“There was no globalisation at that time”
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, she now manages more than 1000 translators and interpreters across the world. Today, BALAJCZA Specialized Translations Agency, which she set up in 2010, provides translation and interpreting services in all language combinations.
In today’s interview she reminisces about the pre-internet era interpreter’s job and the opportunities afforded by the translations market in a modern, global village.
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.
"I'll do it for them, because they appreciate me"
IW: I would like to begin today’s interview, devoted to the translations market, with the people who are the backbone of this market - translators and interpreters. On your website, you recently announced the introduction of a reward programme to recognise the best contractors working for you. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
TB: My translation agency has been on the market for 5 years and it recently dawned on me that we do a lot for our clients - in the form of various prizes, incentives and discounts, but we do nothing for our suppliers - the translators and interpreters. Thus, the idea to set up a ranking system and award the best translators and interpreters based on various criteria applied to their annual performance arose. One of the objectives was to reward translators and interpreters, and another - to build a bond with BALAJCZA - even though they are freelancers. Usually companies do various things for their employees, whereas I am dealing with individuals who are not employed by me, they also work for my competitors. However, there are moments when a translator, sitting at home, receives a number of queries from different agencies offering the same rates and has to choose one. At such moments I would like that translator to say: “I will do it for BALAJCZA, I like them and they appreciate me.”
IW: Have you awarded the first translators and interpreters yet?
TB: Yes, the first 20 winners were selected based on 2014 performance. We used criteria such as the number of completed jobs, quality of translations, punctuality and general assessment of our cooperation. Additionally, three translators and interpreters were awarded for exemplary cooperation. Colleagues from my office presided over this category, choosing the most cheerful individuals, always willing to accept jobs and returning quality work.
IW: The award ceremony, was it an official event?
TB: Yes, celebrating the business’s fifth anniversary we organised an event for the winners. This was the first such interactive event: it was held in a bowling alley in Warsaw and participants also attended a time management workshop. Internal training is something companies and corporations engage in and I wanted to present such an opportunity to those working for me too. The subject proved extremely useful. The two hour workshop was followed by a buffet lunch and then bowling and the handing out of awards.
From floppy disks to globalization
IW: According to my information you currently work with a thousand translators and interpreters around the world. How did you stumble upon the idea to seek translators and interpreters abroad? Is this a trend which other also follow? Actually, to be more general: In your opinion, is the translations market prone to globalisation?
TB: Yes, certainly globalisation is not passing it by. I’ll give you an example. Whilst still working for a corporation, I gave birth to my twins and I spent the following seven months at home with them. I was terribly bored and decided to do some translating into Hungarian. This was 1998. I opened a telephone directory, found an agency in the centre of town, called them and they said that if a job comes along they’ll let me know. When a translation did materialise, they called that they’ve received it by fax and for me to come and collect it at their office. I had to pack up the children, drive my car to their office to collect the faxed documents. I did have a computer at home, however there was no internet, and so I saved the translation on a floppy disk. Once finished, I had to take the children, drive to town centre and hand in the floppy disk. This was certainly pre-globalisation, as a translator certainly could not work from a different country or even a different city. Today, there are no such limitations.
We started working with interpreters and translators living abroad, as when it comes to translations into a foreign language we emphasise the importance of using a native speaker of that language or at least a person with vast experience in the use of that language. We often use the services of foreign translators and interpreters, even if, for example, it is a Pole who has been living in France for many years. We also work with foreigners: Spaniards in Spain, English translators living in England. We have a multitude of foreign clients, to whom we were initially recommended for translations into Polish. It seems that our services were to their liking as we now translate between foreign languages for them: from English to French or German, from Spanish to French etc. It is often difficult to find quality translators and interpreters for such language combinations in Poland ,and we have to find them abroad, often individuals who do not speak Polish at all.
In terms of numbers, we are currently working with more than a thousand translators and interpreters. However, it is not our objective to increase this number. Its rise is dictated by demand. I do not know if other agencies do the same. I think it is quite rare for an agency to work with all languages and all language combinations in various disciplines or specialisations.
IW: Based on your knowledge of other translation agencies, what is this market like? Do other agencies also work with foreign translators and interpreters and accept jobs from abroad?
