Speaking in tongues - translation services

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.


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 viral tool for business communication.

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