Women in Localization President Cecilia Maldonado on Translation in Latin America

SlatorPod - Latamways Director Cecilia Maldonado on LSPs in Latin America and Women in Localization

Cecilia Maldonado, Director of Strategic Accounts at Latamways, joins SlatorPod to talk about the language industry landscape in Latin America and her term as President of Women in Localization.

Cecilia recounts her path to joining the language industry and the many hats she wore over the past 20 years; from English teacher and certified English translator to co-founding, managing, and merging language service providers (LSPs). She touches on the two-year process of merging SpeakLatam and Two Ways Translation Services, and how they managed to double in size in a highly fragmented, competitive industry.

She shares her perspective on how business is centered around Argentina and Brazil in the Latin American language industry, and LSPs competing for talent with global Super Agencies operating local production hubs.

Cecilia also talks about Women in Localization and navigating the challenges of leading a not-for-profit organization. She closes with a market outlook on multimedia and as well as the potential for growth of machine translation post-editing (MTPE).

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week — where DeepL met its match in a Bloomberg crypto article. The text was packed with crypto-specific concepts, metaphors, and jargon — overloading the algorithm’s capacity to compute meaningful output!

The duo talk about RWS’ latest acquisition of Japanese patent translation agency, Horn & Uchida, for a cash consideration of GBP 2.3m. Before news of the acquisition broke, Berenberg released a report that noted how RWS shares took a dip the day Richard Thompson stepped down as CEO.

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Meanwhile, Nicolas McMahon stepped up from COO to CEO at United Language Group, which saw previous CEO Kristen Giovanis return to her role as President.

Esther also reviews Lionbridge and its acquisition of Rocket Sound, a company that provides audio and voice-over localization services for gaming. The move further signals the Super Agency’s interest in the gaming industry, where current clients include Xbox, Sega, Activision, and Ubisoft.

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Florian: Tell us about your background. What brought you into the language industry? How long have you been in this industry? What are some of the career paths?

Cecilia: My story might be a little bit different from what you are used to hearing, especially in the US where people from different career backgrounds join the language industry. I went to university to study translation. It is a five-year course at the National University of Córdoba, and I became a certified English translator so it was a natural path. I could have been an English teacher or teacher of English as a second language or a bilingual secretary in Argentina. That was the future for translators back in the year 1999 when I graduated. I have been in the industry for more than 20 years and I did not want to end like that. I did that to make a living for many years but when we started seeing that the future was not very promising locally, we started looking outside of Argentina and that is when we discovered the ATA. 

My first conference was the ATA conference in Orlando in the year 2000 and it was mind-blowing. People would stop us in the hallways and ask us to work for them. They said great translators come from Argentina, come work with us. It was amazing. We had never heard of CAT tools, so imagine a world with no internet when I was in school. When we started getting jobs from the US, we would have to connect to this dial-up, wait until everything downloaded. Searching on Google was not possible, it was too expensive in Argentina at the time so we would still work with big dictionaries. That is how I have always been involved in the language industry. I do not know anything else so it has been English teaching to survive and when I could stop teaching, I became a full-time translator. 

Esther: Tell us a bit about some of the roles that you have held throughout your career, and specifically the experience of co-founding and owning an LSP. 

Cecilia: All the changes that I went through during my career path have been out of necessity. It was never really planned so when we went to this first conference, we started to get so many job offers. Then we needed to produce more and therefore we needed more help so we started hiring or talking to colleagues, and everybody was very excited about the possibility of actually working as a translator. 20 years ago no one, except for an aviation company that was located here and had three or four translators on staff. Other than that, there were no chances, especially in Córdoba. Buenos Aires is a different world where the certified public translator had some role to play but there was no industry. 

The situation, as we know it today, did not exist so we had to break some new ground there and so we started as full-time translators. Then we moved on to editors. Then we started managing projects. Then we did some accounting. Then I started doing some sales and my partner at the time did the vendor management, and sometimes wore multiple hats at the same time. It was not until five, seven years into it that we realized that this was a great business we could run and make it even more professional. Even though when we were a two-person company we were visibly professional because we had a brand, we had a website, we had a name, a logo, and the legal framework. What has been happening is that there are many groups or informal companies working with a nice website but no legal framework so that is what we have been trying to do by educating the community. 

When we saw what was happening in the US, the first thing we did was come back to Argentina and run our first conference and show everybody that we could survive as translators in Argentina with all these things. Some professors at the university had this information and they never shared it with us. Even on my first day at school, the professor said, if you want to make a living, then go study something else. That was my first day at the university so imagine how positive that was. It has been a long path. I have worn all sorts of hats. I started my first company right after the ATA. One of my partners decided to move to the US so there were two of us left. We ran that same company for 10 years, then we separated and then I started a company by myself with the help of key employees that I had and one of them is my partner today. Then in 2017, we merged with another local company and we became Latamways. I love to work with other similar minded people who enjoy working hard and have the same aim of success. I could not have done it without my partners.

