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From Language Learner to Industry Leader: Pavel Skřivánek’s Translation Empire

From Language Learner to Industry Leader: Pavel Skřivánek’s Translation Empire

“I used to learn foreign languages by practice, now I learn through conversation and it’s much faster,” says Pavel Skřivánek, owner of the Skrivanek Holding language agency. 

At first Pavel Skřivánek had a great deal of trouble learning languages, however, with time he went on to pass state exams in four foreign languages and shortly after the Velvet Revolution started his own translation and interpretation company. Skrivanek Holding, which has branches in 15 countries including the USA, today ranks among the 50 largest language agencies in the world according to the research company CSA Research. And despite the advent of online machine translators, the company continues to grow thanks to the new services and technologies it offers.

For example, the new multimedia division took a 10 percent share of the Company’s nearly $600 million revenue in just one year. This division focuses on translating video games, subtitles for the Netflix and Disney+ movie platforms and creating voice-overs, i.e., a spoken commentary for a video. “Thanks to artificial intelligence, we are already able to create a voice that’s indistinguishable from a living human being at minimal cost,” says Skřivánek, owner of the holding, who also translates and interprets for the UN and the European Commission. In the interview he also talks about how artificial intelligence affects translation, why Czechs lag behind in language skills within the European Union, and how best to learn a foreign language.

What inspired you to study foreign languages? Have you been pushed in that direction since early childhood?

I was born in the town of Vyškov near Brno and, even before the Revolution, Austrian television broadcasting was available for viewing there. I wanted to understand it. Another reason why I started learning German was that we had an aunt, or rather my mother’s god-daughter, in Vienna, and there was an opportunity to visit her. She was a marginalised German woman and I wanted to be able to understand her. My brother and I attended German classes from a professor who, for political reasons, was not allowed to teach and worked as a gatekeeper while secretly giving German lessons. I was disastrously bad at it at first, especially the grammar. But I ended up translating for others in Vienna, so I somehow managed to pick up interpreting skills.

How many languages do you speak today?

Russian was forced down our throats in high school. I was supposed to go to college in the Soviet Union, but in the end I ended up studying Foreign Trade at the Prague University of Economics and Business, where I also took on French and English and attained a degree in all four of these languages. I am currently learning Spanish.

What made you start a language agency?

After university I took a job in Foreign Trade. I was meant to take charge of a textile store, but they instead loaded an old Ford full of air rifles and told me and a colleague to go sell them in eastern Slovakia. I understood that this was not the job for me, moreover because I had to pay 1,300 crowns rent for my studio apartment on the low salary of 4,500 crowns, which was 3,500 crowns net. So I was barely getting by and, to top it off, was commuting about an hour and a half to and from work. Therefore, I applied to an agency as a translator. I was paid about a hundred per page, which was quite good by the standards of the time, and I also took on interpreting. But then they stopped paying. It dawned on me that I couldn’t solely depend on working for an agency. That is why, in 1992, I decided to start my own company, or rather a trade at first. I posted an ad in the Czech Golden Pages that cost about 100 thousand crowns. I didn’t have that kind of money at the time, but payment was only required after publication of the ad, so I took a chance. I told myself that enough orders would come in and that I would use them to pay for it. And it worked out. Then I put an ad in the newspaper and more and more orders started coming in. At that moment it became clear to me that translation really had potential.

Pavel Skrivanek

You also sold your apartment to keep your company afloat. What made you decide to do this?

The bank didn’t want to give me a developmental loan and I didn’t want to borrow from my parents. That’s why I sold an apartment in Prague‑Butovice for less than 900 thousand crowns. With this money I created five branches in the Czech Republic. All were profitable within a few months.

How long did you continue translating thereafter?

Many years in fact, and I still help out on occasion.

You have gradually added other services such as interpreting services, a language school and proofreading. What share of the company’s revenue do they have today?

We started with interpreting right from the very beginning and opened our language school around 1998. At first I avoided opening a language school because it is a segment with low profitability, which is still true today. It currently generates about a quarter of our sales in the Czech Republic, and we only provide education in some of the international countries where we are present. Translations still make up the largest part of our sales.

Last year you celebrated 30 years since the establishment of the agency. Did you experience any crisis during that time where you thought you were going to call it quits?

The biggest one came in 2009 during the financial crisis, when clients even began cancelling contracts that had already been signed. Within a year our sales had fallen by half. Therefore, I sold the company-owned house and reinvested the money into further development of the company. But I never considered quitting.

Online translators appeared years ago but have recently rapidly improved thanks to artificial intelligence, making communication in foreign languages much easier. Nevertheless, according to consulting firm Nimdzi, the market for translation and other language services is expected to continue to rapidly expand in the coming years, growing by more than a third by 2027. Do you think it is realistic to say that advanced online translators are used on a standard basis in everyday life?

