For this last interview of 2012, I interviewed Simon Andriesen, CEO of Medilingua and Board Member of Translators without Borders, major contributor to the TWB training center for translators in Kenya… and much more. A fascinating and inspiring colleague – discover him now!
Hi Anne, I am Simon Andriesen, CEO of MediLingua, a medical translations firm based in the Netherlands, and Board Member of Translators without Borders (TWB).
Your background is quite interesting – how does one go from a masters degree in history to working for the Associated Press and then to medical translation?
Oh well, when I got my degree, journalism was one of the options, or rather: a way out to escape from teaching, which is what I knew I did not want to do. It was great fun for a while, but it was more translation that journalism, and after a while got fed up with it, and started a text bureau, together with Jaap van der Meer, whom I had been friends with since high school. The company (INK International) developed into the first software localization firm in Europe, and to cut a long story short, the company grew rapidly and in the early 90s we had a staff of 200 persons, half of them in our head office in Amsterdam, the rest in offices in 9 different countries across Europe. We then sold the business to RR Donnelley & Sons, the largest printing company in the world, who, just like us, worked for IBM, Microsoft, WordPerfect and so forth. The only thing they did not do, was what we did. To keep the story short, we sold the business to them, and I moved to the US for a few years, with my wife and daughter. After 2 years I came back to Europe and left the company to set up a similar firm, but then dedicated to medical. Donnelley eventually sold the translation division and it became rather well-known as Lionbridge. So you could say that INK, the baby Jaap and I had nurtured for a dozen years, is the core of what Lionbridge now is. But they are in a different league, of course. When we sold INK it was a company with $20 million revenue, and 200 people on the payroll; Lionbridge is by now well over $450 million today, with a few thousand people. MediLingua is focused on high-end medical translations. We provide 50 or so languages to 200 regular customers, with a staff of 15, who are managing around 500 different translators world-wide.
You are also a member of the Advisory Board of the Life Sciences Roundtable during the LocWorld conferences. What is your role there?
The Advisory Board is composed of 6 representatives from companies on the demand side of medical translation (Siemens, Medtronic, and St Jude) and the supply side of medical translation (Lionbridge ForeignXchange, and MediLingua). The board prepares the Life Sciences preconference day-and-a-half before each Localization World conference. I have been involved with LocWorld since 2004 and enjoy supporting this great event and its 2 conference organizers, Donna Parrish of Multilingual, and Ulrich Henes of the Localization Institute, who are also fellow-directors in Translators without Borders. The Advisory Board puts together the program, invites speakers, moderates the sessions, and so forth. Basically, our aim is to come up with a great program twice a year.
You’re a Translators without Borders Executive Board Member. How did it all start?
The founder of TWB, Lori Thicke, called me the day after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. TWB had received hundreds of test translations from translators who offered their help. Lori asked for MediLingua’s support in reviewing these translations, as most of these were medical. Several translators/editors started the same day with the reviews. And one thing led to the other. I was invited to join the Board and found myself focusing first on Operations, and when the TWB Translation Workspace, generously donated by ProZ, was up and running, I redirected my focus to Training. The Executive Board and Rebecca Petras, the TWB Program Director, meet every 2 weeks via Skype, and together we basically run the organization. It is a lot of work and every time I am amazed by the dedication of the directors, and by the amount of time that is put into it.
Within the Board, we decided to help create translation capacity for underserved languages. Our pilot language is Swahili, a language spoken by around 60-80 million people in East Africa. During the course, which is partly based on the MediLingua course Medical-Pharmaceutical Translation, participants get an introduction to translation, as well as basis medical know-how about 20 Africa-relevant health issues, such as pneumonia, diarrhea, my other types of infectious diseases. They do lots of exercises and Paul Warambo, our local course instructor, projects the translations on a screen and discusses the results. This works very well.
In 2012, we gave our short course (4 days) to over a hundred persons, and the longer, advanced course (6 weeks) to a few dozen people, all of them with strong language skills but no translation experience. We currently employ 13 of them, and they work in our translation center in Nairobi, Kenya. The team is specialized in healthcare information. This is crucial in any country with too many patients and not enough doctors, and also in Kenya, where health information is only available in English. Which is the wrong language for the vast majority of the population. We know of too many stories where people suffered or died for lack of information, rather than lack of medication. And for health information to be accessible, it has to be in the right language. During a recent conference in Tanzania, where I was invited to make my point about health information in the right language, I spoke a few sentences in my own language, Dutch, which I knew nobody would understand. I then asked them to imagine how they would feel if they had serious health problems and somebody providing help would talk to them in a language they did not understand…
You regularly go to Kenya – tell us about our Kenyan colleagues.
Yes, since late 2011 I have been in Kenya for a few weeks every few months. Our center is located on the campus of the Bible Translation and Literacy, who focus on Bible translations into ‘small’ African languages. Also on this campus is SIL, the developers of Ethnologue, the database that lists details of all 6,900 living languages. Together with our TWB health translation team this campus is the place in Africa with the most people involved in translation.
What other countries have similar needs for healthcare information in local languages? What can be done?
Africa counts around 2,000 different languages. If health information is available in English, French or Portuguese, this is not helping people who do not or not sufficiently speak these languages. We as TWB can help by providing training and by supporting translators. The translation world can help TWB by helping us finance our work. Our sponsor program is rather successful, with many LSPs listed as Silver sponsors, some Gold and a few Platinum!
Many young translators are considering specializing in medicine. Based on your experience, what would you recommend them to achieve this?
Young translators aspiring to go into medical need to build translation routine first, and at the same time invest in medical know-how. As a medical translator you must be able to understand what you translate, and you only get that by studying medical info, for example from med school books, or you can read all medical articles on Wikipedia. That way you become familiar with the medical language. It is a difficult mix, but in my experience it is less difficult for a talented translator to become a medical translator than for a doctor who has no feeling for language.
In your opinion, what is the current state of the medical translation market? And its future?
It seems that every Tom, Dick & Harry is now providing medical translations and not in all cases with acceptable results. As medical translation specialists we do a lot third-party review work, and far too often, we have to conclude that the quality is simply not good enough. Big companies hope they will get the best price-quality mix by organizing tenders and even auctions. We actually decline most of these invitations; it is a lot of work and as it seems that only the price is taken into account, and not the price/performance mix, we find it hard to win. Too often the focus is on the word rate. We know what it takes to generate safe, high-quality medical translations and we use that expertise for our calculations. Many others charge less. But what if the work is rejected by the authorities? What if a product has to be taken off the market due to poor patient information? What if a patient dies because it was not clear whether to take 4 tablets per hour or 1 tablet every 4 hours.
In your free time (do you have any? ;)), what do you do to take a break?
I spend whatever free time I have with my wife and with our daughter, when she is around. To take a real break from work I run a few times per week. My best accomplishment is the half marathon in 2 hours 12 minutes, but most of the time I do 10 km, which I usually complete within 55 minutes. I play the cello in our local symphony orchestra, and this takes me one evening plus a few hours per week.