Martin Alianelli Translations

The Language of Business in Any Language ™

The Entrepreneurial Translator
By Martin Alianelli

Published by the American Translators Association

The American Heritage Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “someone who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk of a business venture.” And as simple as that definition sounds, there is much more to being an entrepreneur than just a dozen words. An entrepreneur, from my own experience, is “someone mad, who under crushing doubts, tautly organizes, painfully operates, and foolishly assumes the mammoth risk of a business venture.”

When the Florida State legislature retired me early from my vested position as a Senior Commercial Officer with the Florida Department of Commerce, I found myself out of a job for the first time in my life and with very specific out-of-the-ordinary skills. There were no more checks at the end of the month and I could no longer lean on corporate culture for direction.

Getting Started

Organizing my new office was a challenge in itself, but starting my translation practice was a real test. A thorough inventory of skills and talents accumulated throughout my life helped me identify my unique experience set and apply it to managing my business and marketing my translation practice. In the past I had been a policeman, door-to-door salesman, restaurant chain marketing executive, wholesale tour operator, airline sales representative, telecommunications project manager, and tourism government official. These jobs taught me how to listen carefully, nurture efficient interpersonal relations, project an image of professional credibility, conduct business based on ethical and social considerations, and recognize the importance of superior service as a defining factor of success.

Marketing the Practice

Learning about the translation profession was not difficult, thanks to the vast resources to be found within ATA, The Florida Chapter of ATA (FLATA), and many other trade organizations. I discovered an abundance of education and reference materials, particularly in the Spanish-to-English language pair, and a support network of fellow translators whom I now call friends. Even with these resources, however, marketing my practice would prove an extremely difficult challenge.

As a relative newcomer to the profession, I started by acknowledging the fact that my translation skills, while accurate and effective, were perhaps not as efficient as a result of the industry’s long learning curve, my lack of hands-on experience, and the dynamic nature of language itself. But I knew that I could somehow overcome these deficiencies by using the business skills I had learned in other industries and by choosing to specialize. 

My understanding of marketing soon revealed what my corporate clients needed and that I could fulfill those needs because I knew how to speak their language. I believe corporate people can deal very effectively with other corporate people because they all live inside controlled corporate cultures. But when they go out into the outsourcing world, they cannot understand why some contractors don’t subscribe to basic corporate-like behaviors such as answering the phone immediately, returning calls promptly, and performing other basic functions more efficiently. The point is that above and beyond credentials and talents, clients are more impressed with the way we service their needs than anything else. And I believe that when it comes to service, a happy customer is likely to come back, as long as we know how to communicate effectively while showing true dedication to service excellence.

And when we talk about service excellence, I believe we are talking about absolute and total dedication to serving our clients’ needs and solving their problems to our fullest ability with minimum interference. But I have heard a few translators say that there is a need to “educate” our clients, and I agree that organizations such as ATA, FLATA, and many others should undertake this task. But when it comes to individual translators, I believe we also need to be educating ourselves in the art of providing a superior customer service experience.

The Salesman

My law enforcement background has always come in handy to measure people from afar. These days, I use it to spot salespeople when they approach to sell me something. I map them and stay away as much as I can. And I don’t think I am unique when it comes to “resisting” a sale.

In that spirit, I resist using the whole “sell” proposition when it comes to marketing my translation practice. I really feel more like a doctor than a salesman, since when it comes to “selling,” I follow the “build it and they will come” rule. Yes, I believe building my practice, promoting it very subtly, and being competent in the way I carry myself and talk to my clients gets me more attention than trying to convince clients they should hire me instead of somebody else.

In my personal and professional experience, credibility is king. And nowhere is credibility more urgently needed than with our own peers. I have always placed the highest value on my practice of listening to and getting a reading on other translators, in addition to networking with my peers. When I started doing these very things, my practice and credibility took off for good. In just two years, my practice has grown extensively. I have also received the great honor and personal privilege of being elected by my peers to serve as president of FLATA two years in a row. I am also invited to write articles, make presentations, and give interviews on a more regular basis.

The Route Map

When it comes to marketing my practice, I place great value on attending professional gatherings, being invited as a speaker, being asked to write articles for trade or mass media, or being interviewed for newspapers, radio, or television. But these are all after-the-fact results of having attained credibility through my peers and my industry.

Since I started working as a translator, I have seen translators copying formulas from books on how to market and sell, and I have always thought that these strategies must work well for them. I have read some of the same books, but in my personal case, I don’t want to do what everybody else does. I want to be doing what few translators do; I want to take the road less traveled and try my own material. And I don’t want to know how much other translators charge. I don’t really care about competition. I believe too much emphasis is placed on knowing what the competition does, when in reality, it is more important to be persistent in our ability to provide accurate translations and in our determination to offer a superior customer service experience to our clients. And an attitude of persistence and determination is what continues to work for me. As U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men     with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

The Crystal Ball

This attitude of persistence and determination responds to a very positive indication that there are not enough translators in the U.S. to meet the increasing local demand. In my opinion, no matter how many start in the business in the next 30 years (which is about how much longer I’ll be around in the profession), there probably will not be enough translators around to meet future demand.

