New York Times - May 30, 2001
Elizabeth Elting loves languages, and she loves business. When it came to a career, she hated to choose.
So in 1992 Ms. Elting co-founded TransPerfect Translations in New York, which offers translations into 100 languages. The company expects revenue of $24 million this year, and Translations.com, which Ms. Elting co-founded in 1999 to make manuals, on-screen commands and graphics user friendly in a variety of languages — is on track for $10 million.
"If you love languages and don't want to teach, this is a great way to make a living," Ms. Elting said.
Apparently, a lot of budding linguists agree. Both the Monterey Institute in California and New York University report a steady rise in applicants to their translation schools and in job offers to their graduates. Membership in the American Translators Association has doubled since 1993, to 8,000. Walter W. Bacak Jr., the group's executive director, said his online referral system averaged 100,000 hits a month from people seeking translators.
Much is spurring the quest for United States-based linguists. Courts need interpreters at trials. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of the European Union is forcing diplomats and executives to negotiate in more languages.
"I used to fit two years of data about assignments in one index card box," said Stephanie van Reigersberg, chief of the State Department's Office of Language Services, which procures interpretation services for all White House agencies. "Now I fill more than two boxes a year."
The growing use of English, it seems, has not lessened demand. "People who were educated at Harvard want to be speaking their native language when the sound bites are broadcast at home," said Idette Swetye, chairman of the United States region of the International Association of Conference Interpreters.
Work is growing even faster for translators of written words. Global consumers now demand package inserts and manuals in their language. And the Internet has generated the need to translate software and Web pages. "Consultants tell us that by 2007 Chinese will be the Net's most common language, so the translation business must grow," said Muriel Jerome O'Keeffe, founder of JTG Inc., a translation concern in Alexandria, Va.
Proficient translators and interpreters — most of whom are freelancers — can make a pretty good living. Salaries for the State Department's 20 staff interpreters range from $70,000 to $100,000 a year; freelancers get about $430 a day for conferences and up to $300 for classes. Most translation companies pay 5 cents a word for widely spoken languages like Spanish, up to 20 cents a word for character-based languages like Japanese. A 1998 survey by the translators association showed that freelance translators made about $51,848 a year, while salaried translators averaged $44,939. But most experts say that efficient freelancers can make six figures, and that project managers — the salaried people who coordinate translation assignments — can hit $90,000.
But for freelancers, it is an unpredictable life. "There are periods of intense work, but months when I sit on my hands," said Anna Saxon-Forti, an English-to-Italian interpreter. And competition can be fierce. As anyone who has invested in tech stocks knows, what technology giveth, it can taketh away. An American company can e-mail a Spanish translation job to a lower-wage translator in Mexico. And translators of less-common languages are suddenly in ample supply.
"You need something translated into Hebrew, you can find a translator in the online Israeli yellow pages," said Doron Horowitz, president of the American Association of Language Specialists. Added Hans Fisher, a Hungarian and German translator in Kansas City, Kan., "The Internet made this a growing field, but kept rates stagnant."
Moreover, there are machine translation programs that would make a mess of Shakespeare, but that can easily translate technical texts.
The Trane Company unit of American Standard, which makes air-conditioners, uses a translation service provided by Xerox to translate tens of thousands of pages of technical information into 28 languages each year. Because the service uses software for much of the translation, it can store oft-used phrases and repeat them in later documents. Thus, Trane's translation costs have dropped to about 6 cents a word, from about 15 cents a word in late 1999.
American Standard may soon use software to translate its intranet into the 16 languages spoken by its 61,000 employees. "Human translation is too expensive," said Jonathan Reavis, a Trane international marketing executive in La Crosse, Wis.
For now, translation software is just a minor threat, because few programs can translate language-rich text. But human competition is rife. Although the trade groups offer certification, the field is unregulated.
"In Europe you can't get hired without certification, but here anyone can persuade clients that he is a translator," said Milena Savova, director of the N.Y.U. translation school, which will soon offer an online course in translation.
Also, translation companies compete fiercely for clients. That has kept their rates low and thus made it harder for translators to push through their own rate increases. Their union — the Translators and Interpreters Guild, formed in 1991 — offers certification and referral service, but has only attracted about 350 members.
Meanwhile, mom-and-pop agencies are getting squeezed out or gobbled up. Lionbridge Technologies, one of the largest translation companies in Waltham, Mass., has bought seven companies in four years.
More giants keep forming. Bowne & Company, financial printers in New York, has long offered translations to printing clients. Now it sells translation services separately as well. "Our niche is time-sensitive legal and financial documents, and that is still a seller's market," said Judith J. D'Amico, executive director of Bowne Translation Services.
Indeed, most experts say that companies that specialize in areas like software, financial or legal and that offer 24-hour turnarounds, are most likely to thrive.
"We're facing lots of changes," said Debbie Folaron, a project manager at Eriksen Translations Inc., which does legal and financial work, "but that need for speed is the most major change of all."
—Claudia H. Deutsch