Meet Mary Maloof, Spanish Language Translator and Entrepreneur
People love entrepreneurship to work for themselves and to pursue a passion. The rewards can be monetary, personal fulfillment, or both. The benefits of self-employment include flexibility with work hours and high earning potential. On the other hand, sometimes with entrepreneurship the flow of projects is extremely unpredictable and the proverbial “feast or famine” is very real. If a decline in work hurts someone’s income, they may consider turning their back on self-employment and resorting to full-time employment in the corporate sector. Mary Maloof, the owner of Maloof Language Services in Atlanta, GA, found herself in this position.
Mary started working in the language services industry as a freelance Spanish translator. She was working with a think tank in Washington, DC when her supervisor, who had worked as a senior translator for the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), encouraged her to become a translator. Mary’s initial career aspirations were to work as a Foreign Service Officer for the State Department, so at first, she dismissed the idea, but eventually decided to humor her supervisor and look into Georgetown University’s translation program. At the orientation program, Mary felt a profound pull in that direction and completely switched her career path in favor of translation. She went to school at night to get her certificate and began getting freelance work almost immediately. It took only two more years for Mary to get enough work to turn it into a full-time business.
In mid-2017, Mary’s business slowed down dramatically. Google Translate and other machine translation (MT) programs were being used to translate documents at a lower cost than hiring a certified translator. This decimated the job market for human translators. Because everything entered into Google Translate becomes owned by Google, many companies realized that GT could not be used for their sensitive materials, but had become obsessed with the idea of machine translation replacing pricier human translators, so Mary’s end clients began asking her clients (translation agencies) to hire developers to write customized MT programs to translate their proprietary materials. MT software can be a great, cost-effective business tool, but it does have significant limitations. Unfortunately, companies learned this lesson too late for Mary to salvage her translation business.
Mary feels the MT craze that upended the language services market was derived from one overwhelming factor that was in play from the very start: a lack of understanding of and appreciation for language services in American culture and, indeed, the importance of learning foreign languages in general. “The US has had an historic lack of appreciation for learning a second language. Having an ocean on either side of us, we’ve never really had to. This is the opposite of the attitude in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In those places, it’s rare not to find someone who speaks at least two, three other languages. In the US, it’s mostly immigrants who speak multiple languages.”
Foreign language studies are not required in all high schools and colleges. Where they are optional, they are definitely not encouraged. What few translation and interpreting certificate programs exist in the US usually die due to lack of funding (such as Georgetown University’s certificate program and NYU’s online certificate program); contrast this with the prestigious, world-renowned translation and interpreting schools of Europe and South America. This has resulted in the American translation and interpreting industry never reaching the same level of professionalization as other industries such as the legal, medical, and engineering industries. “Even electricians and plumbers are more professionalized than we are, although our training and education are just as intensive and can stand toe to toe or better with any of these industries. So there’s this overall lack of respect for language service providers as professionals, and it often shows in the rates we are paid for our work.” US businesses tend to invest very little in human translators and interpreters, in contrast to their counterparts in other countries. They typically allocate very little of their advertising and marketing budget towards having their materials translated to another language. As Mary puts it, “when they do invest in translation services, they tend to want to hire someone for the mere fact that they ‘know the language.’ However, these companies who don’t want to hire professional translators and interpreters are not considering that someone who is not a trained translator or interpreter might make a very costly mistake.”
By late 2017, Mary’s translation business had come to a complete standstill. She decided to enter the corporate world and find a full-time job in another industry completely unrelated to language services because it was no longer possible for her to continue translating full-time and make ends meet. She planned to continue providing translation services on the side as supplemental income.
Mary went through deep emotional turmoil and a grieving period while she explored her options. She said, “It was exactly like a divorce. Like many people who go through a divorce after 20-odd years of marriage, I had lost my sense of self and had to become re-acquainted with myself. I had to figure out who I was and what I had to offer, outside of being a professional translator. I had to completely reinvent myself and learn that I am so much more than a professional translator. At first, it felt weird being in the corporate world. I’d spent most of my adult life self-employed, so I had little knowledge of how corporate America operated in 2020. How do I navigate all the complexities of human resources, benefits, payroll, and healthcare? I had no clue how to deal with corporate politics. I was completely unaware that there was a whole range of management styles and personalities I’d need to work with. But believe me, I learned very fast.”
She not only accepted but wholeheartedly embraced her new career as a customer service representative for a Fortune 50 company, and is vibrantly enthusiastic when talking about her job and her employer. “I have been a diehard fan and admirer of this company all my life. I went to its grand opening with my dad as a kid, and it has been a part of my life ever since. Little did I know that one day I’d be working for them. If you’d told me that when I was translating full-time, I never would’ve believed you. And never in a million years would I have believed it was possible to fall in love with a company like one can with another human being, but there it is, and here I am, and it’s wonderful. I’m grateful beyond expression to be a part of their family.”
In mid-2019, not long after she settled into her new job, Mary saw her translation business start to come back. As Mary puts it, “Companies are finally realizing that the MT programs they’ve been using for translating their materials have serious limitations, and at the end of the day they’re never going to be able to replace human translators, as much as they’d love to. So they’re coming back, but I believe the US translation and interpreting industry will continue to be very unstable for a few more years.”
In addition to running her translation business, Mary continues to work at her day job and is working towards being promoted to a leadership position at her company.
Mary C. Maloof, CT is a Spanish, French, and Portuguese into English translator who resides in Atlanta, GA. She provides translation services in many different subject areas to a number of high-profile direct clients and end clients in both the public and private sectors. Mary holds certifications in Spanish-to-English translation from the American Translators Association (ATA) and Georgetown University, and is a longtime member of the ATA and past president of the Atlanta chapter of the ATA, the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT). She also holds a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in International Affairs from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.