A Conversation with Mary Jo Smith-Obolensky
“To have another language,” wrote Charlemagne, “is to possess a second soul.” When I was in high school, it was mandatory for all students to take a foreign language. Sadly, many of these classes did little more than hone our memorization skills for passing exams – and skirted altogether any discussion of the cultural influences that caused the gendered nouns, special symbols and pronunciation rules to evolve. In retrospect, I think I might have become fluent in the German, French and Spanish that I took for four years if I had felt more wedded to the actual emotions I was supposed to be expressing. It’s little wonder, then, I’ve always been in awe of professional translators. That I could put one such person in today’s media spotlight – Mary Jo Smith-Obolensky, founder/CEO of Dynamic Doingness, Inc. () – is an honor indeed.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: If we turn back the clock to your own days in academia at the University of Reading, you were majoring in Archaeology. Was it your plan at the time to channel Indiana Jones and discover artifacts from ancient civilizations?
A: Having been born and raised in Colombia, I was fascinated with ancient civilizations and all the information there was to discover about them. I studied in England, as my father was English. I found a very different archaeology to what I had fantasized about. If I had gone to Mexico or Egypt, I would have encountered a completely different subject. While doing the degree I realized I did not want to follow through with it as a profession, but completed the academic exercise, which was a very good opportunity.
Q: Tell us about the segue to television commercial production in New York and how the lessons learned prepared you for the multiplicity of challenges inherent in sales, marketing and PR.
A: When I started working in commercials production, it involved casting and hiring a crew and I became aware of how important it was to have the right team. In that industry there is a lot of “hurry-up and wait” so you need people that can handle both paces well. I developed my own hiring technique by seeing how long they would take to walk up four flights of stairs, and then how well they would do when I would have them wait before being interviewed. With my company, I select my clients and vendors with a sense of a long-term commitment. It is important that we all be compatible to make a good team. Sales and PR are inherent in most of the things we do, and in most relationships. I guess I developed that skill early on.
Q: Twenty years ago you launched your own translations company. What was the inspiration behind this and why was it important to you to establish it as a “boutique”?
A: I chose translations because it was something I could do from home, using the Internet, while I homeschooled my kids through their private school program. Translations and interpreting run in my family lineage and a bilingual education since birth gave me a good foundation. The transition was a natural evolution: I started on my own as a single translator and as I got more work than I could easily handle, I added people. I was also aware of the shortcomings of working alone. You need someone to read, proofread, and edit this work, in fact 4-5 qualified people that are all detail-oriented is ideal in a team. Since my attention to clients was very personalized, I wanted to continue that relationship as the company grew. I wanted the growth to be seamless for them and to feel the same comfort level, regardless of how busy we were. I wanted to give them the same quality and quantity of attention. That is my definition of “boutique”; and keeping that original “heart” was fundamental for me. I maintain that position by selecting both clients and vendors very carefully, looking for the harmony needed to deliver quality work to clients who appreciate that value.
Q: When you started your company, you were a single mother with two children. What were some organizational tools you developed to balance everything?
A: Well, initially it was like sipping water from a high-pressure hose. By necessity, you get into planning. I found that making some quiet hours on Sundays when I could plan as much as possible my coming week was critical. This meant listing everything from administrative tasks to menus and shopping lists, appointments for my children, bills to pay, etc. Once I had it on paper I could just execute, there was no room for thinking about what I needed to do, since the week was bound to bring a whole set of unexpected things. I developed a very organized and efficient way to operate across the many aspects of my life. This continuous and fluid process serves me to this day. I create, plan, and then execute. The faster and better I am at planning and executing, the more I get to create. Creating is the reward, except it works backwards in real life.
An important foundation for building the business was to keep my personal life and issues separate from work; I did not allow them to impinge on my professional life.
Q: What do you know now about “home life vs. work life” that you didn’t know then?
A: Both require planning and both need to be done with much joy. Initially I worked too many hours without properly balancing other areas of my life. I know now that overdoing the work only leads to a sure case of burnout that clouds the joy for the work and the pride in getting it done.
Q: What types of services did your start-up enterprise originally offer to clients, and how has that business model successfully grown with the passage of time?
A: I started offering English to Spanish translations, and as my clients’ needs in the global market grew, the business grew for/with them. The focus I had was to service my clients. As they needed the documentation in layout/design, I found a way to provide that. As they needed translations into more languages, I added the corresponding teams following the same model and process I created for Spanish. This led to the company growing organically, and this approach continues to be the key to our success: servicing our clients’ expanding needs.
Q: Are your clients primarily corporations, individuals or a mix of both?
A: Primarily corporations. We work best with large accounts where we can take care of all aspects of their business, from legal, financial, HR, employee training, product documentation, to marketing material. Then we can ensure terminology and branding are consistent throughout all aspects of the documentation. We will work with individuals or nonprofits on a special basis, depending on the project.
