When In Rome.

Start your own translation business.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the June 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Kirk Anderson was majoring in French and Chinese and, admittedly, didn't have a clue what he wanted to do after college. Molly Stevens, who had spent three years living in France, left a regular office job after only four days when she realized she couldn't stand being someone's employee. Rachel Burney, an American who grew up in Japan, was short on funds for college and scrounging for work that would bring her some quick cash. Three people from very different backgrounds accidentally hit on a way to use skills they already had in order to earn money and live the independent lifestyles they were after. How? With translation businesses.

Without realizing it, they, like many translators, wandered into a hot field that's being fueled by the growth of global commerce and by increasing interest from venture capitalists. The American Translators Association, or ATA, in Alexandria, Virginia, has seen its membership more than double in the past seven years. The organization now provides services to 7,000 members in 60 countries. An $11 billion market in 1999, translation services are expected to bring in close to $20 billion in 2004, in part because of an expected 20 percent increase in the number of Internet subscriptions worldwide and improved Internet access in Western Europe, South America and the Asia/Pacific, according to Amy Basta, an analyst with Allied Business Intelligence Inc. in Oyster Bay, New York.

"The translation industry is experiencing a tremendous growth spurt due to a variety of forces," says Basta, who wrote a report on the industry last year. "Increasing worldwide Internet penetration eliminates distance as a trade barrier but intensifies the need to overcome the last remaining obstacle to globalize: language. Companies seeking to reap the benefits of the burgeoning e-commerce markets must address the fact that the majority of web pages are in English. Reaching [foreign] markets will involve translation and localization of web sites, along with company and product literature."

Entrepreneurs with a knowledge of one or more foreign languages often are attracted by the ease of starting a translation business. Of the 3,000 U.S. translation companies, most are small, homebased operations, launched with a few thousand dollars for basic office equipment--a computer, a modem, a fax machine, a business phone and several dictionaries are enough to get most people started. Translators can live almost anywhere and service clients around the world. Kirk Anderson, the 34-year-old owner of Passwords Communications Inc. in Miami Beach and a translator of French, Spanish and Chinese, earns $100,000 a year working for clients in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

"If you're near a FedEx drop box, that's all you need," says Alan Gleason, president of The Translators and Interpreters Guild in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a translator of Japanese. Gleason lives in Oakland, California. "Really, you don't even need that because so much work is done on the Internet. I often never leave my desk."

Elizabeth Elting, 34, and Phil Shawe, 30 (listed as two of Entrepreneur's "Young Millionaires" in November 1999), ran their New York City company, TransPerfect Translations Inc., from their dorm room while studying for their MBAs at New York University. Since 1992, the company, which now earns annual sales of $18 million, has grown to include 125 full-time staffers, 3,500 freelancers, 13 U.S. offices and four overseas sites. The company translates a variety of technical, legal, business and marketing materials and web sites for Fortune 500 companies--not bad for a pair of post-grads who financed their first full year in business with $5,000 in credit-card advances and ate Ramen noodles at every meal for nearly a year.

But most translators don't need to go on a crash diet to survive. Full-time freelancers earned an average income of $51,848 in 1998, according to the ATA; part-timers earned $17,748. Those who have their own agencies can earn considerably more because they can charge clients higher rates-especially if they're translating Asian languages, which are in high demand. But agency owners must then deal with the challenges of marketing and building a client list.

Few agencies are as large as TransPerfect, but even smaller firms can expect to earn six figures once they've established themselves. Stevens, the 28-year-old owner of The Art of Translation in New York City, says her 4-year-old agency, which works with 10 regular freelancers, brought in $80,000 last year, and she expects that figure to increase now that the phone is ringing regularly.

Stevens, who specializes in translating art and advertising materials, started marketing her business by sending simple brochures to all the museums, galleries, and advertising and public relations agencies she could think of. "What really worked best, though, was word-of-mouth advertising and getting out there and networking," she says. "A lecture I did for the ATA led me to do a program at New York University."

Speak My Language

The most successful translators didn't just study the language in a classroom--they were immersed in another culture for an extended period of time. Stevens learned French from her Belgian nanny when she was a child; later, she spent three years studying social sciences at the Sorbonne in France. Anderson travelled and studied in France, Spain and China for one semester each, while Burney, who is 30 and lives in Urbana, Illinois, grew up in Japan, where her parents worked as missionaries until she was 18.

Successful translators also tend to specialize. The ATA reports that the most common areas of specialization are business, law, industry and technology, arts and humanities, medicine, and computers. Translating mechanical patents and lawsuit evidence seemed like a natural specialty for Burney, who previously worked as a translator for Mitsubishi. With her background in the arts, Stevens has carved out her specialty of translating materials for museums, publishing companies, and advertising and public relations agencies. "It requires a lot of adaptations of concepts; it can never be a literal translation," she explains. "It's a lot like creative writing."

Translators who want to thrive in the industry also need to learn basic business skills or delegate certain tasks to professionals. Burney admits she's "horrible" at marketing and managing her $45,000 annual income, so she relies on assistants in those areas.

The profession may seem glamorous, but there's a roll-up-your-sleeves, nitty-gritty aspect that few see. Translators often work in isolation. They're under pressure to produce high-quality work, often on tight deadlines. "It can be exhausting, especially when you have to work on weekends and holidays so your clients can have their documents ready for them when they come in on Monday morning," says Andrea Bindereif, a 36-year-old German native living in El Cerrito, California, who specializes in translating computer-related and medical materials.

Foreign Tongues

The amount of translation work available in a particular language is often driven by the economy. Translators face a sudden loss of work and a plummeting income if their language suddenly is no longer in demand. Turkish and Russian translators are struggling, for instance, because of the economies in those countries. The greatest demand, according to Gleason, is for Spanish translation of legal documents; translators of all European languages are needed on the East Coast.

Increasingly, American translators are facing competition from translators around the world, since the internet doesn't require the translator and the client to be located in the same town or even the same country. "Some translators are affected by that," notes Anderson, who translates legal documents and corporate materials. "That happens when you reach the higher-end price range. But there's so much work out there that, for most of us, there's plenty to go around."

The translation boom also has caused many unqualified people to enter the market, charge very low rates and, at least temporarily, take away business from more established professionals, industry insiders say. "I've had some clients who sent their work abroad to be translated into English because the work is done more cheaply, but the quality has been so poor that they've come back to me," Anderson says. "In translation, the old adage holds: You get what you pay for."

Despite the challenges, translators have never had so many opportunities, and industry experts believe the best is yet to come. "It's a big world," says Shawe. "Get out there and translate."

Pamela Rohland, a freelance writer in Bernville, Pennsylvania, believes that love--and money--are the universal languages.

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