I recently overheard someone from a large corporation say, “Next month will be a ‘red’ month.”  The speaker went on to explain that meant a spending freeze was coming up and any unnecessary spending would be curtailed.

Having lived in the corporate world for almost ten years, I knew the regimen fairly well.  Every corporation at some point in the year is challenged with cash flow issues.  Typically, the year starts out well and many new projects receive funding in the hope that big payoffs lie ahead.  Spring turns into summer, and some projects succeed but not all, and expenses go up quicker than payments are coming in.  The accountants look at the balances in late summer and have a panic attack, triggering the habitual spending freeze.  The normal activities to get the ax are things like subscriptions, travel, education, ‘team building’ exercises, golf outings and any activity not deemed critical to sales and production.  So where does translation fit into that picture?  Is translation optional?  Does it provide sufficient value to warrant funding when cash is tight?

As with most things, the answer is not a clear yes or no. Many factors go into why translation has value to a company in the first place.  There are subtle nuances tied to larger corporate strategic decisions that also impact translation costs.  Some are listed below:

  1. Foreign patent filings.  When filing in specific countries, most require translation of the patent in order to file.  Cutting back on the overall number of patent filings, and reducing the number of countries you file in will also reduce your translation costs, but may represent lost patent coverage where you need it most.  Also, patent litigation may require further translation costs in those countries.  Patent research is another area where translation costs can grow rapidly. Patent searches that turn up large numbers of patents in languages other than English can be expensive to translate. Typically there is an extract available in English, but doing the entire patent with a professional translator can cost thousands of dollars.  Machine translation is a viable alternative as a low-cost option to narrow the patents down to only those that are truly relevant and require a higher quality of translation.
  2. Safety Data Sheets.  SDS translation is one area where there is no flexibility.  You must translate the SDS into the language of the country you are shipping to or transporting the cargo through.  You may be able to minimize translation costs or postpone additional costs by not going into new markets, however, that may also be where your new revenue stream potential is best.
  3. User manuals.  You may choose to keep the software in English and provide a translated user manual rather than incur the cost of localizing the software, but you are competing with others who may have their entire application in several languages.  Does this put you at a significant disadvantage?
  4. Web site.  Most people in the world have some knowledge of English and many companies leave their web site in English only.  This is a tricky decision and may provide a false economy.  Saving a small amount by not translating the web site could be costing substantially through lost business opportunities.
  5. Product Data Sheets.  Customers make buying decisions based upon the information in the Product Data Sheet.  This is one area you would not want to eliminate translation, especially if the majority of your sales are to non-English speaking countries.  You will want to ensure you are doing these translations as consistently and cost-effectively as possible, but these are not optional.


Before cutting translation costs to the bone, be sure to understand where you are legally obligated to provide translations inside your company, especially if you have non-English speaking staff.  Whether you save money through reducing translation activity or not, the mere exercise of identifying where and how translation is used in your business will give you a better sense of the value provided by translation.  You should also end up with a much better understanding of what percentage of the overall budget applies to translation and where to trim when asked to reduce spending.


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