This interview was originally published as a LinkedIn and YouTube Live. As a localisation professional and a contributor for MultiLingual magazine, Stefan has been focusing on the impact of war in Ukraine 2022 for the translation and localisation industry in recent weeks.

A short intro of Stefan Huyghe

Stefan is on a mission to help his customers reach their international potential at home and abroad & has over 20 years of experience working in the localisation industry as an executive for various high-profile language services companies. 

Stefan Huyghe standing against a wall

A native Dutch speaker, Stefan is originally from Belgium. He grew up in the French speaking part of Switzerland while going to school in English, in the German speaking capital. Consequently, he speaks all 4 languages fluently. So it’s only fitting that he ended up in the localisation industry promoting international business! Stefan has lived in several locations across the US and is a joint US-Belgian citizen. 

He was elected to the 2021 Nimdzi Localization Influencer Watchlist: a list of THE most prominent industry professionals with proven experience in translation, localisation, and globalisation. He’s also a regular contributor to MultiLingual magazine and frequently appears on industry podcasts. 

How did you get into international business & what drew you to localisation?

Stefan: The connection with languages was an easy one to make. As a teenager I moved to French speaking Switzerland with the family and went to an English speaking school in the German speaking capital, so of course I got to learn those languages fluently. 

I worked in the PR Dept of Belgian Navy as a translator. Then when I moved to San Francisco in the 90s, I found myself in a conversation with a friend who was working for an LSP (languages services provider) and needed help starting the French office in Paris. 3 days later I was in Paris for 3 months and the rest is history. I’ve been involved in the localisation industry ever since. It wasn’t so much by design in the beginning as the industry wasn’t so well defined at that time, but it’s turned out to be the right decision for me.

Immediate impact of war in Ukraine 2022

Kathryn: You interviewed Kateryna Rietz-Rakul recently on her experiences on interpreting for President Zelensky, as well as talking with Maria Malykhina. Both of them described their experience of working under these testing psychological conditions. Maria mentioned an upswing in the need for both Ukrainian and Russian language for both military & humanitarian purposes. That’s certainly something that I’m seeing in Austria too, that we need Russian/Ukrainian speakers to help communicate with the refugees.
How do you feel that the localisation industry is being affected by the war in the Ukraine?

Stefan: I actually conducted an interview this weekend with Tetyana Struk as well. That’s about to be released on MultiLingual Media. Tetyana runs a localisation company in Lviv Ukraine called Linguistic Centre. She delegated project management to a team that is currently in Poland and is now concentrating on helping with the refugee crisis here on the ground. She confirmed to me that there is an acute need and uptick for translation services because of the refugee crisis. Ten million people have now fled their homes in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and they all pretty much have legal translation needs.

The impact has been immediate there of course. In the long run there is concern for both supply and demand of Ukrainian and Russian language services. Economically both languages will be affected, but the full extent can’t be gauged as yet. It depends on how long the war drags on.

Language in the form of propaganda, news etc is one of the defining aspects of any modern war – are there any trends or changes here which you are already observing?

Stefan: As you know, I write quite a bit for MultiLingual nowadays. They published an article of mine last week on the significance of the Z symbol that we can see all over Russian military equipment.

All language uses symbols for representation and classification, just like names. But these symbols’ meaning can rapidly evolve, and the Russian Z launched during the invasion of Ukraine is a perfect example of such dynamic language significance.

On Instagram, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted that the Z symbol is an abbreviation of the phrase “for the victory” (Russian: за победу, romanized: za pobedu). The Putin regime has further pushed the symbol as a sign of national pride, and it has further evolved into a public pro-war symbol.

Some are using the Russian Z symbol, invented just last month, to represent new Russian ideology and national identity, displaying it on cars, in the metro, and in video clips praising Putin’s campaign. That’s quite a development for a symbol that originally was just intended to identify Russian tanks and other vehicles and to prevent accidents with friendly fire.

A couple of weeks ago, in Moscow, a Z convoy was organised in support of the troops involved in the military operations in Ukraine and reportedly stretched for 12 kilometers.

Many Western media (Facebook, Instagram, BBC, CNN) now have limited access in the West, so it’s hard for the population to get objective information about what is happening.

I also heard about this Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak, who finished third in the parallel bars final at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha caused international outrage as he displayed the letter Z on the front of his outfit standing on the podium next to Ukrainian rival Illia Kovtun, who won the gold.

The letter Z has effectively become the Kremlin’s promotional icon for war. It’s a cheap populist symbol & repurposing of what started out as a practical use case.

Propaganda on both sides

There’s a huge amount of propaganda on both sides making it really hard to know what is really happening exactly. This makes it really hard to get a full picture of what is the full level of damages and how things are moving. Both language and camera footage only shows what the creator wants to show.

Are you already seeing changes in the way companies are thinking about their international business?

Kathryn: For example both the Ukraine & Russia are major markets for Austrian companies so they are being forced to consider focusing on different markets in order to replace that income. The impact of war in Ukraine 2022 will be felt for many years to come – Russia has been the largest export market for many companies.

Stefan: In the long run we see the risk of an implosion of the demand for both Ukrainian and Russian languages. With sanctions shutting down international Russian business and bombs destroying the Ukrainian economy that whole section of central Europe is facing an uphill battle. For the languages industry without a market and economic benefit for companies to localise in those languages it might be difficult to keep that going. 

