What happened to internal translation departments?

What ever happened to all of the internal translation departments? I used to be part of an internal translation department at a medical device manufacturer before starting Argo Translation in 1995. It seems that over time the task of translation has been completely outsourced by most companies.

Recently a prospective client asked me about the disappearance of internal translation departments. Unfortunately, I do not know of any firms that currently handle translations completely in-house. When I first started there were plenty of examples like McDonald’s, GE, Intel, Dell and some other large corporations who had the bandwidth to make the numbers work or at least sort of make them work!

Some of the major reasons internal departments have faded away over time are:

  • Fluctuations in demand – managing the workload for internal departments can be difficult, in slow times you have under utilized labor and in boom times you create bottlenecks in the system. This lack of flexibility has been a major factor.
  • Insurance costs and HR related concerns – the differences in using W-2 employees vs. 1099 subcontractors is a major topic when companies look to restructure costs.
  • Variance in the types of content required for translation – as companies grow internationally they start to need additional materials like legal, technical documentation, e-learning, marketing, etc. to support the business. This often required additional internal staff to support the different project types.
  • High cost of translation management systems – companies looked at the costs of running additional servers and hiring additional IT staff for translation management systems as an obstacle.
  • Insulated from best practices of other companies and industries – in some cases, in-house departments were not innovative enough to keep up with the changing translation environment. This could happen due to limited exposure to new tools, new industry standards or a limitation of investment in the department.
  • Regulation – changing regulatory requirements for the translation team to be ISO registered added additional cost and time required to maintain a compliant translation effort.

Most of the companies with in-house translation departments started outsourcing parts of their workload and eventually it made sense to outsource all of it. One of our clients still has a small department but they only handle very specific items. Most of the work is now outsourced to our firm.

Some firms have adopted a model where a translation manager and a few key team members act as project managers and outsource all of the work to various resources.

The bottom line is that the total cost of translation is always a hot topic and since labor is the major part of the equation the formulas for creating solid translation are always under a microscope and the resulting strategies are continually changing.