Paolina Hawthorne tells us about the expansion of her company
Paolina Hawthorne arrived in Belfast in 2007 to experience a new life. She could have gone to France or Germany, where she could also speak the languages, but a connection to a property here sealed the deal.
While the Bulgarian mother-of-two’s arrival may have only been 15 years ago, she says the growth of her business, translating and interpreting company Diversity, set up in 2010, is a true reflection of how this place has changed.
“I grew up in Bulgaria and when I was 24 I decided I wanted to experience new things,” she says.
“I met with a company at home who had a property here and I came over for 10 days to look for a job, and within seven days I got a job at a call centre.
“I absolutely loved it because it helped me so much to practise English and it helped me deal with different accents. It was a brilliant way to train.”
Paolina excelled in her role, surpassing sales targets, but legislation only allowed Bulgarian nationals to live and work here if they were self-employed.
It was a curve ball, but one she describes as “a blessing in disguise”.
After qualifying in interpreting at home and working in translation services, Paolina aimed to achieve her DPSI Level 6 qualification, which is widely regarded as the gold standard for interpreters.
She then set up her translation business, which began as a one-woman band.
“At the beginning that worked out because there wasn’t a lot of demand, so it was very manageable for one person. I began working from the nursery room in my house,” she explains.
A major contract for the Education Authority followed, much to Paolina’s surprise, opening the door to many more customers and growth for Diversity.
“I completed that tender never believing I would get it. I applied for the experience and never once considered that I would win,” she says.
Soon she needed to hire more staff, and then she began offering the DPSI Level 6 qualification for likeminded interpreters here, with intakes of up 20 people at a time.
To date she has trained some 300 people.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Diversity is one of largest local accredited interpreting and translation companies with 700 interpreters and translators.
Its private client base has surged, alongside its public sector presence.
Large pharma firms, businesses with international interests and more are availing of Diversity’s services.
“There have been so many frameworks since I set up the business. We work with the resettlement scheme for Syrian refugees too, to support groups for housing, and BT had a massive project where we were training people worldwide. That was a crazy contract,” adds Paolina.
The company’s unique selling point is its ability to offer so many languages, 75 in total, some of them lesser known like Telugu, Nuer, and Tigrinya, to support an increasingly diverse local community.
It also has a bank of Tetum, Dari and Pashto interpreters, which are growing in demand.
Paolina says: “We are 100% becoming more culturally diverse here.
“I remember back in 2007 I had to take two buses to go to my little job and I remember I never heard different accents on the bus and I never saw different faces.
“At one point I thought I was the only Bulgarian in the whole of Northern Ireland.
“I did find out that there was a community soon after, but it has definitely changed here and it’s wonderful to see.
“Many different nationalities are coming here, and they’ve done so incredibly well.
“They’re finding their place under the sun and they’re doing well to help society.”
Diversity has recently begun offering free training to English-speaking Ukrainians who have fled the war.
“We really wanted to be helpful with something and I was thinking what can I do to support,” she explains.
“I wanted to offer something more specialised and unique. I could always give money and support that way, but what we’re doing is setting up 15 places for Ukrainian speakers that could support their community in interpretation.
“It’s a good thing, supporting them through the process of their qualification, and then they will be available to provide interpreting services to us.”
The uptake has been “massive,” with all places booked.
“People love our courses and it’s one part of my role in the company that I find so rewarding,” she adds.
“I love to meet those people. It really is the backbone to the business — to get to meet them first-hand and know who I am sending to those jobs.”
The company took a hit during the pandemic. Face-to-face translation and interpreting services completely stopped, but the silver lining of fast-tracking of virtual forms of communication is now being felt.
“We just kept going to stay alive,” she adds.
“Covid was very challenging for us at the beginning, and we woke up suddenly to hundreds of cancellations. The volume from some agencies is not quite back, but it is coming back.
“What we’re doing now is trying to diversify by thinking outside the box. This is where telephony interpreting was very important to us.
“For us, there is no language off limits and our service is extremely quick.
“We can have an interpreter for you within 60 seconds remotely. Face to face is not off limits either, and it’s slowly coming back, but we do have a fab translation management team and they’re doing a fabulous job for the customers.”
As a result of the pandemic Paolina had to downsize her team from 14 to nine. She adds: “It is never fun losing people. We had to make hard decisions to survive, and no one knew if or when we would come out the other side. We’re still here, and kudos to everyone else who came through the pandemic.”
Asked if she anticipates a long-term hit on services from Brexit, she says: “That’s a big unknown for us and that makes it a challenge. We don’t know what way Brexit will affect the people here. A lot of foreign nationals went back home, so we shall see.”
Despite something of a foreign national exodus to the EU when Brexit hit, Paolina says local talent in languages is huge, despite a perception that it’s not. “There is a statistic that in the EU, per head of population, the most linguists are in Northern Ireland. There are some fabulous people coming out of our universities and we are good at languages,” she explains.
“To say otherwise is wrong. We’ve all already learned one language and I’m a great believer that with hard work you can learn more. And if you’ve previously learned a language, it’s like a muscle, you can exercise it. If you don’t, you’ll lose it.”