A Chinese customer visited the Fox Hills branch of Wells Fargo Bank in Culver City recently to ask about several transactions on his checking account that didn't make sense to him. But he spoke only Mandarin, and no one in the bank could interpret.
In Southern California, where more than 200 languages are spoken, it's the type of problem that businesses and their customers face every day. As a result, companies that offer interpreters over the phone are in great demand by retailers, hospitals, banks, restaurants and other merchants.
Wells Fargo branch manager Maged Nashid described what happened when the Mandarin speaker showed up. "We had a hard time communicating with him," he recalled. "I took the customer to my desk, gave him some water and called the 800 number for assistance."
The toll-free number connected the bank to Language Line Services, a Monterey interpreting service that employs more than 6,000 interpreters to translate over the phone for banks, police departments, hospitals and others. The company, which has contracts with its clients, charges by the minute.
Language Line, with annual revenue of $300 million, was founded 30 years ago and is set up to interpret 170 languages. It hopes to hire 2,000 additional translators in the coming year.
In a three-way phone call with a Mandarin interpreter on the line, Nashid was able to explain the account transactions to the customer. "At the end of the day," he said, "the client was extremely happy."
The demand for such language services has been surging in the last few years, partly because of growth in immigration to the U.S. over the last few decades but also because of a recent boom in international business transactions with people in such countries as China, Japan, India and South Korea. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 2,600 translation and interpreting companies make up what is estimated to be a $3-billion industry.
The number of U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the last three decades, a pace four times as fast as the nation's population growth, according to a new census report analyzing language data from 1980 to 2007.
During that period, the percentage of speakers of non-English languages grew 140% while the nation's overall population grew 34%.
Moreover, the amount of foreign investments made in the U.S. tripled from 2000 to 2010, and more than 5% of the nation's workers are employed by firms majority-owned by foreign entities, according to the Commerce Department.
As a result, businesses that offer translating and interpreting services are expanding to meet the exploding demand.
"For every transaction out there, 1 out of 10 will be in another language," said Louis F. Provenzano, president and chief executive of Language Line, which is one of the world's largest interpreting firms and is owned by Boston private equity firm Abry Partners. Many of the interpreters work at Language Line's Monterey headquarters, but others work from home, providing interpreting services over the phone.
Language Line said some of the workers it plans to hire will also help staff a new service that the company hopes to debut this summer. In cooperation with a large cellphone service provider that Language Line says does not want to be identified yet, its customers will be able to push a button and instantly talk to an interpreter. The service will charge a per-minute rate that will vary depending on the language.
Competitors say they too are seeing an increase in business. Dina Spevack, president and founder of American Language Services in Los Angeles, said her company recently hired two staffers to help coordinate the work of more than 2,000 interpreters and translators.
"We are so slamming busy it's unbelievable," she said.
ProTranslating, a Florida company that has offered translating and interpreting services since 1973, is expanding its in-house staff by nearly 20% this year, general manager Natalia Sturla said.
"More and more commerce is being conducted on a global scale," she said. "Consumers, whether in China or the U.S. or Mexico, want to have access to the same products and the same companies."
Besides the explosion of international transactions, interpreting companies have also seen demand surge with other economic trends, such as the increase in home foreclosures during the recent recession.
Language Line's Provenzano said his company recently had to shift more interpreters to handle bank calls. "We still do a lot of foreclosures," he said. "For our interpreters it is quite emotional work."
And, he said, then there are the routine calls from police agencies and hospitals to help emergency workers communicate with non-English speakers.
Torrance Memorial Medical Center recently added 400 dual-handset phones, putting them next to nearly every hospital bed as well as in the emergency room. With the help of Language Line interpreters, these new phones enable nurses and doctors to better communicate with and care for non-English-speaking patients.
"The nurses are really using them daily," said Charlene Cottrell, clinical director of nursing at the hospital.
During Hurricane Irene last summer, Language Line was inundated with calls from insurance companies asking for help to interpret claims from non-English-speaking victims of the hurricane.
"Our interpreters don't know what the next call will be," Provenzano said. "A majority of the calls are not pretty." The company employs about 100 counselors to help its interpreters deal with the stress of the job.
Janet Eckles, a Spanish interpreter for Language Line, recalls a day recently when she got a call from a hospital, asking her to interpret for a nurse who was trying to communicate with a Spanish-speaking pregnant woman. The baby's heartbeat was irregular and the nurse needed to tell the mother what was happening.
"At the end of the call, everything was OK and they ended up doing a C-section," Eckles said. Language Line estimates that its interpreters help in the delivery of an average of 11 babies a day around the world.
But the next call the interpreter got that day was from a nurse in another hospital. A baby had died during delivery, she said, and the nurse wanted to ask the mother if she wanted to hold her baby for the last time before the infant was taken to the mortuary.
"What would happen if they couldn't communicate with the mom at that moment?" Eckles said, adding that she also helped interpret a prayer by the hospital chaplain for the woman.