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Winning the War of Words (Part 2)

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John Freivalds In my previous article on U.S. defense spending on language, Winning the War of Words, I pointed out the need for the U.S. government to utilize the talents that the translation and localization industry has. However, in selecting language resources to fight the war on terror, it has relied on defense contractors to handle language issues, with little consideration of their qualifications in the industry. One firm, Titan Corporation, which did no translation three years ago, is in line for a contract worth US$ 1.5 billion to be awarded in July 2004.

Editor’s Note: The source for all numbers and the information on the allegations referencing Titan is As Titan Mutates to Meet Needs of Pentagon, Risks Become Clear, written by Jonathan Karp and published by the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) on June 28, 2004.

Many translation and localization companies have marched to Washington, D.C. to try and win business, but with the exception of Language Weaver (In-Q-Tel, Inc., a private investment company funded by the CIA, has an investment in Language Weaver), Berlitz and Systran, they have been largely unsuccessful. People from the FBI, NSC and other U.S. government agencies have spoken at LISA and other localization conferences, encouraging the translation and localization industries to get involved. However, before you spend any more money on visits to Washington, D.C., carefully consider what you will likely have to do in order to win the business, i.e., hire lobbyists, register with multiple agencies, hire ex-Department of Defense people to run your Washington office, and so forth (for a goldmine of information on how to do exactly this, please refer to the September 23, 2003 issue of the Globalization Insider). Having done all of that, though, there is still no guarantee that you will win any business, given the culture of government contracting.

You qualify for U.S. government work based not on competence, but on previous defense contracts.

Recent accusations leveled against Titan Corporation, now one of the largest language firms in the U.S., if not the world (2003 billings of US$ 112 million, making it the company’s largest single contract last year, and US$ 588 million over the life of the contract so far), make it clear that you qualify for U.S. government work based not on competence, but on previous defense contracts. It has also come to light that translators and interpreters who were hired and/or subcontracted by Titan may have been involved in torturing Iraqi prisoners (in our industry, we usually deal with tortuous documentation, not with translators who have become torturers). The firm has also been accused of bribery to win overseas contracts. Titan had hoped to be acquired by a larger defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, but due to these and other pending scandals, Lockheed called off the merger at the end of June. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has also begun an inquiry into stock fraud. The translation business has not had a good scandal since Lernout & Hauspie’s demise, but this comes close.

How Titan Did It

Three years ago, Titan had nothing to do with the translation business, but today is the biggest language services contractor to the U.S. government.

The business model used by most companies is based on similar work they have done in their particular line of business. When LISA members bid on a job, for example, they list what they have done previously for similar projects to prove their “core competency.” Not so in the defense subcontracting business. Defense subcontractors win jobs because they have worked in defense contracting before and have been registered with numerous branches of the U.S. government; in other words, that is their core competency.

LISA members usually list the types of software they use to gain business. Again, not in the defense subcontracting business. As Titan notes on its home page, “Our customers benefit from Titan’s variety of government wide contract vehicles that are in place and ready to use by most government agencies” (including among others, according to its website, CECOM, DESP, EITC, ETSS, HITS, IT, ITSP, JT&E, LOGWORLD, CIO-SP2I, DIESCON, GSA, FABS, HQ USAF AF/XOR, IT and Millennia Lite).

Technical qualifications and business expertise are useless for landing a Pentagon contract.

Two other things have helped Titan. First, it has 8,700 employees with the all-important Federal Security Clearance. Second, the U.S. House Chairman of the Armed Services Committee represents the district where Titan is located in San Diego, and Titan has been a major contributor to his reelection campaigns.

As you can see, technical qualifications and business expertise are useless for landing a Pentagon contract. Don’t believe me? Look at what Titan did before it became the biggest language services contractor to the U.S. government:

Early 1990’s “Star Wars missile systems”
Mid- to late 1990’s Satellite phone services, pay TV encryption, food irradiation, new technology incubator
Early 2000’s Military IT services
Today Translation services

Titan Incarnations (Source: Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2004)

Titan Chairman and CEO, Gene Ray, makes no apology for this checkered history, stating, “As markets change, we go where the market goes.” According to this logic, Rory Cowan, Chairman of Lionbridge, should lead Lionbridge into the used car business, or any other moneymaking business, whenever a downturn in the language business occurs.

