Linguistics in Translation Entrepreneurship (feat. Rocio Raña)
Alumni Aloud Episode 22
Rocio Raña earned her PhD in Linguistics from the Graduate Center. She runs Langalo, a translation business in New York City. She also works on different research projects, publishes, and continues to teach.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Rocio shares her time management tips and some advice for continuing research outside of academia.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie and I’m a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the Graduate Center. I work in our Office of Career Planning & Professional Development and I interviewed Dr. Rocio Raña who graduated with her PhD in Linguistics. She came in to talk about running her own translation business while simultaneously working on her own research projects.
…So let’s start from the beginning. What did you do here at the Graduate Center? What kind of research were you in?
ROCIO RAÑA, GUEST: So, I guess my first research assistant job here was in the field of Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism so I got involved with the Second Language Acquisition Lab. I worked on a few projects, but the one I worked on the most involved SIFE students, which are students with interrupted formal education. These are usually immigrants who moved to the U.S. not necessarily as young children—sometimes as young teenagers—and they go into our school system but they have gaps in their education. So when that project started, I started working on that project. And that involved a lot of research in the schools, but it also involved developing assessments, etc.
TURNER: And so then you graduated, and did that lead to the next job opportunity?
RAÑA: In part, yes.
RAÑA: So a few of the things I’m doing now I actually started doing when I was a student here. I always thought that I wanted to pursue a career outside of academia. So while I was studying I started a company—a translation business—with a friend from the program actually. So I cofounded it with her and she left after two years and that was 10 or 11 years ago. So I stayed, and I’m still doing that and the business has grown. So although I’m happy with that, I was doing translations before and I even had a translation business in another country before entering the program. I felt in continuing doing the same job that I wasn’t applying all the things that I had learned in this program that I had invested so much time and energy into… graduating, etc.—that I wanted to do something where I could apply the knowledge I had gained. So—and this is where I guess the new projects come in—because I’m doing the translation because that’s alive, it gives me money, and I have to live off something, so that’s ongoing and it will continue I’m sure, but going back to your question, that work as a research assistant in bilingual education led to a different project after I graduated, also within the GC.
So while I was doing my business I also applied for a grant with the Department of Education with the head of our program here. We applied for something together. And we got that, so for a year we were working on bilingual assessments together. So that went on and when that finished all of these experiences gave me a new idea, and I went back to my friend with whom I had originally cofounded my translation business. Throughout that year that I was working on that assessment project, she was telling me “Oh, I want to do something again. Do you want to do something together again?” But I was so busy with my business and family and this other project that I just didn’t have the time. So when that project ended, I called her and said “You know, now I have the time and I have an idea, what do you think?” So this is how it all started. So what we did was I told her my idea, she liked it, and we started talking about it more and developing the idea etc. And then finally we decided to apply for an NSF grant that is actually not for academia but for small businesses… SBIR… small business… I forget with the R is for, but really what they do is they give you money for start-ups.
So we worked for a whole year on that proposal and we submitted it last December. And although we didn’t get it, we got really good feedback. So it worked, in a way, a bit like peer-review publications. The project got reviewed by a panel of five people and they all gave us feedback. And the main thing was they really liked the idea and they thought it was something that was needed, but they were seeing faults here and there. So this year we started working on solving some of the issues and we are reapplying in December again.
TURNER: Do you want to tell us what this idea was so we have an idea of what you’re working on?
RAÑA: Yes, why not? Well, a lot of this idea comes from my experience here at the GC and my work after I graduated, working with bilingual students and assessments. But then it was also informed from my own experience as a parent of children who grow up in a home where a language other than English is spoken. I have two kids that are in the public school system right now and both of them—although they are very different—both of them went through similar situations where the issue was that they came into either a daycare or a school not knowing enough or any English. So usually what happens is that the teachers cannot communicate well with them. They don’t know what’s going. They get concerned that maybe there’s other issues. They don’t see the kids learning English as fast as they wish they would. And so they get concerned. And they talk to the parents, in this case me, because I come from a Linguistics background, I know it takes time to learn a second language—a year or two years, even three years. So I started thinking; I got somewhat worried, but not really. I kept saying, “I think they are fine. I don’t think we need to assess them. I think they are going to be okay. I think it’s going to take them a little more time.” But I started thinking, “What do other parents feel? Parents who don’t know or have the theoretical background in bilingual education or second language acquisition, etc.?”
And I actually talked to a few parents who speak a language other than English at home and all of them said they went through the same experience and they got really worried. And some of them were saying, “Yes, we got our kids assessed with a bilingual speech pathologist or bilingual teachers or etc.” and everything was fine most of the time. So that gave me the idea that the problem is that schools don’t have the resources to properly assess an incoming student who doesn’t speak English at home. So that gave me the idea that maybe we could develop an app that—I’m sure it’s not going to be perfect—but at least it would be a tool that the teachers and principal and educators can use to at least get a feeling of what a child comes with when they enter schooling and pre-k and k.
