I used to advertise my translation business in my local Yellow Pages for 20 years. The first 5 years in San Francisco, then for 9 years in Santa Rosa/Sonoma Yellow pages (Sonoma Wine Country, 1 hour north of San Francisco), and after that for about 6 years here in Virginia Beach/Chesapeake Yellow Pages. I pulled the plug on my ad about 3 years ago.
Back when I started my freelance translation business in San Francisco in 1987, there was no Internet. The phone book was it. Every year I was eagerly anticipating the new phone book. Every year there were new people and companies advertising under TRANSLATION-INTERPRETING, while others were dropping out. It was not that expensive for a small ad. And the ad did pay for itself. It brought in mostly personal documents and fairly small translation jobs, but I did get some contracts and various sundry documents.
For instance, I translated film reviews from Japanese newspapers for a San Francisco film director who came to my office. Or German instructions on how to build model paper planes. I used to translate, on and off for about 10 years, Japanese car registration documents for a small company that specialized in imports of luxury classic cars from Japan to sell them to movie studios in LA. All of that came through a small ad in my local Yellow Pages in San Francisco and Santa Rosa. It was kind of fun. I even got to meet weird and interesting people through my work, which technical translators almost never do.
But all that changed after I moved to Virginia in 2001. I thought it would be business as usual, or probably better than in California because I saw very few competitors in my local Yellow Pages in my neck of woods in the part of Eastern Virginia which is called Tidewater or Hampton Roads. There are about 1.5 million people living in this area, much more than in the Wine Country.
But for some reason, the supply of interesting jobs through Yellow Pages disappeared. I was mostly getting calls from people who thought that I was a patent agent because my business name is PatentTranslators.com. In 6 and half years of paying monthly for an ad since the summer of 2001 until the end of 2007, there were only a few jobs that came via this ad. One was a letter in German to a military guy who divorced his German wife. The relevant authorities at the City Hall were raising his alimony payments. By quite a bit. And in Euros. I felt sorry for the guy. There were some Haitian birth and marriage certificates that I translated from French.
Then there was this guy who called and asked whether I spoke Russian. I said yes. He was a policeman who was trying to find out what happened to a scared elderly Russian woman who spoke no English and who was wondering the streets. So he put me on the phone. The Russian lady was visiting her married daughter, went out for a walk, and got lost. She could not even spell her daughter’s married name, so I was not really able to help much. But at least the cop found out what the problem was. For free, of course. That was a smart cop, but I thought, why do I pay to work for free?
And that is all I can remember. Do people in Virginia need translation less than people in California? I guess so. Although the percentage of people who came here from abroad is not that much smaller than the percentage of foreign residents in California’s Wine Country. Or is it?
The salesman from the Yellow Pages sounded incredulous when I told him that I would no longer be needing his services. “It is very important for your business to advertise”, he admonished me sternly. He was obviously very concerned about the bleak prospects of my business without an advertisement in his thick book. “Yes, it is very important”, I replied. “The only thing that is even more important is to know where to advertise”.
And Yellow Pages is no longer it. Video killed the radio star. And Internet killed the Yellow Pages. Maybe they still work for restaurants and billiards. But not for my business.