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In the Director's Chair

2022 was a year of celebration for Wessex Translations, as we marked our 50th year of business. We were able to have a small party in August to celebrate with some close friends and colleagues from Wessex’s past and present. In the same week, Saskia and Ellen took the opportunity to sit down with Wessex’s three Directors and indulge in some reminiscing about the company’s long history and some of the Directors’ memories from over the years.

Paul, as our longest-standing Director, can you start by telling us how Wessex Translations began?

Paul: Well, let me see. It was 1980 or 1981 when I met the previous owners – Pat and Ken Doughty. They lived in the village next to mine. I didn’t know them personally, but I needed a translation and a friend told me there was a translation company in the next village. So I contacted Pat and Ken, got my letter translated, and became friends with them. They then introduced me to their assistant, Jill Field – Jonathan and Robin’s mother – who did French and German translations. When the Doughtys announced that they were going to retire to the Orkneys to concentrate on birdwatching, I thought that maybe I could buy the company! Not being a linguist, I could not do it alone, so Jill and I had to make a decision pretty quickly on whether we wanted to buy the company and become business partners. We got on very well and found that we shared similar moral and spiritual values, so we decided to make a go of it! That was in 1982, but the company had been started in 1972.

We started to expand quickly in order to become a more comprehensive service. We had good contacts from the Doughtys and the ITI, including for rarer languages. Jill and I made a decision at the beginning that we would provide all languages. That was important for us.

In the original husband-and-wife team, one was a linguist and the other was more of a business manager. I suppose it was similar with Jill and I, as Jill worked with French and German, whereas my background was in sales management and marketing.

Jonathan joined the team first in 1984, and then Robin came along in 1998, originally to help us with typesetting and technical support. Jonathan became a Director in 1988 and Robin in 2005.

Robin and Jonathan, what has it been like working together and growing the business as brothers?

Jonathan: I don’t think it has ever been an issue.

Robin: I agree, because we are different enough, and there is an age gap, we have a slightly different approach and angle on things. When I joined as a 25-year-old and Jonathan was a 35 year old–

Jonathan: 34 years old!

Robin: OK, 34! Jonathan and I didn’t actually know each other that well, as Jonathan had left home by the time I was seven. So I really got to know Jonathan here at Wessex! And if we had grown up together, maybe working together wouldn’t have been the success that it has been! I think if anything, it has been a positive thing.

Saskia: Am I correct in thinking that in its 50 years, Wessex Translations has remained within Hampshire and within a 7-mile radius?

Paul: Yes, that is correct! Over the years, we have wondered if we should relocate to the centre of Southampton, to move out of a small town. We have also considered whether “Wessex” was a good name.

Ellie: Because it is regional?

Paul: Yes, because it’s local and perhaps implies we are a small local-only company.

Robin: The name and being in a small town have always been considerations over the years. We have considered moving to the centre of Southampton, thinking that perhaps we should be in a city instead, but I think that, by the time we felt like it was seriously worth considering, the moment had passed. And with the internet it became less of an issue. Part of the issue with the name was to do with the A-Z of the yellow pages. Years ago, people would name their business something that would make them appear earlier in the yellow pages, for example ABC Translations. So we did think about perhaps calling it something else, but then with the arrival of the internet, it became unnecessary and so we have stuck with Wessex Translations.

So we could have changed our name, and we could have moved into a city, but in the end we didn’t, and I personally prefer where we have ended up because of it.

A difficult question, as I am sure there are too many to talk about here, but do you have any favourite memories or moments over the years? Any favourite projects?

Robin: We have been lucky enough to work on some really interesting projects over the years. One example I can think of is the translations we completed for the government of Sharjah.

Paul: Yes, that one was really fascinating! It was a late 18th, early 19th century French manuscript, mostly correspondence about trade with France, in which I remember several references to the “perfidious English”! One letter was actually signed by Napoleon's foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, a giant among diplomats in European history.

Robin: Also, when we translated all of the books and manuals for an entire ship! There were hundreds of books which arrived to us in a crate, and we had to translate instructions for everything from the navigation system to the dentist’s chair, from Dutch into English.

Another interesting one is when we completed a back translation from Latvian to English of Thomas the Tank Engine! This is because someone had complained to the publisher that they thought the Latvian translation (which wasn’t done by us), suggested something that it shouldn’t, something that wasn’t quite right. So they asked us to back translate it into English to find out exactly what the Latvian translation said. This was probably twenty-five years ago.

Jonathan: Although not a project – a favourite memory for me is simply that we have had some wonderful colleagues, I have enjoyed seeing them grow up, get married, have children. That’s very special to be a part of that. We do feel like a family.

