Vincent Barletta is a web designer and translator. He is also professor of Comparative Literature and Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. Vincent has authored several academic books and articles, translated over a dozen academic books and essays, and designed several public-interest and non-profit websites.
Vincent Barletta has worked internationally for individual academics, academic departments, academic centers, non-profit organizations, and charities. He’s passionate about creating sophisticated, useful, and beautiful products that help people to spread knowledge and make a difference. Vincent is happy to be as involved in projects as necessary: he can translate short texts, edit existing translations, troubleshoot websites, and build beautiful sites from the ground up. He is also available to write and edit copy.
How did you get started in this business?
While I was a Ph.D. student at UCLA, I was hired by the university IT department to work as a Graduate Technology Consultant in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. This was back in 1995, so the Internet was still a very new concept to faculty in the humanities. I developed websites and helped troubleshoot issues, but I mostly served as a kind of tech evangelist, helping faculty members to see the benefits of the Internet and other digital tools. As a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA, the translation work came pretty naturally. I would mostly translate business documents and other texts from Spanish and Portuguese into English. Since I was in Los Angeles, many of these were associated with the entertainment industry. Later on, I began really focusing on intellectual and public interest work. An early project was a Spanish-language teen pregnancy prevention education package that I developed for the Center for Healthier Communities in Van Nuys, CA.
How do you make money?
Since I have a pretty demanding day job as a professor at Stanford University, I tend to take on projects as an independent contractor. I work on a sliding scale, and I try to make first-rate web design accessible to people and organizations without the sort of IT budget that for-profit companies tend to have. Given that academic and non-profit sites often have specific design and functionality needs, I find that build-it-yourself services are often not enough for my clients. Many of my web clients also ask me to produce text (in multiple languages), and I put a lot of work into that. I tend to charge by the hour, but I work with clients to make sure the project stays within their budget. For translations, I charge by the word, but I also tend to work within clients’ budgets. If I believe in the project, I want to make it work.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Since I do contract work, the business was profitable almost from day one. That’s not to say that I make a living from translation and web design work (far from it). It is a dream of mine to do this full-time, so perhaps this work will keep me busy once I retire. I like to think of what it would be like to split my time between Lisbon and Mexico City, designing websites and translating to supplement my meager retirement savings.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
There are always doubts. I feel more confident with my translation work since I write many hours each day as part of my work as a professor. I have superior proficiency (native, basically) in Spanish and Portuguese, and my Italian and French are also pretty advanced. Translating into English is much easier, but I’ve also translated things from English to Spanish and/or Portuguese in the past. As for web design, I recognize that there are people out there (often much younger than I) who devote themselves to this 24/7. I’m no advanced coder, so I have limitations there. That said, I have a keen eye for design, and I’m more detail-oriented than most. I try to keep sites clean and intuitive, with a particular focus on engaging text and images. I love white space, and I can talk for hours about fonts! So yes, there have been doubts, but I’ve worked to improve my weak spots and better articulate the areas where I provide a lot of value.
How did you get your first customer?
My first web design customers were professors at UCLA, so that was pretty much set up by the IT department. I then designed sites for UCLA’s Center for Language, Interaction, and Culture. That was in 1999, and the whole thing was hand-coded and in line with the W3C standards of the time. That was a fun project, and that was likely the closest I came to leaving academe for a career in web design. My first translation customer was VeneVisa, a Venezuelan television company looking to license its telenovelas to distributors in the US. The main distributor was Galavisión, which is now part of Univisión. I translated their Spanish-language contracts into English. I got this job through a referral.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Since I can’t really let my web design and translation work cut into my work as a professor, I’ve relied solely on referrals. This keeps my project pipeline small and manageable, though it also logically limits whatever income I might make. As I begin to build the business, I’ll likely develop closer working relationships with university presses and non-profit organizations. It may seem paradoxical, but I’ve yet to develop a website for myself! As I begin to do more work, this is clearly the next step.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The toughest decision lately has been to turn down a couple of translation projects that I thought were terrific. Timing is everything, and these projects came in right when my teaching load was at its highest. I had to say no, and I still feel bad about that. I’m looking forward to carving out more time to this work, as I really enjoy helping people turn their projects into reality.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I think this is mostly down to decades of experience and a sincere desire to help. I’ve yet to take on a project just for the money, and it helps to find something interesting and of value in the work you do for others. I live for service, and it feels good helping others to shine through their web presence and written work. I’ve had my own share of success, especially with my recent Guggenheim Fellowship (2021), and it feels good to help others reach their goals.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
In 2020, I was awarded the Kay Philips Award for Outstanding Adult Ally at Youth Community Service. This organization is really a marvel. They help young people in the Mid-Peninsula region of the San Francisco Bay Area to get involved with public service in their community, and they do an excellent job. The people there are so dedicated to their work, and it was an incredible honor to be recognized by them. To be recognized by the people you most respect is about as good as it gets.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Right now, I’m most excited about a project I’m developing with Professor Luca Bacchini at La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. It’s called the EcoLogos Lab, and it’s a digital platform to develop work on art, poetry, and the environment. The EU has invested a lot of energy into education and prison reform, and we see the connection between the arts and nature as a fundamental place to build. We also have hopes to do work in urban design in collaboration with different municipalities around the world. We’re hoping to collaborate soon with experts in Brazil, Mexico, the US, Italy, Portugal, and Mozambique. I’ll be working with a team of designers to build our website, and that’s awfully exciting.
What business books have inspired you?
I’m not really a reader of business books, to be honest. I’m generally skeptical about capitalism, as the organizations that do the most for people tend to have the smallest budgets. Effective non-profits and schools are often strapped for cash, and this shouldn’t be the case. The one economics book I read recently that inspired me was Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2017), which really got me thinking about universal basic income and matters of market stability. Along a more philosophical line, I’ve long worked with the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), and Adriana Cavarero’s Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude (2016) has become something of a Bible for me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be more open to alternative paths. I had a singular focus on an academic career almost since I began studying for the MA, and this was a mistake. There were other fascinating (and potentially more lucrative) paths that presented themselves in the late 1990s, and I rejected them out of hand. Commitment is a fine thing (especially to one’s spouse and family), but it can also close off opportunities when you’re young. I tell my own daughters to keep their professional options open and to be unafraid to take risks for things that really speak to them. It’s hard to ignore prestige when you’re young, but it’s necessary if one is to be happy. The original meaning of prestige in Latin is “illusion,” and that’s something more of us need to keep in mind.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
As a professor, I’m hard-wired to help people develop their own work. I enjoy mentoring motivated students and writers, and I’m always happy to work with others. Sending me an email is likely the best way to get in touch.