It is. On the one hand there are plenty of online translators that work with major languages, but there are over 6,000 languages in the world, so you won’t find many minor languages in online translators. Another factor is that people throughout the world are communicating with each other ever more. Of course, simpler translations are and will be done with the help of new technologies, but translations also need an understanding of context, irony or various nuances, for example, and a machine cannot do that. Human intuition and understanding of context are key to a quality translation. Moreover, in various areas of the translation industry such as literature or marketing, human interaction and sensitivity to cultural differences are essential. Therefore, linguists will always be needed.

How does the advent of machine translation affect the market? Does having skilled software developers make it easier for a company to break into the language services market?

It is still very difficult for a newcomer to break into the language services market, even with new software options, as the market is oversaturated. Developers are moreover very expensive, so it would require a wagon-load of money for newcomers to penetrate the market.

How does the emergence of new technologies around artificial intelligence affect your work?

We started using artificial intelligence even before this year’s ‘boom’. We use our own machine translation software and Text‑To‑Speech and Speech‑To‑Text technologies, which assist translators in their work. Artificial intelligence also helps us create text summaries, improve interpretation and increase processing efficiency. The proliferation of artificial intelligence in our industry correlates with increasing demands for speed. With the help of these tools we are able to quickly translate millions of pages, which would otherwise be practically impossible from an organisational and logistical point of view. Machine translation can significantly speed up work, especially if you need to translate a large amount of text or documents into several different languages. Translations are generated almost immediately, so we quickly get a working version of the text. Subsequently, an experienced post-editor comes in, who checks the chosen terminology in the generated text and makes their stylistic adjustments. But the quality of machine translation depends on the specific system and type of text. For technical or scientific texts, this technology can be a very useful and fast helper, but for literary texts, for example, a human translator is still necessary.

Can such automatic translation technology also be used in interpreting?

For online interpreting we offer an assistance service that organises video conferences, but a machine cannot yet automatically interpret in real time.

How will AI change your services in the future?

The pace continues to accelerate. Artificial intelligence has recently been offered as part of language teaching, and we are also waiting for its implementation in the recognition of written text or in connection with the automation of processing forms, with which we are burdened by state administration and other institutions.

What languages are most in demand today?

English is still the most common language in our language courses. It is necessary for many positions, and in most companies knowledge of English at a communicative level is a standard requirement. More often than not, however, these courses are already professionally oriented or based on conversation in some way or form. The next most widespread language is Spanish, which primarily has its supporters among the younger generation. They often start with it at school, and many of them apply it in their later working life as well. Unfortunately German now finds itself becoming a less popular language today. However, given that it is our close neighbour, it still has a lot of potential. In addition, the vast majority of German-speaking Czechs belong to the older generation, and there is a need to gradually replace these people on the labour market. The younger generation is not inclined towards German because it has a reputation for being a difficult language to learn, mainly due to grammar. Rather than German, our students also choose other European languages such as French or Italian. There is also a growing demand for Nordic languages, Japanese and Chinese.

Pavel Skrivanek

Interest in Chinese has grown in recent years, but there are now geopolitical tensions between the West and China. Europe is seeking to reduce its dependence on trade with China and move towards doing business with India or Vietnam. Do you foresee any impact on language teaching?

It would be logical for interest in Chinese languages to decline. But if there is going to be a shift of factories from China to Vietnam or India and other countries in the region, it will still be necessary to deal with the Chinese. With economic shifts like this, translations are still in demand, so I don’t think anything out-of-the-ordinary will happen in the near future.

Although I would like to expand into Vietnam. I still need to discuss this with our management, which now wants to focus on expanding the scope of our services within the Holding rather than on expansion.

You used to have a branch in China, but according to your annual report, you no longer have it. Why did you exit this market?

We have not ended our activities in the market there. We still employ a sales representative in China. But we closed our branch there many years ago. It was not effective because of local mismanagement. We also tried stationing Czechs there, but that also proved to be very expensive. The problem in China at that time was that translation was a quid pro quo service provided for free. The Chinese simply weren’t used to paying for translations. However, this has partially changed.

According to the Education First survey, Czechs are among the worst in the European Union in terms of their ability to communicate in English, ranking ahead of, amongst others, Croatia, Greece and Slovakia. A third of the people in our country do not speak any foreign language at all. Why is it that more than 30 years after the Velvet Revolution we are lagging behind in language skills within the EU?

