Translation business Argentina-style: Interview with Cecilia Maldonado

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In January, we heard the news that two well-known Latin American translation industry players, SpeakLatam and Two Ways Translation Services, both based in Córdoba, Argentina, had merged. We got in touch with Cecilia Maldonado, formerly the CEO of SpeakLatam and now Business Development Manager at the joint venture called Latamways, and scheduled an interview. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that Ivan Smolnikov and Jean-Luc Saillard got on a Skype call with Cecilia to talk about the translation business in Argentina.

Ivan Smolnikov: Hi, Cecilia! It’s my dream to go to Argentina someday. I hear you’re organizing an event in Córdoba.

Cecilia Maldonado: Yes, Translated in Argentina, an association I have been involved with since its beginnings, is hosting its first Latin American translation industry conference, CLINT. And if you want to come visit Argentina, what can be a better excuse than CLINT?

Ivan: Well, speaking of Córdoba and your upcoming conference, why is this city such a strong center for translation agencies in Argentina?

Cecilia: Córdoba has one of the best universities in the country, and in Latin America, with a very good 5-year translation program. At first, there were mostly freelancers, and people didn’t feel they could make a living out of translation. It wasn’t until after our first trip to the American Translators Association that we realized that there was a high demand for our services. We decided to share what we had learnt by organizing a conference and that was when we saw how it all started to change and a local industry started to emerge. Translators began working together, and as their demand grew, they began hiring other translators, and that’s how we transitioned into so many translation agencies in one place.

Jean-Luc: And now two of them, one being your company SpeakLatam, became a single enterprise. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Cecilia: SpeakLatam and Two Ways Translation have been working together as members of the Translated in Argentina association for twelve years to make Argentina a strong pole for translation. The translation industry in Argentina is quite fragmented, and being small it is hard to compete at the international level, so by joining forces we would be stronger and more competitive. I’ve been advocating that we, the companies at Translated in Argentina, should merge for a while now, and one of them listened, so we began discussing different options.

Ivan: What are the main benefits of the merger so far?

Cecilia: We get to share the office space and costs, we can manage more employees and freelancers; we have international attention and the structure for handling bigger projects, the exchange of clients, and the increase in expertise.

Ivan: What were some of the greatest challenges along the way?

Cecilia: The greatest challenge we faced was the differences in company culture and the fact that we lost some people in the process, but it was a great way to see who was really on board. Also, making sure clients did not panic about the change; we had to be very communicative and open with them.

Jean-Luc: Can you think of additional services that you could offer and what prevents you from expanding to these services?

Cecilia: The clients who come to us are looking for Argentina-specific standards, from payment to familiarization with the marketplace. Expanding to other marketplaces would require experts in sales for those locations who are able to travel and talk to people abroad, representing us, and that is complicated and expensive. We are very open to partnerships, and when I say “partnerships” I mean serious business relationships where customers can consider us an extension of their office instead of just another translation vendor. Argentina is a great production center. We work mainly with LSPs, or rather MLVs. We are looking into translation management solutions in the future, we’ll see.

Ivan: Would you say it is worth it to expand to new language pairs? And what would be the difficulties in doing so?

Cecilia: For many years, our economy was closed, so selling multiple language pairs was very complex. Also, the fact that being in Argentina sends an image to clients that translations from Argentina are less expensive is another obstacle. If we wanted, we could, but for now we like to stick to what we do best, and are looking into offering alternatives to a different type of client by relying significantly on technology.

Ivan: What proportion of the language tasks is done internally? What is Latamways’ approach to hiring new members? What about hiring freelancers?

Cecilia: Our staff includes mainly project management and quality control and we choose the freelance model for translation. It is impossible to house all the experts in each and every area required in the market in your headquarters.

Jean-Luc: We understand you had an event in GALA called Think Latin America. Can you tell us more about your experience with it?

Cecilia: The idea behind Think Latin America was to present Latin America as a capable and serious provider of language services and that no intermediate system is necessary. GALA took interest in it and after a few meetings acquired the brand. We loved the idea since we thought GALA would have the resources to make it grow, but the combination of the Latin American “decline” and the fact that we failed to bring investments did not help. Our intention was always to share, educate and give participants an awesome experience.

