Sorting out Babel of business is a business in itself

An immigrant to New York faces two traditional choices: become a taxi driver or become a translator, Yuri Radzievsky says with a chuckle. ''I failed my driving test, so I guess that's why I'm translating.''

Mr. Radzievsky, a Russian immigrant who was host of a TV talk show in the Soviet Union, is founder and president of Euramerica Translations Inc., a major translation service. He's done much better with the company in seven years than he would have careening around the streets of New York.

In fact, over the past few years the translation business as a whole has been thriving. For this it can thank a steady increase in US export of manufactured goods and the rapid growth in technology. With more exports comes the demand for advertising and promotion of these products overseas. And with rapid growth in technology comes the need to pool worldwide information in all languages.

The demand for translators may be as ancient as the tower of Babel, but growth within the business has surged recently. Over the past few years ''we have been growing at a rate of over 40 percent a year,'' Radzievsky says, ''and in the last six months of '81 we did as much business as in all of 1980.''

With a staff of 35 and a string of free-lancers a phone call away, the company grossed around $3 million in 1980. Not much compared with many other businesses, but in translation work, where mom and pop-type organizations abound , it is significant. Significant enough for a mighty advertising company, Ogilvy & Mather International Inc., to notice and buy Euramerica - which it did last year.

Two and a half years ago the company moved to Fifth Avenue. ''Six months after the move we outgrew our space,'' the Russian translator comments. Since then Euramerica has made a major effort to keep up with the volume of business. It installed word processing equipment and telecopiers for nationwide communication. It hired staff for a night shift. It acquired the camera and production equipment to handle ads, though printing is the responsibility of the client. It also has wide audiovisual capabilities.

''It's a matter of keeping sane in this business,'' Radzievsky says. ''It's so labor intensive . . . you can get flooded with orders at the last minute.''

The pace of the business can be a bit hair-raising, but it doesn't stop various translation services from matching the fast stride. Technical Translation International Ltd., a London-based concern with an in-house staff of about 80 and free-lance resources of 2,500, is trying its wings in the United States. It recognizes opportunity in the rise of US exports.

''The bulk of our clients are coming from manufacturers of finished products, '' explains Edward Taylor, president of Technical's New York branch, which opened in September. Specializing in technical translating, it gets quite a bit of business from US oil and transportation companies.

The language winning the most attention now is Arabic. The dollars generated by Arab oil producers attract US manufacturers who need translation work, Mr. Taylor explains.

But the European languages remain fundamental to the business. Surprisingly, Taylor has not seen an overwhelming demand for Chinese. ''I think the (US-China) trade fair was not as successful as some had hoped.''

The New York office is still tiny, with a permanent staff of two. ''However, we expect to add 10 to 15 in the next 12 months,'' Taylor says. He calls his company ''bullish.'' ''In the next few years we hope to open six or seven more offices in the US.''

The small staff necessarily relies on a large pool of free-lancers, and despite their size has managed to carry off some hefty contracts - one being for business has been phenomenal,'' Taylor exclaims.

Entry to the translation business is relatively easy, because ''there is no central institution'' that translates and no licensing says Robert Addis, president of AD-EX, a long-established industrial translating service in California's Silicon Valley.

The key to being successful, however, is getting native speakers of the language the concern is translating into as well as translators who are experts in technical fields, Mr. Addis points out.

Unlike most of the New York firms, AD-EX does most of its work translating research material from foreign languages into English. ''Our work is almost exclusively high-tech, involved in coal, nuclear power, and computers.'' Addis says business in promotional work is much less - but higher paying.

AD-EX and other well-equipped translation services often charge higher prices than free-lancers. They argue they can get the job done faster, handle a lot of work, and handle advertising makeup chores. ''We wait for clients who have gotten scorched'' by low bids and innacuracies ''to come to us,'' Addis says.

Still, the free-lancers are vital to the major services. In-house staff can't manage all the obscure languages, all the translation subjects, and all the volume. Ben Teague, president of the American Translators Association and a successful free-lancer himself, says: ''There is still competition between free-lancers and firms. I have relatively no overhead costs, so I can afford to charge less.'' Mr. Teague plans to buy a personal computer to speed up his translation work.

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