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March/April 2011

Words Matter

ASTM’s New Committee F43 on Language Services and Products

In a multilingual world — and its marketplace — an ASTM committee aims to provide new and updated standards to help ensure high quality interpretation, translation and instruction.

If you’ve ever responded to a computerized bilingual voice on the phone, used an online software program to translate a phrase, or taken a language class for your next international business trip, you’ve participated in the field of language services and products. In the past 15 years, the industry has exploded, encompassing translating, interpreting, language training, machine translation, human language technology — including those computerized voices on the phone that recognize your responses to their questions — and language testing. In fact, language services and products are now estimated to generate anywhere from $15 to $50 billion in business per year worldwide, according to ASTM member William Rivers, chief scientist at Integrated Training Solutions, Sanford, N.C., and chief linguist for the National Language Service Corps based in Arlington, Va.

The rapid industry expansion has also been accompanied by a lack of regulations and licensing requirements in the United States, notes Beatriz Bonnet, president and CEO of Syntes Language Group Inc., in Centennial, Colo., who joined ASTM in 2004. That has resulted in unqualified providers, dissatisfied clients, botched market opportunities and potential geopolitical repercussions.

“As a nation, we are negligent in our ability to understand and communicate with other peoples for economic, national security or diplomatic reasons. We need to place greater value on professional translation and interpretation skills achieved under national standards and with certification processes,” says Glenn Nordin, foreign language and area adviser to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Crystal City, Va.

The formation of the new ASTM Committee F43 on Language Services and Products is indicative of the urgent need for standards. Just a year after it was first proposed in February 2010, the newly approved committee held its first standards development meeting at the National Foreign Language Center in College Park, Md.

Globalization and Localization

Among the factors driving the expansion of language services and products is globalization, or the integration of regional economies, societies and cultures by transportation, trade and especially, the Internet. More private employers and government agencies are requiring employees with foreign language skills.

“You can market to any population on the planet as long as you speak their language,” says Catherine Ingold, executive director of the National Foreign Language Center, who has joined the new committee. If a company wants to reach mass markets say, in India, it needs to realize that “only about five percent of the population has meaningful proficiency in English,” she notes.

So, successful marketing requires localization, or tailoring products culturally and linguistically to match the targeted market. English is no longer the only language of commerce, although it’s still the most commonly used language on the Internet, followed by Chinese.1

Even in the United States, 30 to 40 million residents, most bilingual, now speak a language other than English, creating a need for interpreters in courtrooms, hospitals, social service agencies and other settings, claims Rivers.

According to Jiri Stejskal, president and CEO of CETRA Language Solutions, a translation and interpretation firm in Elkins Park, Pa., and F43 member, the expansion of the European Union, with 27 countries using 23 different languages, has made it one of the largest purchasers of language products and services, as is the U.S. government and in particular, the Department of Defense.

“Because of changing geopolitical forces and the access and ability to share increasing amounts of information, the U.S. has to pay more attention to activities in more countries,” says Rivers.

Language Standards

ASTM International members have been developing language standards since the mid-2000s, when three standards were developed under ASTM Committee F15 on Consumer Products. But when the DOD, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Pentagon’s Defense Language Institute requested standards for evaluating translation products, translation output and job performance testing, other organizations — including the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the Joint National Committee for Languages, the National Council for Languages and International Studies, the federal Interagency Language Roundtable and the American Translators Association — rallied with them.

By late October 2010, ASTM International Committee F43 was approved to focus on language interpreting, translation, proficiency and foreign language instruction.

Among other tasks, the new committee will maintain and update ASTM’s existing language standards.

F1562, Guide for Use-Oriented Foreign Language Instruction, is designed to help private language schools and their corporate and government clients to understand and use best practices for developing language instruction programs, qualifying teachers and measuring outcomes.

“You can’t simply give someone five weeks of training and expect them to become an interpreter,” explains Ingold. Language training should be adapted to situational needs. For instance, the language of formal diplomacy is likely to differ from that used to communicate with tribal leaders in Afghanistan.

F2575, Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation, and F2089, Guide for Language Interpretation Services, are aimed at educating users and providers of translation (written, or text-to-text translation) and interpretation (oral, or speech-to-speech translation) services about best practices and processes for obtaining and receiving quality translations.

“It’s difficult for clients to distinguish between good and poor translation if they don’t know the language or understand the skills needed to produce an accurate translation,” explains Stejskal. Examples of bad translations are rife. Several years ago, an infamous English to Spanish mistranslation of instructions for mixing baby formula could have caused serious illness or death had it not been caught and the product recalled by its producer.

Another standard still under development, WK24351, Practice for Assessing Foreign Language Proficiency, is geared to the language-testing market. “Private employers and government agencies need to be assured that the people they hire actually possess the language skills they need,” notes Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va.

But Nordin says those initial ASTM standards are “broad, basic and only set guidelines for businesses purchasing language services and products. New standards need to improve the art of translation and interpretation with the ultimate goal of developing certification standards.”

Future Plans

Among other new guidelines, ASTM Committee F43 will develop specialized performance testing standards for health care, legal and other interpreters working in environments with different requirements.

“Being bilingual doesn’t mean you know how to be a translator or interpreter,” says Stejskal. “If you know how to cook, that doesn’t mean you’re a chef.” He advocates standards that will help manage terminology, compile glossaries, encourage certification and measure translation quality so purchasers are able to determine the level of services they require.

In addition to translation and interpretation proficiency, cultural awareness — particularly for government and private contractors — will be addressed by standards that assess the new guidelines of the Interagency Language Roundtable, an organization of U.S. federal government agencies involved in foreign language activities. The goal is to avoid gaffes such as culturally linked sports metaphors, like “home run,” that are not understood in all nations, or race and salary questions that would be offensive to, for example, a Japanese audience on a marketing survey.

Other potential new standards will address language audits and requirements determination. “Suppose you have an agency or company that’s going to Indonesia. Standards would help you determine what language and cultural skills your employees would need,” explains Rivers.

Additional standards will consider diagnostic assessments to determine the efficacy and appropriateness of language training programs. For example, a high school graduate who has committed to military service and reports to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for 26 to 63 weeks of immersion training, will probably have a deeper grasp of a language than a college student who has taken a semester-long course.

Committee F43 also plans to develop standards for kindergarten to 12th grade foreign language proficiency testing, an area that deeply concerns Ingold. “U.S. K-12 students have less language training than students in any other industrialized nation; an average of two years compared to an average of seven years for European students, often in more than one foreign language,” says Ingold. “We should have standards that encourage foreign language instruction at a very early age, for longer sequences, in a wider variety of languages, and with more meaningful communication outcomes, in terms of a student’s ability to read, write and understand a language.”

Other tasks include educating the public about the language industry and serving as a resource for law enforcement, intelligence and other federal agencies.

With ASTM Committee F43 leading the way, the general public may eventually support and acquire the skills necessary for a multilingual culture. But it will take time and effort. As IBM scientist David Ferrucci has noted, “Language is ambiguous; it’s contextual; it’s implicit.”

For More Information

Those interested in becoming part of Committee F43 on Language Services and Products are encouraged to join the new committee. To learn more, go to the committee's home page, or contact the F43 staff manager, Ashley Wiand, ASTM International (phone: 610-832-9551).

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Adele Bassett is a freelance writer who has covered everything from youth gangs in Colorado to earthquakes in Connecticut while working for a variety of corporations and publications. She holds a B.A. in English, an M.S. in journalism and an M.B.A.