Last month the U.S. Army bumped favored defense contractor L-3 Communications from a $4.6 billion contract to provide translators and interpreters in Iraq. A new venture called Global Linguistic Solutions (GLS), headed by retired Army Major General James (Spider) Marks and primarily formed to bid on the contract, landed the job. The surprise caused L-3 shares to fall nearly 6%; the company lowered its sales forecast this year by $500 million.
Winning the contract may be the easy part for GLS. Luring interpreters to Iraq is another story. Job listings posted on L-3's website read like something out of a Tom Clancy thriller. Wanted: "Arabic Linguist ... Ability to deal unobtrusively with the local populace ... Must be able to live in a harsh environment." The pay isn't mentioned, but L-3 recently offered interpreters more than $175,000 annually to work in Iraq. Linguists usually don't carry weapons and are often called on to participate in raids and other combat-related tasks. Casualty reports show that L-3's Titan Corp., the major contractor supplying interpreters to the U.S. military, had 216 employees killed in Iraq--nearly 100 more fatalities than the entire British army stationed there.
Danger is just one way that the linguistics industry--interpreters who relay live chat and translators who process documents--has changed dramatically. More benignly, the Web and the global economy have led to 7.5% annual growth in the market, now pegged as a $9.4 billion business, according to research group Common Sense Advisory. While much of that is due to the military, there has been renewed growth elsewhere. "Firms from Starbucks to McDonald's now have to communicate and market to customers in dozens of different languages," says Common Sense Advisory president Don DePalma.
The boom in translation jobs comes because of--and despite--technology. DePalma says there has been real acceleration in demand tied to software, since Microsoft's new Vista operating system, updated versions of Mac and various other electronic devices have to conform to European standards. That requires local language to be used in everything from instruction manuals to safety standards. Add the growing use of bilingual signage aimed at Hispanics, multilingual U.S. court requirements and hospital needs, and over the next eight years, full-time linguistics employment is expected to jump more than 25%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Computers are certainly doing some of the work. Companies like eBay, GM and Motorola have all used software from Massachusetts firm Idiom Technologies to help power their efforts in localization, as language targeting is sometimes called. Still, it often takes a real brain to differentiate terms in context: the word trunk can refer to a suitcase, a car hatch or an elephant's snout, for example.