The General Theory of the Translation Company

I don’t think there’s any better way to sum up what this book is about than the title. Having worked my way through pretty much every job in the translation industry, I jumped on the opportunity to give it a read, to see if others see the industry like I do.

Written by industry veterans Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson, it’s obvious from the beginning that the book has been written to achieve two things. The first is to act as a guide to industry newcomers, and the second is to give new perspective to those of us who have been in the industry for almost as long as they have. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Beninatto on many an occasion, and when it comes to localization, he has done it all. He’s held roles as a freelance translator, vendor manager, marketer and CEO. Johnson has worked his way through many different production roles within the industry, and you can tell that both authors have a passion for passing on their knowledge to others.

The book starts off simply, by stripping things back to basics and going over all of the functions in the language industry. Reading it took me back to my early days in the translation industry, going from freelancer to business development manager at a rather large language service provider (LSP). The extent of the value chain, as the authors call it, can be surprising to newcomers, so having it explained in a simple manner and having all this information in one place is something I’m sure newbies will appreciate.

After going over all of these functions in more detail, the book then goes on to cover differentiation and the threat of newcomers. Having worked in sales and marketing within the industry for so long, I’ve noticed that most LSPs seem to think that quality is a unique selling point. But it’s not. Beninatto and Johnson state (on page 47) that “quality doesn’t matter.” Quality is something that all clients expect the minute they get in touch with an LSP. Quality is not something different, it’s a necessity.

When it comes to newcomers and the threat of competition, a number of our employees who came from the marketing industry were surprised at how security-conscious the language industry is by comparison. We have many contracts and many ways to cover ourselves. But is all this really necessary? Beninatto and Johnson examine this by going through the different threats — the threat of substitutes, the threat of new entries and the threat of moving to a new supplier.

As the authors sum up perfectly, there is no substitute for our services. Yes, companies like IKEA use pictures instead of words on their instruction manuals, but they still need websites, marketing materials and legal documents translated. Switching suppliers is very costly, especially if a client has invested in integrating their software with that of their translation agency. So, in fairness, they’re not apt to change simply because of the time and money involved. Plus, we’re a very close industry, and that’s true for client relationships as well. If you’ve got a good relationship with your client, you’re not likely going to lose them to a startup or your competition unless something goes very wrong.

The book moves on to cover topics like innovation, marketing and competitive strategies. I won’t give too much away, but the authors have been very honest about the fact that in the translation industry we’re not that “innovative”, and when something innovative does come up, more often than not it’s just a fad that doesn’t really get anywhere.

The second half of the book discusses seven support activities in more detail. As someone whose company is still technically in the start-up phase, this part of the book struck a chord with me. It gives an in-depth look at all the functions in the industry, with insight from two veterans who have obviously been there and done it. Since I’ve never worked in vendor management, their tips gave me an understanding of that role by explaining how important it is to think ahead. This hit home on what exactly we should be doing and when.

The book is written in a simple way that is easy to understand even if English isn’t your first language. Although not all sections may be relevant to everyone, I recommend that LSPs provide a copy for new employees to read. It will save you time trying to explain how our industry works. And although you might be thinking you’ve been in the industry for so long there’s nothing more to learn, you’ll be proven wrong. Seeing the industry through someone else’s eyes is insightful, and this book provides an in-depth look into roles you might not have experienced before. For those of you like me who are just starting off on your entrepreneurial journey in the industry, there is a lot in this vein to consider.