“Foreign languages are paramount. Without them nothing differentiates us from the others.”
Timea Balajcza comes from Hungary, grew up in France and has been living in Poland for the last 19 years. In the finance sector, until a few years ago responsible for 12 European markets, today she manages 800 translators and interpreters across the world. Today, BALAJCZA Specialized Translations Agency, which she set up in 2010, provides translation services in all language combinations.
She repeatedly tells her daughters: “Foreign languages are paramount”. And: “Do what you like doing”.
Iza Wiertel talks with the woman who was born in the era of the Iron Curtain and overnight found herself in a multicultural and multilingual world.
Mum is the inspiration
IW: You can speak many languages, you married a foreigner - was there anything in your childhood which could have given an inkling that you’ll turn out to be such a communication genius?
TB: I don’t think so. Generally speaking I am not a communication genius. Giving presentations or speaking in front of large audiences are skills which I acquired over time. I was not a natural. I have to thank my mum for my knowledge of foreign languages. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, she worked for a Hungarian company which had an export concession My mum knew four foreign languages, she was looking after markets such as Germany and France which involved occasional travel abroad. And this was during the communist era, when knowledge of foreign languages even amongst people working for such companies was rare.
A child in a foreign country
IW: As a ten year old girl, you were facing new surroundings and, it is rumoured that you learned a new language in six months. Do tell, how did you manage to learn it so quickly? Could this perhaps be a hint for foreign language schools, on how to approach teaching languages to children, by just dropping them in the deep end?
TB: I certainly think that dropping in the deep end is a very good method, but difficult to accomplish unless you are in a given country. I can’t say it was a traumatic experience, as it wasn’t, but it certainly was a difficult one. I went to France with my mum who was busy with work, so I had to go to school. For the first six months I attended a special class for children who did not speak French, but as my English was also quite limited, there was no alternative but to speak French. It is almost impossible to say exactly how long it took, but I do remember that after six months I knew the language well enough to be assigned to a normal class with my peers. And then I had no problems when it came to talking.
IW: Where you the first child from the preparatory class to be transferred to a normal class?
TB: Yes, I remember that other children stayed there for longer. I think that a strange feeling which I had, of being sidelined, ebbed me on. In Hungary I attended a normal class and was sent to school a year early. In France it was important for me to catch up quickly and be put in the class which I thought I ought to be in.
IW: Do you remember how you learned the language? Did you do extra work at home or did teachers help you in school?
TB: Certainly not at home, as I spoke with my mum in Hungarian. Schools in France, especially primary schools are not like in Poland. Pupils leave school at 3 or 4 p.m. And this continues during high school and college. This actually helped me as I did not go home at noon, where I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but was with other children for most of the day. I remember that French skipping was very popular, and so to be able to skip I had to ask French kids if I could join them.
IW: I would like to ask about your next foreign trip. Did you spend half a year in the Netherlands as a student?
TB: Yes, for six months I attended Rotterdam University as part of the Erasmus programme.
IW: I expect that this was not a shock for you after moving to France at the age of ten?
TB: No, of course it wasn’t. Once I had a place at an economics university, it was very important for me to go on an exchange, but it was equally important for this to be at a renowned institution and to be able to study a subject which I specialised in. But I also had to deal with a disappointment as I left with a hope of learning at least a bit of Dutch.
IW: And didn't you?
TB: No, unfortunately I did not. It is very difficult. And it isn't even that I was there for only six months. In the Netherlands, everyone, and I mean everyone speaks English. Even the cleaners at the university. This may not be Shakespearean English but English nonetheless. We had a two week Dutch course. I remember that I once tried to buy a ticket in Dutch, but the lady at the ticket office just looked at me and said in English: „Here you are the tickets”.
IW: You said that you have three daughters. Would you recommend a six month exchange programme to them? What does a young person stand to gain by going to study abroad?
