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7 Insights from the Russian Translation Market

Translation Forum Russia 2016 took place in Astrakhan and attracted over 250 attendees. Here is what we’ve learned about the state of the Russian market from this 3-day conference.

#1: A Trade Show Integral to the Russian Market

Translation Forum Russia, or TFR, is 8-years-old this year. Over the course of its history, this conference has influenced and shaped the language services market in Russia and nearby countries. Created in 2009-2010 by a merger of three separate smaller events, TFR has been bringing together LSPs, buyers, freelancers, and academia every year. Since its high point in 2012 when it gathered 500 attendees in Kazan, TFR has seen many new faces and initiatives. Best practice guides such as “Contract recommendations for freelancers and buyers” and the “Translator’s Code of Ethics” are the result of cooperation that was nurtured by the event.

This time, Translation Forum Russia took place in Astrakhan 1,400 km southeast of Moscow and 50 km off the coast of the Caspian Sea. About 250 attendees gathered for the networking, including LSPs, freelancers, and in-house translation department heads. Russian Blue Chips Rosneft, Gazprom, Norilsk Nickel and famous anti-virus developer Kaspersky Labs were featured among the translation buyers present.

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The opening session included an address from the Governor of the region. His presence drew media attention to the conference and the issues of the translation industry.

Foreign guests included Geoffrey Westgate from World Intellectual Property Organization, Orlando Chiarello of Secondo Mona airspace company, and Nicolas Stuyckens representing the Belgian Chamber of Translators and Interpreters.

After the opening, the conference split into three separate tracks all simultaneously interpreted into English, and with one track interpreted into Italian.

#2: Russian LSPs Grow Despite Limitations

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Source: State Statistics Bureau, gks.ru, Customs data

Russia’s economy has been hit by the US-led sanctions and the fall of the rouble. The volume of foreign trade has dropped by about 36% in 2015. The downward trend continued into 2016.

Despite this, some of the larger translation companies are growing at 10-30% or more, at least when their revenue is counted in the local currency. Some of the prominent growing companies are Janus Worldwide, ABBYY Language Services, and now All Correct and Nedra. However, some defense industry contractors are also doing great, including Transtech, Marines and Delovoy Yazyk. They are less known abroad and don’t feature on global LSP rankings.

#3: At $200 Million Per Year, the Market is Small

The total annual revenue of Russian LSPs does not exceed $200-250 million, according to translationrating.ru estimates.

At the same time, in terms of volume and staff, the top companies are large. Top firms employ up to 150-200 people, including dozens and hundreds of in-house translators.

Salary levels in Russia are mild enough, and so employers can afford to keep translators in the office and train them in the chosen expertise. Finding new in-house staff for an average salary seems to be more and more of a problem for buyer organizations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but agencies usually find a way around this problem by going to provinces. TLS opened a production office with just under a hundred in-house translators in Novosibirsk, Janus Worldwide created a team of 30 in Tomsk, Roid settled for Nizhny Novgorod, and so on.

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Russian LSPs hire hundreds. Source: translationrating.ru

LSPs translate millions and millions of words every year, but their revenue stays small compared to Western European firms of similar volume and staff. One of the reasons is relatively low prices. With the current exchange rates, a Moscow-based agency normally charges the direct customer $0.03 per word for business translations to Russian and up to $0.05 per word for specialized technical. $0.07 is the upper limit for premium. This is 3-4 times less than the price of a similar service in France or the UK.

#4: Key Players Struggle Growing Export Revenue

Paradoxically, few companies focus their effort on escaping the local market with its low rates. Even fewer succeed in winning customers abroad.

The top player in the Russian market ABBYY Language Services gets about 20% of their revenue from abroad. In 2012 they acquired US-based Connective Language Services and rebranded it ABBYY LS USA. But this was not enough to win RFPs from software customers against localization giants native to the Silicon Valley, as CEO Ivan Smolnikov explained at the plenary of Translation Forum Russia.

About 6 out of top-20 Russian companies currently show ambitions for an international expansion. For example, Janus Worldwide has opened offices in the Czech Republic and in the UK in addition to their US office. Logrus has opened up a branch in Chengdu, China, and is now present in 6 countries. All Correct now has entities in Ireland, Canada, and Singapore. Other top companies with overseas branches are ABBYY LS, Translink, and Palex. Others from top-20 focus their effort on optimising their presence inside Russia and nearby Russian-speaking countries. They don’t have a foothold abroad just yet.

At the same time, the interest in the Russian market from outside is limited. Very few foreign translation companies keep offices here. None of the venture firms have ever acquired a significant LSP in Russia. All of the multi-language vendors do the Russian language via local subcontractors or manage Russian-speaking freelancers directly from their offices in Slovakia, Czech Republic, and elsewhere in Europe.

In contrast, Datawords, one of the market leaders in France, gains 70% of its revenue from overseas operations, in addition to having a very strong position locally. French market offers great rates, but the top firm is still motivated to expand abroad. This is also true for other top players both in France and in the UK.