TURNER: Like a baseline?
RAÑA: Yes, like at least for them to know. Because of course their vocabulary in English, if they don’t speak English at home, is going to be very limited. Their capacity to understand what’s being told to them or even understand a story is going to be very limited or none at all. And if we can assess the size of their vocabulary in a language like Spanish, or how much they can understand a story in Spanish, or how much they can follow directions or even remember things… You know? We could with an app like that make sure that kind of thing.
TURNER: So this is the app that you’re writing grant proposals for?
TURNER: That’s wonderful. Okay. So this is your own research project that you’re continuing on even outside of academia?
RAÑA: Yes. And actually, although we’re trying to incorporate new ideas from academia, things that we read about or learn when we go to conferences—I still go to some conferences, I am trying to apply some of the latest research or even ideas—I was actually very surprised to see that nothing like this was out there. You know? And so what I find is that there’s a big disconnect between academia and the industry. Like, we have a lot of knowledge in academia and ideas that have been around for years and years that I taught to my students when I was teaching from books that were written five or ten years ago, and those ideas are still not applied in the industry. And when I say the industry, the industry could be any industry. Now it’s like the world of software development or technology is understanding how much they need linguistics—linguistics and linguistic knowledge—a lot of the things we were talking about a long time ago. And the same with—so when I say industry—that, but also publishing houses, education providers, it’s crazy, but yes. There’s a big disconnect. So what I’m thinking is it would be great if I could be some sort of bridge between academia and industry.
TURNER: And parents?
RAÑA: And parents, definitely.
TURNER: So how do you manage your time? Because it sounds like, and you told me you’ve also been adjuncting at Hunter, you’ve been adjuncting at CUNY. So how are you managing your time between family, multiple jobs, grant proposals, and running your business?
RAÑA: I mean, I have to be honest, I think I’m very energetic. So that’s a personal thing that maybe you have it or you don’t—so maybe that may or may not be transferable. But umm, there’s a few things. Because I get bored very easily, I like doing different things. It helps me not get bored. But I’ve learned a few skills. So one is to compartmentalize my time. So I don’t do everything at the same time. I don’t think it’s about multitasking. So multitasking is not my thing. I don’t apply it at all and I don’t recommend it. Because I think when you do a lot of things at the same time—which is what most people think I do—that’s not true.
So what I do is: when I’m at Hunter, I do Hunter work. When I’m outside of Hunter, I do zero for Hunter. So I’m there, let’s say right now, for example, I’m teaching two classes there and I have an hour in between. When I have that hour in between—well, sometimes I may go into Twitter or Facebook or something—but in general I don’t go anywhere. I don’t check my company’s email if I can avoid it. I just do Hunter work. Or at least I stop at that. Whatever it is, administrative or planning or grading. So all my Hunter work is done at my office in Hunter, and when I leave Hunter I forget about Hunter. And even the emails—I always tell my students that, and I learned this many years ago when I was a substitute lecturer at Queens and had 200 students in one semester, I don’t respond to emails that don’t require a response. You know, when someone says something like, “Oh, I’m gonna be late” or “Oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it” and they just want to tell me something; it doesn’t require a response; I don’t reply. Unless they are asking me a specific question, then I answer. So I do that for Hunter, and when I get to my office, which is my company’s office, which is where most of my time is spent—I get there in the morning and every day I do a to-do list. And something that I learned is that the more important things are done first, and the least important things are left for the afternoon when I’m tired. Every day I have a to-do list, and I feel very accomplished if I cross everything off. And if not, then that just goes to the next day, whatever. But I do that.
Then the other thing is that, in terms of compartmentalization, if I’m doing something extra, like, let’s say there’s a deadline coming for a grant proposal, then I create time for that. So I may be pushed for a month, doing something extra, and I’m working an extra hour every day. I may do it for a month or two, and then that’s done and I’m done. Then, for example, I may wake up earlier. So let’s say if I wake up at 7 every day, maybe for a month or two, I might wake up at 6 or even 5:30. And that hour is devoted to the grant. and then the rest of the day I forget about it.
And then the other thing I learned—and I think this is the last thing—is I learned that when you like doing many things like I do, it’s a good idea to have a partner and not do it by yourself. So my translation business, it’s just me. I have people who work with me, but it’s just me. But everything else I do, I have a partner. So for this app project, I have a partner—a friend—and for some of the research projects that I do, and even writing for journals, which is more related to what I did at the Graduate Center, I have a partner. And that helps in many ways.
