going into non-native languages, the combination of domain knowledge few translators in the West have with lower wages, savvy use of CAT tools, and careful deployment of native-language revisers creates an alternative business model that will be increasingly attractive for clients looking for a bargain.
As they grow, Chinese LSPs will not be content to limit themselves to their home market but will start offering disruptive services elsewhere. These may start out as bulk offerings, but they will improve and create competition for traditional LSPs. Established players should learn from the Chinese example and find ways to match the services offered in order to remain competitive.
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