#5: “You Win One RFP in Ten”

Translation buyers in Russia are still trying to adjust to the requests for proposals procedure (RPF, or “tender”), which has become obligatory for public sector organizations in 2009 and was adopted by large private enterprises in the following years.

In-house translation departments want to select vendors based on translation and service quality. At the same time, procurement departments set procedures to drive the prices down, often regardless of quality. According to the research conducted by Prima Vista translation company, price as the dominant criteria for vendor selection is very common in the public sector purchases in Russia, but only 45% RFPs for the private sector are price-dominated.

Price-driven RFPs often lead to situations when companies win tenders with extremely low rate offers, but cannot fulfill contacts with a profit after winning them. This happened to one of the largest buyers in the market, Rosatom (the nuclear power agency) last year, and in 2016 one of their affiliates, Rosatom Overseas, has concluded a new contract priced only 0.01 per word for English to Russian.

At TFR 2016 in Astrakhan, the representative of Rosneft oil & gas company mentioned that she is facing a similar challenge. For her, it is not easy to influence and convince the procurement department to choose a preferred quality translation vendor. While she has an LSP that fulfills the necessary criteria, the in-house translation team first needs to overcome the resistance from procurers and set up a qualification procedure to eliminate companies that cannot provide good quality services.

Andrey Balaev of Prima Vista said that on the receiving end of these RPFs, it looks like buyers set impossibly high entry barriers. An example of these would be a need for a proven large volume of specialized translations in the required subject area: contacts, medical, oil & gas, legal. This has to be backed up with a pack of invoices.

On the whole, RFP procedures get streamlined in Russia, and the qualification of purchasers increases every year. There are more tenders, and the competition is getting fierce. According to Prima Vista’s statistics, an average player in the RFP game wins only about 10% of proposals. Top tenders see a lot of litigation through the Federal Anti-monopoly service, as businessmen try each other - and buyers - for corruption. Still, about 80% of tenders are completely transparent, conceded Andrey Balaev, and it is the formal procedure, not people, that decides who the winner would be.

#6: Paying Freelancers is a Challenge for Smaller LSPs

Smaller LSPs face a number of troubles out of which paying freelancers is the most striking. Most freelancers in Russia accept electronic payments and direct payments to their bank accounts tied to bank cards. They don’t register as self-employed (or “individual entrepreneurs”) but leave it to the employer to take care of the paperwork and of taxes.

To illustrate, there are only about 7.5 thousand self-employed people in the official register under “translation services” in Russia, against a population of 140 million. In France, there are 18 thousand entries of the same type against 66 million inhabitants. This statistic shows that a huge percentage of Russian translators don’t register as self-employed.

Legally working with such a person requires a special unwieldy labor contract. It is taxed at 13%, plus social security charges, which can bring the total cost to 120-136%. In contrast, buying services from a self-employed person is easy for the customer, and the “individual entrepreneur” pays only 6% of her revenue as tax, plus expenses for a bank and for social security. There might be accounting expenses as well.

Some small LSPs work with freelancers without any contract and don’t pay taxes, only the processing fees for electronic currencies, which are usually no more than 3-4%. Since the cost of these illegal operations is smaller, and their numbers are huge, they put price pressure on respectable LSPs that work fully within the boundaries of the law. The difference is acutely felt in the regions where prices are very competitive.

Translation companies encourage the freelancers to register as self-employed, some even provide legal and accounting assistance, and increase rates to cover the 6% tax. Another approach used by larger companies is to pay via a legal entity abroad, which moves the risk and tax responsibility to the freelancers.

#7: Professional Translator Training is on the Rise

The Russian market is seeing a growing demand for professional translator training. A large portion of this year’s conference attendees signed up for the event after actively searching online for training events. Applicants come both from the corporate sector, where training is paid for by the employer, and from the freelance community.

In response to this demand, a number of schools and educational projects have sprung up in Russia over the last 2 years. Some of them include:

  • Alliance Pro (technical, IT translations)
  • Lingua Contact (generalist)
  • Intent (specialized technical)
  • RuFilms (audiovisual)
  • Kaspian Higher School of Translations (interpreting)
  • Literra
  • letnyayashkola.org/L10n and others

One of the most notable projects is Unitechbase.com, a massive online open course by Vitaly Bashaev. It enables translation companies to submit training materials and then test graduates of the online course with real assignments and offer them work instantly if the results are good. Graduate profiles are further listed in a catalogue for potential employers. The course has already been incorporated into training in 18 universities in Russia, and three of the top-20 Russian LSPs have joined the testing program. There are no equivalent programs to this one in Europe.

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The next Translation Forum Russia will take place in July 2017 in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan Republic in Russia.

Photos in the article via Irina Rudakova, and jilkin.ru

About the author

kdranch Konstantin Dranch is the former head of marketing at Memsource.
His background is in market research. Konstantin surveys translation services markets in Russia and Ukraine since 2011 via translationrating.ru, and has recently started similar surveys in the United Kingdom and France.