Since establishing himself as a freelance translator over 40 years ago, Frederic Ibanez has been able to build one of the most important translation companies in Europe. Optilingua Group is the umbrella that covers the different brands that are distributed throughout the community territory, among them Alphatrad Spain.
The group, of French origin, is present in 12 markets and has more than 80 offices from which they offer any service related to translation, from texts of all kinds, to corrections, interpretation, transcriptions, voice dubbing or subtitles. To do this, it has its own staff of around 30 people and a network of close to 3,000 translators who work with them.
His extensive experience makes Frédéric Ibáñez one of the most authoritative voices to talk about the evolution of the translation sector and the way new technologies are leading it.
ENTREPRENEURS: How did you manage to make the leap from being self-employed to running your own multinational?
FRÉDÉRIC IBÁÑEZ: I decided to establish myself as a freelance translator after working for a while as a commercial agent and realizing that I did not want to work for third parties. In addition to French, I speak Spanish perfectly, given my paternal ancestry, Portuguese, Italian and English, so I started with these languages, doing the translations myself.
Later on it occurred to me that I could take advantage of a telex that I had at home -at that time there was still no internet or email- to connect with other agencies that worked with languages other than mine and subcontract their services. In this way, I was able to expand and diversify my offer without having to make a large outlay, in addition to reducing delivery times to one day instead of the usual 3 or 4 at that time. We were also pioneers in home delivery of translations. All this and the quality of our work were the keys to making a difference from the rest and for Optilingua to begin to take flight. The original office in Paris was followed by others in Strasbourg, Lyon… until, little by little, I expanded throughout France. From there, I considered internationalization.
EMP.: How was that process of internationalization?
F.I.: At the beginning it was I myself who was in charge of opening new markets. I started with Portugal because if you fail, it’s better to do it small, but it turned out well. The second was Spain, with Alphatrad Spain. Here what I did initially was hire a service call center so that they could manage the client’s orders. Two years later, we opened our own office in Madrid.
After ending the expansion through the Mediterranean-speaking countries, we went for the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon. As these are languages that I do not speak, in these cases we resorted to the services of native business professionals to implement Optilingua in their country. However, the brand was adopting different names depending on the territory because, sometimes, the name we wanted was already registered or was not well understood.
Also, although to a lesser extent, we have grown inorganically through small acquisitions of other agencies. Today, Optilingua Europe includes the brands of Alphatrad, which is the one that operates in Spain, Traducta and Viaverbia. We are present in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom with more than 80 centers in total and a network of freelance collaborators ranging between 2,000 and 3,000 translators, according to season. This would be, more or less, the equivalent of a hundred people working full time with us. In addition, we have our own staff made up of 30 people, the majority located in Portugal.
EMP.: And how do you manage a multicultural army of 3,000 freelancers?
F.I.: For years we have had our own software that is in charge of doing the match between what the client needs and the translators that best suit their needs. We don’t have any problems recruiting talent, translators register on the platform on their own initiative. The software also allows you to monitor the execution of projects, delivery times, payments…
EMP.: Are the factors that initially helped you stand out from the rest with Optilingua still valid?
F.I.: No, then there was everything to do. You would go to fairs or some international event and you would see the translations so poor that they were included in the brochures. The sector had to be professionalized and that was a great business opportunity. Regarding the strategies that I used, at the time they worked because no one did, but now, since Covid, everything is different, more complicated. Before, for example, salespeople were dedicated to looking for clients, visiting them, talking to them, preparing budgets…Now clients are provided to you by Google, salespeople write more than they speak and, with some exceptions, they manage everything via mobile phone or videoconference.
As for customers, they put price before quality. If they think they can get away with an internal translation, even if it’s not very good, they do it and they save.
EMP.: Does the current situation affect the sector?
EI: Clear. Industrial production and international trade have fallen sharply in recent years and we are noticing this. Last year we billed seven million euros, three less than in 2019, when the group closed with a billing of ten million. Now companies are looking to save.
EMP.: And now comes AI and automatic translation
F.I.: The first thing to clarify is that artificial intelligence (AI) does not translate anything. What the AI algorithms do is search for all the translated texts on the internet, analyze them, learn from them, compare and suggest to the user the one they think is most accurate after extracting statistical patterns, which does not prevent them from sometimes making interpretations. absurd. Consequently, the role of the translator continues to be the main one and the source of AI knowledge. This does not mean that things cannot radically change, more as their development progresses.
However, we have no choice but to embrace technology, as we have always done, and make it our ally. It is up to us to provide that differential role that machines do not provide. Despite its many advantages, AI is far from foolproof and still has limitations in the field of translation. In this sense, there is a key term that, in my opinion, will mark the future of translation professionals, which is the word post-editing. It is now up to the translators to do the fine work that machine translation does not, that is, review and polish the texts to ensure the level of quality and stylistic originality. Of course, this reduces labor and lowers costs because the intervention of a professional is no longer required in the entire process.
Also, while machine translation can be effective for more common languages like English, French, or Spanish, it still doesn’t work as well with other rare languages or dialects for which there is not yet a significant body on the internet.
EMP.: Come on, what’s left for Latin and Greek?
F.I.: Among many other languages, in addition to refining technical, financial, legal or medical content where a simple mistake can have serious consequences.
EMP.: What are the contents that are most translated at the moment?
F.I.: We do translations for everyone and with specialized professionals in each field. As for the type of texts we are working on the most at the moment, I would say that it is legal translation, precisely the easiest to be replaced by artificial intelligence in the future because it uses a highly structured language. To make up for it, we are getting away with the sworn translations required by the Immigration Law for migrants. They are not large amounts, but there are so many requests that in the end they have become an important part of our billing.
EMP.: At 68, have you thought about the succession process in the company?
F.I.: I am a very dynamic person, but now I only work in the mornings. It’s not that I still want to retire because I’m afraid I’d get bored, plus I like what I do, but I don’t feel like carrying the full weight of the company either. My children have been assuming management functions for a long time and making decisions, I would say that they are quite successful, but we will have to wait.
EMP.: Will a translation company continue to be a good business?
F.I.: At this moment the only thing that occurs to me is to answer that question with another question.