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Love of languages translates into booming global business

May. 23, 2000

By ERIN ALLDAY
Press Democrat Staff Writer

Erin Allday can be reached at eallday@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5494.

Steve Vitek has read thousands of patents full of arcane language, but he met his match with seaweed.

As a professional translator, it isn't often that he runs across a word in Japanese that he doesn't know. Then came the patent for a disease-resistant fish food made of seaweed.

"That was fun, because they had all these names of seaweed that I'd never heard of before," Vitek said, genuinely excited as he searched through his files for a copy of the patent. "That's the interesting part about this job, I get to know many interesting things I wouldn't know otherwise."

For 13 years, Vitek has run PatentTranslators.com (formerly JATCO), which stands for Japanese and American Translators Cooperative. He translates mostly patents and other technical documents, usually from Japanese into English, though he can also read Czech, French, German, Polish and Russian.

He started PatentTranslators.com (formerly JATCO) in 1987 in San Francisco, mostly serving customers in the Bay Area. He relied on the postal service and fax machines to send and receive documents and old-fashioned networking to build his business.

But in 1990, Vitek and his wife decided they wanted to raise their two sons outside of the city, so they moved first to Petaluma, and later to Santa Rosa.

Now, with the Internet, he has turned his one-man operation into a global company, working out of his home to translate documents for people all over the world.

"There is much more work now that I'm on the Internet," Vitek said. "It is very important for translators. It makes our lives so much easier. And it kind of levels the playing field. A big company has the same opportunities on the Internet as I do."

Vitek translates anywhere from four documents in a week to one in two weeks, depending on how complicated the assignment is. A box of legal documents can take him months to read in his spare time.

Vitek charges by the word for an exact translation, and by the hour to summarize a document. The business is strong, Vitek said -- he never has a slow period and brings in about $100,000 a year.

His passion for languages started when he was a child. Born in the Czech Republic, Vitek learned his native language first, then picked up French, English, Polish and Russian.

His Japanese training didn't come until he was in the Czech army. A friend knew Vitek liked studying languages, and mentioned that he had heard Japanese was the hardest to learn.

"I couldn't resist the challenge," Vitek said, laughing.

By the time Vitek left the army and went to college in Prague, he had decided to study Japanese full-time. When he graduated, in 1980, Vitek left for a "vacation" to Yugoslavia, and never returned to his communist homeland.

Vitek lived for about a year in Germany, then immigrated to San Francisco in 1983, where he was a part-time interpreter and worked at the visitors bureau.

Interpreting, he said, was too stressful -- he didn't like being put on the spot. So he turned to translating instead.

Japanese translation makes up about 80 percent of his business. Vitek said he has lost a lot of business with Japanese customers -- including government contracts -- because of the declining economy there.

But the Internet has picked up his business by making it easier for him to contact clients all over the world. Most of his customers still come from the Bay Area.

Vitek's competition comes from translators all over the United States, from independent people like himself to larger companies that contract their work to individuals.

Some companies also try using computer programs to translate documents. But one of Vitek's regular customers, a law firm in San Francisco called Limbach & Limbach, has found that those translations often don't work out.

"It's sometimes comical what comes back," said Randy Troxel, a legal specialist from Limbach & Limbach who has worked with Vitek many times. "Steve is very conscientious. I don't speak or read any of the languages he translates from, but we have never had a complaint."

Vitek said he isn't allowed to talk about many of his translation projects, especially the legal documents. He has several file cabinets filled with documents that he can't share with anyone.

About 70 percent of his business is in patents, and the rest is in translating other technical documents, such as medical studies or papers for Silicon Valley firms. But Vitek occasionally works with documents outside the high-tech world.

Last month, he translated a prenuptial agreement between an English-speaking man and his Japanese wife. He used to translate the text of Japanese video games, but they used too much colloquial Japanese, which is difficult for someone who isn't living in Japan to master.

Vitek sometimes relies on his wife, who is Japanese, to help translate words that only a native could understand. Or he turns to his collection of more than 100 dictionaries in about a dozen different languages. But the Internet has become his most useful translation tool. If he can't figure out what a word means, he simply looks it up.

Vitek said it doesn't look like he has passed his love of languages to anyone else in the family. His wife speaks only Japanese and some English. Their two boys, ages 9 and 10, speak only English.

"The dogs are trilingual," he said, noting that they obey commands in English, Japanese and Czech. "Ever since I was a kid I was learning different languages. But my kids only know English. The one thing now is they get the Pokeman cards, and sometimes they need me to translate."

 

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