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Meet Nurlan, the linguist who manages a team of 100 translators in Kazakhstan

September 21, 2023

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There are many similarities between Romania and Kazakhstan when you ask people about the two countries. They would probably assume this and that about both of them. Especially since they are both “developing” countries. And Borat visited them in his movie. In fact, these nations have been through a lot. And now, they’re trying to make it through the hustle of getting back on their feet.

It all starts with the people and what they do to raise their nations. Nurlan, age 37, manages over 100 translators from across Kazakhstan and the world, people who make the mining business more accessible to billions around the globe. They work with some of the most exotic languages on the planet, including Chinese, Kazakh, Russian, and Kyrgyz. Who is Nurlan?

“I am Nurlan Utkelbayev, 37, born, based, breading and buttering in Kazakhstan. My background is in translation and interpretation for the mining industry. I’ve got a Bachelor’s degree in linguistics and law. I started with translations and interpreting in 2007, working for a zinc mining company in Northern Kazakhstan.”

Nurlan never expected this to happen…

Back in 2007, Nurlan decided to poke the sky with his finger. This may or may not be a Kazakh saying but this is not the focus of this story. He applied for a translator/interpreter position at one of the leading mining companies in the northern part of Kazakhstan simply as a mere try. To his surprise, he soon got employed, although at that point he had no idea what mining was.

“In a week’s time, I found myself standing at the bottom of an open cast mining pit, 300 meters below the earth’s surface, basically a huge hole in the ground with unfamiliar pieces of machinery around me, also huge. Then I realized that there was nothing in common between what we studied in the university and the real world of mining operations, which meant that I had to learn a lot, basically everything from scratch.”

Day after day, little by little, Nurlan took notice of all the terms, processes, and mining slang to be able to communicate in the most efficient and quickest way with his colleagues. That was the start of his language service provider career. Then he got fascinated with the international mining team, people from all over the world with different backgrounds and ages, miners, mechanics, blasters, planners, IT engineers, operators, and a whole lot more professionals.

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“I am a happy father, and at one point I realized that every time I’m offered a new position in a new company I get a newborn child, so I have three sons and a lovely daughter, making it easy to count how many companies I used to work at. But next time I would need to think twice whether to accept a new job offer or not. Basically, I’ve been working a rotation-based schedule all my life since our operation sites are remote and you have to fly to get to the site.”

The current company Nurlan is working for is a huge copper producer with over 14.000 employees, with some unimaginable flow of information you would expect from such a big monster. It never stops. Therefore, they need a lot of translators to support production because there are at least three “exotic” languages spoken inside the company.

Making life easier for yourself

Having 100 people under his management every day, Nurlan’s work is never the same as it was 24 hours ago. In a company he previously worked at, he implemented a CAT tool and trained his colleagues, which led after three years to an offer for a position in the company’s headquarters in Astana, the capital city. Nurlan took the offer and started a new life.

“When I arrived, there were no CAT tools in use, so my colleague and I had to present a CAT tool project to our management, provide market benchmarks and justification and start a procurement process. Once that was done, it took me about a year to train my colleagues and off we went. Currently, there are over a hundred users across the group working with the tool we implemented.

My role is to coordinate the server and project managers on-site, train newcomers and provide refresher training. So, I have to make sure the server is in good shape, all the resources respond, provide licenses to those requesting employees, coordinate IT maintenance and also sometimes do translations when a complex project is requested.”

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Kazakh mining, a brief introduction

When it comes to mining and languages, Nurlan overlooks the most interesting and exotic combinations on the planet. The nature of the industry he is working with makes it so that no day looks the same, and in terms of language combinations, this is an omnipresent thing.

“We use Kazakh, Russian, English, Chinese and Kyrgyz. The most challenging thing is that all these languages belong to different language families, so you have to split and join a lot, if you know what I mean. We have to run five language termbases for our entire company.”

The company Nurlan is working for is one of the largest metal producers on the planet, selling mostly copper but also other materials, such as gold which they take out of the earth in Kyrgyzstan. The main values of the company are safety, teamwork, integrity, long-term efficiency, and professional development. They mostly sell to China, Europe and the CIS.

Kazakhstan, three things you should know

Much like Romania, Kazakhstan has a lot of incredible traditions and cultural perks. Nurlan was kind enough to let us know the top 3 craziest he could think of. Besides the camel milk drink that would haunt your dreams and the sweetest melons on the planet, this is what we found out about this mysterious, offering land.

“The first one would be Kyz kuu, a game in which a young man is chasing a young woman, both riding horses. He has to catch her before she gets across the finish line, and if he doesn’t, she turns back and whips him all the way back until they get to the starting line.

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The second is Beshbarmak, our traditional dish with horse meat and noodles. The most interesting thing about it is that the most honoured guest or person gets a lamp head and feeds other members with different parts of the head.

The third would be our wedding traditions in general. There is so much going on during the wedding ceremony, you should definitely go to a wedding party when you visit Kazakhstan.”

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A glimpse into the future

Nurlan says he guesses he’ll still be doing translations and interpretations five years from now. He hopes he will use AI much more as the years go by, and the process will require fewer people than it does now. It is what it is, he says. He also hopes to get a chance to implement a couple of more language service-related projects in the years ahead.

“If people are curious to start a career in translation and management, automation is what I would look for. When you have a lot of people to coordinate, automation will help you reduce the workload. Besides this, I would suggest you all visit Kazakhstan and other nearby countries and try all the national dishes and personally participate in all traditional celebrations and ceremonies.

You will remember this kind of vacation for a very long time, believe me.”