Crossing Cultures

In today’s global economy, multilingual companies have a leg up, so Ana Maria Zúñiga’s AZ World is helping tongue-tied clients translate their work to find and serve new markets

Ana Maria Zúñiga was 9,000 kilometres from home. She had travelled from Santiago, Chile, to Kapuskasing, Ontario, and she couldn’t speak English or French well. The situation might not have appealed to others, but Zúñiga entered into it excitedly.

She came to Canada as part of an exchange program and purposely selected a bilingual family, and today she is fluent in three languages and can read, write, and understand several more. A lifelong passion for linguistics became a career, and Zúñiga eventually founded and now serves as president of AZ World Translation and Interpretation Inc., an agency that provides comprehensive language services to clients around the world. Here, in her own words, she details the problems presented by language barriers in business and how AZ is helping to solve them.

I’ve loved languages since I was a child. I’ve always loved the way languages open doors through communication. I came from a small town, and I wanted to see the world. I knew there was so much more out there beyond Quillota [in Chile], my hometown, and language was the key to unlocking it all. That early experience being immersed in Canada sparked so much in me. I loved learning English and French, and since I was so far from home, I really had no choice. I’ve been learning ever since.

It may sound like an unusual hobby, but it should come as no surprise that the head of AZ World spends her time scribbling notes in a collection of dictionaries. “They’re my favourite reading material for a long flight,” she says. Her passion for books extends beyond reference materials, too—Zúñiga says she can finish 6–10 books during a typical holiday.

In 2006, I decided to start my own agency. At the beginning, I was only doing Spanish translation and was working mostly for a few mining and engineering firms here in Vancouver. But the work grew quickly, and all of a sudden I had 50 clients around the world. Many of them were asking for more services in more languages. That led me to diversify into French, Portuguese, and several others. Now we do interpretation, translation, transcription, website localization, and more. We even do phone conferences and language assessments. These assessments are especially important in the business world because companies often hire people who claim proficiency in a foreign language. We test the candidates to see how well they read, write, speak, and comprehend.

The process behind translation is actually much more complicated than most people realize. They think that if you can speak another language, you can translate, but effective translation actually requires a university major and in some cases an advanced degree. There are so many subtleties and nuances to doing it right. A good translator must be bicultural; he or she should be a good writer who speaks two languages and can feel the sense of the language. We have more than 2,000 translators in our pool. Almost half have bachelor’s degrees. Thirty-one percent have master’s degrees, 12 percent have PhDs, and 8 percent have a professional designation. Our lawyers and engineers, for example, can provide highly technical and accurate services in very specialized fields.

There are several challenges to being accurate. Some words and phrases don’t have exact translations. Translation is a living and adaptable thing. The Bible is more than 2,000 years old, and its translation is still in progress. We’ve had clients say our translations have moved them to tears. Other times, we interpret jokes and hear an audience laugh. Those are the times you know you’re doing your job well. The audience shouldn’t notice or realize that something has been translated.

Context and localization are also important parts to what we do. That’s where being bicultural comes in. Does a client want Mexican Spanish or a more general usage? Is it for children, a general audience, or a university setting? These questions help us pick the best translator from our pool. Then we assign a proofreader and a project manager. That team creates what we call a “translation memory” for each client. We record their word preferences, choices, and edits. When they hire us for a second job, we already have these items recorded in the translation memory to speed up the process.

We work with 70 mining and engineering companies and have done everything from websites, to monthly newsletters and website updates, to multilanguage software, to contracts, to seven-volume feasibility studies. We’ve moved into other industries and are growing quickly. We’re growing because businesses are realizing that the world is shrinking as the Internet and technology grow. When I did my exchange program, I could barely say two words in French, but when I learned the language, so many new opportunities opened up. The same is true in business. Working in multiple languages opens up new possibilities for trade and partnerships. It’s like a whole new world of opportunities.