Esther: You mentioned the merger a few years ago now. How did that process go? What was the rationale behind merging the two companies? 

Cecilia: As I said, there was no industry a few years back but what you could see in the ecosystem locally was many small companies competing for the same client and working and competing for the same vendors. It was so fragmented and competitive. We called it coopetition so competitors that competed with each other. I started talking mainly with these colleagues that are translators in Argentina to see if we could do something about it. I talked about getting together and becoming big enough to be able to have some sort of market share and compete at a different level. For now, we are just too small to do that. I had several meetings and there were so many perspectives of where we wanted to take this new company that I started to understand that it is not easy to do a merger because there are so many different factors. 

I love partnerships, but when you have other people joining, they also want to have a say and reaching an agreement for the sake of the company is not always the main priority for some people. I was at this conference in San Diego and Agustina from Two Ways Translations and I sat down and started talking about this so when we came back to Argentina, we started brainstorming about it. In the beginning, we called it Barney so that we could refer to the new company as something. It was a long process, but we started with the help of very talented people. We hired a consultant to help us understand all the different aspects of a merger. It was a long two-year process before we merged and the merger was a success because we duplicated our size and we only lost one employee altogether. We had a valuation of the two different companies and nobody wanted to have more shares than the other parties so we decided to be equal partners and the four of us have very different roles within the company. One is finance, the other one is operations, the other one is talent and I am in the business development department, so very different. 

Florian: Let us talk about the translation, localization, and language services environment in Latin America. Can you share a bit about the types and size of companies, and the dynamics between them?

Cecilia: Latin America is a strange place for the localization industry in the sense that I do not know if there is an industry everywhere in Latin America. There is not a lot of information on the industry. I have been involved with training events for many years with different brands, vendor management seminars, project management seminars, Think! Latin America at the time. We did events in Chile, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and the attendees were mainly from Argentina and the US. The only place where we saw a little bit of a difference was in Brazil. Most of us here are translators at heart. Only a few of the translation company owners have a background in business or decided to start a translation company because they thought of it as a good business. Most of them repeat the same path that I did, becoming a translator, doing a lot of work and then starting their own companies. 

Today the translation activity is focused on two different locations: Argentina and Brazil. According to Nimdzi’s latest research on the landscape of Argentina, there are a lot of multilingual vendors coming to Argentina for human resources. That is a huge threat for us today. The pandemic did not help. Large international players like TransPerfect in Buenos Aires, Moravia in Rosario and Venga, all have their production or project management centers here. They even have sales departments here. They are coming for talent to Argentina and that is complicating the situation of the smaller SLVs like mine because we cannot compete with the salaries of the big MLVs. All my employees are being targeted on LinkedIn and it is a very tempting situation. Plus the fact that you belong to a bigger organization with the possibility to grow in different directions. Therefore there is a need for the smaller SLVS to make deep changes. 

According to this report, the Argentinian landscape has a combined revenue of $19.3 million in 2019. The largest company listed in the report had revenues of $5.2 million. The second one in the list, 2.5 million and Latamways, number eight in the list, $1.1 million so you can see the difference. The top 100 report also has a big difference. When you look at Brazil the largest one reported is 3.1m followed by 1.9m. They also analyzed the percentage of revenue compared to the number of resources that they employ and they call that productivity. It does not have a relationship because we dropped in the ranking to number 10 and the number one company in the region listed in the report follows us on number 11. The revenue or the size of the company does not make sense compared to the amount of money that they make.

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Florian: I would assume it is not extremely hard to find good people, onboard them and add them to the company. Although you are saying as soon as they get their LinkedIn profile up and they have some industry credentials, then they are getting targeted by the big guys?

Cecilia: Yes, I have lost many of my employees to the bigger guys. Smaller companies need to be much more flexible than the bigger guys. We worked with more than a hundred clients so a hundred clients means a hundred different requests, a hundred different ways to communicate, a hundred different personalities and egos, a hundred different style guides. Our project managers are prepared to deal with all of that, so the training that they get at the smaller SLVs is so big that when they go to the larger clients they only have to deal with one account, one personality, one style guide, one everything. They have an awesome experience. That is something that we cannot really do because we work mainly for MLVs. Something to pay attention to is that we need the project managers because we are managing projects for most of these MLVs so if we are constantly being attacked, for lack of a better word, we are in the end doing all this Spanish for these MLVs. 

