WASHINGTON – It’s a high-stakes, multibillion-dollar industry with tight deadlines, demanding clients and lives at risk. Any miscommunication could cause a deep financial loss or death. Some in the industry work in war zones while others have cozy home offices.
“The stakes can be huge,” said Lillian Clementi, 55. “There’s tons of time pressure.”
The business is language. And it’s booming.
The number of jobs for translators and interpreters doubled in the past 10 years while their wages steadily grew before, during and after the recession. Jobs are expected to grow 46 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the Labor Department, making it one of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations.
During a period of stagnating wages across the labor market, the language-service industry with its 50,000 jobs is a bright spot in the jobs outlook.
Clementi is a French translator who works in corporate communications from her home in Arlington, Va. Clementi is routinely on tight deadlines to submit translated material.
One of Clementi’s former clients, a French company, routinely would send her legal documents to translate at the end of France’s workday — about midday on the East Coast. Clementi would translate the material and e-mail it to another translator in Australia to double-check it. Then the Australian translator sent the translated documents back to France before the company’s offices opened the next day in Paris.
“It had literally gone around the globe,” said Clementi, who translates French into English. “This has been going on forever in this industry.”
In some cases, a proper translation or interpretation is vital. If a user’s manual for medical equipment is not translated well, it could lead to confusion during an emergency. Soldiers in conflict areas require excellent interpreters to speak with community members. Any change of tone or context could put lives at risk.
Translators’ and interpreters’ relative immunity to the nation’s economic downturn also highlights the growing demand for multilingual speakers in an increasingly globalized economy, experts said.
“Good translators who specialize in a particular subject and become really good at it can really make six-digit figures annually,” said Jiri Stejskal, spokesman for the American Translators Association. “The professional translators and interpreters … they are pretty happy right now because the economy is good and the jobs are there.”
Multinational corporations, U.S. demographic changes and the Internet economy raise the need for translated and localized information. Companies increasingly want their content tailored to the tongue of the town, even between dialects of the same language. For instance, trousers in London are pants in Miami. And of course, words like pop and soda can seemingly vary by the neighborhood.
“As more people have access to the worldwide economy, that’s going to drive more commerce, and that’s going to drive more language services,” said Bill Rivers, executive director of the National Council for Language and International Studies in the Washington region.
The number of translator and interpreter jobs went from about 25,000 to 50,000 between 2004 and 2012, according to Occupational Employment Statistics, a Labor Department subsidiary. The OES figures do not include self-employed workers. Another Labor Department survey, Employment Projections, counts self-employed workers. Altogether, there were more than 63,000 translators and interpreters in 2012, Employment Projections reported last December.
Six-figure income possible
Ted Wozniak expected to earn a lower-middle-class wage when he started as a freelance translator 15 years ago. Wozniak, 57, translates German financial documents, such as Adidas’ earnings reports, into English. For the past 10 years his salary has hovered around $100,000, he said.
“I expected to make a mediocre, medium living,” said Wozniak, the translators association treasurer who lives in Harlingen, Texas. “I know several translators that are in the six figures.”
Companies in Western European countries, such as Germany, are required by law to translate their financial documents into English, Wozniak said. That requirement creates a demand for his services.
Adjusted for inflation, the median annual salary for translators and interpreters rose from $44,500 to $53,410 between 2004 and 2012, according to Labor Department data. The majority of full-time workers are freelancers and they are paid by the word, ranging from 7 cents a word to 30 cents, depending on the language and specialization, according to association.
Qualifications for translators — who work with text — and interpreters — who work with spoken language — are not as simple as they may seem. Speaking two languages does not mean a person can work in the language-service industry, experts said. Furthermore, the most successful translators and interpreters maintain a specialty, such as legal documents, quarterly earnings reports or an industry expertise.
Technological advances may cut jobs in some industries, but online translation services like Google Translate actually raise demand for human translators and interpreters, experts said.
“Even Google doesn’t use Google Translate for their business documents,” Clementi said.