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– Supported by Technolex –

Igor Marach 

Resilience in the Face of War

It’s been more than two years since Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine. In that time, Ukrainian language workers have documented extraordinary stories of their experiences working in wartime. With many months in the rearview mirror since MultiLingual’s extensive language-related war coverage in the earliest days, we asked Igor Marach, co-founder and CEO at Technolex Translation Studio — a Ukrainian language service provider (LSP) — about his experiences meeting deadlines and making deals while the fighting rages.

For starters, could you tell us about what things were like in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

In the weeks before the invasion, we lived our normal lives. Despite the news reporting that Russia was going to attack Ukraine, nobody was taking it seriously, including our president. He said several times on TV that he did not believe in a full-scale war with Russia and we all should not be worried — even if they attack, we have our strong army. At the beginning of February 2022, Volodymyr Kykharenko (from Protemos) and I flew to the USA to take part in the Association of Language Companies (ALC) Unconference. There, we talked to many Americans who asked us about the invasion possibility and what we were going to do if it happened. But we were persuading them that it was just impossible — that Putin was playing his game against
the West.

However, a few days before flying back home, our carrier, Lufthansa, postponed our flight to Kyiv, explaining that they did not want to leave the planes in the Kyiv airport overnight. So we had to stay overnight in Frankfurt. That is when we started getting a bit nervous. I had tickets to Sri Lanka booked for my wife, kids, and myself for Feb. 21, and I began to worry that this flight could be canceled. Even then, we did not believe in the invasion.

What about when the invasion actually took place? You were luckily out of the country when it happened, but how did you feel about it and how did it affect you both professionally and personally?

The invasion took place early in the morning on Feb. 24. By the way, Feb. 23 is the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russia. During the Soviet Era, it was called the Day of the Soviet Army.

My family and I woke up in Sri Lanka and were shocked when we read the news that several Ukrainian cities were attacked with missiles and that explosions were heard in the biggest cities of Ukraine, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kherson. We called my parents, who live outside Kyiv, to ask what was going on. They were still sleepy and calm, not knowing anything. Then I rushed to the ATM to withdraw cash, as I was afraid to be left with my family in Sri Lanka without money if banks stopped operating. And there were queues of Ukrainians near ATMs — they had the same thought. However, since then, Ukrainian banks have been working properly. For the whole day, my wife and I were reading the news and could not do anything else. And the news was getting worse and worse.

My friends in Kyiv, who had been woken up by the loud sounds of distant explosions early in the morning, still couldn’t believe the war had actually started, and everyone was in a stupor.

Then, I had a call with the Technolex team to discuss what to do. We understood that if we were not going to fight, we should continue working if possible. And we have been doing it ever since from different places, mainly in Ukraine.

In American media like the Washington Post and Language Magazine, there’s been some discussion about the tension between Russian and Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine. As a professional in the language industry, what is your perspective on this topic?

I was born in the USSR, and although I studied in a Ukrainian-speaking school, the Russian language was dominant in many spheres, especially on TV. Russian was considered to be more prestigious. When I entered university in 1997, all the students talked to each other in Russian. However, we had already lived for seven years in an independent state at that time.

The influence of Russian culture was strong everywhere, from entertainment to science. However, in 2004, after the Orange revolution, many of us started to understand the value of our own language. Then, in 2014, after the second revolution (Maidan) and the first Russian invasion (Donbas and Crimea), many Ukrainians stopped visiting Russia and stopped watching Russian movies. We clearly understood that Russia was not our friend, but an enemy. In our business focused on delivering Ukrainian and Russian language services, we saw that Ukrainian translation demand was growing — before that, the English-Russian combination was around 75% of our volume.

In April 2019, our government adopted a law that greatly impacted the Ukrainian language industry. And the share of the Ukrainian translation in our company became bigger than the Russian one. We even started to experience a sort of lack of Ukrainian resources on the market. I think it was a very important political decision that helped to minimize the Russian cultural influence in Ukraine. However, I must assure you that in our daily lives, we can use any language we want, including Russian.