The localisation industry is pretty tight knit and there are some initiatives running to help. Our thoughts went out immediately to the 30-50000 translators and interpreters on the ground in the Ukraine. On the initiative of Jan Hinrichs, founder of LocLunch we have actually been working behind the scenes on the #languagepledge #Ukrainian initiative. Essentially we’ve been requesting big business to continue with the localisation into Ukrainian language regardless of the impact of war in Ukraine 2022. There may not be a true economic benefit for companies like Google, but the costs are a drop in the ocean of their translation and localisation industry costs. On the other hand, it means the difference of economic survival for those who are working on those projects.

This last weekend, there was a benefit concert for the languages services community that raised €14000. That shows the level of solidarity there is in the industry right now.

Is Russian language in a safer position?

Stefan: There are a number of ex-Soviet republics who are used to using the Russian version of websites eg Kazakhstan or Armenia. Whether Russian language versions continue, will depend greatly on the position of Russia going forward in the international business community.

Kathryn: The main priority at the moment is to bring the armed conflict to an end, although it’s hard to imagine right now just how that might be achieved.

What role do you anticipate the localisation industry playing in the peace process once that begins?

Stefan: The language industry in my mind has always served as a bridge between cultures and people. We are playing an important humanitarian role at the moment. For example in your own United Kingdom six organizations of language professionals have come together to form the Ukraine Language Support Task Force in an effort to help Ukrainian refugees 

They created a series of translation templates for important documents to aid refugees who arrive in the country get settled. The templates can streamline the process of receiving a translation of documents such as a birth, marriage, or divorce certificate — these documents are important for individuals applying for a visa through the country’s Ukraine Family Scheme.  The UK is currently allowing Ukrainian citizens with family members based in the UK to enter the country and stay for up to three years. 

impact of war in ukraine 2022

Kathryn: In that sense, the translation and localisation industry is playing an important role in supporting humanitarian efforts. Here in Austria almost anyone who can speak some Russian or Ukrainian is in high demand for assistance with translations and interpreting. The Red Cross are coordinating the refugee support and of course if you don’t have at least some English, then you need help to register with the authorities, get access to health care & education, arrange accommodation etc.

Stefan: I really like this project with the templates in the UK. Whilst demand has spiked for these languages at the moment, it’s the worst timing for a lot of the people who usually provide the services. Even for those who have fled to safety have to also cope with the psychological trauma of what they are going through, and for those who have remained behind, they are often doing their translations in a bomb shelter. Having to wait for electricity or internet to come back on certainly means that there are some complications. Tetyana Struk mentioned that she hopes people will be patient and have understanding for the dire circumstances under which projects are being completed.

It’s an extremely complex situation

Kathryn: Whilst nobody would have thought that there would be a war in the centre of Europe after 2 years of pandemic, it seems that we had become too complacent. It will be an extremely fine line however to draw with the peace process. Right now, many people in Western Europe, the UK or the US want to punish Russia and make it a pariah state, however history has shown that “hurt people, hurt people” on a grand scale. Every effort has to be made to avoid repeating the mistakes that were made in the treaties of Versailles, Saint Germain & Trianon after WWI. When the peace process finally takes place, it has to avoid laying the groundwork for another war in a generation on the back of the resentment created.

Supply Chains are also affected

Kathryn: Whilst the immediate impact of war in Ukraine 2022 is on the supply and prices of oil, gas, rare earths, wheat corn etc, it’s also the supply chains between Europe & Asia that are affected. Flights are having to divert round the south side of the Himalayas, making them a couple of hours longer, thus pushing up the astronomic freight prices still further. And since the war started a month ago, a million containers have been diverted to seafreight, which would normally have been transported by rail. That’s a lot of delays, especially given the congestion at Chinese ports due to covid outbreaks. (The ports are open but the warehousing is closed partly and truck drivers are often in lockdown)

Moving away from the Ukraine to wrap up

Kathryn: Knowing what you do now, which advice would you give to your younger self starting out in localisation? What resources do you wish you had had at that time?

Stefan: When I started in the stone age you mean? Well, I’d certainly tell myself to relax, that everything will be ok in a lot better way than I could ever anticipate! When I got involved nobody even had heard of the word localisation, and translation was something companies did out of pure necessity once and a while when they really needed to. There was certainly no real push for a real global presence. Nowadays we actually have dedicated positions and there is a whole language services industry attached to it.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. - Oscar Wilde

There is a lot more opportunity these days for people starting out to get involved. I would recommend young localisation enthusiasts to get involved on LinkedIn which has now become a full on social media platform. Get active in the community and network. You have access to a lot of people that can help you get started in the right direction & you can start making connections right away.

I run a LocLunch networking event every month for example where we get together with anyone connected to our industry on Zoom. There is a real opportunity to meet peers and get noticed and get involved. For example there are translators, project manager and also managers from the client side who join us. It gives people an opportunity to get noticed and get involved. Before you know it you get invited on a podcast to talk about developments in the industry like me today. In the word of the famous Oscar Wilde “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”.

Kathryn: Yes, definitely. These days it’s so much easier for language learners to improve their skills as the internet makes things much more simple. Thank you Stefan!

If you are interested in the translation and localisation industry, you might like to also check out these posts

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  1. […] Stefan Huyghe: Impact of war in the Ukraine on localisation industry […]

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