May 2020 – Normality 2.0?

In this month’s blog, I assess the current economic landscape and consider how the language services sector could be affected as the global economy cranks through the lower gears of recovery.

As we slowly emerge from our coronavirus-induced coma, thoughts inevitably turn to the future and how it will look for language service providers (LSPs). Economic speculation is certainly not without its critics, and depending on whom you ask, it has little to no worth whatsoever. In the words of the economist John Galbraith, “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.” Nevertheless, the current crisis is so all-pervasive that postulating a post-COVID economic landscape could help us identify areas to think about as the global economy cranks through the lower gears of recovery.

The first thing to state is that we are still only at the beginning of the start of the pandemic, and the true scale of the fallout will only be evaluated in the months and years to come. What we can, however, infer with a fairly high degree of certainty is that we are standing on the verge of the most significant economic recession since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Already, UK taxpayer money to the tune of £63 billion, and counting, has been utilised as part of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and others, to help support eligible businesses and furlough their employees during the past few months. However, the proverbial white elephant of how this money will be repaid appears one for the government’s and wider society’s long finger. Such schemes, as with other stimulus packages of years gone by, merely serve as the pain-numbing rush of adrenaline we all experience as part of our fight or flight response. The hurt is coming, just not yet.

As in 1929, so shall it be in 2020. The global economic activity has and will continue to shrink. The financial black hole caused by three, or possibly more, month’s worth of lost revenue will inevitably leave many businesses having to make difficult decisions about how to reduce outgoings and return to prior growth. Inevitably, people’s livelihoods will be increasingly affected. Already in the UK, many people have and will continue to lose their jobs amid the recent Bank of England warning that the UK unemployment rate could reach as high as 9 percent, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent forecast of a “significant recession”.

So what will the fallout be for LSPs? Are we up next for the chopping block, or will we emerge relatively unscathed? As the spinning coin of economic uncertainty begins to slow and tumble toward the normality 2.0, two distinct possibilities loom on the horizon: a squeeze, or a boon.

Feeling the squeeze

A recent ATC survey confirmed that, two months into the lockdown, around two-thirds of LSPs have been significantly affected by the crisis. A separate two-thirds also noted a decrease in turnover of 50 percent, or significantly more.

Many reading this may too have seen most, if not all, of their regular business suddenly vanish amid the compelled closure of diverse industries. The long-term survival of many smaller LSPs inherently depends upon whether their clients can weather this economic rogue wave, particularly if they work within a niche industry. Freelancers out there will already be cognisant of the industry-wide, cost-cutting race to the bottom, but the current crisis has, for many, also begot significant delays in payment which has only piled more pressure on a vital, yet volatile, sector of the economy. 

Given our ability to thrive often depends on our clients’ ability to conduct their business freely, both nationally and internationally, is there a case for adjusting our practices, and even our pricing structures, in ways which may help keep afloat those innovative small and medium-sized businesses upon which many depend? This is, of course, an open question, and one which may initially be difficult to entertain. Nevertheless, if we can demonstrate flexibility to regular and prospective clients alike during these times of great economic uncertainty, could this not be translated into increased customer loyalty later down the line once the global economy picks up pace?

Benefiting from a boon

As businesses begin the long road to recovery, LSPs could also find themselves in a distinctly advantageous position. The growth of online retail during the crisis is set to continue into the second half of the year, while recently noted that despite many clinical trials having been postponed or cancelled as result of the COVID outbreak, they perceive life sciences as a “resilient sector”; we expect to it grow further during the second half of the year, and into 2021.

Online streaming platforms has also seen a surge during the lockdown, with content giants Netflix currently scrambling to localise its back catalogue while its original content filming is still on hold. Online content providers will undoubtedly continue to dominate the entertainment market, while cinemas and theatres have been among some of the hardest hit industries

Economic forecasting can never be wholly accurate, but it is nevertheless important to keep an open mind about possible futures and how best to navigate them. According to this week’s announcement by the UK government, retailers and non-essential businesses could reopen by mid-June, under strict new COVID-secure restrictions. This is, of course, a best-case scenario and presumes the abatement of the much dreaded, and oft forecasted, second wave of infections.

However global events unfold, 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as a year of great uncertainty, tumult, and of course tragic personal loss. We will all have to adjust to new, and perhaps challenging, ways of working in the post-pandemic landscape, but as the proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and if there was ever a need to think clearly and creatively about the future of the language services sector, surely the time has now come.

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Author: Will Maitland

German and French > English Freelance Translator

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