Talking the talk

Even with competition from Internet do-it-yourselfers, Translators Inc. is succeeding at the word game.

17th September 2004




Translators Inc. co-owner Bobby Lahiere never imagined that excelling on an eighth grade language aptitude test would lead to running a company with more than $1 million in annual revenue.

But after being romanced by languages during repeated summers abroad, then graduating from Rhodes College with a degree in Russian Soviet Studies, Lahiere joined a Memphis, Tenn.-based cotton firm, translating documents for international business deals.

He quickly realized that words, not cotton, interested him, so when the Tennessee firm disbanded its overseas operations, Lahiere searched for another way to pursue his passion.

Upon discovering AAA Translators Inc. in the Memphis phone book, Lahiere landed in the office of Gabe O'Meara, who had recently moved to Memphis from Rio de Janiero following that country's economic crash. The two wordsmiths hit it off immediately.

Following a successful career as a music producer, O'Meara had begun translating documents in a makeshift office in his Memphis home, starting with a birth certificate he translated from English to Portuguese. The firm gained new business by word-of-mouth.

Lahiere joined O'Meara in 1992, speaking German, Russian, French, Dutch and Swedish. Their combined language skills, and Lahiere's background in Web design, quickly boosted the company's IT capabilities and client base.

In 2002, O'Meara and Lahiere left Memphis for Miami and Houston, respectively, dropping the "AAA" from the company's name and creating a new logo and slogan.

Increased revenue followed -- to the tune of $1.2 million last year and an estimated $1.6 million in 2004.

Although the firm can now afford to lease office space in cities near major clients and consults a database of nearly 6,000 translators, Lahiere says always remembering the company's humble beginnings has bolstered Translators Inc.'s success.

Many new contacts arrive via the company's Web site, with requests ranging from translating personal letters to technical manuals.

Translators Inc. rarely turns down assignments, Lahiere says, only rejecting the ones the owners feel would be too rushed and would compromise the integrity of the result.

Many clients need guidance to understand translation services and fees, Lahiere explains, emphasizing that while translation is written, interpretation deciphers spoken dialogue.

In addition to written translation services, the company also handles on-site requests for interpreters, depending on the situation and the logistics of getting a translator to a specific location. In the past, for example, Translators Inc. has sent interpreters to a Harley-Davidson convention in Chicago.

The company also handles requests for localization, or translating software and making it compatible with technical requirements in different countries. Translators Inc.'s fees depend on the languages involved, the difficulty of the material, overall volume and formatting requirements.

While translating a 350-word personal letter from English into French might cost $65, translating a 50,000-word technical document from Quark into Chinese could run as much as $11,000.

When appropriate, Translators Inc. matches repeat clients with the same translators so there is an understanding of that client's particular requirements.

Difficult moments do arise when an unusual request pops up, but Lahiere says since Translators Inc. treats its translators well by paying them fairly and on time, they are usually willing to handle unusual requests at odd hours.

Lahiere and O'Meara also do their best to field uncommon requests.

For example, in an effort to boost productivity for Continental Airlines Inc.'s customer care department, Lahiere devised a proprietary Web-based application. Instead of the four-week turnaround time Continental faced with its old translation methods, Lahiere invented a system where human translators turn around documents within days. He says the system facilitates the flow of information, increasing productivity for all involved.

Falling in the 'net

Memphis-based Hunter Fan Co. has used Translators Inc. for the past 12 years to convert installation manuals into Spanish, French, German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Dutch. Like other businesses needing multiple translations, Hunter Fan tried a translation software package from the Internet, ending up with bizarre interpretations for the term "ceiling fan."

"Our technical words never ended up correct, and I have never been able to find a software package that could replace a person," says Roxanne Perkins, a senior technical writer with Hunter Fan. "Besides, I make a lot of extreme requests, like asking (Translators Inc.) to get me something in the next hour. They always work with me and are willing to do it."

Lahiere discourages the use of machine translations, except to decode the meaning of a single word or phrase.

In fact, one of the company's clients hired Translators Inc. because another translator misinterpreted the word "seal." Instead of using mechanical terminology -- in this case, the seal on a window or truck valve -- the translation referred to a circus animal.

While Lahiere concedes some disputes occasionally arise over subtleties in languages, he says no client has ever been given a document by Translators Inc. requesting a circus animal be used to cap a valve.

Because each translator interprets linguistic nuances differently, Lahiere encourages all translators to coordinate their terminology, especially those working with shared clients.

"You can give four translators the same document, and they'll come up with four different interpretations," Lahiere says, adding that no matter how complex the assignment, Translators Inc. hires a human to perform it. "Machine translation doesn't work. We never use it."

Lahiere points out that numerous free automated translations have begun to appear on the Web, spitting out literal translations that often confuse. For example, translating the first sentence of this article into Spanish then back to English using one a Web-site translator resulted in six mistakes.

Translators Inc. has corrected many mistakes generated by such translations. Lahiere says the company's biggest competition is anyone with a language dictionary who calls himself a translator.

In addition to educating and nurturing clients, future goals for the company include developing new services. For example, O'Meara launched Brand Name Research last year to help corporations understand which words and slogans work in which countries, and which do not.

Meanwhile, Translators Inc. is listed in 20 Yellow Pages nationwide, building awareness of the company and what it is doing.

Last year, the company hired a business coach who recommended systematizing and writing contracts for each job in the organization. Now, when Translators Inc. hires new employees, the job descriptions are already in place.

Lahiere says it is hard to imagine relinquishing daily operations after being involved with them for so long, but he and O'Meara are dedicated to focusing on their corporate strategy -- and still having time to practice their languages.

©2004 American City Business Journals, Inc.