What I see today in the ecosystem is fierce competition. Most of the companies have experienced a large growth mainly related to their talent management services and not due to translation services so that is where the big gap is and this report confirms that too. We have seen friends become enemies because of that too. As a local vendor, you know how hard it is because there has never been a big company coming here and training people so we had to do it all by ourselves. As a local competitor, to see them come after one of your resources and sell them to one of the big guys is a little bit frustrating, but that is over and we are prepared now. We had to change the way the project management structure is structured. We now have more rotation, before we were hiring one every three months and now we are hiring three every month and training project managers so that we do not run the risk of being left. 

The rotation does not help the company much, but as we are still talking teams here, and the remote model or the pandemic has hit hard in that regard. 60% of the companies in the industry are used to working remotely. We were not so we had to make a lot of adjustments to be able to communicate better with our team, to have better technology in place so that we had that feeling of closeness. That relationship while in the same office is definitely not replicated in the online model so that has had a big impact and it exacerbated the process of people rotating even more.

Esther: For you, are there any new services or workflows that you have seen more demand for recently from your MLV customers or direct customers? Is MT having an impact on how things are done? What has been your experience?

Cecilia: The most significant changes as far as services are neural machine translation post-editing. It is becoming more common, especially for AI learning and training. Multimedia is huge and most of the translation companies locally do not have multimedia incorporated within their translation companies. The structure of my company is still translators, editors, post-editors. We even created a post-editing training program that people have to do before they actually become post-editors for us because we detected something there that makes good post-editors different and it is not the same profile as a translator. We created this online training and everyone needs to go through that. 

Multimedia is a different world and we are still dealing with outsourced labs or studios that do not really understand the localization industry and therefore they do not understand the time constraints and emergencies. For translation, we are used to that, but for multimedia, we still need to do some work so that they integrate well with the workflows that we have in place for translation. Running on autopilot at Latamways has not been an option. Even worse than the rotation is a need to constantly rethink your business and where you are going. Before you used to have a meeting once a year to think about strategy. Now, it is easily two times a year and sometimes even sooner because the changes are happening faster, at least locally where we see the impact and the need to change. 

We need to be much more professional than we were before. We need to look out for the competition and see how we can be different. Again, the remote world made everything closer for everybody. For us, a big change over the past two years has been the possibility to work with end clients that we never had a chance to before. I do not know if they finally understood that the volume of Spanish is so big, that it makes sense to go to the provider. Or they have made changes on their end to create linguistics departments or vendor management departments that can deal with the different languages because when I used to ask about this, they did not have the bandwidth or they did not have the people to deal with so many vendors. Now I see vendor management departments having the possibility to participate in RFPs, to participate in the client meetings, to understand their product and understand what it is that they are selling and being made part of their company. That we can help them with the translation and localization efforts, has been an awesome experience. Something that we never experienced before. 

Florian: Do you think that is a function of better TMS’? That the client companies have more advanced TMS’ and then feel comfortable hiring a few loc managers internally and then allocating the volumes to individual vendors? 

Cecilia: Probably. From my understanding they never had enough people to be able to deal with the different talents or the different languages so they preferred to have one big MVL deal with all of that. The translation companies, we sell project management. We sell the resources, the negotiation with rates, the payments, the logistics so bigger or smaller, we all sell the same thing. Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Latin America so there is no diversity. When we talk about domestic versus international clients, since there is no language diversity in Latin America, only very little, then the need for translation is really non-existent. That is why everybody in Latin America go and look for clients in the US or Europe and in fact, most of the companies in Argentina, more than 60 percent come from clients in the US. Only 20% of the revenues come from Europe.

Esther: Let us talk about the other hat that you wear when you are not running the company, which is President of Women in Localization. Tell us about when you took over the presidency and what you have been working on most recently? 

Cecilia: Women in Localization came into my life around five years ago, so I was invited by a colleague and she is on the board today and I loved the idea and I loved the sense of community. I started working with the chapter program, which is the biggest program in the organization and I started working under the leadership of Anna Schlegel. For me, that was a huge learning experience. I started getting more and more involved. I started a chapter program. Then I became program director. Then geo manager, representing the entire of the Americas and then I was invited to the board. Then I was nominated Vice President and now I am President. You are Vice President for one year and then President for another year and it is a board of nine people so it is not just me. As a President, my style is to be very democratic and if we have nine board members we vote for absolutely everything that needs to be voted for. What I did come up with, with the help of everybody, are the goals for the year. 