MultiLingual has covered a few stories about Ukrainian interpreters struggling to hold back their emotions while interpreting particularly heavy content about the invasion. We’ve also talked about the “vicarious trauma” interpreters may feel when working with psychologically demanding situations. How has your company been able to do business? Have you seen difficulties like this?

It was surprising in the beginning, but now I see that the whole civilized world should stand with us as they do now if they don’t want to be the next victim of Putin.

However, it touched me to the point of tears when I started receiving so many words of support and invitations from localization industry professionals who were ready to provide my family with accommodation, money, and other help. I did not fully realize before how great the localization community is. And I still cannot find the right words to express my gratitude.

Business-wise, many companies started to cover Technolex’s invoices beforehand; some raised our rates themselves, some sent us bonuses for the good work we have been providing during the years of cooperation, and some approached us wanting to switch from Russian vendors. It was amazing and needed for us, since we at Technolex are now donating our army and helping those in a more difficult situation. It is not time to think about growth and profits. We are thinking about the survival of our people and our country.

What are the best ways people from other countries can help during these times?

People from other countries are already helping Ukrainians a lot. They meet refugees at the border, accommodate them, and provide food. And many language professionals are among them.

They should also boycott all Russian businesses (including language businesses — they can switch to Ukrainian suppliers instead) so the aggressor won’t have the resources to continue this war.

They can donate to humanitarian funds and the Ukrainian army, sign necessary petitions (for example, closing the sky over Ukraine for Russian military aircraft), and spread the word about the war that Russia started against us because Russian propaganda is very strong, not only in Russia.

Is there anything else you want to comment on or any other observations you’d like to make?

I want to say that I’ve never seen Ukrainians so united. Now, when I see how my people help each other in Ukraine and abroad (like here in Sri Lanka), how bravely they fight against this huge monster, and how they donate to our army and health organizations, I am proud to be Ukrainian. I want to return when possible and stay there, building a better future for us all.

How a Ukrainian LSP Adapted to a New Reality

By Igor Marach

Before the war, some customers asked us if we had a formalized plan in case war started. We restrained ourselves from replying, “Are you serious? Do you have such a plan yourself? Would you even care about work if you heard explosions nearby? Of course we will run and panic!” We instead responded with assurances that we have a plan and even drafted it for real (we could say it did not work if anything, right?). Even a Russian company asked such a thing, and we just left the question without reply. But honestly, we did not believe the war would start; it made no sense, and we thought it was a bluff.

The first days’ mess

So what did we do when it started? We moved to the places we thought were safer and continued to work. Of course, we were stressed. Some became apathetic, while others got an adrenaline rush and worked like crazy, and still others ended up in rural areas with poor internet connections. It took about a week before everyone settled in a new location, and the mess was mostly over. We worried the most about some of our linguists who were occupied in the first days of the war, as the connection with them was lost for weeks and we did not know what was happening to them. They told many stories later.

Teamwork

Our team partly moved to other countries and continued to work there. As one of the side effects, we’ve got a new office in the USA. But under the weight of circumstances, we lost part of our team. Some have found new jobs in other countries where the cost of living is higher. Some switched roles to alleviate stress. Several of our valued linguists joined the army to defend the country. And, of course, we cut any remaining business relations with businesses from Russia, including several freelancers, as we cannot give the money that will be taxed by the government that is killing us, even though we had very good relations with those linguists. All this created a resource crisis that we had to deal with, so we had to refill the teams.

Cold and dark

The next big challenge came in winter. Russia decided that it was a good idea to freeze us all and started bombing our power plants and electricity distribution system. Electricity cuts started, and we did not have a power supply for half a day, switching off and on every four hours. On one occasion,  we did not have electricity for a day. To address this and avoid interruption in work, we had to purchase a six kWH battery and fuel power generator. But the worst part was connection issues: The internet disappeared after two or three hours, even the mobile one. So we bought a Starlink terminal to get the connection directly from space. But before it arrived, some of our managers went around Kyiv to find internet cafes. It all lasted about five months before it got warmer. And all that time, we showed an imaginary middle finger to the Kremlin, never thinking of giving up. We still have those backup systems to arrange offices even in the wild — with all deadlines met.

