People walk past a construction site at the Chinese part of the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center (ICBC), in Horgos, China, May 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov

When US firms began selling software years ago on China’s domestic market their products couldn’t be used right out of the box. 

Screen layouts and labels had to be altered to cope with the switch to Chinese characters. Everything from the characters on the PC screen to the printed manuals needed to be translated from English into Chinese.

Adapting foreign technology for Chinese users helped fuel a billion-dollar industry in so-called localization services that involve adapting products – technically, linguistically, culturally – for target markets. If Beijing succeeds in its ambitious Belt and Road (BRI) initiative to create an integrated economic zone connecting Central Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the demand for localization services will be even greater.

“There will be a big need, specifically from Chinese to other languages — Chinese to Arabic, Chinese to Russian, Chinese to Malay,” says Matt Arney, the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Translate Now, a company that specializes in Asian language localization, Chinese payment integration, e-commerce website setups and other services.

A range of localization expertise could be tapped. Localization, for example, requires engineers for software and hardware, as well as for user interfaces, writing product manuals and testing.

In Europe, foreign machinery makers must translate all user documents into each language of the European Union if they wish to sell their products in those EU countries.

If Chinese firms sell heavy machinery, say, in Greece’s Port of Piraeus – where China is already building infrastructure – this will spur the need for translated manuals in Greek or other language-based services. US companies would take similar steps if they participated in BRI-related projects.

Market size

How big is the potential global market for localization services under BRI? There are no hard figures. Analysts are just starting to crunch the numbers on the initiative’s economic impact.

It’s not unreasonable, however to expect that BRI – which some say may require anywhere from US$1 trillion to US$3 trillion in investments – will add billions to an already billion-dollar localization industry.

“I think there’s going to be a huge need for linguists and interpreters to go out and work with Chinese officials and business folks in the countries they’re going into”

According to the market research firm Common Sense Advisory, the worldwide language services market raked in US$43 billion in 2017. Asia accounted for around 9% of this revenue, while Europe made up about 50%. This is up sharply from worldwide revenue of US$23.27 billion in 2010 and US$14.25 billion in 2008.

Common Sense Advisory chief strategist and adviser Donald DePalma says Asian revenue, which includes China, is probably higher but cites the “opacity” of reporting data from the region.

Demand for language-based services and products has also moved beyond basic translation and localization services into areas like neural machine translation, video interpreting, and mobile tech customization. Localization may also incorporate artificial (AI) capabilities in the future.

2,500 languages involved

On paper, BRI seems like a godsend for the global localization industry. 

Social Sciences in China Press (CSSP), which publishes journals for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reports that 64 countries will be impacted by BRI. The project’s reach will rope in 2,500 spoken languages — or one-third of all languages spoken on earth.

Translate Now’s Arney notes that many of the language pairs will be non-traditional ones. Many language projects will originate in Chinese rather than English and the translated content will be used directly in emerging BRI locales such as Turkey, Malaysia and Thailand.

CSSP predicts that the official languages most widely used under BRI will be, in descending order, Modern Standard Arabic, English, Russian, Malay and Tamil.

Arabic, according to CSSP, will cover the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. English will cover Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Singapore. Russian will cover Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Malay will take in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, while Tamil will include Sri Lanka and Singapore.

“A lot of (Obor) in the beginning is going to be infrastructure — ports, roads and railways. When you think about that type of work, I think the bulk of it is going to be in interpretation rather than (actual) localization,” noted Translate Now’s Arney. “So I think there’s going to be a huge need for linguists and interpreters to go out and work with Chinese officials and business folks in the countries they’re going into.”

Arney says the “written” side of localization — HR guidelines, contracts, translations of typed material – will follow, as will more technology-based work such as designing mobile and e-commerce websites.

“Advances in neural machine translation and augmented reality will make it possible to quickly gist information from Chinese to other locales,” Arney said.

No immediate impact?

Florian Faes, the co-founder of Slator, an online publication that covers the translation and language technology industries, has another view. He doubts that BRI will generate immediate profit for companies in the field.

“To build highways, ports and roads, you don’t need a lot of translation,” Faes points out. He notes that money for translation and digitized language tech comes from businesses that are already up and running in well-diversified economies.

“For demand for language services to really go up you need very sophisticated economic activity. You’re not talking about building a road or a bridge. Such projects may generate a giant manual, but to scale demand for language services requires very sophisticated economic activity,” Faes said.

He thinks that more concrete developments, such as the recent inclusion of Chinese shares in the coveted MSCI index, will result in quicker demand for translation services from financial clients rather than from BRI-related companies.

DePalma is far more bullish. “There’s a phenomenal amount of linguistic and localization work connected with Belt and Road,” DePalma said, noting that there are political, legal and regulatory systems behind each of the languages in the nations involved. He says this will require a huge amount of translation, interpretation and other localization work if BRI is to succeed.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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