One thing is that it helps me be less of a procrastinator. I don’t think I would have gotten anything published after my dissertation if I hadn’t partnered with this person. And I don’t think I would’ve gotten any grants if I hadn’t partnered with this other person… So it’s like I do it with somebody else, we have a common interest. We organized our time together. So, for example, with my app friend, since we’ve been doing this, we pretty much talk once a week. We say what we’ve been doing; we say what we’re doing for next week; and we try to accomplish it. I have a family, so the weekends are totally devoted to my kids and I barely check my phone if I can avoid it. I don’t check emails. I don’t bring work home ever. So that’s the time for that. Evenings a little bit, too.
TURNER: So that’s one of the secrets to managing multiple projects? Compartmentalizing?
TURNER: So let’s talk more about your translation business. We have a lot of bilingual students here who could probably use these kinds of skills. How is running your own business?
RAÑA: There’s ups and downs. So the good thing is you’re the owner of your own time and your own ideas and your own mistakes. If you make them, no one’s going to come to say, “What did you do?” Nobody’s going to fire you. That’s good. That’s part of why I like it. Sometimes I feel like I’m working so that everybody else makes money except for me. Because when you hire people, you have to pay [them], and at certain times I feel like all the money is gone. I pay everybody and nothing’s left. So it’s not the same level of security as when you have a salary and you know your salary is coming every two weeks or once a month or whatever the schedule is. It’s been my experience—because I was here for so long and because I was in the Linguistics department—I’ve actually worked with some of my former colleagues or students. And I still work with a lot of them. I hire them, because what I find is, if I put myself in the position of a student, I don’t know if we realize how much we have to give. And what I do know is even some of the students who are not experienced, for example, in translation, can do better translation than a lot of people who are professional translators. So most of the graduate students I’ve worked with in translation or interpretation…
TURNER: Do you think it’s a trend for graduate students to underestimate their skills in general?
RAÑA: Yes, it’s happened to me and it happens to everybody. And I don’t know why you do that…
TURNER: Probably because we’re insulated and we don’t always realize it.
RAÑA: Or maybe because we’re used to looking at things in detail. And that really helps in translation, especially in written translation—not necessarily oral interpretation—but written translation is a very detail-oriented job. You need to look at the details and see exactly what they meant and how you can best convey certain ideas. And we have the skills for that. So we are really bilingual. And yes… So what I did want to say is, anyone who’s interested in doing translations or language-related work, I would love to hear from you.
TURNER: Then we need to mention Langalo.
RAÑA: Yes, so Langalo is the name of my company. And if you want to visit us online our website is www.langalo.com.
TURNER: I found it through Google really quickly. It’s easy to find… So do you have any ongoing projects at your translation company that you’d like to talk about?
RAÑA: Yes, actually I have a somewhat big project going on right now. My company and I have been hired by the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to help them find fluent bilingual speakers in six languages that can assist voters on November 6 who are not fluent in English. So it’s not voters, but American citizens who are able to vote but don’t feel comfortable doing it because they might not be very fluent in English. But what they want to do is provide assistance to them.
TURNER: So you guys will be at the polls? That’s how this works?
RAÑA: Yes, exactly like that. So what we’re doing right now, or what my company is helping them do right now, is helping recruit bilingual speakers. We are helping them with recruitment, and assessing their bilingual skills to make sure they are actually fluent in both languages. And they are actually looking for people who are fluent in Russian and English, Yiddish and English, Haitian Creole and English, Polish and English, Italian and English, and Arabic and English. First of all, I think it’s a great opportunity for any college student, but also for graduate students because it’s a great project. It’s good to put on your resume. You’re going to be working in the elections; you’re going to be promoting voting, which is so important here. If you speak one of these languages, you’re a member of one of those communities; so this is a way to help your own community. So you’re helping your community; you’re getting people to vote; and it’s a good experience to put on your resume, and you’re getting paid.
TURNER: Is this one day?
RAÑA: Yes. It’s a day and a half, because there’s a training—paid training—they’ll have to attend, and then Election Day. It’s a long day, but it’s almost a one-day gig.
TURNER: That’s a fun project for a PhD.
RAÑA: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. No, honestly, it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun and I have to hire new people to help me so we have a small team.
TURNER: So the mayor’s office contracted Langelo?
RAÑA: Yes, the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
TURNER: Well, that’s a great project. I’m certain some of our students will be able to sign up for that. So is there any advice you’d give to current graduate students—maybe specifically for your Linguistics colleagues, or not—that students should be working on right now to help better prepare if they want to do their own research outside of academia? They might not be interested in pursuing an academic career, but they still want to continue those projects. You’ve already mentioned some ideas, like partnering…
RAÑA: Yes, definitely partnering with somebody, I would say. And yes, not necessarily related to Linguistics—whatever your project is. If you’re thinking about going outside of academia, I think you should spend a good amount of time thinking how you can connect whatever you do in terms of research here with an idea that can be applied somehow in the real world. And once you make that connection, it’s how do you make that happen? And there are different ways to make that happen. One way would be, well, you go to work for someone in the area, and you bring in your idea, and might get it to happen there. It could be independently—more the way I did it— you know, writing grants, etc. Something else I would say is that I don’t know that everybody who’s a student here has any experience outside of teaching. And although teaching is great, it’s mostly important if you’re going to pursue a career in academia. But if you’re not, I think it’s very important to find jobs in other parts of the academic environment.
