Some words about interpreting
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Aug 22 01:31:01 UTC 2007
August 8, 2007
In the Hunt
Some Words About Interpreting
By BRENT BOWERS
It is high time to dethrone plastics as the most famous one-word career
tip in history. On the 40th anniversary of the release of The Graduate, in
which Dustin Hoffman puzzled over that advice, I would urge fledgling
entrepreneurs to consider one of the most lucrative hidden-in-plain-sight
niches of the global economy.
O.K., that may not have quite the same ring, but think about it. While
everybody else is talking about booming international markets for
information technology, banking, jetliners and fast-food restaurants, who
are the mechanics who keep the machinery of world trade humming?
The people who enable speakers of English, French, Mandarin Chinese,
Spanish and every other language from Arabic to Zulu to understand one
another, thats who. As a result, a cottage industry of small and
medium-size language-services companies is quietly flourishing in this
country. Here is a glance at two of them:
Kathleen Diamond founded Language Learning Enterprise in Alexandria, Va.,
in 1979 almost by accident. Fluent in English, French and Spanish, she had
always been encouraged by her father, a corporate executive, to think
beyond the obvious possibilities, she said. But she never considered
herself entrepreneurial material.
Au contraire, she seemed to be coasting in early adulthood along a
predictable middle-class path, marrying, having two children and holding
down intermittent teaching jobs.
Then, the proverbial light bulb went off. In 1979, Berlitz offered her
$4.25 an hour to teach French to students who were paying $25 each for the
lesson. Assuming a class of 10 students, well, you do the math.
It was that huge gap that set off something in me, she said.
Fate gave her a push. By chance, she said, she saw a newspaper ad for a
program for women on starting businesses. She enrolled and before long
opened a language-instruction company for adults.
Her first federal government contract was with the United States
Information Agency. It asked to see her facility. Facility? What facility?
Before you could say the proverbial la plume de ma tante est sur la table
de mon oncle, she cut a deal to rent a churchs Sunday School classrooms on
>>From that beginning, she branched out into translation, then into sending
interpreters to hospitals and the like and finally, in what was to become
her big moneymaker, into providing interpretation services over the phone.
Today, Language Learnings 35 employees manage 3,000 interpreters and
translators, most of them in the United States, Britain and Canada, but
also in Argentina, Russia, China, India and other countries. These
independent contractors can be called on at a moments notice to assist
Language Learnings clients, which include the Homeland Security
Department, major corporations, financial institutions, hospitals and
numerous states and counties.
Most of the interpreters hired by Language Learning are immigrants, and
most live in the United States because, Ms. Diamond says, they have to
understand American lingo, culture and traditions.
She foresees a golden age for language services. Right now, her venture
centers on interpreting English into Spanish, followed by Mandarin
Chinese, Korean and Russian. But she considers China to be a land of
opportunity, with Mandarin eventually becoming a rival to English at the
center of the linguistic orbit just as China is emerging as an economic
force that is expected to play a larger and larger role in the global
Ms. Diamond, who is 60, says Language Learning is on track to take in $9
million in revenue this year, up from $5.8 million last year, a turning
point after years of gradual gains. She says her profit margins are
Weve reached the stage where we can say this company has real staying
power, she said. So lets let her rip!
It is doubtful, however, that she will ever catch up with her far bigger
competitor, Language Line Services, the worlds leading over-the-phone
interpretation provider. The privately held company is based in Monterey,
Calif. Louis Provenzano, Language Lines chief executive, recently started
an effort to double his full-time work force to 6,000 from 3,000 over two
years, and expects revenue to increase at a similar pace. He says his
company is highly profitable.
No wonder: The market potential for language services in the United States
is huge and growing, but the industry, which is made up of mostly small
niche players, cant keep up with the demand. It doesnt even have a trade
Mr. Provenzano says that Language Line has 20,000 customers around the
world, including hospitals, police departments and credit card companies,
with its biggest presence in English-speaking countries. He says his
interpreters help police officers and other emergency workers deliver an
average of 10 babies a day.
Why the explosion in demand? Every 31 seconds, another immigrant enters
the U.S., he said. One fifth of the people who live in the U.S. speak
another language than English at home.
Moreover, he adds, those global companies that offer their services in
potential customers native language are four times more likely to make a
sale than competitors who do not.
To that end, Language Line (started 25 years ago by a police officer named
Jeff Munks, with a business partner, out of his frustration in trying to
communicate with Vietnamese refugees) has joined forces with AT&T to offer
the public a free service called Your World, Your Language. The service,
now being test-marketed in California, allows users to choose one of nine
languages to communicate with service providers from banks and insurance
firms to telephone and utility companies.
In partnership with Verizon Communications, Language Line also recently
began marketing a prepaid card called Verizon Interpretation aimed at
American business travelers abroad who can use it to gain instant access
to interpreters of English into any language.
Israel Hernandez, who runs the U.S. Commercial Service, a part of the
Commerce Department that promotes exports, notes that more than 70 percent
of the worlds purchasing power lies outside the United States.
With English being the language of international business, he said,
Language Learning Enterprise and Language Line Services have indeed found
a potential pot of gold.
Brent Bowers, a longtime small-business editor at The New York Times and
The Wall Street Journal, is author of The Eight Patterns of Highly
Effective Entrepreneurs, now out in paperback (Doubleday).
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