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News article30 November 20205 min read

COVID-19: How has it affected the world of translation?

By Josephine Chaillou and Anna Van Der Kallen, students in the MA in Professional and Technical Translation, Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers Translated by Hayley Hopkins and Katie More, students in the MA in Professional Translation for European Languages, University of Newcastle  

Translator during COVID

For several months now, the world has been impacted by a virus that has cast uncertainty on the future. On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The impact of the virus has been felt deeply, especially in the world of work, and across all occupations. Businesses have largely had to adapt to working remotely in order to overcome the difficulties facing them, which has its advantages and disadvantages. But what has it meant for the translation profession?

The impact of the pandemic on translators

The French professional association SFT (Société française des traducteurs) carried out a survey from mid-June to mid-July 2020. It revealed that 57% of the 526 participants believed that the crisis would have a negative impact on their work. Of this 57%, 48% anticipated having to take on a side job, 23% were considering retraining, 15% were thinking of temporarily suspending their work and 7% were thinking of quitting permanently.

These figures show the way in which the crisis has affected the translation profession not just professionally but also mentally. Not knowing where this crisis will lead us has caused some people to fear that they may lose their jobs and, subsequently, that they will have to change profession. In order to make it out the other side, we must adapt.  

This survey only takes into account a small percentage of French translators. In order to get more representative results, we would have to carry out a larger-scale study, or even an international one, that would affirm, refute or qualify these findings.

In August 2020, the CSA research institute conducted a global survey of freelance translators. From the 1,174 responses across 97 countries, the survey found the same trends emerging throughout the translating community: lower income, fewer job opportunities and a decline in workload, but very few requests for lower rates. Moreover, 65% of respondents believed that COVID-19 had changed the market temporarily, 25% that it had changed it permanently and 10% that it had not changed it at all. The survey also shows that in some sectors demand for translation services is on the rise, whilst in other areas it is declining.  

Graph translation demands increase
Graph translation demands decrease

For translators, working remotely is nothing new. Indeed, it is common for a translator to be in contact with companies, agencies and others from the comfort of their own home. It has therefore been somewhat easier for them to adapt to the new way of working in the short term.  

Nevertheless, not everything has been plain sailing, and the older generations especially have had greater difficulty using online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Some have therefore decided to take IT training to be able to continue working as efficiently as possible, and thus avoid an almost inevitable drop in income.

Indeed, this drop in income is worrying many translators. During the crisis, most have been considering ways to make up for a possible drop in workload, despite the large number of official health documents that suddenly need translating.

The impact of the pandemic on interpreters

Graph income interpreters

While these last few months have been difficult for translators, the impact has been especially brutal for interpreters. The pandemic has caused an almost total shut down; work has dried up, seeing as events, conferences and conventions have been cancelled or postponed. Recently qualified interpreters have been the most affected, having suddenly found themselves with no income. Nor do they have many other work opportunities as they are relatively new to the interpreting community. Furthermore, many other sectors they might have otherwise turned to, such as tourism or business, have also closed due to the pandemic. Interpreters, therefore, have also had to adapt to the new situation and accept that working methods need to be changed in order to respond to market demand.

As a result of this, remote interpreting has rocketed, although clients are requesting jobs at ever shorter notice (sometimes up to an hour before). Remote interpreting also brings its own share of challenges, however, such as internet connection problems and microphones cutting out. You must have the right equipment for the job; having access to a soundproofed room, or at least a quiet room, is especially important.

In addition, some interpreters have had to use platforms such as Zoom, Webex, or Microsoft Teams for their interpreting work, as these tools are considered easy to use. However, these services are not as effective as specially designed interpreting platforms where a pair of interpreters can communicate with each other without disturbing the other participants. Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams are platforms that focus mainly on oral communication, and they can seem very user friendly. But for an interpreter, the substantial acoustic shock, considerable cognitive load and a fall in their income make these services very unattractive.

Anticipate and adapt

COVID-19 has thus impacted almost all aspects of translation, whether it be demand, income or working methods. Nevertheless, despite the problems translators have faced, the interpreting profession has been the most severely affected in the sector, seeing a 24% fall in income, compared to an 8% fall for translators.

The translating and interpreting professions are therefore not without risks. The economic and technological upheaval of recent years has been exacerbated by this health crisis, rendering the future uncertain. It is this uncertainty that worries most translators; what will the permanent consequences of the crisis be? How will the market evolve in the future? Will it still be possible to rely solely on freelance translation, or will retraining become necessary?

This crisis has brought about a great deal of difficulties for translators, and despite their best efforts so far, many still find themselves in a precarious position. Overcoming the problems brought on by this pandemic will therefore rest on their ability to anticipate future potential work and to adapt their own working methods.


Publication date
30 November 2020
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EMT Category
  • Professional experience/employability