TB: I am certainly for my children learning languages, with the older two at a bilingual college (with French as the other language) and the younger one at a bilingual high school (Spanish). What I say to them is that they can always graduate law or economics but foreign languages are paramount. Without them we’re the same as others, without an advantage. And when it comes to an exchange I think it is very important as we are away from our parents and have to rely on ourselves. We have to remain open to other people.
Working whilst at uni
IW: It was at university that you started working as an interpreter, you accompanied businessmen on their business trips, particularly to the United States. Do you think that this prepared you somewhat to enter the world of business?
TB: These trips were certainly a valuable experience. But this does not mean that after working as an interpreter in the US a few times I was already thinking of starting a translations agency. It was simply an opportunity to use my language skills and also to learn something, as every time I participated in a business meeting or conference. This was a valuable language skills and interpreting experience. It meant that after graduation I had some idea about the job of an interpreter, as apart from interpreting I also did quite a lot of translations. I remember that one our my professors got us involved in translating an English economics book into Hungarian.
Love and emigration
IW: You make no secret of the fact that you met your husband whilst at university in the Netherlands. Did you have a plan when you came to him to Poland? Did you know where you’ll look for a job, or did you make your decision believing that everything will work out fine?
TB: I certainly did believe. Looking back, I think that I had a vision of the Netherlands in my head, where English was enough to manage just fine and even find a job. Unfortunately, in this respect Poland turned out to be different than the Netherlands. I think that now things have changed, but in the 1990s they were different. And so when I arrived - it was the last year of my university - I thought that my command of English and French will make it easy to find a job, and my plan was to start learning Polish after. Unfortunately, when I started looking for a job, it turned out that even foreign companies replied: „English and French...great! But here we employ Poles who do not speak foreign languages and we need someone who speaks Polish”.
“Please goods top”
IW: And is that when you became the financial controller at Auchan?
TB: I was employed as a financial controller, it was very important for me, as I didn’t care for just any job, only that which was connected with my university specialisation. Then at Auchan, and I think this practice continues there to this day, all office staff had to work on the shop floor for a while. I was a departmental manager for a year and a half. I started with the glassware department. That was the moment when I was assigned three staff members and I spoke no Polish. I took a dictionary to work and gave simple instructions to staff like “Please goods top” Then it turned out that they were even more frightened of this situation than me.
IW: How else did you learn Polish: did you go to a language school, talk to your husband, read books?
TB: When I came to Poland I attended a course. This allowed me to learn basic words, but without practice the course is not effective. And I talked to my husband in English only for quite a long time, maybe two or three years. It seemed strange to change, and he wasn’t particularly keen on it either, as at his work he had no opportunity to talk in English. On the other hand I was afraid that he might turn out to be like my friend's husband - correcting every word and at every opportunity, which is frustrating for someone learning. In the end my husband wasn’t like that.
IW: You went quite far in the corporate world - at the end of your career you were responsible for 12 countries. When did you know that the time was ripe for a change? Did you just wake up one day and it dawned on you? I think your story may be inspirational for those who, for various reasons, are not happy with what they are currently doing.
TB: I started thinking about doing something on my own two years before quitting the corporate life. And it certainly wasn’t the case that I woke up one morning and out of the blue decided to quit my job and start a company. Right since the outset I had it in my head that I am not using the fact that I come from Hungary. I never took advantage of the possibilities afforded by it: over the 15 years whilst working for the corporation, I think I was asked just once to contact the Hungarian branch and help with something. I could never really make use of my knowledge of foreign languages. I felt fatigued, corporate rats often feel this way. I wanted to do something different, but Polish recruitment firms follow the principle that “as you’re here already, you might just as well seek a promotion”. And I had three children and it was not my goal to work 14 hour days instead of 10 hour days.
My own company
IW: So I understand that the family, and particularly the children, were happy with your professional choices?
TB: Yes, it seemed natural for the children. Earlier, I had little time for them, I often missed parent - staff meetings and did not participate in school life at all. I rarely helped with homework. When I started doing it, for them it seemed natural and cool. But certainly, running one’s own company does not mean working less. Because I certainly don’t work less, but schedule the work as I see fit. I often work at weekends, in the evening or very early in the morning, which makes my day much more flexible. Certain things can only be sorted out during the day, I do not have to sit at the office regardless of whether there is any work or not, just because my boss will check my time sheet.
