Northwest Interpreters Inc.: Talk globally, interpret locally

Family develops Vancouver company into international firm that provides interpretation and translation in 175 languages

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter



Northwest Interpreters Inc.

• What: A full-service agency specializing in locating qualified language interpreters and translators to serve a broad range of clients, including businesses, health care facilities, law offices, government agencies and educational organizations.

Where: 203 S.E. Park Plaza Drive, Suite 190, Vancouver.

Owners: Elena Lawler, Vic Marcus, Karina Marcus.

Employees: 12.

Elena Lawler arrived in Vancouver in 1991, accompanied by her 9-year-old son and her dream of a better life.

Like many Russian-speaking immigrants, Lawler carried few belongings from her former home behind the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Lawler possessed something better than material items. She brought with her an education and bilingual skills that were well-honed from 17 years as an English professor in Kazakhstan.

Those attributes gave Lawler’s dream a chance to grow.

“I had a dream since I was in the fifth grade that I wanted to be an interpreter, traveling the world and helping people,” said Lawler, now 60.

Years later, her children would share the dream as co-owners of Vancouver-based Northwest Interpreters Inc., a small business founded by Lawler in 1992 to provide language interpretation and translation services. Today, the company is an international firm providing services in 175 different languages as part of an industry expected to continue growing as the economy becomes more globalized.

Lawler’s son, Vic Marcus, 31, is now Northwest Interpreters’ vice president of business development. Her daughter, Karina Marcus -- who came to the U.S. in 1995 -- rounds out the family leadership. The 26-year-old oversees the recruitment and scheduling of nearly 1,000 interpreters throughout the United States and about 100 translators -- individuals who decipher the meaning of the written word -- from all over the world.

The company was founded on Lawler’s hard work and a bit of luck. Her arrival in Vancouver coincided with the opening of a floodgate that poured a steady stream of Soviet émigrés to

the West Coast after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. It is estimated about 11,000 Russians and Ukrainians settled in Clark County between 1990 and 2002.

Huge need

Lawler started her business because “I saw a huge need,” she said. Certainly, the state needed help in working with the flood of non-English speaking newcomers. “Most of our work was with DSHS (the Department of Social Health Services) in the beginning,” Lawler recalled.

She realized early on that her son and daughter had an aptitude for helping run the business. The children, having grown up observing the free enterprise system, also understood business better than Lawler herself did, she said.

“I came from a different social system where everything was ruled by the government,” she said.

By the age of 14, Vic Marcus was already installing billing software on her office computer.

Both children officially joined the business in 2003 while attending college, where both majored in business.

“They really moved the company to the next level with their knowledge,” Lawler said.

The timing could not have been better, coinciding with a huge contract that Northwest Interpreters Inc. landed to provide all of the in-person interpreting services for the Central Washington region of DSHS.

Northwest Interpreters ramped up for the job in a matter of days, bringing on about 100 certified interpreters.

Certification must be done through the state, a written and oral exam that verifies that an interpreter can decipher conversations between individuals and state agencies or health care and court systems.

“Being certified is different than just being bilingual,” Vic Marcus explained.

From 2003 to 2009, Northwest Interpreters continued to gain contracts from the state social services department, including an agreement to provide services in Southwest Washington.

“Our sales doubled each year until 2009,” said Marcus, who declined to provide sales figures because of the competitive nature of the industry.

Sales dropped in 2010, as state funding dwindled. Since then, the company has made up for lost sales by attracting new clients, such as health care providers required to provide interpreting services to non-English-speaking patients with government-sponsored health insurance.

“That’s one of the lessons we learned,” Marcus said. “Don’t concentrate all of your business on one area.”

Business growth

Marcus expects the demand for Northwest Interpreters’ services to grow as greater numbers of companies enter the global business community. The company employs 12 people, including its three family owners.

Interpreters and translators work on a freelance basis. Their schedules are plugged into Northwest Interpreters’ sophisticated software system so that the company’s call-center employees can take client calls and then re-route the caller to the language interpreter on the other end of the line.

The company recently invested about $200,000 on a phone and software system that tracks client billing and scheduling. Clients are charged by the hour for in-person interpretation services and billed per minute for telephone services.

“We use a lot of technology in our business,” said Marcus, who has also earned a two-year associate degree in computer technology.

However, he does not foresee a day when computer programs such has Google Translate and iTranslate will take market share from companies such as Northwest Interpreters.

“It must be done concept to concept,” Marcus said, adding that relying on technology adds risk in an industry that provides interpreting services for critical conversations, dealing with the health and livelihood of individuals. It’s a skill not easily pre-empted by computer technology, said Elena Lawler.

“With interpreting, you have to do it all the time because you have to polish your skills,” she said.

Now that her children are helping lead the company that she founded decades ago, Lawler is considering taking some long-overdue vacation time. While she always encouraged her children to follow their own dreams while they pursued education, she now realizes that their dream was to lead the family business.

It reminds her of her own ambition and drive, of how hard she worked to make the business succeed.

“I personally believe that everything is doable,” Lawler said. “That’s pretty much how I raised my kids.”