Good translations are seldom noticed. But bad ones can become infamous. And Tamra Lewis has heard them all.
There's the "Got Milk?" slogan, which in literal Spanish means "Are you lactating?" Or classic examples, such as the name of Chevy's Nova automobile-understood as "No go" in Latin America.
As the CEO of locally based Pangea Lingua, Lewis, 38, aims to keep her clients' translations from becoming the next Internet joke. Now and then, that means nudging a company away from a coveted marketing slogan.
Hoosiers could easily comprehend an advertising pun by ATA Airlines Inc. about "not fighting 'fare,'" for example. But taken literally, Lewis said, some foreigners would assume it's a warning about deceit or fraud.
"You don't want 'The Grapes of Wrath' to become 'The Angry Raisins'-which I've seen," she said with a laugh. "The cheapest translation always ends up being the most expensive."
Pangea Lingua has just eight full-time employees. But the company has translated projects in 163 languages since its inception in 1997. Every translation project begins with a search of Pangea Lingua's global 3,000-member database for a native speaker in the nation where the message is to be delivered. That's to ensure local slang or colloquialisms won't trip anyone up.
Speaking the right language isn't enough. Interpreters, who are paid by the job, must also boast expertise in fields relevant to the work they decipher. To translate a patent contract into Japanese, Pangea Lingua hires a Japanese patent attorney. To make sure engineering schematics will be understood in France, Pangea Lingua hires a French engineer.
"We hire good people. We don't use Jose off the loading dock to do our translations," Lewis said. "Hiring a native speaker isn't enough, because it's too easy to get it wrong."
Pangea Lingua now serves many of Indiana's best-known companies. Its annual revenue, Lewis said, has grown to about $1.5 million. But there was no grand business plan at the start, she admits. In fact, all Lewis had back then was a bag of dimes.
Fueled by the desire to see the world, Lewis bought a one-way ticket to Germany in 1989, just in time to see the Berlin Wall fall. Over the next months, she observed the simple mistakes and misunderstandings that were commonplace when Germans attempted to speak American English, and vice versa.
Upon her return home, Lewis headed straight for the library copy machine armed with a bag full of change. For two days, she copied the contact information for every major translation agency, advertising agency and engineering firm around the globe.
She was creating the first draft of her translator database.
Pangea Lingua started on a project-byproject consulting basis while Lewis waited tables on the side. She formally incorporated it in 1997, when it grew too large for one woman to manage. Today Lewis is enjoying the dividends of her dedication. Eight months pregnant with her second child, Lewis owns Pangea Lingua's building on North Washington Boulevard. Playing with the kids means a simple climb to the upstairs playroom.
Meanwhile, future prospects for Pangea Lingua appear strong. As Indiana companies increasingly operate overseas, their need for translation services continually grows. Columbus-based Cummins Engine Inc., for example, now has more than 28,000 employees serving customers in more than 160 countries.
Sending the same message simultaneously to all of those people is difficult for a publicly traded company such as Cummins. It has internal employees capable of making translations. But most are serving in other capacities. It can be days or more before they have time to decipher communications for their local plants or operations.
John Forte, business manager for the Cummins Television Network, said he has been using Pangea Lingua for translation assistance for about a year.
"Finding the balance between how much you can afford to translate and how much you can afford not to translate is the trick we're trying to wrap our arms around now," he said.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Pangea Lingua today isn't attracting new customers, but retaining them as world business evolves. When global businesses merge, Lewis complained, a vendor such as Pangea Lingua can easily be lost in the shuffle, even if it's served a customer for years.
That's what could have happened when Middlebury, Conn.-based Crompton Corp. acquired locally based Great Lakes Chemical Corp. on July 1 to become Chemtura Corp. Pangea Lingua had helped Great Lakes create consistent messages for stakeholders in Spain, Germany, Italy, France and Mexico.
Rather than bemoan the loss of a major customer, Pangea Lingua pressed Chemtura for the chance to continue the new company's translation services. Pangea Lingua did so well with the merger announcement that continuing the relationship was an easy sell, said Wendy Chance, Great Lakes Chemical manager of communications.
"We did it in Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portugese, Spanish and Thai," Chance said. "There were probably about 150 documents total that they were able to translate into all those languages and deliver back within seven or eight days. It was an amazing turnaround."
The key to Pangea Lingua's success, Lewis said, has been meticulous attention to detail. The company achieves it, she said, by delegating responsibility to experts wherever possible.
In addition to specialized translators, Lewis uses a certified public accountant for her books, hires project directors to manage assignments and employs editors who must follow a rigorous routine of double-checks for each job.
Whether the translation is of a full annual report or just a company's mission statement, Lewis said, the same process applies.
"You can't have one mistake. If you screw it up even one time, then your client has no credibility in any language," she said. "People don't talk if you do a good job. But they have something to say if you don't."