Three years ago, Titan had nothing to do with the translation business, but today employs 4,400 “linguists,” deployed globally with the U.S. Army. Translation work generated US$ 112 million, or 6%, of Titan’s overall revenues for 2003. The Pentagon was desperate for translators and interpreters after September 11, 2001, and since Titan spoke “Defense Departmentese,” it gave it the task of recruiting translators. When the Pentagon first started looking for this type of personnel, it asked the U.S. Army for 500 Arabic translators for Iraq, and was told that only 4 were immediately available! Titan scoured its databases and relied on subcontractors in an effort to fill this huge need. It offered anything from US$ 84,000 to US$ 107,500, including family medical benefits, oftentimes regardless of previous employment history. We don’t know what Titan charged the government.

Can you imagine any LISA Member hiring an under-qualified translator simply because the translator looked “young and robust?”

According to the Wall Street Journal on June 28, “Korkis Toma, a former Iraqi high school teacher living outside Detroit, got a translator job after passing a test that Titan gave, and was sent to Kuwait before the war. He says his group included a number of translator recruits he considered unqualified, including one with a fourth-grade education, who was assigned to the Marines because he was ‘young and robust.’” Can you imagine any LISA Member hiring an under-qualified translator simply because the translator looked “young and robust?”

In its defense, Titan says it rejected about 90% of its applicants. On the other hand, all LISA Members promote their interpretation services on the commercial marketplace, have a good track record in serving commercial customers, and would presumably not have to beat the bushes for qualified translators/interpreters. However, none of them received calls from the Pentagon (please send me an email if I am wrong).

The job descriptions issued by Titan (to view these, click here and then click Careers > Job Openings > Keyword = Linguist) require that Arab linguists be able to “provide operational linguistic support to reconstruction efforts in Iraq.” They must “provide general linguistic support for military operations and interpret during interviews, meetings and conferences.” They must “interpret and translate written and spoken communications… they are required to work 12-hour shifts and must be willing and capable to live and work in a harsh environment.”

A couple of translators may have done more than translate since they have been implicated (though not indicted) in the Abu Gharib prison scandal.

It turns out that a couple of translators may have done more than translate since they have been implicated (though not indicted) in the Abu Gharib prison scandal. Titan has since reduced the billing for the work of these translators to the Pentagon by US$ 178,000. In addition, the Pentagon believes that Titan may have overcharged for other translators, so the company has also agreed to reduce its bill by an additional US$ 937,000. The language contract is up for renewal this month and is estimated to be worth some US$ 1.5 billion.

Any Prospects for the Translation and Localization Industries?

The real focus should fall on the U.S. government contracting process.

So, is there any hope for traditional firms in our industry to gain a substantial government contract? No, states a well-known executive with a localization software firm: “In spite of the U.S. government’s efforts to solve its translation problems, it is still bogged down with old processes, old affiliations and old technology.”

The defense contracting business is so unique and “wired” that it is very difficult for commercial sector companies to break in. What good would it be for Titan to work with an existing language services provider to help it land a huge contract, when from nothing it has grown to be the largest language services provider to the U.S. government and is in line to win a US$ 1.5 billion contract? It is nice for LISA to invite government speakers who need language services to speak at conferences, but given what Titan has accomplished with no qualifications other than being a defense contractor, it would seem our time would be better spent elsewhere.

It is hard to blame Titan for this state of affairs. It has been given a chance to make lots of money with spurious qualifications in the translation industry. The real focus should fall on the U.S. government contracting process. The U.S. is at war and you would think its government would want the best and most experienced companies providing language translations…

John Freivalds is Managing Director of JFA and publisher of The Periodic Tables (Languages, Money, First Class and Toasts). He is also the author of Money Talks, the popular column that appears quarterly in the Globalization Insider. Freivalds can be reached at


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
15 July 2004, Volume XIII, Issue 3.1.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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