03 Mar 2014

Translation Services in Israel: A Changing Landscape

Israel is firmly back on the business map. Widely regarded as one of the world’s leading start-up nations, the Middle Eastern country has a thriving business landscape populated by new tech companies, established firms and big-name foreign operations.

From the business buzz of Tel Aviv to the companies that pepper the country’s periphery, Israel is one of the most westernised economies in the Middle East. Its focus on tech means Israel is cutting-edge when it comes to doing business – a large number of firms specialise in the internet, social media, mobile computing and communications.

And whether it’s home-grown success – Israel is estimated to have 4,800 start-ups – or the multinational firms entering the market, it seems that everyone wants a piece of Israel. Apple has recently expanded its operations into the country, and Samsung has opened an innovation, strategy and start-up centre in the city of Ramat Gan.

So it would be an understatement to say things are looking up. Yet it’s important to remember that Israel is also a relatively small country where people speak a language few outside of it use or understand.

Israeli firms looking to win international business or meet the language needs of domestic customers and clients know just how important translation is in all that they do. But there are problems.

A report by Israeli news source Haaretz notes that although there is significant demand for translation services in the country, a skills gap exists. The website gives the example of a big Israeli financial firm on the verge of securing a business agreement with a similar company in Brazil. A great opportunity: to strengthen international links, grow its presence, bag new business.

The Israeli business hired a translator to translate its Hebrew language documents outlining its business and strategy into Portuguese. The plans were sent off to Brazil but when the firm did not respond, the Israeli firm called its Brazilian friends and were told the documents they had sent raised “serious questions” about their financial strength.

“The company’s balance sheet was strong; it was the translation that was weak − a misstep that could have cost the Israeli firm millions of shekels in lost business if the problem had not been cleared up,” Haaretz’s article explains.

The translation sector in Israel is described by Haaretz as a “free-for-all” where anyone can call themselves a translator. There are no officially recognized exams or regulation for it and it seems anyone can set up shop as a translator.

“In a situation in which anyone who’s travelled overseas can wake up one morning and decide he’s a translator, many such cases happen. Translation is often a moonlighting job for single mothers, lawyers and doctors,” Shakhar Pelled, who for 25 years has translated legal, financial and technical documents, told the website.

“The profession isn’t officially recognized,” Pelled added. “There are no criteria for working in it, and no-one needs to pass an exam to be a translator. There’s no-one regulating the business and no official rates…What happened to the company that lost the deal is the result of amateur work.”

Translators in Israel are also poorly paid. Work ranges from literature translation, where publishers pay 50 shekels, or $14.20, for a page of 250 words; the translation of content for banks and insurance firms, where pay ranges from 100 to 120 shekels; and television subtitle translation, the poorest paid at between 25 shekels and 30 shekels an hour.

There are also concerns about the way the Israeli Government tenders for translation projects, with some departments awarding contracts purely to the lowest bidder. Quality control can go out the window.

Moti Shapira, who heads up Lahav, an organisation for independent businesspeople, told Haaretz: “It’s very serious that courts and public hospitals hire the services of translators who are not always professional.

“That’s how the profession is being ruined. The product is poor, and the role of professional translators is deteriorating.”

With Israel’s business landscape on the cusp of significant global success, its businesses are becoming well-known names.

In order to prosper, domestic firms will know that expansion, international deals and global growth will be the key to their success. But if they cannot communicate effectively with partners and customers, all could be lost.


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