Found In Translation


When Rina Ne’eman tells people that she runs a Hebrew translation company, they mistakenly assume that she sits all day in a dusty library translating the Bible or that she works for the United Nations.

The truth, Ne’eman is quick to point out, makes for far more fascinating conversation. Since founding the Rina Ne’eman Hebrew Language Services in East Brunswick, N.J., 25 years ago, Ne’eman has handled thousands of translation projects dealing with high-profile lawsuits, clinical trials of Israel’s latest life science technology and even counterterrorism work. “We deal with hot, breaking news, difficult subject matter and specialized terminology,” she says. “We help American companies do business in Israel and vice versa,” she says.

Hebrew Language Services (HLS) is the only company in the United States that specializes in Hebrew translation, interpreting and typesetting. The company does work in Yiddish and Arabic, too, but its focus is primarily on Hebrew. As the work force globalizes, translation has become a $10 billion business, and Ne’eman hopes to increase her chunk of the pie. As the head of a private company, she won’t disclose her earnings but says that she now employs more than 100 translators worldwide who are translating millions of words each year.

Ne’eman, 46, attributes a large portion of that growth to the quality of the company’s work and the upsurge in trade between America and Israel.

But a lot of it has to do with her marketing savvy. She shows up to industry events and key networking conferences with creative goodies — from oversized mugs imprinted with the message “e-Brew” to magnets bearing creative messages (one features a toy gun with the words “your anti-terrorism experts”). She shies away from giving out free T-shirts and umbrellas, preferring desktop mirrors. “I want my logo to be in your face,” she says. Her motto? “Business is serious; marketing should be fun.”

To increase her visibility and enhance her brand, Ne’eman has launched a monthly e-newsletter delivered to more than 5,000 customers and contacts. She also has appeared several times on network TV as an interpreter for high-profile Israeli politicians such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Interpreting (which, unlike translation, refers to the spoken language and is often performed in real time) is a stress-filled job — “the slightest mistake can cause international incident,” she says. But Ne’eman takes to it naturally. During Ariel Sharon’s last state visit to the United States, she was called on to interpret for him. “My mother didn’t know what I was doing that day so she calls me up and says, ‘I saw Sharon on TV and your voice was coming out of his body,’” Ne’eman says. (Sharon, she says, was extremely personable and had a real magnetism about him. “He was very easy to interpret for,” she says. “He speaks like a general, slowly and clearly, and there’s not a lot of subtext to what he had to say. [Former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, with his biblical references, would have been more difficult”).

A significant portion of the company’s work comes from more than 500 translation companies who outsource their Hebrew translation projects to HLS. Most of the projects involve pharmaceutical patent litigations, clinical trials and medical devices and technical and scientific translations. “Translation is about focusing on meaning, intent, on how the message is going to be received by the target audience,” she says. “It’s not a question of simply finding words in the dictionary and exchanging them.”

HLS retains dozens of freelancers who are subject-area specialists. Most are English-speaking immigrants living in Israel. “It’s gratifying for me to provide employment for so many Israelis,” she says. Plus, the arrangement helps her leverage the seven-hour time difference to complete projects overnight, when Israelis are up and about and Americans are still sleeping. “A client will come to us at the end of the business day and need the documents translated by first thing the next morning,” she says. Because the company works around the clock, Ne’eman does, too. She wakes up in the wee hours of the morning and works straight until 8 or 9 p.m. “I joke that I work three shifts, the Israeli workday, the East Coast and the West Coast,” she says.

Not only do clients come from the most unlikely places — including Stockholm, Milan, Kansas and Ohio — but the nature of the work varies from day to day.

Ne’eman, who is active in the American Translators Association and the Association of Language Companies, recently translated a family-history-type book for Steven Spielberg from Hebrew to English, and has translated a series of speeches delivered by the pope into Hebrew. Collectors often call on her to translate historical documents, including personal letters from David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weitzman and Moshe Dayan.

Not every project is nearly as serious. Ne’eman has translated product copy for a well-known lingerie manufacturer. She’s also worked on Hebrew packaging for Coca-Cola, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s. She named all of the Jelly Belly’s jellybean flavors in Hebrew (root beer and cream soda were among the more challenging ones). She’s even been approached to translate tattoos into Hebrew. (“To non-Jews, Hebrew is as exotic as Chinese,” she says.)

For an accurate translation, just being well versed in two languages isn’t enough, she says.

“You have to be immersed in both cultures,” says Ne’eman, who was schooled in both Israel and America and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army before returning to the United States. Translation software and free Web translators are hardly competition, she says. “Translation software is good for translating a letter from Aunt Esther in Haifa, but that’s about it. It’s so inaccurate, so unreliable.”

To test her theory, I logged onto, typed in the previous sentence, and had it translated to Spanish (Hebrew wasn’t an option). Then I pasted the Spanish and had it translated back into English. The result? “Software of translation is good to translate a letter of the Aunt Esther in Haifa, but that they are about it. Is so inexact, so informal.” Point proven.