My lament for the translation sector in New Brunswick (Part 71)

I recently got my hands on the latest business counts data from Statistics Canada (June 2020). The business counts provide a count of all the firms in each of several hundred industries (NAICS) and their employment level. The data includes all businesses with employees and non-employer businesses with at least $30,000 in annual sales.

While scanning for changes in the data, I came across the Translation and interpretation services industry (NAICS 54193). The business counts for this sector across New Brunswick are as follows:
53 without employees
10 with employees: 9 of them with less than five employees and only one with more than five employees.

I will likely go to my grave never really understanding why we haven’t been able to develop an export-focused language translation and services sector in this province, the only officially bilingual province in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, there is now only one firm across the entire province in the translation and interpretation services sector with more than five employees (and that firm is a legacy of a previous shipbuilding contract).

There is far more employment in this sector in Manitoba than in New Brunswick.

There are fewer firms with employees now than back in 2012.

It seems to me on paper this industry remains an ideal case study of how we should focus our economic development efforts. We pump out thousands of at least nominally bilingual people each year from our K-12 school system. We have post-secondary language and translation assets such as the Université de Moncton’s Département de traduction et des langues. Governments and industry spend millions of dollars per year on document translation costs.  We can’t leverage all this into something that can compete with Manitoba?  Manitoba?

Consider this example.  Imagine if we were graduating thousands of kids from high school each year that had been studying computer programming for 10 years.  Imagine if we had one of the few universities in Canada that was producing expert computer programmers.  And imagine if our governments and industry were spending tens of millions more per year than other jurisdictions on computer programming – and giving almost all of the work to local firms.

Don’t you think we might have a teeny-weeny advantage that could be leveraged?

I have talked to just about everyone about this sector over the past 20 years including UdeM, provincial and federal economic development agencies, the industry association, and individual translators.  It seems to me very simple.  We have a group of translators that each individually do quite well (or as well as they want) and they see no need to build and grow bigger export-focused businesses.  In trade agreements there are carve outs for small contracts such that the government doesn’t need to open up most translation contracts to outside bidders.  So there is no real reason to do anything.  Why build larger firms that have to compete for work outside New Brunswick?

Imagine if the firms in the forestry sector said the same thing? Or farmers.  Or fishermen and women. Why compete outside New Brunswick for markets?  Let’s produce just enough wood, potatoes and lobster for New Brunswick consumers.

New Brunswick already runs a significant trade deficit (interprovincial and international) as we have to import our cars, televisions, computers, phones, furniture and the bulk of what we eat every day.  If we didn’t have our export industries we would likely not even exist as a province.

As the economy shifts to more services we are now running into increasing trade imbalances in services.  We import more IT services than we export.  We import far more professional services (legal, marketing, etc.) than we export.

If we have all the building blocks for a successful translation industry, why don’t we work harder to build one?  Why not attract more global firms?

I think we desperately need a few ambitious entrepreneurs to get involved in that sector. Sixty-three firms and sole-proprietors with at least $30,000 in annual revenue and only one has more than five workers?  We must be able to do better than that.

We need a few champion firms to emerge – get great here – and then become a national hub for English/French and French/English translation. When companies in British Columbia or Ontario want to get documents translated, they should be getting pitched by NB firms.

Where do entrepreneurs come from?

The translators are technical experts in language – not in running or growing a business.  For this to happen it will likely take some non-translator entrepreneur to flesh out the opportunity and pursue it with capitalist vigor.


3 thoughts on “My lament for the translation sector in New Brunswick (Part 71)

  1. I came across your article on Twitter. Being a translator, I know that Lexi-Tech was the big player in NB (and elsewhere in Canada) for many years (it was owned by Irving at one point!). It was bought by Swiss company CLS, and is now part of Lionbridge, an American giant. But its website says it still has an office in Moncton. Does this not count as a global firm?

    And isn’t this the story of the Canadian economy over the past 40 years? As soon as our companies get big enough to be noticed globally, they get bought up. That’s not a failure of entrepreneurship; it’s a failure of business elites and government policy.

  2. This ‘opportunity’ just isn’t large.

    “Lexi-tech International has developed into the largest translation firm in Canada. With a staff of 95 and offices in
    Moncton, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto”

    95 people making up the biggest company in the the country – doesn’t seem like much of an ‘industry’.

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