Eastern Iowa translation services help companies do business overseas

Cedar Rapids, Marion businesses use large networks of freelance translators, interpreters

Anyone who has used an online translator knows it can be fun.

Type in “How is the stock market doing?” and with the click of a button you’ll instantly get “Comment la bourse fait-elle?” in French or “Wie wird die Börse zu tun?” in German. Fun, but maybe not always precise.

But local interpreters and translators said that while technology-assisted translation and interpretation has its purposes, they work in a specialized industry that requires both language and technical/topical know-how.

“A translator must be fluently bilingual,” said Michael Elliff, president of Cedar Rapids-based MGE Lingual Services Inc., which he started back in 1992.

“By rule of thumb, they should only translate into their native language. They must be linguists, computer savvy and must be proficient in the subject area.”

A big misconception, Elliff said, is that any well-educated individual fluent in another language can be a translator or interpreter.

“Translators also have to be professional writers. And they must be thick-skinned when it comes to potential edits to their text. They must be honest in recognition of one’s own limitations.”

For example, Elliff said he’d have to turn down a well-paying translation contract if he couldn’t find someone with the expertise and language skills to work on it.

MGE specializes in scientific and technical translation. While Elliff is a one-man-show, he works with a team of 300 freelance translators located around the world.

“We are fully equipped to handle website localization, translation, postproduction of video and multimedia materials for the web, television, radio, film and telecommunications industries,” said Elliff.

He added that MGE offers a range of audio/visual services to create foreign language versions of instruction and sales videos, slideshows, documentaries, commercials, films and automated voice systems.

“Our clients are typically manufacturers that require translation of manuals, assembly instructions, packaging, etc. that they are exporting overseas,” he said, noting that because of how the industry works, the types of customers and types of translations you are doing varies greatly from company to company.

“We typically do translations pertaining to agriculture, legal, medical, patent, marketing and finance,” Elliff said. “And about 80 percent of our work is translations from English into other target languages.”

While they have translated into almost all common business languages, Elliff said their most popular are Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Italian and Dutch.

Most of the translation jobs coming to MGE are via contract work, repeat work from clients, a small amount of advertising and word-of-mouth. Perhaps also not surprisingly most of the work — about 90 percent — is with clients outside of Iowa.

Laura Lord, president of Comprehensive Interpreting Services Inc. in Marion, on the other hand, does most of her work in and around Eastern Iowa, working with a variety of organizations, such as post secondary schools, hospitals, doctors, lawyers and the court system.

Lord started her company in 2006 after working as an interpreter for the previous 16 years. While she mostly work as a sign-language interpreter, another niche of interpretation, Lord also does foreign language interpretation on occasion.

She too works with a network of interpreters.

There are many resources available to the industry, Lord said, including professional associations that exist to support and promote translation and interpretation services.

MGE, for example, is a corporate member of the American Translators Association. Lord explained her license comes through the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association.

Lord and Elliff noted translations are often not done word-for-word.

“Although there is a use and a place for literal translations, they are limited,” Elliff said. “Translation is the conveyance of meaning within the target language. Expertise in the subject matter is essential and just as important as professional translation and writing skills.”

Lord added that interpretation is an intense workout for her mind, especially when she hasn’t been given materials in advance to prepare for her services.

“Ninety percent of the work is mental,” she said. “If an interpreting job is going to be longer than two hours we’ll often have two interpreters work it and take turns. It can be mentally demanding and draining, and if you are mentally drained you’re not doing a good job.”

Another misconception Elliff noted about the industry is that translation is a one-person show.

“In reality, it takes at a minimum two to three reviewers to make a translation viable,” Elliff explained. “In fact, most translations for print require multiple persons and many more reviews that one would think.”

Above all, Elliff said clients at first might not realize how labor intensive the translation process can be.“Translation is an art form and professional translation is still done by human translators,” he said. “While we can do 2,500 to 3,500 words a day, it is a time-consuming process.”

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