Q: We’ve all heard the phrase “lost in translation” and the fact that there are certain words and idioms in one language for which there isn’t a direct counterpart in a different language. I would think, for instance, that American humor and slang expressions would be mind-numbingly impossible to translate into Spanish. How do you ensure that an author’s intent – be it in a book, article, or commercial advertising – doesn’t fall by the wayside during the process?
A: In the industry, we call this “adaptation” (vs. translation) as you do need to adapt the concept and message to the target public. One has to have a very good knowledge of both cultures (the source and target languages), the public being addressed, and what terms or expressions are currently used in that specific market and demographic. Language is very fluid; it is as alive as the people who use it, and as diverse as the many cultures that exist. Good adaptations capture that.
Q: Let’s say that a prospective client wants a nonfiction book translated into Spanish but is unsure whether the type of Spanish should be Mexican, Latin American or Castilian. How do you help them determine the best fit for what they want the translation to accomplish?
A: Unless the book is only going to be sold in one country, such as Mexico, I always recommend the “neutral” or “universal” Spanish for Latin America. Then that one translation cost can cover all Spanish-speaking countries .We specialize in neutral Spanish and have team members from different countries that have very good quality Spanish: Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, for example.
Q: Your company website has ‘What Our Clients Say’ and ‘What Our Teams Say’ and both sides mention a sense of teamwork. That’s a concept that has become, in some ways, cliché. What does teamwork mean to you personally and how do you keep your team motivated?
A: Relationships are the foundation of life. I am interested in having good relationships with both my vendors and my clients. I don’t need to motivate my team, they are self-motivated and consummate professionals. I do reward that with fast pay, and because all work is always done with courtesy and respect from all sides, it creates an enjoyable living/working environment.
Q: So how many people are on your team and what are their areas of specialization?
A: We specialize in IT, Legal, Finance, HR, and marketing/adaptations. Since we use independent contractors, the number of people and teams varies according to the workload. We have Project Managers who take care of the projects assigned, and I oversee all of it, assisting as needed.
Q: You’ve shared with us that you possess a deep passion for literacy and empowerment. When did you first discover that passion and how does it manifest in your everyday life?
A: We all need help to do well, at all ages and during all stages of life. As a child, I became aware of adult illiteracy and understood conceptually that this was a tragic thing. I taught the housekeeper we had in Colombia to read and write as I learned how to myself in first grade at the age of four. We learned together, it was very empowering for both of us. Helping those that don’t have the same opportunities as ourselves seems to be the only sensible thing to do. How else does one deal with that issue?
Working in the area of translations is significant to me because we strive for the most accurate description of a document possible. It has to be used by people (such as a user’s manual) or in the case of a training video that will be utilized by those who repair the machines, or in the case of the public that needs a promotional product easily explained. As we translate, we think of one person reading and understanding clearly the material. It is just like being a public speaker who addresses one person at a time.
Q: Given the resources and the time, what would be your dream project(s) and why?
A: I am interested in developing projects related to education and empowerment, while I continue to run my business.
Q: Every month your company publishes a bilingual article on various topics, by your husband and Vice President, Ivan Obolensky. Share with us the process of writing and translating these.
A: Ivan has been an avid reader all his life, in a vast number of subjects. He is a “Renaissance” person: an artist fascinated by science and the entire world around him. We had the most amazing conversations around the dinner table and my daughter, Joanna, and I would look at each other and say, “Why are we the only ones listening to this?” That led to articles for the company website, which we could then translate into Spanish and thus reach a wider public. This also shows the quality of our translations in the process. Many follow his articles.
We are also in the process of creating short videos of them that can reach more people. The intention with these articles is not to sell the company in any way, but rather offer something interesting and educational, that makes the reader pause and maybe think of things differently. They offer a unique way of looking at things, “connecting dots”, looking at the big picture, and at the very small pictures. In our schooling and in the media we get very compartmentalized information, as in a bubble. Ivan is able to create a picture where situations interrelate or correlate, from the past and in current times, creating a sense of context.
Q: Do you have a favorite article or topic?
A: So hard to answer that… there is such a variety of topics, all of which I find fascinating. We never know what he will come up with each month; many conversations with friends and at home bring up interesting subjects, and as he starts getting into it, we go “that’s an article!” We all enjoy the process very much. In addition, we have an extraordinary translations team that does the Spanish.
You can see a list of all the articles written so far on our website.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share/talk about?
A: My mother taught me as a child to “count my blessings”. I am very grateful, and I think that as an entrepreneur, especially, that is a powerful tool. I learn from the mistakes and hardships, and grow from them more easily when approached from a viewpoint of gratitude. At least that has been my path, and it has served me very well.
Thank you for the opportunity to chat with you!