LOS ANGELES — A Chinese customer visited a Culver City, Calif., branch of Wells Fargo Bank 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.
As the economy becomes more globalized, 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, Calif., interpreting service that employs more than 6,000 interpreters to translate over the phone for banks, police departments, hospitals and others. The company 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 United States in the past 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 past three decades, a pace more than 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 percent while the nation's overall population grew 34 percent.
Moreover, the amount of foreign investments made in the United States tripled from 2000 to 2010, and more than 5 percent 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 headquarters, but others work from home.
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 nearly 20 percent 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."