Five Key Things I Learned from 25 Years in the Translation Business

Mary Jo Smith-Obolensky
October, 2020

  1. 1. Quality Counts.
      1. As I worked for agencies in my first year as a translator, I was appalled at the lack of process. It was one translator per job, no editor, and no team. One person alone will never create a fully professional job as one cannot perceive one’s own mistakes. Without at least another set of eyes, there is no quality control. As in any industry, the customer gets what they pay for.

    When I decided to start my own business, I focused on quality control because that is what separates a mediocre job from an excellent one. My business model was based on the exact opposite of my early agency experiences.

    2. Have A Team. In this business, there are never enough sets of eyes. The key is to have enough sharp-eyed layers to cover the needs of the project. A basic requirement is to find qualified people who are good team members and can collaborate. This is not easy in an industry where people generally work in isolation and are far removed from the final product. I created teams that work on the project from beginning to end. By doing that, a sense of pride and accomplishment is instilled, and it shows in the result.

    3. Choose Your Clients. Simply put, the ideal client is one who values what you offer. I learned to recognize this characteristic early in my career. A client who is only looking at the bottom dollar is not looking at the importance for a translation to be understood by the end user, or at the effort required in producing it. The “cost only” client will always be trouble. I am fortunate to have large clients who have been with me since the beginning, and who appreciate that the money spent on translations is only as valuable as the final translation communicates clearly.

    4. Engender Loyalty. This applies to all aspects of the translation business from vendors to clients. Loyalty and harmony go together. The result is always a better product because of the familiarity with the material and the process the client has in place. Work goes smoothly by knowing what is expected and being able to deliver it.

    5. Be Passionate. This work requires a passion for language, for involvement in the nuances of cultures, and for demand through the continuous search for: “Can it be better?” “Can it be clearer?” What is required is a focus on details, details, details, while keeping within the constraints of limited time and budgets. CAD tools can help keep nomenclature consistent to a degree, but the passion to use them effectively and keep terms up to date is critical. That attention requires the human qualities of commitment, effort, and care.

Lastly, on this special anniversary of 25 years in business, I am so proud to announce our first literary translation: El ojo de la luna by Ivan Obolensky. This is a very specialized and challenging type of translation—one which we look forward to expanding into.

[An update June 2022: I am very proud to announce our second literary translation: A la sombra del hijo, the sequel to Ivan Obolensky’s El ojo de la luna. This is a very specialized and challenging type of translation, with great teamwork between the translator and their editor, specialized editors, proofreaders, and advanced readers. Then comes the graphic design of the book, which requires again linguistic revision afterwards. A whole literary adventure as a team effort.]