Patricia May, Precision Language Services, on translating the world’s cultures

Patricia May, president and CEO of Precision Language Services in Lakeville, moves documents from any one language to any other language using the services of 2,500 translators. Along the way, the woman fluent in German and Russian gleans insights about cultures around the world.

“My grandfather was a German immigrant. Because of the wars he couldn’t speak German in the home with his children, but then his grandchildren came along. I grew up speaking a type of German with him…

I studied in the Soviet Union when it was the Soviet Union. It’s a different world. We had a speaker in the women’s dormitory. The speaker would turn on and say [she speaks in Russian, then translates]: ‘GOOD MORNING CITIZENS. IT’S 6 A.M. WAKE UP.’

Our instructor, she would take us out by the river where there was wind. She said she didn’t think there was anyone listening but just in case.

The Vietnam War intervened. My husband was in the Air Force. The feeling was, married couples got a safer assignment. I had an elderly aunt who said, ‘The university will be here when you get back. You can finish your education then.’ So I got married and went with my husband. It took a long time to finish my degree.

I wanted to use my work as a translator. One day someone said, ‘Can you do Spanish?’ And I said, ‘My company can do anything for you,’ which wasn’t completely far from the truth. Just gradually we became a company and off we went.

We move documents from any one language to any other language, for private individuals, corporations. We’re certified with the state of Minnesota, do work for the counties. The Hmong and Somali that you see on the Web sites, that’s us.

We use independent contractors. That was a business decision. There’s two ways to do this in the industry. You can hire translators, but then they’re generic. But I wanted to match the language, area of expertise, and the interest. I have about 2,500 translators in our database.

We work for many large corporations. We just received a wonderful letter of recommendation from the Washington Group doing work in Iraq: Arabic-to-English translation for the rebuilding of dams. We do work for hospitals and clinics, attorneys involved in patent litigation.

People walk in and give us a driver’s license and they say, ‘If you do good we’ll give you another one.’ There’s no profit in that, but this is something we do because somebody helped my grandfather. So when immigrants come to our door we help.

We do a lot of Somali translation. Because Somalia hasn’t had an infrastructure for at least two, three decades, the language itself lacks infrastructure. It doesn’t have form, spelling and grammar. Schools 30 miles apart aren’t teaching the same things. We are standardizing as we go along. Somali is one of those languages, if you have three people you have four opinions.

Language reflects the culture. Chinese is a good example. Are you aware of the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese? When the communists took over the country in the ’40s, they decided to simplify the language. What you see is a political connotation when choosing which type to use.

There are so many things like this. When my family traveled to Hungary, I speak German, so I tried it in a restaurant. The waiter made a face. I speak Russian, but he didn’t like that any better. But my daughter speaks Italian so he accepted that. Now you know somebody in that restaurant speaks German, but it’s very political. People think about what the speakers of the language did to my forefathers.

I think translation is an art. It’s incredibly complicated. Because language has a referential function, so you could say glass is hard if you tap it, glass is fragile if it breaks. It also has an emotive function…You can say, ‘She’s like glass.’ And you’d know that means she’s emotionally fragile. That’s the type of thing that takes someone’s not only skill, but talent.

There’s a story in the industry about the three-strikes-you’re out policy, [in the criminal justice system]. It got into Chinese, and meant if the manager hits you three times at work you could go home.

We’re growing very rapidly, about 25 percent growth annually in the past three years. First quarter this year, we’re exploding. We’re exploiting our new certification as a woman-owned business. Our name is becoming well-known. We’ve reached a tipping point.

The downward price pressure in our business in unbelievable. Anyone can set up a Web site in South America and say, ‘I’ll do your translation for a penny a word.’ One of the hardest decisions I had to make was to take some work offshore. The reason is pretty much price. Isn’t that sad? It kept me awake at night that I was taking business from my U.S. translators.

I see the world getting smaller and smaller…We have to first educate someone about the need for translation. A company wanted to go into the Korean section of New York. They wanted to give brochures in English. Their attitude was, ‘They should learn English.’

I’ll pick on China again. They’ll say, ‘We don’t need to translate into Chinese, because all the business people speak English.’ But they don’t understand the nuance in English.

I had a company with business cards, no titles on them. I asked a person’s title. They said, ‘Oh, we’re not hierarchial here.’ I said, ‘The Japanese are, so unless you want this person ostracized in the corner when she goes to that meeting, you have to include her title.’

Hello — we’re not the only people at the table. Within five years there are going to be more Chinese speakers on the Internet than English speakers. What language is your Web content?”

— As told to Beth Ewen

Patricia May, Precision Language Services:

952.435.8178; pm@precisionlanguage.com;

Beth Ewen