Take Hispanics in the U.S. as a perfect example of how future demographics will affect the translation business and our individual professions here in the U.S. by checking the following U.S. Census Bureau data:

Ø·   2002 Total Population: 38.5 million
Ø·   2020 Projected Percentage of Total Population: 18.9 %
Ø·   Projected Population Growth (2002-2020): 2.8% per year
Ø·   Projected U.S. Population Growth (2002-2020): 0.8% per year

Ø·   Percentage of Foreign-Born Population: 46%
Ø·   Percentage vs. Total State Population:
      California: 32% [Population = 33.9 million]
      Texas: 32% [Population = 20.8 million]
      Colorado: 17.1% [Population = 4.3 million]
      Florida: 16.8% [Population = 15.9 million]
      New York: 15.1% [Population = 18.9 million]
      Illinois: 12.3% [Population = 12.4 million]
Ø·   2002 Hispanic Purchasing Power: $600 billion

Ø·   2010 Projected Hispanic Purchasing Power: $2.0 trillion

(Sources: U.S. Census Bureau –Telemundo Television Network)

Another positive indication is that when it comes to languages, this country is an infant crying out for attention. Take the average person living in Europe who speaks two or three languages with native proficiency and compare him or her to our average American who only speaks English. Actually, a not-so-recent study of representatives in the U.S. Congress found that more than half of our elected officials have never applied for a U.S. passport!

And as the U.S. continues to open up to the world, I see demand for our services here growing at a geometric pace. And if I was ever concerned with translation overseas stealing my clients away, I don’t worry any more. Their business takes place in those countries and there will be enough work for all once demand in America for language services grows at a faster pace to keep up with the new demographics. Further, I believe our competitive advantage will respond to the need for cultural awareness and education in American corporations, and most especially to the unique rapport and cultural understanding between an American client and his or her American translator.

On the other hand, the federal government can’t find enough qualified interpreters and translators, and the same is true of state and local governments and private industry around the nation. Cities which just 10 or 20 years ago had no need for interpreters in their courts or translators in their businesses are perfect examples. Now cities such as Atlanta, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland, and Seattle have been overcome with a demographic invasion of gargantuan proportions, one which has brought about new market segment opportunities along with the stretching of public and private resources.

These indications clearly show that our country is at the gates of a real cultural and linguistic catastrophe from which we will all profit. This has been somewhat recognized by the federal government’s designating 2005 as the “Year of Languages,” heralding the beginning of a long and tortuous road to teach Americans other languages, but most importantly, to make Americans more comfortable with other cultures.

These facts underscore the incredible blue skies above for those of us in this business in the years to come. And I further submit that the present infrastructure, the rapidly increasing globalization of American culture, and the increase in specialization will bring about a feeding-bonanza for U.S. translators that, in the next 10 to 20 years, will make our profession one of the most promising for Americans of all ages.    

The Competitive Advantage of Superior Service

The Ritz Carlton Hotel Corporation is one of the best five-star hotel chains in the world, and the first recipient as a hotel chain of the coveted “Malcom Baldridge” award, which had previously only been presented to individual hotels.

A few years ago, while attending the Florida Governor Conference on Tourism, I had the privilege of listening to Horst Schultze, then the chairman and CEO of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Corporation. His explanation of how a collective attitude of superior service had changed the famous hotel chain drew feedback from the specialized audience of hoteliers and other tourism professionals. It wasn’t until he spoke about repeat business that I understood the difference between providing “service” and providing a “superior client service experience.”

Mr. Schultze was talking about client satisfaction and repeat business, explaining that, as great as the Ritz Carlton Corporation was (at the time, the number one hotel chain in America), they were still losing about 30% repeat business due to inconsistencies in their service. When the crowd reacted with laughter, he said, “Oh, don’t worry for us because you…you are losing much more.”

And as arrogant as the statement sounds, it is both accurate and revealing. To get a job in the door is relatively easy, but to hold onto an account is extremely difficult. Repeat business is a measure of greatness reserved for translators who, besides being great word and meaning craftsmen, have a personal and professional commitment to service excellence.

So when it comes to marketing my translation practice, I believe in keeping it simple and tightly inside a manageable circle where I am the hub and my clients are the spokes. And the circle can only work if I can continue providing a superior service experience by listening attentively and understanding exactly what my clients’ needs are. Service is superior when we:

·   Are accessible and easy to reach;

Ø·   Take ownership for our errors;

Ø·   Provide answers without further consultation;

Ø·   Never promise what we cannot deliver;

Ø·   Consistently respect our clients’ needs;

Ø·   Provide regular project updates;

Ø·   Communicate briefly, effectively, and without interference; and

Ø·   Keep current on our client’s industry news.