IW: Did you have any idea about how to run your own business once you made the decision to open a translation agency?
TB: The fact that I worked in a corporation certainly helped - I saw how a company functions - regardless of its size. To be honest, I admire those who open their own businesses straight out of university. And I am not talking here about being brave or not, it’s just that after uni I had no idea about how to run a business. Everything which I learned at the corporation: procedures which I can implement, document circulation, ability to manage people and recruitment I still use to this day. That time was not wasted, I am very happy to have been able to work there. Without it I would have struggled to run my own business.
IW: Do you remember when your motto appeared? “Do what you like doing love what you do and give more than you promise”?
TB: I think it was always with me. I have to admit that I also like finance and controlling, but under certain conditions: Excel tables with data from twelve countries were not my cup of tea anymore. And once I stopped liking it, I started doing something different. I think that the second part “...give more than you promise” is the foundation of running a business. It is very important to be fair. To give customers and contactors what was promised - and even more. This is appreciated by people and leads to success.
“Do what you like doing”
IW: I would like to ask a few slightly more personal questions. How old are your daughters?
TB: The twins are 16 and the youngest daughter is 12 years old.
IW: Then the twins will be looking to start their professional lives shortly. Is there anything you’d like to pass onto them from your professional experiences to date? Something they should know before they even start?
TB: I think it is essential to choose the correct degree, in order to be able to do what one likes doing and what one wants to do. I would be happy to see my daughters study economics, as that’s something that I know and I am also aware of the opportunities after graduation. But their plans are totally different, and it is important to stand by them. When I opened my own business they asked me: “Mum, does this mean that we’ll have to study economics and then run the company?” My answer was: “If one of you will want to do so then yes, and if not then you’ll only be the owners of our family business, you will not have to run it and will not have to study economics. If you prefer to study medicine or arts, that’s your choice.” People often graduate the wrong subjects. I admit that when I was 19 and just passed my A levels, I did not quite know what to do next. My mother studied economics, but during the communist era, when Marx was taught. She dissuaded me from pursuing this subject. She did not take into consideration the fact that the times were changing as this was at the start of the 1990s. I thus decided to take a language option, English with French. I only lasted six months - it was terrible. I like languages, I like talking to people, but the course was all about researching the origins of grammar, Latin or otherwise, and that is of no interests to me whatsoever.
IW: What are your daughters’ interests?
TB: One chose biochemistry at college, maybe she’ll become a vet but is not sure yet, the other is showing abilities in the humanities, she is thinking about acting or law. Certainly neither of them is looking to study economics, but that is not important.
A snapshot: typical day
IW: Could you describe your typical day? What is the life of a woman who runs her own business and has a family like?
TB: I always wake up at 5 a.m., that gives me my most effective hour of work, I have my best ideas during that time. I often don’t feel like doing something at the end of my day - or I’m making too many mistakes - then I leave it till the morning and I find that it is done in 10 minutes - a sales report or a difficult e-mail to a customer. Between 6 and 8 a.m. is the time when I wake my children up and send them to school. I start work at 8 a.m., my staff come to work at 9. I am often out of the office during the day, I visit clients or attend other meetings, and if there is a conference which we are looking after then I always go there to make sure that everything is up to scratch and that the interpreter is on the ball. I often turn up at the office before closing time to see what is going on. The office is open until 6 p.m., but it is often the case that a client needs an urgent translation, at 8 or 9 p.m., that I sort it out.
IW: You don’t sleep much.
TB: Well, I am a person who doesn't sleep much. It runs in the family. My father also gets up at 5 a.m. Before, when I worked for the corporation, I also got up early, and used that time to read a book or browse news on the Internet, but now I’ve discovered that this could be a very productive time. I often do more during that first hour than for the next three of four. The telephones are silent, I have peace and quiet.