#Translation Lydia Callis and the Biggest Industry You’ve Never Heard Of …

November 15, 2012

Deborah L. JacobsDeborah L. Jacobs, Forbes Staff 

I cover personal finance for baby boomers.

PERSONAL FINANCE
|
11/13/2012 @ 5:01PM |10.573 views

Lydia Callis and the Biggest Industry You’ve Never Heard Of

This is a guest post by Nataly Kelly, Chief Research Officer at the Boston-based research firm Common Sense Advisory and author of Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World(Penguin). You can follow her on Twitter.

One of the few bright spots of Hurricane Sandy was a woman named Lydia Callis. Viewers who watched New York City mayor Michael Bloombergaddress the public became entranced by her ability to quickly and expressively convert the mayor’s words into sign language. Even during the height of the storm, Callis was the lead story in many news outlets, and she soon became an internet phenomenon.

Callis’s moment in the spotlight gave the world a brief glimpse of a job that is largely invisible in American society. However, work like hers is vital, especially in times of emergency when communication is critical. Yet, tens of thousands of people throughout the United States work in jobs similar to hers, overcoming language barriers. The language services industry – which encompasses interpreting, translation, localization, and the accompanying technologies – is worth $33 billion globally, according to the latest market size estimates from Common Sense Advisory.

People tend to think of translators and interpreters as niche professions. However, these workers can be found in every conceivable industry sector. Contrary to popular belief, most interpreters (who work with spoken or signed languages) do not work at the United Nations. Instead, like Callis, they are more typically found in government offices, hospitals, courtrooms, and schools. Likewise, the majority of the world’s translators (who deal with written words) do not translate books.  The largest amount of work in this field comes from the manufacturing sector.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of jobs for these two professions will expand by 42% from 2010 to 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. In 2010, there were an estimated 58,400 jobs in translation and interpreting. These jobs are well-paying, with an average national salary of $43,300. Salaried interpreters and translators can earn up to six figures annually, depending on where they live and work. Many of these professionals work as freelancers.

How many sign language interpreters are there who, like Callis, specialize in sign language interpreting? The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, which is the nation’s largest association for interpreters, has more than 16,000 members and 58 affiliate chapters. Currently, there is a national shortage of sign language interpreters in the United States, even though there are 40 schools offering bachelor degree programs in American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting and 78 that offer associate degrees.

When it comes to translation, the largest national association is the American Translators Association (ATA), with more than 11,000 members, the majority of which are freelancers. For spoken language interpreting, interpreters often join ATA as well as specialized associations, such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators for court interpreting, and theInternational Medical Interpreters Association for healthcare interpreting. One group, InterpretAmerica, holds an annual summit for both spoken and signed language interpreters.

Individual translators and interpreters are not the only ones enjoying the benefits of this hidden industry. Most freelancers get their projects and assignments from agencies that specialize in translation and interpreting. These companies – which are mostly small businesses – enjoyed a market that has been steadily growing over the past decade, even throughout the global economic downturn. The translation and interpreting industry attracts many entrepreneurs, and is home to 26,000 businesses throughout the world.

Investors and venture capital firms are hot on the translation trail. In fact, the translation industry has been attracting some famous investors in recent years. Among those who have shares in language service and technology companies are Mark CubanAshton KutcherTim FerrissMarc BenioffGene Simmons, and U2’s Bono.

Nor is technology likely to erase the demand for translation. The availability of online translation services such as Google Translate has not put a dent in the demand for human services. Why not? The majority of paid translation work deals with confidential and proprietary information, and many companies are averse to handing their content over to third party web-based tools. Also, contrary to popular belief, many of the online tools are not free – at least, not for large-scale use. Google Translate charges $20 for every million characters of text, which works out to approximately five cents per page.

What about automating spoken and signed languages? In the future, this technology challenge may prove to be even more important than translating text. Of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages that exist in the world, most do not have a writing system – and about 200 of these are signed languages.  When you consider that translation tools must be developed one pair at a time – for example, think Chinese into 6,999 languages, French into 6,999 languages – you realize how far away we are from making the universal translator concept a reality. There are many promising projects in the works, but they are still limited in the scope of applications. None of these technologies have fully replaced human translators and interpreters.

Are we likely to see more of Lydia Callis and others like her in the near future? The answer is “yes,” and that can be heard – or signed – around the world.

 Also On Forbes

America’s 20 Most Surprising Six-Figure Jobs

America's 20 Most Surprising Six-Figure Jobs
+show more 

America’s 20 Most Surprising Six-Figure Jobs

Forbes combed through data gathered annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find the 20 most surprising six-figure jobs. The BLS culls its information from surveys it mails to businesses, and it releases its Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Data each spring. To make the cut for our list, the top-earning 10% of employees in the profession had to rake in more than $100,000 in 2011. Here are America’s most surprising six-figure jobs.