Speaking In Tongues

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.

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This article was originally published in the October 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Speaking In Tongues.

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