With the rapid rise of social and digital media, world populations are better connected than ever before.
When disaster strikes, whether in Haiti or Thailand or Japan or along the U.S. East Coast, these tools of communication make it easier for relief agencies to reach out across national borders to swiftly secure and deliver aid. But with an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world, it is human translators that perform the crucial work of transmitting customs, traditions, and life-saving information across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Jonathan Riedel started his for-profit business, Forword Translations, Inc. in September 2011 focusing on the needs of nonprofit organizations. A graduate of Colgate University and a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, Riedel officially incorporated his business in December of 2011 and has been steadily growing his client base of small businesses and organizations around the world.
Tell me about Forword Translations and what role you play in the company.
I am the founder and CEO of Forword Translations, Inc. which provides free and reduced-fee quality translations for nonprofit organizations and small businesses. We aim to stimulate growth in nonprofits by helping them expand their network of services to speakers of other languages. We also help small businesses attract more clients by translating their brochures, documents, menus, or lists of services so that they can reach a more diverse population.
What was your motivation for creating this company?
I noticed from working in the nonprofit field that organizations frequently deprioritized providing their services in other languages. Professional translation can be expensive, and to an executive board, just keeping the programs running seems more important and more cost-effective when working with a limited budget. I felt that an organization, by making a small investment in translation, could vastly increase the number of people benefitting from its services, while not actually adding any services. Essentially, translation gives a nonprofit’s services more bang for its buck. I wanted to make investment in translation a higher priority and more affordable.
How does your work and the role of a translator relate to the social good?
If you believe in the work of nonprofits, you believe in everyone who helps that nonprofit operate. That includes those who donate generously and those who volunteer their time, right down to the people who deliver the office supplies and brew the coffee. Our work contributes to the outreach side of these organizations, making their services accessible to more and more people. Translators by definition carry meaning from one world to another. This interconnectedness of worlds, this collaboration of ideas, is what nonprofits are all about. Therefore the work of a translator is not just catalytic, as Forword likes to think, but essential to the process. Maybe a small pet shelter or food bank can function without full language services, but where would disaster preparedness organizations be without translators? What about the Red Cross, which operates in nearly every country in the world? What about the UN?
What has been the impact of social media and increasing globalization on the role of translator, and how has your company responded?
Technology has made the translation industry possible to run without a physical office, much like, say, a web design company. Since all of our work is done via internet, we can employ translators from all over the world – whoever is best for the job. One of our Spanish translators has been able to live in two countries and three different U.S. states, while never skipping a beat at Forword. Social media have also expanded opportunities to reach people who need it most. Imagine that everyone living in a flood zone was reachable by Twitter – suddenly a 24-hour notice of a coming flood saves a lot more lives. Imagine if all of those reachable by Twitter now got the information in their native language! Our own Facebook and Twitter pages might not do very much to reach residents of the flood zone, but we can certainly help our clients provide better service by encouraging them to reach out through their pages. Because everyone can benefit from increased exposure, we often retweet important announcements from nonprofits and local businesses, whether or not they are our clients.
What do you find most challenging about your work? The most rewarding?
Finding that point where a for-profit business can charge a client as little as possible and pay the translators as much as possible, and still keep the lights on is extremely difficult. I am grateful for our patient translators who believe in the mission of our business more than the paycheck they receive. It is a major challenge to make our product affordable and our translators happy.
The most rewarding part is seeing the tangible results of our work. One of the first organizations to work with us was an HIV/AIDS service center in New York City. They wanted a page or two of their website translated into Spanish. I think the total cost was around $25. If you type “HIV/AIDS services NYC” into a search engine, our client doesn’t show up until the third or fourth page – about the fortieth result. Now, if you type the Spanish translation of that phrase into a search engine, they are the first result. Forword is removed from direct-service interaction, but it is rewarding to see that, however indirectly, we are helping people get access to services provided by the nonprofits we partner with.