IN an increasingly globalised world, greater movements of goods, services and people result in the convergence of cultures and languages in global cities. As firms seek to deepen their global footprint, global cities then become inverse Towers of Babel, hubs of diversity.
There is a need to bridge divides in diversity, especially in terms of communication. As such, the global demand for translation services has been increasing in recent years.
The global translation market was valued at an estimated US$34.7 billion last year, and growing at a rate of 5.13 per cent per annum, according to studies by research firm Common Sense Advisory. And the translation services industry in Singapore is seeing that trend as well.
While sector-wide figures are not available, translation firms that The Business Times spoke to report a slow but steady climb in demand for their services in last several years, with business growing in the high single-digit rate.
"Demand has increased in the last three years due to globalisation of product-related materials as a result of increased overseas trade by companies," said Nicholas Goh, CEO of Verztec Consulting, a content firm that also does translation work.
As the translation industry is highly fragmented, BT is unable to obtain recent and precise data of Singapore's translation industry. However, a media report in 2005 estimated the value of the local translation industry to be $8 million per annum.
Common Sense Advisory said that Singaporean language service providers (LSPs) earn most of their revenue from finance and insurance, as well as wholesale and retail trade. LSPs have also noted that government agencies and multinational corporations make up the bulk of their client base, as their volume of projects is much larger than that of individual customers.
Most of the LSPs surveyed said simplified Chinese-English translations have the highest demand among all the other language pairs. This is largely attributed to Singapore's strong economic ties with China.
Some firms, however, take a more cynical view. They deem it to be indicative of the declining Chinese-language proficiency of Singaporean Chinese, the failure of Singapore's bilingual policy. This spells trouble as Chinese-English translations demanded by local firms are likely to be outsourced to the cheapest foreign supplier.
Nickson Cheng, chief executive officer of Lingua Technologies, said: "In order to maximise your profit margin, you can only go for the lowest of the low." According to Mr Cheng, translation jobs would then be directed to "obscure sweatshop-like translation companies" abroad, with no in-house quality assurance processes in place.
These reasons may explain for the glaring mistranslations by government agencies in recent years. In 2012, it was reported that the Singapore Tourism Board's Chinese-language website termed Chinese New Year to be "China's New Year". When the National Heritage Board linked its English website content to Google Translate last year, "Bras Basah" was reduced to "bust Basah" in Chinese.
Contained within the comic sphere, mistranslations are at best amusing and at worst embarrassing. Beyond that, even the slightest mistranslation might cause a ripple effect in the political or economic spheres. Just last month, the National Translation Committee was set up. Still in its nascent stages, the Committee has yet to delve into the nuts and bolts of implementing changes to arrest the problems plaguing the translation industry. However, plans are afoot to accredit translators employed by government agencies to raise translation standards. This has been met with mixed reactions from LSPs.
LSPs which regard this as a favourable move believe that this initiative will increase the professionalism of the translation industry.
Vijay Suppiah, head of CLS Communication, said: "This will definitely increase the professional standards of the translation industry. This will also create awareness among both the buyers and suppliers the importance of using the right terminology for specific industries."
However, other LSPs raised concerns about accreditation.
Will accreditation meet the rising demand for translation services? Will it improve the quality of translation services supplied? And, above all, will it lead to a shift in public perception as people finally acknowledge translation as a veritable profession? After all, these LSPs noted that clients often prioritise price and speed over the importance of quality and accuracy in translation, thus undermining the professionalism of the industry.
Dean O' Sullivan, director of Asia Translate, said: "Unfortunately, translation is still viewed by many as a 'commodity' rather than a value-added service. We often face an uphill struggle in convincing small businesses and SMEs in particular, that the cheapest is not always the best."
Whizwordz, a global LSP, said: "Accreditation will lead to higher costs for the consumers in the short term, as they may be unused to paying higher prices for what is often seen as non-professional work" and a paradigm shift of the value of quality and accurate translation among consumers is essential.
Straker Translations, another global LSP, agreed that accreditation would increase the cost to consumers without a corresponding increase in quality value, especially if LSPs already have correct quality systems in place. Unconvinced that translation is an intricate craft, higher prices would push consumers to source for cheaper suppliers. As established earlier, cheap services often beget shabby translations - leading to a vicious circle.
Catherine Irvana, director of Lingua Port, said that using certified translators give customers "some guarantee of competence".
Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Institute of Management offer a graduate diploma and a degree programme for translation, respectively. However, the take-up rates for both are rather modest.
LSPs seem unfazed by the take-up rates. Some believe that it will take time for the relatively new translation programmes to gain traction, as compared to more established global certifications such as the American Translators Association certification.
Others, such as Sage Languages, simply believe that "being accredited does not make one a better translator" as "translation competence and skills take time to build up". Across the board, LSPs identified experience, specialised knowledge and commitment as some defining qualities of a skilled translator.
Aside from human translators, some LSPs are tapping translation technology to increase the efficiency, quantity, (and arguably) quality of their services. Asia Translate notes that the burgeoning demand for translation services is driven by translation becoming "increasingly relevant across all platforms including mobile, web, social media and software".
However, Verztec notes the need to take into account the nuances of language and localisation of context in translation.
Technology and accreditation thus prove to be necessary, but still insufficient, to cope with both the high demand and expectations of the translation industry in Singapore.