TB: From what I know there are lots of translation agencies, but mostly these are one-man-shows. These even include those translators working for us. There are also quite a few larger agencies, which employ staff, but these often operate solely on the Polish market. Also, only a handful of the larger agencies service foreign clients. Some have opened branches abroad, but that is a rarity. So far we do not have a foreign branch, but there are plans in the pipeline concerning a West European country.
IW: Let’s come back to the Polish market. It is said that it is highly competitive when it comes to price. Can this also be said for the translations market?
TB: I think so. Foreign customers approach us not because of their love for Poland, but because of the price. With the prevailing worldwide downturn, companies are looking for savings. Cheap, quality services are in demand. If they can’t get them, they look somewhere else.
Do trade associations make sense?
IW: In the news section on your website you recently mentioned that you intend to support a translators and interpreters foundation engaged with professional training. In your opinion, do industry affiliations, translator and interpreter associations play an important role on the translations market?
TB: I am not sure if there is any merit to such organisations. I want to support this particular foundation as I want to help the interpreters and translators who are part of it, give them something, tie them to our company. There is an association of translation agencies, but in my opinion, such industry organisations come into their own when lobbying is on the cards or some critical mass is required. Take the power industry for example. Whereas in the translation industry, the various agencies are highly competitive with respect to one another.
IW: But do you not think that there is an issue worthy of lobbying? Are there no problems in the translation industry which have not been solved or regulated to date?
TB: There is an issue: dumping, extremely low prices offered by some agencies, but I do not know if there is a feasible solution. This is also quite a sensitive issue, and we are not talking here about setting up a monopoly or collusion, but about drawing a line somewhere. I have been observing a very interesting phenomenon amongst translators and interpreters of a very rare language. There are only a few of them on the market and their rates are very similar. I think this is a very good solution, as when just one person undercuts rates, even if their quality is not up to scratch, this is to the detriment of the entire market. This is particularly true for Poland, with its multitude of discounts and strong downward pressure on prices. We often hear from our clients that the quotes they’ve received from our competitors are less than the rates we pay our translators and interpreters. But these are individuals, who voluntarily agree to work for such low prices, or sometimes translators and interpreters are pressured by agencies to work for such low rates. In the end translators and interpreters will lose out, working hard for skimpy wages and agencies will make less of a margin. Perhaps I am naive, but I think the Polish translations market is a “free for all”.
IW: It seems to me that only specialised translators can survive in such market conditions, as they work relatively quickly.
TB: Yes, some agencies are willing to negotiate higher prices with clients, or sacrifice a part of their margin in order to pay such translators. But they are getting their money’s worth. However, we often see agencies shooting themselves in the foot, hiring students and organising unpaid work placements and subsequently selling translations for next to nothing.
Man vs. machine
IW: How do you see the future of the translations market, not only in the context of students and those on work placements, but also new technologies which are improving all the time? Are you not even a little bit worried? Perhaps you are one of those who consider human translation and interpreting to survive this onslaught?
TB: I think it will survive. However, new technologies pose a serious threat to translators. We also use CAT (Computer-assisted translation) software, be it to a very limited extent. We did have some clients who ordered translations of user manuals with a lot of repetitions. CATs did present an opportunity to find savings. However, in my opinion the following scenario poses the biggest threat: companies select translation agencies which offer machine translation of say half the text, the client then pays half the price for proofreading and half the price for translation and optimises costs. Highly specialised translations done by BALAJCZA, such as financial statements, important agreements and patents do not yield to machine translation. It is applicable when it comes to highly repetitive texts, such as the aforementioned user manuals or material safety data sheets and so luckily we are not in direct affected by it. Those clients who turn to us for translations of financial statements will not go to another agency where a machine translation will be available at a lower cost.
IW: You provide a plethora of diverse translation and interpreting services. Do you have an idea for a new service, are you thinking of rolling out new products?
TB: I do, but my lips are sealed. I am able to say that we will be seeking EU funding for intelligent services.
IW: Well, I am very curious. One last question. Is there a person or an institution, with whom you haven’t worked as of yet, but would really like to? I am talking about the European Parliament, NATO or the United Nations for example?
TB: Certainly Brussels offers practically endless opportunities, lots of languages and documents to be translated. I think that a job from Brussels or one associated with the European Parliament in any way is a dream of many translation agencies.
IW: Well, I wish you lots of such jobs, either on the basis of your current experience or the new intelligent service which I hope to be able to find out more about shortly. Thank you for the interview!
TB: Thank you.