ELIA Together: About growth, values and challenges in the translation industry

Last week, my colleague Sarah and I attended the ELIA Together conference in Barcelona, Spain. ELIA is the premier European language industry association and the main aim of the event was to provide a space for translation companies and freelancers to network, exchange ideas and discuss industry-specific challenges.

From freelancers to large translation companies to translation technology providers, the event was well attended with over 350 participants from 39 countries.

I had been invited to speak on the panel “The growth from freelancer to translation company and beyond: a language business roadmap”. My own presentation focussed on the strong values we set for our company (being ethical, being boutique, being sustainable) and the particular challenges these values pose for us in terms of growing our own company:

Heidi Kerschl, a technical English to German translator, shared her experiences of making the jump from freelance translator to becoming a director of a translation company – and coming full circle to become a translator once more, the job she realised she enjoys the most. Her advice was to truly listen to your inner voice and do what YOU want to do: there is no predetermined path that you have to take within the language industry.

Anna Pietruszka, COO of technology provider XTRF, discussed the different set up and skills needed when comparing the freelance profession to running a translation business, and she urged translators who are considering to take that step to start by carefully analysing their service offering, their value proposition and above all, their own personal strengths and weaknesses.

Anne-Marie Colliander-Lind, owner of business consultancy Inkrease, advised freelancers to set themselves SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) and to build up the right kind of ‘tribe’ around them on their journey from freelancer to business owner – people who will love and support, but also challenge them.

The audience was really engaged and asked some poignant questions, in particular about how translation students can acquire the necessary business acumen to either become successful freelancers, or start their own company. There seemed to be a general consensus that business administration should play a bigger part in university studies. The translation industry is quite unique in the sense that as soon as students graduate, they are ‘thrown in at the deep end’ starting as freelancers; so they don’t just need to be competent translators from the outset, they need to be competent business people, too. There just aren’t that many in-house positions available where budding translators can hone their translation skills while learning crucial business skills in an employed position.

From information about how to set up as a freelancer to what’s involved in a tax return or how and when to register for VAT, it seems that up and coming freelance translators could really do with a helping hand – whether that’s through universities, translation associations or government-led business advice.

I was really surprised (and so happy!) to speak to many freelance translators and fellow translation companies over the course of the conference, who identified with our own values about keeping a tight control on quality, but who also face similar challenges whether to make the jump to employ people, whether that’s additional translators, or maybe a business development professional to help grow the company and drive sales.

Perhaps there is some synergy here that everyone could benefit from. If young translators desperately need practical business advice and real life translation experience to add to their CVs, then this could be a huge opportunity for smaller translation companies to take on translation interns (internships generally last from six weeks to three months), or even offer fully paid short term contracts to new graduates. For the businesses, it could be a great way to ‘test the water’ and see how it feels to have another person in your team, and whether you can make it work financially. For newly graduated translators, it would be a fantastic opportunity to gain experience and learn from professionals in the industry.

If you think that could be a path you want to take, you could get in touch with universities who offer language degrees and add your company to the list of translation agencies that offer internships to students. If you are looking for German students, do get in touch with us, we have done the research already and can tell you the universities that offer translation degrees in Germany ;).

After a couple of days of speaking to our translation peers, our synapses were truly firing, and we left the conference all ‘pumped’ – safe in the knowledge that there are many other similarly sized translation companies out there who strive for the same things: great quality translation combined with outstanding service, good relationships with their freelancers and a sustainable business, whether it’s maintaining the status quo or growing the company.

In a chat with Gertraud Rieger from LRS, who specialise in Eastern European languages, we talked about how smaller LSPs could potentially collaborate in order to help their customers with languages they don’t provide themselves, without losing the client or control over quality … something that we’d definitely like to explore in more detail.

Finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to the other speakers, the audience and everyone who came to speak to myself and Sarah during ELIA, it was a huge pleasure to meet you all. We hope to attend similar events in the future and keep the conversation going.