Sonja Babic-Lythgoe, Halifax Director – Quality and price, two sides of the same translation
2016 was a year of hard work and a strategic sea change. For 15 years the company has successfully provided translation and consulting services, and many years of hard work and care about quality have brought several newspapers into the Halifax portfolio - says Halifax
Director Sonja Babic-Lythgoe to eKapija.
But she sees great challenges in the business environment, and in the translation industry in general.eKapija: What has characterised Halifax' work in 2016?
– This year has seen a lot of hard work and a strategic sea change. We have worked hard to further upgrade our management system, both in terms of standardised processes and IT infrastructure. We are constantly working towards better customer and supplier satisfaction which is indeed very challenging in the present demanding environment. As a result we have seen the number of private sector clients increasing rapidly and potential suppliers approaching us on a daily basis.
On the other hand, the number of public sector clients has decreased. The restrictive application of the law on public procurement focusing only on price unfortunately makes no difference between a quality service provider and an amateur, nor even a completely unserious company looking for a quick buck.
The result is a very inefficient use of taxpayers funds with little in return. We try to influence these things, of course, but some things we can't, hence our change of strategic focus.eKapija: What expectations do you have of the opening of chapter 5, which concerns public procurement?
– EU institutions are advocating better procurement practice, including a quality element for procurement of services that are at present tendered on a price-only basis.
But the negotiations will probably focus on large-value tendering which is usually seen as where most corruption occurs. Translation services fall in the category of low-value procurement, so procurement officers see purchasing this service a bit like buying toilet paper – completely unimportant, the cheapest is good enough. This is a pity, since the importance of translation quality can often be out of all proportion to the cost. But let's wait and see, perhaps some of these EU criteria will be applied to low-value tenders as well. We certainly hope so.
eKapija: This year you celebrated your company`s 15th anniversary. When you turn and look back, what were the major milestones in your work?
– The first thing when we started was that everyone said: "you should register an NGO rather then a company and, by the way, you should be a member of a political party". These seemed to be the conditions for being successful. We have always refused this approach and I can proudly say that so far we have made it work without.
In the first decade of the 2000s there were international companies that made room for local partners with professional competence combined with local knowledge. They gave us the opportunity to do a lot of good work over the years, modernising Serbian institutions. Our experts took part in many successful tasks: the first municipal bond issue in Serbia, many infrastructure feasibility studies, education reforms...
In 2012 the management of EU projects was given by the EC to the Serbian government, so we have now been waiting for the process to pick up again.
In the meantime, one of our EU-funded projects to translate 16,000 pages of EU legislation into Serbian launched us into the translation business, which is at the moment our principal activity. We have developed it into an increasingly international and comprehensive enterprise.
The best decision we ever took was to professionalise our business by introducing ISO standards - but in real terms, not for certification only. We were certified in 2012 and we have been developing it ever since. It has allowed us to work with a completely different order of reliability since then.
eKapija: What is the influence of technology on the translation industry?
– CAT tools have this name for a reason: Computer-Assisted Translation - they really do assist. How? They help to further ensure quality and consistency of translations. They facilitate the use of a client`s preferred terminology and allow the creation of memories and term bases for future use. At Halifax we mainly use one called a memoQ server platform and both our clients and our translators are happy to benefit from it.
As for machine translation, it is coming slowly but surely. Our region will experience it slower because of the large structural differences between Slavic languages and English for example, but it is happening, nevertheless.
eKapija: This year you have been active in the Serbian Association of Translation Companies. What are the challenges for this industry in Serbia and the wider world?
(Photo: Cienpies Design/shutterstock.com)
– In the wider world, the advent of machine translation and other technology is the major change that occupies a lot of discussions. Here in Serbia, the issues are a bit different. The Serbian Association of Translation Companies has been working on cooperation between companies and universities and on the lists of court translators that have not been updated for many years. We have also organised training sessions for translators and interpreters. We have tried to work on public procurement to encourage institutions to introduce a quality element, but so far with no progress – everyone says it is important, but in practice it's an uphill struggle.
eKapija: How would you assess the overall business climate in Serbia today?
– It is certainly a lot more business friendly then it was a decade ago. There have been many good reforms, a lot of simplification of the administration we face, though there is still so much to be done. NALED has played a crucial role in this, which is why we are active members of the alliance. In my opinion, electronic services are the way to go and I am pleased to see them accelerating in a big way.
But we still see small businesses closing and there must be reasons why that happens – the business climate, I guess. This is still deeply worrying, a small company like ours with nine staff and many freelancers keeps a lot of families going. The Government should pay a lot of attention to this, these small family companies are the bedrock of the sound economy Serbia is striving for - foreign investment alone can't solve all the problems. It is excellent that GDP has grown by 3% this year but unfortunately I can`t see it in everyday life. Perhaps 2017 will be better.
eKapija: What are Halifax' plans for 2017?
– In 2017 we intend to continue our current policy of focusing on the private sector. Our entire business model rests on quality and reliability, and we are not prepared to compromise beyond a certain point just to provide lower prices. Public sector contracts are characterised by ever lower prices which effectively precludes quality, so we shall wait for changes in institutional priorities. Private sector clients appreciate the efforts we make for them, as this affects their business positively, so they keep coming back for more. We also increasingly work with clients from around the world which is both challenging and satisfying. Translation is definitely there to bridge across cultures, it forms the nuts and bolts that make the bridge stand.
eKapija: You have built a career as a business leader. What would your message be to young people who are thinking of launching themselves into private business?
– Anywhere in the world, running your own company has some great benefits but involves much, much harder work and responsibility than being employed in someone else's company or in the public sector. In a business climate that can ensure fair competition, I'd say go for it! But if young people are reluctant in the present circumstances, I can understand them. It's sad that so many young people with drive and initiative use it to emigrate. It would be good if this changed too.