The level of education and the quality of teaching play a key role in the development of language skills. Countries with well-functioning education systems tend to perform better in language competence. In our country, salaries in education are still low, so it is difficult for schools to retain quality foreign language teachers. Cultural factors also influence how quickly people learn foreign languages. I think that the Czech Republic is a relatively culturally closed country. Countries with greater openness to foreign cultures may have more motivation to learn foreign languages. However, according to surveys, Czechs under the age of 25 have a level of English proficiency comparable to that of other EU countries, but upwards from the age of 40 this skill declines rapidly. This is also the most represented age group in our courses. It is catching up with what the current young generation has at their disposal from an early age. With the advent of the Internet, young people have easier access to English-language movies, series and music.

According to Eurostat, the Czech Republic also ranks among countries with the largest number of secondary school students learning two or more foreign languages. Our children begin learning two foreign languages as early as primary school. Shouldn’t they concentrate more on the main foreign language, English, learn it properly in primary school and only then move on to other languages?

Yes, English should be at a decent level first, and only then should another language be added.

A traditional problem of Czech education is a strong emphasis on cramming in a lot of information, which in languages is reflected in the fact that teachers often focus on grammar in language classes rather than on speaking and presenting in a foreign language. How do you think languages should be taught?

I personally used to learn languages by  practice. Now I’m learning Spanish with a more conversational-based approach and can see that this method is much faster. I would lean towards this style of learning. A great way is to learn the basics of a language and then travel abroad, to a family, to a language course, immersing oneself in the language and conversing with people.

You have your very own teaching method called Effecto. How does it work?

It emphasises the most essential element – the ability to speak on a basic user level. Language teaching includes a variety of exercises, alternating between difficult and easy activities, calm and dynamic activities, utilising different techniques to remove barriers and boost students’ self-confidence. Each lesson has a clear structure – from warm-up activities at the beginning of the lesson where, for example, jokes are told, to summarising and/or setting further objectives. It also includes a review system of our lecturers by supervisors who are very experienced senior lecturers.

Some language schools claim to be able to teach a language in two to three months. Is that possible?

I don’t think so. If you have talent, you can theoretically learn a language in a year. They say talent makes up 10 percent and 90 percent is hard work. It follows that anyone who works hard and has a good teacher can master a certain level of the language.

To what extent are the language skills of the younger generation also improving as they watch more movies and series in their original language on Netflix and other similar online platforms?

These streaming services are really a great tool to develop language skills. Listening to a foreign language in real-life situations, with different accents and speech forms, can help improve listening skills. Watching movies and TV series will introduce new words and phrases that are used in everyday conversation but may not be found in a textbook. You will learn different turns of phrase, slang expressions and idioms. In most cases it is possible to choose content that matches your interests and language level. You can start with easier series and gradually progress to more challenging ones. However, just watching series will not take you from zero to full proficiency. You also need language courses that give you the basics of the language, including the rules of grammar and syntax. This is especially useful if you are learning a new language, as it helps you to understand its structure and correct sentence constructions. So a combination of both methods, a good language course and watching movies and series in a foreign language, is therefore ideal.

You have recently established a new multimedia division that specifically focuses on the growing demand for movies and TV series, but also for video games or podcasts. Do you anticipate that this will be a significant source of revenue for you?

We established a multimedia division at the beginning of last year and it immediately saw a lot of demand. For example, we started translating subtitles for Netflix and Disney+, and last year this division accounted for 10 percent of our turnover. Other new services that are both growing in demand, and fall under the responsibilities of this division include, for example, automatic transcription and voice accompaniment, which thanks to artificial intelligence we can already create a voice that is indistinguishable from a  living human beingat minimal cost. We have also been dealing with so-called SEO translations for quite some time. These are texts that are created for specific keywords or phrases to help a website rank higher in search results. These translations can also be used in blog articles, product descriptions or other types of content on the Internet.

Pavel Skrivanek

How is the quality of translators changing in the Czech Republic?

The market has suffered a little due to the departure of many translators to EU institutions, which employ them on very good financial terms. Overall, however, I would say that the quality of Czech translators and interpreters is still relatively high. Although the demands on them are growing. Today, it is no longer just important to know the language well… A translator must also be a businessman, they must be able to establish themselves in the market and be proficient in working with various software technologies. This is where it now far more challenging.

What are your plans for the future? In what areas do you want to expand?


We may introduce a new brand, where we will separate our development department, and under this brand we will supply the market with translations created with modern technologies. But for now this idea is still under consideration.

Pavel Skřivánek (54)

A native of Vyškov near Brno, he studied international business at the University of Economics and Business in Prague and passed state exams in four foreign languages. At the beginning of the 1990s he established the translation and interpretation agency Skřivánek, gradually adding other services such as a language school and multimedia division. Mr Skřivánek has been downhill skiing since childhood and competed in the national championship as a teenager. In the near future he wants to dedicate more of his time to skiing and alpine tourism.


Photo by: Lukáš Bíba/Economia



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