Standards for the Modern Language Industry

Do you know the difference between an interpreter and a translator? New standards will help to assure that everyone does.
Tim Sprinkle

Pop quiz: Do you know the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

It’s a foundational definition in the language industry, but the two can be easy to mix up. In short, an interpreter works with spoken language and a translator works with the written word.

That kind of confusion is just one of the reasons that ASTM International’s committee on language services and products (F43) was formed in 2010 – to bring standards to what had been very much a “wild west” field of language services. Both interpretation and translation are part of a large and growing industry that represents nearly $50 billion in annual revenue (Source: 

“The language industry is sometimes called the biggest smallest industry that nobody’s ever heard of,” explains Kathleen Diamond, chair of F43. “So many people don’t know that we even have a language industry, but we do. And it’s one of the more vital and growing industries in the country.”

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Currently there are more than 350 different languages spoken in the U.S. alone, with employment for interpreters and translators projected to grow 20% by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the last 30 years, the number of Americans who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled to 67.3 million according to Census data, and there are currently more than 25 million people in the U.S. who are classified as Limited English Proficient, meaning they don’t speak English as their primary language and have limited ability to read, write, or speak it. 

It is no surprise, then, that North America makes up the largest market for language services in the world, with more than 3,000 companies in the U.S. alone employing more than 55,000 interpreters and translators. Just about every industry needs language services. Businesses need their marketing material translated when entering new global markets; hospitals and courtrooms need interpreters to speak with their stakeholders; and diplomats abroad need the help of interpreters when speaking with local officials. Language education is also a growing field for many people doing business in the global market. 

“You see interpreters in conference settings, in private settings, and more,” Diamond says. “It’s a huge market and it can be delivered in different modalities, whether simultaneous with the person speaking, recorded for later, or otherwise. It’s very exciting because now we're moving into standards that are bringing in more technology and tools that linguists are using in order to communicate.” 

Here are some of the most important new and existing standards in the language industry.

1)    Standard practice for language interpreting (F2089)

According to Diamond, there is a difference between being able to speak and read a language (even for those who are fluent) and being a true interpreter. This specification defines interpretation as a “professional activity resulting in a first and final oral/signed rendition of the message from the source language into the target language,” and explains it as a practice performed in real time or immediately after a speaker pauses. It also defines the minimum professional standard for quality services in language interpreting. 

2)    Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation (F2575)

This guide has a very broad client base. “You name a sector in the U.S. market,” Diamond says,” and they will be buying both of these services, [interpretation and translation].” The guide in particular sets the baseline framework for translation projects in order to set quality and service expectations. Diamond expects to see this standard evolve as machine translation and other technologies grow in importance.

3)    Proposed Standard Terminology for Language Services and Products (WK63168)

Though only recently proposed, it is hoped that this standard will harmonize the terminology used within F43 and report similarities and differences to other language industry standards. It is being developed by the subcommittee on terminology (F43.91). “This arrangement is unique to us because we found that in each of our standards, we were using words that needed to be defined for the industry,” says Diamond. “Simple things like ‘language service provider.’ What does that mean? Is that a company or is that an individual?”

4)    Standard Guide for Use-Oriented Foreign Language Instruction (F1562)

One of the first standards developed by the committee on language services, this guide has become the standard for use-oriented language instruction, according to Diamond. It is in the process of being reconfigured this year to potentially include new elements such as distance learning and remote education, along with new language instruction technology.

5)    Standard Practice for Assessing Language Proficiency (F2889)

How do we know that a given person professionally proficient in their language? That they have the necessary skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing at high levels? According to Diamond, they should be tested. And this standard describes best practices for the development and use of language tests, focusing on testing language proficiency in the use of language for communicative purposes.

6)    Standard Practice for Language Service Companies (F3130)

One of the committee’s newer standards, this standard practice is the first developed by F43 to spell out exactly what it takes to be a language services company. What does it mean to offer these services? This standard establishes a minimum management infrastructure, as well as operations and development requirements for a language service company to meet the diverse and evolving needs of its clients.

“The European market maybe works with 50-60 languages, but [the U.S. language industry] works with more than 260 languages,” Diamond says. “As an industry we’re tasked with providing language services to healthcare and the courts, to name two, where we have to be ready to support everything from German to Tamil to Zulu to whatever the client requests. It really is one of the biggest ‘unknown’ industries in the world.”

Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has written for Yahoo, The Street, and other websites.

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