Reflections on a Translator's Life
by Susana Greiss
Stick to the languages you know best, and polish, them, polish them, polish them.
When I reflect on my professional life, I am always surprised at how quickly we have accepted the revolution in the way translators are trained and how they earn their livelihood, which has actually occurred in the span of only a few short years.
The changes that have taken place with the advent of computers are nothing short of miraculous, and yet we have not only taken them in stride, but are constantly seeing new developments, which most of us embrace almost immediately. Perhaps it is in the very nature of translators to adapt, since we are used to going back and forth between cultures, so why not the ever-shifting conditions with which we must deal at every turn?
When I think back, it seems that it was quite inevitable that I would become a translator, although in those days parents were usually concerned with their daughters' future, more than they were concerned with their careers. They believed that their daughter's future would be determined by who they would eventually marry.
My parents were Russian and I was born in Georgia, where they had moved from Moscow to escape the harsh winter and the famine that followed the Russian Revolution. My father was a civil engineer, which automatically made him an "enemy of the State", part of the "intelligentzia". It soon became clear that it was not safe for us to remain, even in the South, and so my parents found a way to get out. The first country that would take us was Brazil. I was four years old, an only child, and already on the way to a multicultural destiny.
I learned to read and write Russian on that first long and arduous voyage. Upon arriving in Brazil, my father went to work in the jungles of São Paulo in search of sources of hydroelectric power for the Light & Power Company (of Canada). When I developed a bone disease, doctors advised us to seek treatment in France, where my mother and I spent four years. At the age of 7, I was learning my third language, French. Life was harsh for emigrés. Unlike immigrants who leave their country in search of a better life, never intending to return, emigrés are like exiles, always dreaming of a triumphant return to their ancestral home, with their bank accounts intact. This is why emigrés seldom prosper in their new land - they always feel they are just visiting and will soon be heading home. The downside of this thinking is that it is unlikely to happen; the upside is that children of emigrés like myself retain a great deal more of their parents' culture and are the richer for it.
Upon our return from France, my parents split up, my mother remaining in Brazil and my father, having lost his job due to the nationalization of foreign-owned utilities by the new Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, moved to Uruguay in hopes of finding work. It was the depth of the Depression. He eventually found a job with the British Railroad, which assured him a lifetime of genteel poverty. I moved to Uruguay at the age of 15 and enrolled in the British School. One thing my parents learned early on: if you knew English, you could make it anywhere, but it was too late for them. At the American School I attended in Rio de Janeiro, English was taught as just another foreign language, but at the British School all the subjects were taught in English. So now I had to learn Spanish and English at the same time: languages four and five.
Upon graduation, after two years of business and more language courses, I went to work as a bilingual secretary. I found the work extremely boring and regimented, but as long as I was acquiring skills and experience, I stayed with it. I wasn't thinking about the long term; in those days, a girl worked for a few years, and then she got married. If a girl continued to work after getting married, everyone would shake their heads: "He is unable to support her," they would say. Then came the war, and the world was turned upside down.
I eventually went to work for the American Embassy in Buenos Aires and married an Argentinian. One good thing came out of that marriage: my two kids, a boy and then a girl. My life as a homemaker was short-lived, though; it lasted about six years, and then it was back to earning a living. In those days secretaries didn't make enough to support a family, so after returning to Uruguay for three years, I moved to Brazil where my mother still lived. I became a trilingual secretary - a notch up. I found that there was a demand for translators at international conferences, and they paid well. I was probably not a very good translator, but I was in demand and I was learning "on the job." My father insisted that I should go to the United States. It would be good for me, he said, and it would be good for the kids. To placate him I reluctantly agreed to apply, half hoping that it would take ten years before I was called. I liked what I was doing, and I was not eager to embark on a new venture. However, barely two years later, the American Consulate called me for an interview and my company agreed to sponsor me. I was in!
My first job in the United States was a disappointment and paid little. I was supposed to "pay my dues," they said. I didn't like that; I wasn't using my talents. So I began looking for another job. I found one as a Translator-Correspondent, working in four languages - English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. At last, another notch up. A few years later I was hired by a leading bank in New York as a translator. Over the years I had acquired a background in several fields, and could hold my own among my peers. However, it took me a few more years before I actually earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in translation. That's what I call doing it the hard way!
