How will the translation industry survive Brexit?

by | Jun 27, 2016 | Translators' Column

The UK’s majority vote of 51.9% to leave against 48.1% to remain in the EU was a great shock to many British citizens. Especially those who think that being in the EU is a necessary evil. Surviving Brexit is going to be quite a challenge.

It is true that no one likes to be dictated to by outsiders. However, how clean would the waters surrounding Great Britain be, if it wasn’t for EU legislation? How many farmers would be out of business without EU subsidies?

What the vote doesn’t mean

On Friday morning a lot of people expected to have left the EU overnight. That is not so. It will take at least 2 years before Britain ceases to be an EU member.

This gives the UK a minimum of 24 months to make alternative arrangements for trading with EU countries.

According to HM Revenue & Customs’ statistics, for April 2016 our EU exports ran at £12.0 billion. Imports from EU countries alone were recorded as £19.1 billion. In comparison, the UK exports a mere £13.0 billion to ALL OTHER TRADE PARTNERS WORLDWIDE and imports £21.9 billion. That means 48% of our exports went to the EU during this period, and 47% of imports came from EU countries. While these figures have fluctuated in the past, the EU remains our largest trading interest. This interest is not going to die just because we are planning to leave the EU.

The EU needs us as much as we need the EU.

So what does that mean for the translation industry?

According to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, “77% of UK GVA is accounted for by the services sector, of which professional and business services (12%) is the largest sub-sector.” Also:  “the UK is the third largest exporter of business services in the OECD, with growth of 6% per annum…” in the years 2008 to 2013. Statistics showed growth of GVA (a measure for the contribution of a sector or industry to the economy as a whole) and the number of jobs in the industry. The department also reported that this sector suffered during the recession but was back to healthy growth figures quickly.

The effect of leaving the EU will be different for translation agencies and freelance translators. There will be short-term and long-term effects.

Surviving Brexit in the short term

In the very short term there will be translation clients out there who have reduced their EU trading activities for fear of the coming changes. However, soon the truth will sink in that, actually, there won’t be any legal changes in the trade position with the EU for at least two years. The majority of these clients should then return to normal levels of business. A minority may look to diversify elsewhere for fear of the long-term effects of Brexit.

Most of these clients are individuals or entrepreneurs with relatively small turnovers who use freelance translators. Based on the fact that their fees are usually more affordable than those of agencies.

In the short term (the next 2 years) I would expect SMEs which trade with EU countries to continue trading in the same way they have in the past years. If anything, they may look for cheaper services to forego an expected rise in trade costs due to non-membership of the EU. This should benefit freelance translation service providers.

How will the translation industry be surviving Brexit in the long term?

In the long term, companies may try to find different trade partners. But the European continent is the obvious choice of business partner due to its physical location, other countries are well-known for placing trade restrictions (the US, for example). Why disregard the goose that lays the golden eggs?

Translation agencies may find that their clients are employing freelance translators rather than the services of an agency. However, translation agencies are better equipped to deal with multi-lingual translation projects. So I believe that in the long-term clients will come back to choose the more convenient option of having someone else do the project management for them.

I believe and hope that, although unwelcome now, leaving the EU will lead to a short-term recession in the UK. This will affect the translation industry. However, in the long-term, governments will negotiate new trade deals. And, hopefully, as EU countries need to trade with us as much as we want to trade with them, these treaties won’t differ that much from the current conditions. They’ll just take time to negotiate. In the meantime it means wait and see for everyone. But that doesn’t mean trade will come to a standstill. Surviving Brexit will not be an easy feat, but it is not an impossibility either.

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