Robin: Buying this office was a big moment for us. A big investment and step forward. We moved the office both physically and mentally into a more purposeful office space which was built specifically for us and gave us a future. We were previously on an industrial estate – there was nothing wrong with it as such, but we outgrew it. That’s something I remember feeling extremely proud of at the time.

Also, when the ITI awarded us with the Best Translation Company award for the first time. I remember feeling very proud of that, and that it was really something special.

Paul: It really was.

Advances in technology have no doubt been one of the biggest changes over the last 50 years for any business and any industry. So a question to all of you – what do you think are the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of technology for the language industry in particular?

Jonathan: The internet! When Wessex first began, Paul and my mum would have used an Adler typewriter followed by an IBM golfball typewriter. And then we worked with floppy disks – 9 inch floppy disks, and then 5 and a quarter inch floppy disks and then three and a half inch floppy disks – slowly seeing improvements in size and weight. And then all of a sudden with the internet you could access everything and it made a massive difference.

Paul: But actually before that, to me, even now, the biggest shock to our system was fax machines! Prior to that, everything was sent via post. So someone would ring up and you would know that you had at least 24 hours to place the work. And then faxes arrived and made everything almost instantaneous. Terms like “yesterday” and “24/7”, and “do it by this evening” just weren’t possible before the fax machine, because you always had this built-in postage or courier time.

Jonathan: We had Dave, our courier!

Paul: That’s right – Dave, our courier.

Robin: That’s what I was going to say – when I started, there was regularly a courier working. Of course, I started later than these two but even when I joined, Dave the courier was used on a weekly basis. In fact, although most of our translators are now in-country, if you look at our longest standing suppliers, they are local. And the reason is because prior to these technological advancements, we used to have to get the source and target texts physically from A to B. We would drive or courier the documents to our translators based in Romsey, Lyndhurst and Bournemouth, for example.

As Paul said, there never used to be exact deadlines of, for example, 3pm. It was always Tuesday, or Wednesday or Friday – but now deadlines have very specific times.

Somewhere between the fax machine and the internet as we know it now, came modems. These made a big difference to the way we worked. We no longer had to create a “camera-ready” copy, but a version ready to send via modem. This then meant that our team didn’t have to be local, or even national. We could start to build our global team! This really opened things up.

Jonathan: We used to work with a paper copy that had been typed up on a typewriter by the translator. If one of our revisers decided to change a word throughout, we had to go through and manually, physically edit the paper copy, cutting out and replacing words.

Paul: Yes - one of my main tools at the time was actually a scalpel! For example, to insert a picture into a translation, we would have to take a photocopy of the original document and physically, literally, cut it out and paste it into the translation.

Saskia and Ellen [in unison]: Literally “cut and paste”!!

Robin: Exactly. It was all much more hands-on, working with physical copies.

What do you think is the secret to Wessex’s longevity?

Jonathan: I think we are tenacious! From day one, and to this day. We never just say “no, thank you”.

Robin: I don’t think we have lost sight of the fact that we are a service company, and I think that is the key. Because that has always been the case, regardless of technology, language, who the client is, it is about understanding what the client wants and making sure they get it. And nine times out of ten we are dealing with people who are not linguists. So they have relied on our expertise and flexibility. I think this is where we have excelled. We work very hard to meet our clients’ requirements.

Paul: I think another thing that has helped with our longevity is the fact that we have always believed in total honesty. I remember once, this was over thirty years ago, we realised that we had made an error on an instruction manual for a piece of equipment which was being exported, so we stopped it at the docks. We were worried about what the client was going to do but actually – they thanked us. They were grateful that we realised and flagged it up, rather than letting them have a manual with an error in it.

Robin: We have never been afraid to stick our hand up and say if we have made a mistake. We don’t try and cover it up.

Jonathan: Also, our relationships with our translators are absolute gold. Lots of our long-term relationships have remained over the years. Catching up with some of our older contacts recently while preparing for our party has been just wonderful.

All three go on to fondly tell stories of their first meetings with our longest-standing translators – but we don’t have time to recount them all here!

Any hopes for the future?

Paul: There was a time when we all thought perhaps translation companies would have to pack up due to things like Google Translate, but it’s clear that there is the need for accurate translations with human involvement.

Robin: There are always going to be cheap or free translation services available, good or bad – they are available. That isn’t going to be our space. Our space will be where we can add value to a client’s business. They rely on us for that service. We would like Wessex to prosper. And by that we don’t mean necessarily increasing in turnover and profitability, but it means having an honourable and decent company, which will still be here in another 50 years’ time. Obviously we won’t be here in another 50 years’ time, but we hope that we can continue to give people the opportunity to grow with the company, in the same way we were given the opportunity. And that includes continuing to run internship programmes, and hiring people out of university, to give them the opportunity to grow with the business like we did.

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