Customers

Most of the customers were supportive and helpful. Many offered help with the accommodation of our team members abroad, and some were giving software licenses for free, one-time bonuses, and even rate rises. We are grateful for that and will always remember the kindness. Still, there were some unexpected problems we had to solve. Several big final clients decided that Ukraine was too risky and stopped giving jobs to linguists from Ukraine due to “safety considerations.” It was hard to explain to them that the explanation looks silly here. How can we be safer without a job? It took ages to explain that Ukraine is a big country. Even though we have occupied and ruined cities, we are living almost a normal life in most of the country (apart from waking up in the middle of the night from sirens signaling incoming rockets, but that’s kind of routine already — most of the rockets and suicide drones are being shot down). We are not working in ruins and trenches with a machine gun. Hundreds of miles from the frontlines, we have traffic jams, restaurants full of people, and everything else you expect in a normal city. If you check the statistics, Kyiv is safer than many American big cities. So do not be scared to give jobs to Ukrainian companies. They have passed the resilience tests in the last two years. And many Ukrainian businesses are donating to the Ukrainian army, so it could be your part in the defense against the aggressor.

Figure 1. Growing demand for Ukrainian language.

Industry

It has been interesting to watch the translation and localization industry’s reaction to the war. We felt support from many associations and partners, which motivated us. We see some software companies have stopped selling in Russia. We see Ukrainian flags at the conferences and help for our refugees. At the same time, we are saddened to see that not everyone understands that any Russian business, even in our industry, finances the war by paying taxes to the Russian government and that every dollar that you pay to Russia may turn into a bullet. We had to decline several translation project offers from our partners when we saw the final customers were Russian businesses and even the government. We know some multi-language vendors (MLVs) even have offices in Russia. And we see that many Russian LSPs have rebranded into European ones while still having offices in Russia, while rating agencies and customers pretend they do not notice this. I hope more people will understand that seeing this is a pain for Ukrainians.

Ukrainian language

Due to the war, many Ukrainians switched from Russian to the Ukrainian language in everyday life. Before the war, speaking Russian was more like a habit, and most people did not pay much attention, as it resulted from 300 years of linguistic suppression. After all, we live today. But since 2014, Ukrainians have become more linguistically conscious and have started switching back to the language of their ancestors. Apart from that, since 2018, there has been a legal requirement that any business that sells in Ukraine should speak to the customers in Ukrainian. And customers want it. For example, subtitling the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame into Ukrainian made half of the players change the language of the game, even without voice-over. So, if you sell in Ukraine, speak Ukrainian.

As a result, the demand for the Ukrainian language grows, and we see it in our business. In 2014, Ukrainian as the target language was just 15% of the whole volume we translated, and Russian was 85%. Now, in 2024, it’s the opposite: Ukrainian is 83%, Russian is 13%, and other target languages (mostly Eastern European) are 4%. It is a very serious social shift.

By the way, do you know that Russian is only fourth among the languages similar to Ukrainian, after Belarusian, Polish, and Slovak? Ukrainian and Russian differ as much as Italian and Portuguese.

How the business is going

In general, the business results in 2023 were unexpectedly good for us. We were expecting a fall due to the war, lower demand in the Russian language, fear of businesses selling in Ukraine, and AI replacements. And indeed, there was a slight drop in our traditional subject areas. However, there was a growing demand for military-related texts, materials for Ukrainians abroad, and documents related to European Union (EU) integration. So we ended 2023 with an astonishing 40% growth. It was hard work with lots of learning and scaling, but we managed it.

We are missing business conferences, as our team cannot go abroad due to martial law. And there is no air transport here; we go by train. But believe in Ukrainian victory, as this is how things should be. And after it happens, we want to arrange a translation conference here in Kyiv, the beating heart of a victorious country.

 

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