Mariam Nayiny: Faithful to Translation

By Michael Schubert

Mariam Nayiny holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Geneva. She began her career as a journalist and was on assignment in New York at the time of the 1979 revolution in her native Iran. Her decision to remain in the U.S. prompted her career change. Mariam worked initially for the United Nations Development Program while freelancing as a translator of French and Farsi into English, then later as a translator, interpreter, and project manager for Berlitz Translations and other companies in New York and San Francisco before founding IDEM Translations, Inc. ( in 1983.

Explain the meaning of your company’s name.
MARIAM NAYINY: Idem is Latin and means “the same.” It is used routinely in French and I assumed it was common here as well, like the equivalent terms ditto or ibidem. Actually, the name creates curiosity about our company, so it’s not a bad thing. It signifies our striving to create translations that are replicas of the originals.

What motivations led to your company’s founding? Who were the founders and how large was your team?
My language combinations were not ideal to sustain me in the freelance world. The Farsi business died after the Iranian hostage crisis, and in French I was competing against so many others and did not have the technical language skills. Translation was what I knew best, and I did not want to be employed by others, so starting my own company was the logical conclusion. At the time, I was freelancing for Berlitz in San Francisco. I notified the director of my intentions so there would be no conflict of interest. She not only encouraged me but actually joined my new company and remained my partner for 17 years. We started with just the two of us, a typewriter and a home office – no outside financing.

How large is your staff today and how many freelancers do you work with?
We are still small, with an in-house staff of seven. We regularly work with 160 translators and have a database of 500 who are pre-qualified (resume, three references, and a test translation) and ready to be called upon if the volume exceeds our present capacity. Generally, we try to use our established team and introduce new, screened candidates gradually.

Were there strategic considerations for choosing the Bay Area?
No, quite honestly. San Francisco is where I was, so that’s where the company began. When I moved to Palo Alto in 1988, the company moved with me.

What was the business character of the region before the high-tech boom?
In San Francisco, we had both traditional and established clients, mostly in the financial sector. When we moved to Palo Alto, we shifted much more into high technology; even the legal and litigation work we did had a high-tech basis. Software localization already dominated the local industry by 1988.

In addition to your Palo Alto headquarters, IDEM has an office in Madrid. How is your European office distinguished from your U.S. headquarters?
We had a highly valued project manager in Palo Alto who returned to Madrid after two years here. We continued working with her there, eventually opening a production center. The Madrid office is beneficial for us not only for the human connections it gives us in Europe, but also for the time zone advantage as we work transatlantically, across two continents. However, all of our operations are still centralized in Palo Alto.

Tell us about the fields and language combinations that make up your core business.
We have accounts in the health care industry (biotech, pharmaceutical, medical devices) and the IT sector, and we have recently become the preferred vendor for some major retailers. 80 percent of our work is conducted in the EU languages, in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese for Latin America, and in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

And Farsi?
Farsi has become an “exotic language.”The volume of work we have in exotic languages is small and non-technical.

Which CAT tools do you use in-house?
Trados is our main tool. We have no problem with translators using other tools, as long as they are compatible.

Have clients responded favorably to the “My Account” section of your website?
Yes, and our regular clients are all on it. Some of them use it not only for up- and downloading, but as a repository for previous work. We keep the documentation online for at least two years. It is also a great place for our translators and editors. We can define scaled access levels for the various roles: clients see only the final documents, which they can approve; editors see only the files they need for their work. Automatic notifications are sent to us whenever there is activity. It behaves like an FTP site but is more intelligent. It maintains all the documentation with the proper references in the existing format, manages revisions, and protects the original versions against changes.

What is the most satisfying part of IDEM?
The thing that we are most proud of is that we give the same weight to both translators and clients. Our philosophy does not say that the client is the boss – the translator is equally important and gets the same respect. If one of the two has to give, it is not the translator. Most of us come from that background, so we have a respect for our colleagues.