TURNER: Expanding those skills?
RAÑA: Yes, like labs… any other jobs. Because all those skills that you learn when you work in a research project for a lab are going to come in handy when you go outside in the real world. A lot of people in my program, for example, go from research assistants to project managers. So all those skills you learn managing projects here transfer into the real world directly.
TURNER: So you are now writing grants on your own as well. How does a graduate student start practicing grant writing? Do you have any recommendations for that? Because I know this is something that’s really important in a lot of jobs after graduate school, and something that people will look for.
RAÑA: Yes. So I think maybe in a way something we mentioned before are those writing skills that we learn or at least practice in academia by writing papers and class papers or your dissertation proposal or the dissertation itself. All the writing… I think you have to keep it up. Because if you stop writing, those skills get rusty. So the more you can keep going, it helps you for any type of writing in the future. But definitely grant writing. And I would say the grant writing takes a lot of time, but it’s not as hard as we think it is once you get organized. It’s a lot like writing any other paper. The other thing was, the first time I wrote a grant or something similar to grant, was in connection to academia or my program here, although I had graduated already. And what helped me was the program made available previous grants that had been written, so I had an idea of what I could write or should write. So that helped me a lot to read successful grant proposals from other people. Grant proposals that had gotten money. And how they organized the proposal and that type of thing. So that really helped me. But I think more than that—more than reading previous grants—it’s your own writing skills and organizing what you want to say: making a structure, organizing what you have to say in a way that’s easy to read for someone else, and that’s the main thing. I think the main thing about grant writing isn’t the writing itself, but the idea for the grant. What you want to get the money for.
TURNER: Great. And so I was going to ask, where do you usually get your feedback from? Is that from your partners that you’re writing with? Or do you look to other sources or colleagues or outside colleagues?
RAÑA: I talk to everybody. And that’s another thing. Even to this day I talk to some of my former professors. I’ve kept all my school relationships intact as much as I can. I talk to different people. Not necessarily just for the writing itself, but for the ideas. “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” For example, for this app idea or grant writing, I talked to a friend who’s not from academia, but has worked with technology start-ups a lot. So I told her about my idea; she gave me feedback. And that was very useful, because she comes more from the industry. So she was able to give me very good advice. She was able to see, the other thing about the—it’s an advantage as I said a little while ago, but it’s also a disadvantage—is that because we are such detail-oriented people coming from academia, we have to have everything perfect. And she was trying to tell me, “It’s not the way we do things in the real world.” Like, this is too much.
TURNER: You’re reaching for perfectionism, yeah.
RAÑA: Yeah, and that’s not the way to go. So it’s good to talk to people from different industries or backgrounds. And always good to look for advice. So whatever the issue is, try to talk to someone in that area. And if there’s a different issue, talk to somebody different.
TURNER: So just really maintaining those relationships from graduate school is also super valuable. Do you have any advice for students who are about to enter the job market about job searching?
RAÑA: Yes, I would say this: So I think sometimes as new graduates we get desperate, like “I need a job, I need a job, I need a job, whatever it is.” And I don’t think that’s the way to go. I think you have to relax and take your time. It’s hard to relax and take your time, but…
TURNER: Or maybe if we just started it earlier, maybe while you’re finishing, you think?
TURNER: If you start the search earlier, then you won’t be as pressed when you graduate.
RAÑA: So take your time, whether it’s before or after your graduation to really think what it is you want to do.
TURNER: And visit our office.
RAÑA: Yes. And focus on looking for jobs that you want. Because looking for jobs is a job in itself. It takes up a lot of time. So if you overdo it or waste that time applying to jobs that you don’t really want to do, it’s completely fruitless—a waste of time. So really think about what you want to do and just focus on that—that goal—and you’ll get there.
TURNER: I think that’s great advice. I’m glad you shared it with us. So if that’s everything, I’m going to thank you for coming into our office today. It’s been really nice talking to you and I hope you have a great rest of the day!
RAÑA: You, too! Thank you for having me.
TURNER: Thanks again to Rocio for coming in and telling us about her work in translation and her research projects. If you want to learn more about careers after graduate school, you should check out our calendar of events. You can also sign up for career advisement and writing service appointments on our website at cuny.is/careerplan. And, for the most up-to-date announcements, follow us on Twitter @careerplangc. Thanks for listening!
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