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Pangea Lingua suddenly says adieu: Translation firm had served Indiana's largest companies

October 6, 2008

Not long ago, translation firm Pangea Lingua was one of Indianapolis' womenowned-business success stories.

Its founder, Tamra Lewis, was named to IBJ's "40 Under 40" list in 1999. Over the next few years, lengthy profiles followed in the pages of The Indianapolis Star and on the cover of Indianapolis Woman magazine.

Yet suddenly, the company is out of business-apparently in part because other firms were undercutting it on price.

Lewis, who's in her early 40s, did not return calls left on her personal cell phone.

"Business just dried up," said Helmi Banta, an Indianapolis woman from Panama who mentored Lewis but had not heard from her recently. "It makes me very sad."

For more than a decade, Pangea Lingua translated business materials for some of Indiana's largest companies, including Eli Lilly and Co., Cummins Inc., Rolls Royce Corp. and Delta Faucet.

As of three years ago, the company had just eight full-time employees but worked with a network of 3,000 contract translators around the globe. Annual revenue at the time was $1.5 million.

A Pangea Lingua translator complained to IBJ last month that she had not been paid for her services. The company has taken down its Web site and disconnected its phones.

The company's roots trace back to 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. Lewis was temporarily living in Germany at the time, which exposed her to frequent misinterpretations of English.

When she returned to Indiana, she waited tables while handling translation work on a project-by-project basis. Lilly was her first client.

Lewis formally incorporated Pangea Lingua in 1997, as her contracting business became too large to handle alone. Accolades and a spot on Indiana University's Growth 100 list of fast-growing companies soon followed.

Pangea Lingua was noted for hiring only native speakers who hailed from the nations where their messages would be delivered. Lewis emphasized the practice to ensure slang or colloquialisms wouldn't trip anyone up.

Lewis also required that interpreters boast expertise in fields relevant to the work Pangea Lingua deciphered. To translate patent contracts into Japanese, she said, her company hired Japanese patent attorneys. To make sure engineering schematics would be understood in France, Pangea Lingua hired French engineers.

"We don't just use Jose off the loading dock to do our translations," Lewis told IBJ in 2005. "Hiring a native speaker isn't enough, because it's too easy to get it wrong.

"You don't want 'The Grapes of Wrath' to become 'The Angry Raisins,' which I've seen," she quipped. "The cheapest translation always ends up being the most expensive."

Yet the costs may have helped do the company in.

When Connecticut-based Chemtura Corp. bought locally based Great Lakes Chemical in 2005, it hired Pangea Lingua to assist with translation of the merger announcement in Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai.

Great Lakes had been one of Pangea Lingua's major clients. Chemtura spokeswoman Debra Durbin said Lewis' company did a great job, but Chemtura ultimately chose a different vendor.

"Primarily, it was cost," Durbin said. "Our procurement department took bids from a couple of other companies, so we switched."

Cummins spokesman Mark Land said his company issued a request for proposals a few years ago and found a different preferred vendor to replace Pangea Lingua.
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