Language Industry Visibility

By Gabrielle Dahms

Jeannette Stewart shared her ideas for solving one of the language service industry’s biggest challenges—its invisibility.

Jeannette Stewart

General Meeting presenter Jeannette Stewart

At our May 11 General Meeting, Jeannette Stewart shared her extensive experience in globalization management. The backbone of Stewart’s presentation was a problem all language industry professionals share: our contributions to a final product frequently are and remain invisible. Stewart gained a deep understanding of this issue as former CEO of CommuniCare, a leading language services provider that specializes in the life sciences, and through her active participation in language industry associations and conferences. In her view, language professionals remain invisible because the public and companies do not know what we do; they hardly believe we are essential and take us and our work for granted. This is astounding, given the size and profitability of the global language industry—which, according to a study conducted for the Canadian government, grew from 82.6 billion USD in 2011 to 87.4 billion USD in 2015. Yet neither the public nor business communities are aware that excellent translating and interpreting require a wide range of skills: language skills, listening skills, cultural understanding and sensitivity, and comprehension of the depth, structure, and intent of language. Working with clients also demands creativity, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving skills, and social skills.

That corporate leaders know little about what and how language professionals contribute to the success of a product is compounded by our own self-evaluation and approach to corporations. For example, we allow others to consider us an “add-on” to global business development, nothing more. And freelance translators have even less visibility than translators working on the staff of a company or corporation. There is no obvious and clear career path for the public to understand the way translators work and contribute to the commercial world. Also, the multiple sectors of the language industry have proceeded along their own paths, often without sufficient interaction. Further, the symbiosis between language software (CAT tools) and translators has yet to evolve into a new business model.

That is why Stewart argues that to become visible we must show what translators do. We must educate the public with magazine articles, for example—articles that are non-academic and geared to the public, to companies and businesses that hire translators, and to the language industry itself. Creating such awareness demands a sincere self-evaluation of the language industry. We might address the public’s satisfaction with “good enough” machine translations. Or we might detail what makes a great translation. Or we might advocate for better, more streamlined translator education and standards and provide resources aimed at specialized translation career paths.

However, all such solutions rely on data and to date, data is lacking. Tracking how much translation professional turnover exists, for instance, is hindered by corporate confidentiality. Stewart’s solution calls for companies, individuals, and associations to form a cohesive unit for the common good. It also presents language industry analysis as a circular path where translators and interpreters, clients, automation, universities, and consultants are part of a flow. That means each party contributes different skills and different needs to the discussion, thereby paving the way to overcoming invisibility.
One example of an organization dedicated to coherence among translators is the nonprofit online community that Stewart founded, Translation Commons. It is based on the four foundations that underlie all models of community, as articulated in the pivotal study by David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis1: membership, influence, meeting needs, and shared emotional connections. The idea behind Translation Commons is to showcase translators’ skills and abilities by providing community members with a platform and visibility. To date, the 1,548 registered members have donated an impressive 14,171 hours to volunteer projects. Translation Commons members develop and manage the platform. The community places a strong emphasis on experienced translators mentoring new translators.

Other interesting components of this nonprofit organization are its affiliation with several international universities and its indigenous language initiative. Both are more academic, yet present interesting and worthy affiliations. This also explains why most translators and interpreters seeking paying clients are unlikely to find such connections on the Translation Commons site. Most professionals I know, especially freelancers, equate visibility with finding meaningful paid work. At this time Translation Commons has no such connections, offerings, or opportunities, but that may well change. Building community and visibility takes time, and it requires contribution and patience. Anyone interested in what this community has to offer should visit and consider becoming a member.

1. McMillan and Chavis, “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory,” Journal of Community Psychology 14 (1986): 6–23,

Gabrielle DahmsGabrielle Dahms has been a freelance German into English and English into German translator for more than 20 years. Her translations include medical, public health, marketing, and corporate texts and documents. She recently published her first nonfiction book, serves as a volunteer for Friends of the Urban Forest, and improves her Spanish every opportunity she gets. In late 2018, she trekked the W in Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.