O.C. Tanner Co., the Salt Lake City company that designs employee recognition programs for clients, spends as much as $40,000 a month on translation services.
Microprocessor giant Intel Corp. invests 2 percent to 3 percent of revenue from its sales and marketing group on translation. But that's only half as much as what its competitors spend.
"It should be closer to 5 percent to 6 percent because that is the industry average," said Lew Tarnopol, who makes sure information on Intel's public Web sites is presented accurately in 19 languages.
Tarnopol was among more than 100 government, academic and private industry experts who attended a translation conference staged Monday in Salt Lake City by Brigham Young University.
Speakers included Stephen Sekel, head of translation services for the United Nations; Marian Greenfield, president of the American Translators Association; and Bernhard Kohlmeier, who directs "localization" tasks at Microsoft.
Translation specialists acknowledge that their profession is invisible to most people, although they also joke that it is the second-oldest career in the world. By some accounts, translation work is a fragmented $9.5 billion industry consisting of more than 3,000 companies. Others say the figure is closer to $13 billion, with most work done by small firms with a handful of employees.
But the landscape is being reshaped by economic globalization. Before 1980, just one U.S. company had translation revenues of more than $15 million. Today, there are seven such companies, and four take in more than $50 million a year, according to Marc Miller, president of the Crimson Life Sciences division of TransPerfect Translations in New York.
Companies that buy translation services say people skilled at rendering English accurately and tactfully into other languages are indispensable. Although English is the language of business, consumers in other countries have come to expect that brochures, Web sites and other forms of communications will be delivered in their own languages, said Ben Martin, former vice president of global content for J.D. Edwards, a Denver software developer that is now part of Oracle Corp.
"France will fine you if your documentation isn't written in French," Martin said.
Michael Green, responsible for translating English into 10 languages for O.C. Tanner, says about 15 percent of his company's revenue comes from foreign clients. O.C. Tanner has acquired two overseas companies, and it has set up distribution facilities in The Netherlands and in London.
"Our [business] model has been to export from the United States. But we were being killed by shipping costs. The purpose [of buying the foreign-product suppliers and opening distribution centers in Europe] was to eliminate shipping, duties and taxes," Green said.
Green came to the conference hoping to find ways of cutting translation expenses - which he said can range from 17 cents to 30 cents a word, depending on the language - without jeopardizing the quality of translations.
Companies who need translation help "need an accredited translation agency," Green said. "If they try to do it on the cheap, they'll be disappointed.
"You need to spend money to get quality translation," he said.