For many freelance translators, starting a translation agency seems like a natural thing to do. Luckily, with modern tools such as Smartcat this transition no longer requires a huge investment.

We talked to Chau Nguyen, who started as a budding English-to-Vietnamese freelance translator and now, less than a decade later, runs his own translation business.

So, Chau, how did you start in the language industry?

I was a fresh college graduate back in 2011 with a dream of having my own translation company. Finding a job was a big challenge, so I had to start at the bottom, doing a lot of work for little pay. As I was overwhelmed, I tried to share some of the work with friends. I wanted to set up a team with my friends so that we could work better together but I failed because low pay could not keep them from leaving.

“I wanted to set up a team with my friends but I failed because low pay could not keep them from leaving.”

Three or four years passed before I met Jun Pham, who took the difficult road just like me. As we shared the same love for translation and pursued the same dream of personal and professional development in order to provide high-quality translations, we started working together. We managed to keep our current clients and explore opportunities to work for foreign agencies, which meant higher pay.

That’s when we pursued our dream of having a translation team again. It was an exciting but challenging journey: headhunting is not easy. We tried everything: asking our college lecturers, joining experience-sharing sessions at colleges, browsing through lots of Facebook and LinkedIn groups, and so on. In the end, we shortlisted 10 candidates out of 200, of which only five still remain.

“We shortlisted ten candidates out of 200, of which only five still remain”

What do you think makes your company, cng.plus, special?

We like to think of ourselves as “communicators” rather than just “translators” or “interpreters”. We help our clients understand the culture, not just the meaning, especially when it comes to interpretation.

Care to share an example?

During one interpreting assignment, I was accompanying foreign experts to conduct an inspection of a construction site. Some workers did not wear protective gear as required. It made the expert angry, so he ordered all the workers to line up and let out all his anger on them. He swore a lot and told me to translate exactly what he said. I did not. What can be seen as acceptable in one society might not be in another, and in Vietnam it was definitely a grave insult to communicate his exact words. It would have ruined their relationship, and who knows what the workers could do to retaliate.

That was when I realized that translation is more than just conveying what is said. It is conveying what is meant. It is helping people understand each other. That’s why I chose the tagline “getting your message across”. I want our clients to understand that we’re helping their customers understand them — not just consume their content.

“That was when I realized that translation is more than just conveying what is said”

Earlier you said that translators were leaving because of low pay. How did you manage to overcome this challenge?

Over time, I learned that there are different categories in the talent pool, and those that fit best with our team are early career starters. They have the highest energy and potential but lack the experience and the opportunity. We’re a young team too, so it’s easier for us to work together. For the few that stay, I encourage them to look at things as values. Money is one value. To compensate for the lesser pay, I provide them with other values in the form of constant feedback, mentoring, and training when needed.

As I chose Smartcat as my platform, I have trained my team to use it. To us, Smartcat is first and foremost a translation tool, but an added bonus is that it is also a translation marketplace! Working with me, they have the opportunity to gain experience, they have a tool to use, and they have a marketplace to get their own work. They might get the fish working for other LSPs but working with me they’ll get the fishing pole! They can work for anyone, and that’s good for them, but they will always have the place where it all started too.

“I give my translators the fishing pole, not just the fish.”

How exactly do you provide those other values for them?

Among other things, I see that translators in my team want to get feedback and see the revisions made to their translation. So I try my best to give them that. Smartcat’s comment feature is great. During the editing stage, if I come across a segment with notable translation errors — misunderstanding of the source text, cultural appropriateness, issues with style and flow, etc. — I can just leave a comment, and they’ll get an email notification to check it.

“Smartcat’s comment feature is great. If I come across a segment with notable translation errors, I can just leave a comment, and they’ll get an email notification to check it.”

Another advantage for them, and also for quality control, is that they can see any changes made to the translation. After each project on Smartcat, we download the bilingual DOCX files and compare the translated and reviewed versions in MS Word to see tracked changes, and send them back to translators so that they can learn and improve their skills.

Do you increase their rates as they grow?

Absolutely. We understand the market rate. We always ask translators for their desired rate. Then, we suggest a rate that we think is appropriate according to their test results. We have different rate increments. So, the better their performance or improvement, the quicker they move up the increments until they reach their desired rate.

How do you know who has potential?

I spent two years going through countless groups on social networks. I looked at their posts, because what and how they post is very important. It shows who they are and how they work. Translators have to be careful with their words, so no matter how good they claim to be, if they overdo slang, shorthand, or do not comply with group guidelines, I would not reach out to them. For the ones that do make the cut, there is a test of around 200 words.

Do you find it hard to onboard them with Smartcat?

Sometimes. Some do not want to be constantly dependent on the Internet. But they soon forget about that when they see the power of collaboration among translators and the benefits of centralized translation memories and glossaries. Later this year I'm going to run a YouTube channel specifically for Smartcat training. I think that is when I can actually bring in a lot of translators to the platform and make the most of my partnership perks.

Let’s talk about the industry as a whole. What changes have you been noticing recently?

Automation, AI, and crowdsourcing. Translating is not a one-person or even a one-team job anymore. Today, we need as many hands on board as possible to translate as much content as possible.

“Today we need as many hands on board as possible to translate as much content as possible.”

Also, everything is on the web, so I think the future will favor platforms that help translated content appear on the website almost instantaneously, just like live translation in Google translate. So Smartcat’s integrations are a step in the right direction, I think.

Speaking of Smartcat, what are the biggest benefits to using the platform?

There are just too many (laughs).

Okay, give me five.

Okay.

  1. Resource management: We don’t have to collect resources from translators after translation anymore.
  2. Project management: We can see real-time progress as translators are working and take appropriate action.
  3. Post-translation formatting: As multiple translators can work on one file, we don’t have to combine and format them after translation anymore.
  4. Quality: As all translators have the same resources we can better ensure consistency and improve our translations based on previous ones.
  5. Collaboration: Translation, editing, and proofreading can all happen at the same time, so we can significantly boost our productivity and meet tight deadlines.

Can you name a project where all these benefits were the most apparent?

The most memorable one was translating a book called Program P. It was one of our first large-scale translation projects where we made full use of all the features in Smartcat. I have never seen a team work so well together and have so much fun. When translators are working, they can see how others are translating and discuss any linguistic choices or queries. They translated and populated the glossary, and editors vetted the terms and reapplied them to the translation, maintaining consistency.

“I have never seen a team work so well together and have so much fun.”

Ah, I forgot to mention that the source was in PDF, so we spent two days just converting and formatting the files. And, after translation, we had to format it again because Vietnamese is lengthier than English, which was another day’s work. We managed to deliver the project on time as we had already saved a lot of translation time with Smartcat. Imagine if we had to do this manually in Word, or even with offline CATs, it would take much longer, and consistency would be much harder to guarantee, not to mention quality.

Thank you, Chau. Good luck building your team further and reaching new summits!

Thank you. Good luck to you, too!