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Our Analysts' Insights

29Apr

The Shock That COVID-19 Caused to the Interpreting Market

The language services industry is in disarray. Engrained ways of providing interpreting services became obsolete in a matter of days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations that use interpreting services, language service providers, technology vendors, and interpreters are struggling to comprehend the new reality and adapt to it. 

In times of uncertainty, reliable data matters. To better guide our clients during these tough times, CSA Research conducted 36 interviews and business updates in March and April 2020 with interpreting-centric language service providers, technology vendors, and buy-side organizations. In addition, we have been keeping the pulse of the progression of the effects of the pandemic through a series of COVID-19-related surveys that we conducted with enterprises, LSPs, and freelancers.

We sifted through this data to assess how the microscopic virus sent the interpreting industry into an out-of-control spiral in a matter of days. Organizers postponed or even outright canceled events planned months or years in advance. What was a best practice before – bringing professional interpreters on location – suddenly became an unsafe delivery method. Remote interpreting technology providers, often seen as the pariahs of the industry, instantly turned into the new stars. In a role reversal, the interpreters – who frequently dismissed these platforms as unwanted gadgets –found a sudden faith in remote interpreting.

BLG_Interp_COVID

The Huge Impact of the Pandemic

The collapse of the largest portion of the interpreting market – namely on-site and conference interpreting – is a wake-up call for all industry stakeholders to evolve. The table below shows the average percentage of conference and on-site interpreting revenue based on 124 LSP responses related to how COVID-19 has affected their businesses as of late March. Providers with a strong focus on in-person interpreting are clearly more affected by the current business climate than their more translation-centric counterparts.

How has COVID-19 affected your business as of today?

Average In-Person Revenue from…

Conference Interpreting

On-Site Interpreting

Overall business has decreased

9.9%

23.5%

Overall business is the same

1.3%

2.8%

Overall business has increased

3.6%

3.8%

Too soon to tell

2.0%

2.2%


We averaged the revenue loss reported by 127 freelance interpreters during a survey conducted in mid-April. They now earn 72% less from spoken language services than prior to the pandemic.

How can providers stay in business? What will be the collateral damage of COVID-19? What opportunities exist for tech-minded people? Our recently published report dives into the impact for the various stakeholders, whether on the buy-side or supply-side. We cover on-site, conference, telephone, video, remote simultaneous, and machine interpreting and provide concrete advice for buyers, language service providers, technology vendors, and freelancers. 

The Future

The bottom line is that in-person interpreting modalities have taken a huge hit, while remote ones have at least partially gotten a boost from COVID-19. All in all, what will the interpreting landscape look like post-pandemic?

  • The crisis will permanently alter the way interpreting is delivered. It’s akin to how 9/11 changed how we now get on an airplane. While most of the pre-pandemic demand will revert back to its previous mode after things settle, some healthcare, court, and conferences may choose to stick with remote services. Organizations in all areas will discover new use cases that will expand the market potential for the various services – but especially for remote and machine interpreting. For example, a clerk at a city office may more commonly use a tablet enabled with an MI app to communicate with a citizen trying to renew his driver license in the future.
     
  • Remote interpreting will dominate new communication forms. Telephone, video, and remote simultaneous interpreting are ideal solutions to address the needs of communications that already entail a remote component, such as video or audio conferences, virtual events, earnings conference calls, and expert interviews.
     
  • Some providers will not survive the tough economic times. The suppliers most in jeopardy are those that were ill-prepared prior to the pandemic to handle remote interpreting and had little revenue coming from more stable language services. We can expect surviving companies to have an increased focus on diversification.
     
  • Supply chain models may evolve. LSPs may stay away from contact centers where they can’t easily ensure social distancing. In contrast, their clients may choose to bring more interpreting teams in-house for better control in times of crises such as pandemics, natural disaster, civil conflict, and wars.

However, we’re not out of the pandemic yet. Be prepared for multiple waves of the infection, which would trigger another series of cancelations. A second wave might not be as bad if we learn from our missteps on this one – but nonetheless could disrupt everything again before mass testing is implemented or a vaccine or cure can be found.

About the Author

Hélène Pielmeier

Hélène Pielmeier

Director of LSP Service

Focuses on LSP business management, strategic planning, sales and marketing strategy and execution, project and vendor management, quality process development, and interpreting technologies

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