At the time, I discovered that translators generally 1) were foreign-born, and many were refugees; 2) they had started out with other aspirations. No one woke up in the morning saying to themselves: "My goal in life is to be a translator!" Only at the League of Nations did they have good jobs for translators, and you know what happened to IT! Also, a few ladies of leisure would translate poems and novels for pocket money or because they felt it was "glamorous." It was like this wonderful TV ad where kids say: "When I grow up, I want to be a school dropout;" "When I grow up, I want to be ignored;" "When I grow up, I want to be forced into early retirement...." Translators just didn't get recognition, they didn't expect to make much of a living, just get by. Very few people were actually trained as translators, but most had a solid college education and a solid knowledge of languages, at least their own language.
I had a friend who fell exactly into that category and my circle of friends expanded to include other translators. I found them to be much more interesting as people, and discovered that we often had similar life experiences. I never had trouble making friends, but I always felt "different" and I'm sure they felt it too. When my friend retired, she recommended me as her replacement. I now entered the realm of Reinsurance, of which I knew nothing. I was also the only translator there, and didn't have much to fall back on. However, it was another notch up....
On my new job, I started looking through the files, asking questions and got the company to enroll me in Insurance courses. The College of Insurance was across the street, and I consulted fire codes, insurance policies and fire extinguisher catalogs in their library. I was learning what I had never had the luxury of being able to do before: research. The first time I had to translate a proposal for purposes of insurance of a nuclear plant, I got a call from the head man in that department, congratulating me on the job I had done. "Compares favorably with what we are used to," he said. What an upper! What happened was that I consulted a document in the files similar to the one I was tackling for guidance, but when I saw that my predecessor had used the word "nucleus" instead of "core", I realized that the files were useless to me. I went across the street to the library and looked up "nuclear plants." I immediately found all the terminology I needed.
It takes a great deal more than that to be a good translator these days, of course. We still have very few institutions where we can take formal courses or a degree in translation. But we have a strong organization - the American Translators Association - with its annual conferences and scores of workshops starting from beginners to advanced to specialized. We have accreditation in all major languages, and some not-so-major languages. We have a directory where we can look up other translators in our own field or language, most of whom are quite gracious when it comes to sharing their expertise and give their support to those less experienced. We have local groups, such as the New York Circle of Translators which organizes monthly meetings and frequent workshops, and offers opportunities to socialize and meet not only other translators but also owners of translation bureaus and potential employers.
The trend today is away from full-time employment and toward independent work as a contractor or a bureau offering other related services, such as editing, extracting, research, desktop publishing, teaching, not to mention the wide range of specialized interpreting skills (court, conference, escort, community, etc.), script writing, cross-cultural consulting, voiceovers, narration, dubbing, and so forth - the latter bordering on acting. Translation itself is also specialized: medical, legal, financial, and a million other fields, which can be quite challenging and require special background.
We are now also required to live in close intimacy with computers, familiarize ourselves with new software, and span the world on the wings of the Internet. All this is very exciting, but it is also time-consuming and costly. Just as you thought you had it all together, here comes a new program, and your state-of-the-art computer is obsolete. It can be frustrating, especially for a newcomer who can barely wait to get his or her first assignment, not to mention pay his or her first month's rent. Some of us love it, and some are cool to it. For instance, I don't feel that I have a really close, intimate relationship with my computer. I don't trust "him" one hundred percent. Sometimes it plays annoying tricks on me at the most inconvenient times, so we either sit down for a quiet heart-to-heart talk, or I call 911 for a rescue team (usually some more knowledgeable colleague!). Of course, the "impasse" is usually my own fault, but that's besides the point!
Seriously, if anyone is interested in a few pearls of wisdom from someone who has been around this business for a while, I will say this:
1. Get all the education you can. There is no such thing as information that you cannot use in translation. You never know what your next assignment might be.