Jean-Luc: What made you interested in working with language services?

Cecilia: I always wanted to work with something related to languages. When I graduated, I didn’t want to be a bilingual secretary or teach English as a second language. Back when we started working with translations it was a challenge, because at the time we had dial-up connection. As we began spreading the word that a living in translation was viable, and attended conferences abroad, our clientele kept growing and we eventually got here. I love connecting with people. I like to get in touch and talk to them, it’s what I do best. That, and change. The industry changes all the time, and every day there’s a new challenge. And me? I like change, and diversity.

Jean-Luc: Do you think the formal education in Argentina prepares translators for “the real world”? If not, how so? What could be done to change that?

Cecilia: The level of education in Argentina is very good but lacks a connection to the real world. Therefore, when translators graduate they are not ready for the reality they’ll face. On top of that, there are people who are spreading ideas about the translation business which are simply not true, because either they have a vision, or they want it to be some way it isn’t. The issue is that these people are making translators think they are something they are not. By organizing training events, connecting academia, the Colegios (professional boards) and the market, we will be able to change this and help people be prepared to what’s really out there.

Jean-Luc: Can you tell us a bit about the translation industry in Latin America in general and the participation of Latamways in it?

Cecilia: The translation industry in Argentina is pretty new and therefore there is a lot of work to be done, such as focusing on fixing the disconnection between academia and the marketplace. There are translators who feel that agencies are a threat to their profession, and they believe they can beat technology. Translated in Argentina is trying to connect the reality of the marketplace with the reality of the translators and adapt to the increasing demand for our services.

Ivan: What are the biggest challenges the translation industry in Latin America faces right now?

Cecilia: Companies in Argentina (well, people in general) don’t consider professional translation as key element of their businesses or supply chain. It has been difficult to educate clients, change their mindset. At a local level, we’re working with the government to get some benefits in relation to taxation, employment and training since the export of services accounts for more than 7% of annual exports. As I said, there’s a lot of work to be done but I’m confident we will make things happen for the industry in general. On a different level, there’s this terribly mistaken idea that you can come to Argentina and ask for a Chinese translation at Spanish prices just because of our location. That’s a different challenge, but a challenge in the end.

Ivan: What is your approach towards customers?

Cecilia: Loyalty. When I start a business relationship with a customer, I like it to be about loyalty. If they have an urgent project, or a complicated one, we will move mountains to help them look good in front of their clients, and I expect the same sort of loyalty the other way around. If they are changing vendors, say, for price, I expect them to at least come to me and say “Hey, there’s these guys who made this huge offer, and obviously we have to take it because it’s really great. Can you do anything to match that, can we work something out?” I don’t expect them to marry me, just to care about what we are to them, and have consideration, just like we do.

Jean-Luc: You’ve been in the marketplace for quite some time now. How would you say the translation industry in Latin America has evolved after all those years?

Cecilia: I would say the mindset of translation has changed, from “translating a message” to “productivity”. Everything is more transactional these days. Quality is about what the client thinks quality means, and nothing else. You won’t find that many translators questioning what the client thinks is best, even though they may not agree.

Ivan: What are your biggest fears?

Cecilia: I don’t fear running out of business, competition or not having enough work. We are very proactive and we are always tackling new challenges. I’m more concerned about having problems with employees, legal issues, or confrontations. I don’t like to have problems with people in general.

Ivan: Have you tested the latest Neural MT engines from Google and Microsoft? And if so, do you have any feedback?

Cecilia: Neural MT looks promising, and I hear from my Operations team that they have seen an amazing difference when post-editing, so it seems to be a step in the right direction.

Jean-Luc: Going back to CLINT, what are you looking forward to seeing the most there?

Cecilia: The idea is to have as many participants from the industry as possible. It is a place to listen to different viewpoints, connect people and companies of all sorts. A true workshop for the translation industry.

Jean-Luc: What is it that you hope to achieve with CLINT?

Cecilia: We want it to serve the niche that has been unattended for more than 5 years and run it every two years, at least.

Ivan: Thank you for your time and generous answers, Cecilia. We wish you good luck in future endeavors and hope Latamways continues on its path to becoming Latin America’s translation powerhouse.