Speaking Clearly

Charlatanry is phony and easy to detect. Unless victims of a professional con job, we usually know when someone is trying to lie, misrepresent, or even sugar-coat something. In the specialized environment of business, charlatanry can be detected much faster because the business information we exchange with clients is usually factual and very much to the point.

Excuses are the best example of charlatanry and the fastest way to lose clients. It is even worse than not completing a project on time or being mildly inaccurate, because an excuse is regarded as an evasion of responsibility and a very childish act. A client will most likely forgive anything, except excuses. In the professional life of an entrepreneur translator, charlatanry and excuses are sure tickets to losing credibility and ultimately to gaining a reputation for scaring repeat business away.

Speaking clearly means being honest and taking ownership of our own mistakes when, for whatever reason, we cannot provide a superior service experience. And this attitude is in line with our clients’ own corporate cultures, where employees take ownership of their own mistakes, which are seen as learning opportunities allowing for corrective measures that help nurture effective business relationships based on mutual respect and better understanding. 

The Kindness of Superior Service

When I was a little boy growing up in Buenos Aires, I always loved to go to the candy store near the San Isidro railway station, because no matter what I bought, Señor Alberto would always let me put my hand inside the big black “mystery jar” filled with candy. And that one candy I always got out of the jar was the best. This was not because it was free, but because even though Señor Alberto had no obligation and presumably didn’t gain much doing it, he was telling this little boy, “Hey, I love you coming around.” Señor Alberto knew about providing a superior service experience and added value. As a result, all of the kids loved going to his candy store.  

That is why superior service entails a caring attitude and a commitment to excellence based on a personal understanding and a professional dedication to upholding old and proven personal principles of civility and good manners. It means going one step further beyond just doing what we are being paid for. It means doing the right things and doing them right. It means doing things in a more complete fashion. This is what marketers call “providing added value.”

That is what superior service means to me. That is what Señor Alberto knew so well in a most empirical way, and that is the first marketing skill I ever learned.

The “Value-Added” Benefit

The addition of value to service is a great competitive advantage in my practice, as it creates client goodwill that results in repeat business. To produce the desired effect, it must have a concrete and obvious value that, while clearly benefiting the client, will not convey something offered for “free.” Good examples of the kind of added value services I provide my clients without charging are:

·   Pointing grammatical errors or typos out in the source copy;

Ø·   Translating technical language;

Ø·   Doing rush jobs; and

Ø·   Counting words on a copy bearing the least number of words.

Actually, I came up with the idea of these value-added competitive advantage points from other translators’ collateral materials announcing their “extra charges.”

Practicing Common Sense

They say common sense is the least common of the senses, and, at least in my experience, superior service is nothing but plain and simple common sense. It is no wonder this kind of service is so hard to find! Simply put, superior service is treating others the way we would like to be treated; to value every person as such and not as an entity. 

Common sense dictates that in order to provide superior service and a superior client experience, we must conduct ourselves in a civil manner, including:

·   Answering the phone on the first three rings;

Ø·   Returning phone calls immediately;

Ø·   Never interrupting while someone is talking;

Ø·   Listening with attention and intent;

Ø·   Taking notes on what is being said;

Ø·   Wrapping up conversations with next-step action plans; and

Ø·   Following up meetings and conversations with thank-you e-mails.

Some of these skills were transferred to me while working at Delta Airlines, a company with an incredibly efficient team-based, self-directed corporate culture, where each individual must act responsibly, take ownership of deficiencies, and measure individual and team performance to achieve corporate goals.

Providing superior service is also about one of the only noticeable advantages that may distinguish our service from others. And I keep reminding myself that too much confidence breeds contempt. The idea that “they’ll keep coming because I am the best translator” is beside the point and a recipe for possible professional failure.


Many times I have been asked, “What did you do to make big corporations be interested in your services?” And without giving away everything, I will say this…I did it and continue to do so by being myself and by creating and projecting an image of credibility horizontally into every environment I frequent, whether it be with family, friends, friends of friends, the church, gym, social club, children’s school events, or community work.

I also try to be in as many places as I can. I never carry business cards and I never talk about my business until I am asked…and I usually am. I also read business literature with a passion and do research on the Internet every day. I regularly write to newspapers and magazines from all over the country sometimes I am published, most times I am not. And I never write about my service, like I am doing here, but rather about peripheral issues I know and understand and that are somehow connected with my profession, but most importantly, with my service.

Hopefully, I will never get close to learning everything there is to know about the business of being a translator. And that is fine, because it will help me keep my humble feet on the ground, my learning kit primed and tuned, and my attitude in check. I have much to learn and hopefully my more established peers will continue to graciously share their experience and skills with me. It is also my hope that my clients will continue to be loyal to my service.

And perhaps I will continue growing in this profession, thanking the powers that be for putting me on this path and showing me that being an entrepreneur and a translator is no different from being a “good guy” who cares for his family, his friends, and his clients, treating everyone with the same deference, honesty, and respect.