Translating and interpreting is a growing, but uneven, industry

Jiri Stejskal, president of Cetra Language Solutions, an Elkins Park company that supplies translators and interpreters.
Jiri Stejskal, president of Cetra Language Solutions, an Elkins Park company that supplies translators and interpreters. (JANE M. VON BERGEN / Staff)
Posted: May 08, 2011

Dale Eggett, who will finish a master's degree in less than three weeks, will go to work the week after, having had no problem landing a job.

"I did have multiple, multiple job offers," said Eggett, whose Spanish and computer skills put him in the forefront of a burgeoning field. The global marketplace for interpreting, translating, and other language services was estimated at $26.3 billion in 2010 and is projected to reach $38.1 billion by 2013.

Most people are familiar with translators, who deal with the written word. Interpreters handle oral communication in government agencies, courtrooms, doctors' offices, and businesses.

But Eggett, 28, of California, who will graduate from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, will be paid $50,000 a year to work in a relatively new discipline, localization management, which provides one of the best chances for steady employment in language services.

Localization combines language expertise with computer savvy. "I'm kind of behind the scenes making the job easier for translators," Eggett said. When a website needs to be translated, it's Eggett's job to strip out the coding and send the translator only what needs to be translated.

The work is painstaking. Imagine a complex website with multiple drop-down boxes, leading to more drop-down boxes. Each element on each box needs to be translated.

"Some people may find it boring," Eggett said. "I find it interesting."

Like many other sectors, language services face unique challenges, said Jiri Stejskal, president of Cetra Language Solutions, an Elkins Park company that supplies translators, interpreters, and localization experts to a range of clients. That's how most interpreters and translators get work.

Stejskal is in a better position to know than most. He was recently president of the American Translators Association and is in line to become president of the International Federation of Translators, in Basel, Switzerland.

One issue is machine translation. "It's not quite there yet," Stejskal said. He pulled out a screen grab of a Philadelphia government website that used the familiar journalism term "lead story" on its home page. Somehow in Spanish it morphed into a "story about metal," featuring a photograph of former Mayor Juan F. Calle (John Street).

But a more fundamental and ongoing struggle is to educate employers about the difference between being simply bilingual and truly qualified.

Top interpreters need to hear what is said and speak it in another language simultaneously. That's the gold standard used at the United Nations and international conferences, and high proficiency can merit a six-figure income.

That level of ability isn't the same as language skills gained by growing up in a bilingual household. "Knowing how to cook doesn't make you a chef," Stejskal said.

That cook-or-chef question is exactly what the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging's human-resources director, Raymond Polak, is trying to resolve. The social-services agency has a staff of interpreters but wants to hire bilingual case managers to work with the city's aging immigrant community.

"We're trying to develop that capacity in-house," Polak said.

Geopolitics brings its own demand for language services, and often the supply is not up to the task.

So intense was the need for Pashto, Dari, and other languages in Afghanistan that some of those hired were "barely literate," Stejskal said, "and they were still making six figures."

Translators typically get paid by the word. Anne Connor, president of the Delaware Valley Translators Association, loves when she gets a job translating Spanish into English if the client pays by the Spanish word. With all its prepositions and articles, Spanish uses more words than English to convey the same idea. Freelance translators can earn $60,000 a year, according to the latest available survey, taken in 2006.

Interpreters can earn considerably less, mainly because their work is paid by the hour and jobs may come infrequently. One in five earns less than $10,000 a year, according Common Sense Advisory, the same industry research group that calculated the size of the global market.

The best chance to earn the most is to develop a specialty, perhaps in complex business arrangements or some highly technical field, or to be certified in a language in demand, such as Arabic.

"It's a very interesting career," said Nevin Fahmii of Bryn Mawr, who has used her Arabic in this field for 30 years. Each day and assignment is different.

Fahmii, who grew up in Egypt, expects the troubles in many Arab countries to yield more work for her as students from those countries, in school here, seek asylum.

"I've seen some of that already," she said.

More typical was her day late last month.

A midmorning assignment to translate at a hospital was canceled when the patient changed the appointment.

Sometimes the medical work can be upsetting. Fahmii has had to tell parents that their child would die in a few months. "It's very sad," she said. "But that's the nature of the job."

Also on her schedule was a federal sentencing hearing. In the courtroom, she stood facing the judge, side by side with the defendant, a man who had pleaded guilty to the unlawful production of identification documents.

"Sometimes, if the sentence is bad, it's upsetting," Fahmii said. "There can be lots of emotions. But the interpreter has to shield herself. You have to be a mouth. That's it."


Language Services

Responsibilities: Translators convert written documents. Interpreters handle the spoken word. Localization specialists use computer and linguistic skills to translate websites and handle coding.

Education: At least a college degree, often in a language, plus professional credentials.

Background: Many people have bilingual backgrounds, then study languages extensively.

Pay: Most interpreters and translators work freelance, finding work through agencies. Translators, paid by the word, can earn $60,000 a year. Interpreters, paid by the hour, average $35,000, but some earn more than $100,000.


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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