From the October 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Despite the many advances in communications made during the past 20 years, mankind still lives in the shadow of the biblical Tower of Babel. The overwhelming number of different languages and cultures in the world can prevent understanding and hinder cooperation, even as national economies become more and more interdependent.

This increasing interdependence of the world's economies is one factor behind the tremendous growth of translation services, says Walter Bacak Jr., executive director of the American Translators Association (ATA). "The pressure on U.S. businesses to grow has driven them overseas to new markets," Bacak says. "At first, they were trying to market using American knowledge, but they've discovered that to be successful, you need to market in the local customs and languages."

Worldwide expansion of the computer industry, and particularly the Internet, has also contributed to the growing demand for translation services. As people around the world gain access to the Net, the need for multilingual documentation, manuals and Web sites will increase dramatically. According to market research firm Allied Business Intelligence Inc. in Oyster Bay, New York, the worldwide market for translation services will reach $10.4 billion by year-end and is projected to grow to $17.2 billion by 2003. That's language any entrepreneur looking for a promising opportunity can understand.

While there are no statistics available on the number of translation services based in the United States, for the first time, the Census Bureau plans to publish the number of translation services in the 2000 Census.

Words To Live By

In business since 1981, Manouche Ragsdale, founder and CEO of Intex Translations in Los Angeles, is reaping the benefits of globalization. Her translation service has more than 400 clients that run the gamut from law firms and oil companies to manufacturing companies. "NAFTA has driven manufacturers to print packaging and other documentation in a few different languages," says Ragsdale, a Tunisian-born polyglot who translated for the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia before moving to the United States in 1969.

Business has taken off for Ragsdale in the past few years: She saw profits climb nearly 30 percent from 1996 to 1997 and expects Intex to gross $700,000 this year. "With satellites and cable TV, there is a huge worldwide appetite for video," she says. Intex works with various post-production houses to provide subtitles and overdubs for training, promotional and documentary videos. Recently, the company translated a commercial for consumer electronics giant Best Buy Corp. that aired in Japan.

European Translation Services in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, specializes in technical translations. Founder and owner Geoff Packer, 45, has a scientific background and gets a good deal of business from the research and development departments of large corporations seeking translations of foreign language technical journals, manuals and textbooks.

"Every [prospect I've talked to] has expressed a lot of interest in [hiring] a company that can do technical translations in a lot of different languages," says Packer, who has taken graduate-level courses in organic chemistry, physics, biology and physiology to boost his qualifications. "Not everybody can do a good job with technical translations. You have to know the language, the format and a little bit about the subject."

Unlike some consulting agencies, translation services generally have either very few or no full-time employees. The project-oriented nature of the business, as well as the unpredictable demands of clients for translators fluent in obscure languages, obliges translation services to rely on subcontractors.

"I prefer to work with subcontractors rather than have regular employees," says Packer. "The [workload is not consistent]--it goes in peaks and valleys. Sometimes you're rushing, and sometimes you're not busy enough. You can't guarantee full-time employees that they're going to have work."

Full-time translators at Crimson Language Services Inc. in Brookline, Massachusetts, handle assignments involving popular languages such as French, Japanese and Spanish. But founder and CEO Marc Miller, 34, relies on subcontractors for translations of more obscure dialects. "There are some languages that come up more often than others, but unless you own a large company, you wouldn't have the volume to support an in-house person," says Miller, who began Crimson in 1992 with partner John Connors, 35. The company, which grossed $1 million in 1997, has 10 full-time translators.

Crimson appears to be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to hiring translators. "Almost all services subcontract out the work that comes in because that lowers their overhead," says Bacak. "Unless the service has a specialization, it has to go out and find people who have language specialties."

Finding translators to work with is relatively easy; ensuring that they're qualified is another matter altogether. The ATA offers an accreditation program for translators, but according to Bacak, a paper certificate is no guarantee of competency. "Accreditation is not a license to do business," says Bacak. "It's more a device to help translators market their skills. The accreditation shows that they care about their professional development and indicates that they're interested in continuing their education."

Ragsdale says that an increase in the number of multilingual Americans means there is no shortage of translators looking for work. "It's not hard to find good translators," says Ragsdale. "A lot of gifted people go into the business, and ATA's accreditation process helps screen the pros from less-experienced people. I don't solicit for translators, and I have 500 names in my database." Ragsdale suggests that when searching for a translator, you should look for a mix of formal training, real-life translating experience and what she calls "the knack": the ability to think in two or more languages at once.

Money Matters

The financial demands of starting a translation service vary greatly depending on the size of the company. After a document is translated, it must be reprinted in the new language, meaning that a service must be equipped with PCs running the latest word processing and desktop publishing software, often in these other languages, as well as laser printers, copiers and fax machines. Since much of translation work is outsourced, Internet and e-mail capabilities allow entrepreneurs to run this business out of their homes instead of leasing expensive office space. Start-up costs can range anywhere from $20,000 for a bare-bones setup located in a home office to well over $100,000 for a sophisticated in-house publishing and imagesetting system like that used by Crimson Language Services.

Aside from language skills and start-up capital, running a successful translation service requires a certain level of business acumen, says Walter Bacak. "It's like running any type of consulting business. You must have that body of knowledge or expertise, and if you don't have it, you should partner with someone who does. What makes any business successful is the ability to market its skills and keep business costs down."

"It's a simple business, but it's not an easy business," says Marc Miller. "The work is painstaking, but while it seems glamorous, it can be difficult because of the detail-oriented nature of the work."

Geoff Packer concurs. "The most important thing is putting out a high-quality product with no mistakes that's been proofread, looks good, and has all the correct technical terminology," he says. "You have to have a good product to start with. Then you get people referring you to other people, and word just sort of spreads."

According to Bacak, an entrepreneur who is considering entering the translation service market isn't going to face much competition from computer-based translation software. "While translation software has improved in the past few years, it won't replace a human translator. You have to look at cultural norms and nuances of the language. That's very difficult for machine-based translators."

As the 20th century comes to an end, the rapid pace of technology and a slew of international trade agreements are giving businesses access to more and better markets for their products, services and ideas. But until the people of the world share a common language, translation services will continue to be a vital tool for business communication.

Next Step

  • The American Translators Association provides accreditation and professional liability insurance for translators. It also holds an annual conference and publishes The ATA Chronicle. Contact the association at 1800 Diagonal Rd., #220, Alexandria, VA, 22314-2840 or (703) 683-6100.
  • Because the World is Not Global is a brochure on language interpretation and translation issues from Cleveland-based Haselow Marketing Communications. Order it at http://www.haselow.com/2 by clicking on "International Marketing Tips."
  • Sponsored by San Mateo, California-based Language Automation Inc., The Translator's Home Companion (a href=http://www.lai.com/companion.html>http://www.lai.com/companion.html) is a Web page that contains various links and resources for translators and interpreters.

Contact Sources

American Translators Association,http://www.atanet.org

Crimson Language Services Inc., 258 Harvard St., #305, Brookline, MA 02146, (800) 798-9673

European Translation Services, (888) 358-8899, fax: (216) 371-2802

Intex Translations, fax: (888) 275-9572, http://www.thetranslationagency.com