The race to the bottom refers to a competitive situation where a company, state, or nation attempts to undercut the competition’s prices by sacrificing quality standards (often defying regulation), or reducing labor costs. It is a phenomenon the language services industry is unfortunately not immune to. In some markets, the language services industry’s deregulation has led to low pricing at the expense of poor quality and, ultimately, poor outcomes for the end-consumers, opening the door to liability on the part of the provider.

Deregulation: Pros & Cons

In moderation, deregulation can be a good thing. It fosters innovation, competition, increased consumer choice, and lowers costs for the end-user. For knowledge-based services, however, deregulation can prove to be risky. Think about it: would you rather underpay for a bad interpreter, or overpay for a good interpreter? With proper regulation, you’d never have to make that decision. You’d always pay a fair price for a good interpreter. Seems obvious, right? So why is this a problem in the language services industry?

Globalization & The Lowest Bidder

When a single industry spans different markets, countries, and continents, inevitably, challenges will arise. Standardization of training, education and certification is extremely difficult, which means quality assurance is inconsistent. And in the legal or medical field for example, laws vary to the extent that standardization is not even possible. Also, because the language services industry is as globalized as it is, wages and pricing vary substantially as well. When prices are driven down, there is simply no motivation for certification and compliance tracking, and it is definitely not economically feasible. With technological advancements especially, less reputable language service companies have increased market access, so they can gain ground at the expense of the consumer.

The Race To Standardization

So how do we standardize certification, training and education on a more global scale? Regulatory bodies such as governments and labor movements need to establish a classification system, so an absence of certain certifications or standards will allow these bodies to misclassify certain providers. Ideally, a tiered system outlining certification, education and experience can establish levels within language service delivery. Organizations such as ISO and ASTM for example have well-documented operating standards. Consequently, pricing can be made flexible in accordance with the quality of the service. These levels can then be included in RFPs so customers are aware of the trade-off between cost and quality. 

Pragmatic Challenges

Global standardization is of course not without its challenges. Continuous sourcing, vetting and quality control requires a lot of effort, organization, and more importantly, resources. Until standards are elevated on a consistent basis, these extra costs will often end up on the end-client’s invoice. It’s important to realize this will always be a gradual change. Also, some language combinations are so rare that setting a benchmark just isn’t realistic. If the supply of a certain language is so scarce, then the traditional supply and demand model will inevitably apply.

Education & Advocacy

The path to standardization in the language services industry is paved through education, advocacy and labor organization. Numerous associations, coalitions and organizations exist with the aim to elevate the language services industry, and to cement its place within the knowledge economy. The more policy makers and customers are aware of the level of difficulty and skill that is involved with providing language services, the more resources will be available to assure the quality of language services, and to avoid the race to the bottom. If you want to get involved, you’ll find a list of organizations below that are doing important work to elevate the industry.

Interpreter Intelligence: Our Role

As a language technology provider, it is our responsibility to provide tools that allow organizations to track interpreter certification and employment classification, tools that allow organizations to send price quotes, tools that can capture pricing and wages depending on certification, and generally, tools that can streamline the language service delivery process so your organization can save costs, which in turn, allows for more resources to nurture certification and standardization of the industry.

Resources

Association of Language Companies
Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California (CoPTIC)
JNCL-NCLIS
Language Policy and Programs
Critical Link (CA)
National Standards for Community Interpreting (CA)
Ontario Guidelines for Community Interpreting
Slator / Nimdzi / Common Sense Advisory  

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