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With Technology, Services Find Much Gained in Translations


When Valerie Jones needed some advertising copy speeded to a public relations firm in Japan, she dashed off an e-mail that arrived in Tokyo in perfect Japanese.

Hardly surprising in this wired global age, except that Jones, a product marketing manager for a small software firm in Mountain View, Calif., doesn't speak the language or even possess a keyboard capable of typing its complex characters.

Instead, she used a new online translation service offered by Redondo Beach-based InterLingua Linguistic Services Inc. Jones simply sent her two-page English document electronically to InterLingua, which routed it to the computer of a translator, who converted it into Japanese and forwarded it to its destination.

Turnaround time: about four hours, meaning that sender and receiver didn't miss a beat in a business cycle where Japan is sleeping as America heads to work.

"It's a marvelous service . . . because it's all about speed," said Jones, who also was pleased by the moderate $50 fee. "I didn't have to spend a week looking for a translator."

Burgeoning international trade, America's increasingly multilingual society and the explosion of global communications are sparking a mini-boom in the translation services industry. Exploiting new technologies that allow translation to be done more quickly than ever before, entrepreneurs such as Jack Bernstein, co-founder of InterLingua, are finding new opportunities in the fast-growing field.

"It looked like a business for the future," said Bernstein, who gave up a career in advertising to start the translation services company with partner David Andrews in 1992. "We rolled the dice, betting that it would grow."

Though no one tracks the exact number of translators and translation agencies operating in the United States, membership in the Alexandria, Va.-based American Translators Assn. has tripled since 1990 to more than 6,000 members. Last year, Business Start-Ups magazine ranked translation services among the top 10 small-business opportunities for 1996.

Fueling that growth is the low cost of entry. A personal computer, high-speed modem and fax machine are all the capital investment most freelance translators--who make up the bulk of the industry's talent pool--need to launch themselves into business. These high-tech tools have increased productivity, while the Internet now allows freelancers a cheap venue to market their services worldwide.

Such low barriers have encouraged a steady stream of new entrants into the market, which has kept pressure on profit margins despite increasing demand, industry watchers say. But the flip side of all this technology-driven competition is that the translation agencies that hire these independent contractors now have access to a wired global work force.

"We can get talent in Germany or Brazil at the touch of a button," said Irene Agnew, president of Agnew Tech-II, a Westlake Village-based translation agency that works with a stable of 250 translators worldwide. "We're no longer limited by geographic location."

The influence of technology on one of the world's most enduring occupations can be seen at the Asian Translation Center in downtown Los Angeles. Founder Grace Shimizu has been providing interpreter services and document translation to a mostly Japanese client base in Little Tokyo for nearly 25 years.

Working with a network of freelancers, Shimizu expanded her service lineup over time to handle requests for Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish translation in polyglot Los Angeles. Now she's tackling the language of the Internet.

Although English has become the de facto language of international business as well as cyberspace, companies increasingly are using the Internet to reach foreign customers in their own tongue, or to work with their own non-English-speaking employees via intranets, or proprietary networks within companies.

Thus, Shimizu's 28-year-old son, Nathan, joined the agency last year to offer Web site translation and other Internet language services to a new generation of clients.

"We're just a small family business, but this gives us another way to compete," Nathan Shimizu said.

Indeed, California's high-tech sector has spawned a new specialty in the field of translation known as "software localization."

Unlike exports such as avocados or golf clubs, which don't take a linguist to explain how to use them, computer software must be translated, or "localized," into the target language to appeal to a mass foreign market. Ditto for CD-ROMs and other multimedia products.

Los Angeles-based Bowne Global Solutions is one of the world's largest providers of software localization and other high-tech language services. A subsidiary of financial publisher Bowne & Co., the company was formed in March when Bowne merged four foreign software localization companies with Los Angeles-based IDOC Inc., which it acquired in late 1996. Combined sales of the five companies topped $53 million last year.

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