Since I have been working with the chapter program in the organization, I had a different understanding of the organization. I did not just join the board without having the experience of the smaller programs so my way was from the bottom upwards and so that gave me a different perspective. This year we are very big, we are talking about more than 5,000 members and more than 200 volunteers today. Since we became an official not-for-profit some years ago, we needed to make everything more formal. We started out working very informally, creating events and creating networking opportunities for everybody and suddenly we felt we were forced to make everything very formal in the sense that we need NDAs and we need to comply with GDPR. We have 28 chapters around the world and these chapters have different rules. When we go to different countries, we need to understand what is happening in those countries. For example, we had to close Russia last month because of all the developments there, the not-for-profit laws, the GDPR, the data manipulation and everything. We were forced to close the chapter or our volunteers could get into trouble. We have always been working towards growth and empowering more women around the world so having to close the chapter for us was very disappointing and for them, you can just imagine. Sometimes you have to make these tough decisions for the sake of the entire organization. 

My main focus is the members and the volunteers. We would not be Women in Localization if we did not have them. They work very hard for our mission which is the advancement of women in the localization industry. Organization and health, meaning putting everything in order, restructuring so that we can continue to grow and be successful long term. Program health, we had too many different programs so we are trying to reduce programs, make them more relevant according to the mission and obviously digital transformation. That is something that we started working on last year, but we continue to grow. We have the website, we have a global community where every member can access all the training events that we organize, multiplied by 28 chapters, so every single chapter organizing an event today has been recorded and uploaded there. We are creating a repository for everybody to go back to and now we are working on an intranet for all the volunteers. 

It is always doing, doing, doing but with the objective to provide more opportunities for women to be trained, to be prepared and to take risks, to have the preparation necessary for them to feel confident enough to take these big positions in the world, or to even ask for them. For that, you need to be trained and how do we do that? By creating these volunteer positions where they can practice their leadership skills and we give those positions to those that are prepared. We function in a way that we give the opportunity to everybody who is interested in developing their leadership skills and they learn a lot, so networking, mentoring, training, and practicing your leadership skills.

Florian: What geographies are super strong and especially what part of the language industry is extremely well-represented in Women in Localization? What parts of the language industry would you like to see more women joining from?

Cecilia: Today, we have 10 chapters in the Americas and 13 chapters in EMEA, APAC only has five and that is another region that we have to look at closely now after Russia. The verticals that we see in our membership, according to our metrics, are 30% come from the technology background, 6% from the gaming industry, 23% from the marketing industry, only 7% from life sciences. The job functions depend on the location of the chapter so Silicon Valley is mainly clients. This is where Women in Localization started, but if you come to Argentina, the chapter is all about vendors. It depends on what the ecosystem locally is made of and that is what represents the membership in every single chapter. 

When we looked at the metrics, the top three types of members were linguists, so those that actually want to have a different experience or grow within the supply chain or become something different within the industry. The second is project and program managers and number three, director managers. The bottom three are engineers, digital publishers and global content managers. Engineers, for me, are directly related to the fact that not most of them are women. Our membership is 94% female, 4% male, and the rest did not identify with any particular gender. We are an inclusive organization. We accept men, many people ask me why. Our mission is to work for women but for that, we need the support of men who believe and support our mission. Men can be members, men can be volunteers, men are welcome.

The reality is that we believe women have fewer opportunities and if you read some of the reports after the pandemic, for example, in Latin America they say that women in the workforce, it is like going back 10 years for them opportunities wise. How can we not do something about it? There are privileges for men that women do not have, and therefore women need to be super prepared to be able to stand next to the privileged men. We focus on training. We focus on mentorship. We focus on giving these women networking opportunities so that they can connect with other women in their industry to improve their jobs, to go and work together, and find partnerships. That is what we do as an organization and it is very powerful.

Esther: What is your market outlook for the next three, five years for LSPs based in Latin America? What advice do you have? What should they be doing? What opportunities are there? 

Cecilia: Based on what I have seen, I think that growth will continue to happen. Argentina especially has a great pool of talent and there is a lot of flexibility. The level of education is high so Argentina is going to continue to grow as a center for the translation and localization industry. I see opportunities in new services, multimedia. Again, we need to do something about it. Otherwise, it is not going to work. Those who are prepared are going to have better chances at doing something significant than those who do not. I see opportunities for companies who remain flexible, who have the capacity to recalculate whenever necessary. If you need to recalculate in the middle of the year because some things are happening, having the flexibility to do that is what can help you stand out. 

Translation is going to continue to happen in smaller chunks in different workflows based on the need. Whether it is tagging, whether it is working with hard copies and trying to be creative in terms of those new requests. If you think that your company needs to continue to run in the same way, you are probably going to be losing a lot of opportunities. I see companies potentially tackling machine translation post-editing in a very professional way. There is a lot of offers out there and people think that they can do it easily. Even I see vendors taking it very irresponsibly. I think that it requires some preparation to do this. It works differently and we need to look at it in that way. I always see potential for growth for everyone who is willing to do things differently, think outside the box and take risks. Anyone willing to do that and have that in them is going to be able to survive and thrive.