2. Decide whether you want to concentrate on just one or two language combinations or go as far afield as you can. There are pros and cons on either side. For instance, in my case, I have accreditation in five language combinations (but only into two) languages. Stick to the languages you know best, and polish, them, polish them, polish them. Language evolves so fast these days that it is hard to keep up. If you translate into only one language, your brain will respond much faster; you don't have to shift gears all the time. You retain new terminology better. You can work more efficiently. Of course, we have exceptionally gifted people who seem to have no limits to their language skills. But not everyone is like that. On the other hand, if there isn't a large volume of translation work into your native language, then you should try to develop another language as much as possible. However, this is almost impossible unless you have lived a number of years in a country where that language is spoken.
3. Develop writing skills. I see a lot of badly written documents authored by native writers. If you cannot write, you can never be a good translator because you have difficulty putting words together and expressing what you want to say.
4. Choose one or more specialized fields. Remember that unless you are translating a letter from someone's aunt (and that doesn't pay much), practically everything that needs translating is either literary or technical. If you live outside the United States, in many countries there is work for literary translators, because there is a large number of new books published in English and a large market for them abroad. In the United States, as my friend Cliff Landers, professor of economics and Portuguese translator once said, you can count the number of people who make a living at literary translation in the United States on the fingers of one hand. Go into any bookstore and see how many books are translations from other languages: very few. And these translations are done by people like Cliff, who is a full-time professor and translates in his spare time for the love of the art (and a few bucks).
5. How do you acquire a technical background? You take courses, preferably college or graduate courses. You take a job as a paralegal, in a doctor's office or hospital, a bank, a real estate office, or what have you. Read the Wall Street Journal, or at the very least the New York Times or Time Magazine.
6. You also need to learn how the world of translation works. For that, in the first place you must be schizophrenic. That is a requirement. On the one hand, here you are, an aspiring translator. On the other hand, you have to be a business person. The best translator in the world will sit idle if he or she is not a business person. So, how do you achieve that? My first advice is get a job in a translation bureau if you can. You will see how they go about getting clients, how they relate to their clients, translators and other professionals. You will learn how to organize your office, and many other useful things. You will also see the work of many experienced translators and learn from them.
7. If you are a nine-to-five person, freelance translation is not for you. On the other hand, freelancing does give you the flexibility to take care of your other responsibilities or to travel, or sleep late (or stay up late to finish a job due first thing in the morning). It also opens up the opportunity to grow into a business. Many translation bureaus started out that way. If you have family obligations, working at home is a Godsend. When I had a full-time job, I was counting the months and weeks I had to wait until my vacation, and the years I had to wait for my retirement. My retirement age has come and long gone, but now I don't want to retire. I am my own boss and working gives me a rich life (never a dull moment), friends, it keeps me in the fray of things and gives me enough income to indulge in some travel and a few "luxuries."
When I decided to freelance after many years of working in-house, the only calls I got were for interpreting. Interpreting today is much more professional than it used to be. Years ago courts would hire you practically off the street. No test was required. If the clients didn't complain, they would use you again and again. I refused these assignments at first, but since I wasn't busy, I decided to try my hand at EBTs (examinations before trial), Family Court cases, etc. The rules were simple and I did a good job. After a while, I became busier with translation work. We didn't have beepers or cell phones in those days, so I would stand in line at the phone booth at lunch break to call home. However, I never knew when I would be through with my assignment, or a translation bureau would call while I was in the subway on my way home, so I would lose work. Also, I didn't like the court atmosphere and having to sit for hours just waiting to be called. When I figured that I was probably losing more money interpreting than staying home, I gave up interpreting (To this day they sometimes still call me). Some people prefer interpreting to translating, they say it's easier. You might want to try it.
8. You need to have a good résumé and cover letter. Writing or calling translation bureaus cold is a hard way of getting work. However, there are lists of translation bureaus that can be purchased (with labels and all), and you must decide whether this is the way you want to go.
9. Translators don't live in an oasis. They need contacts and they need credentials. You can get both by joining (and attending) your local translation group and the American Translators Association. ATA puts out a magazine that will open your eyes, as it did for me when I first joined. Get accreditation if you feel you are ready for it, or take a practice test, which will be returned to you with corrections and comments and will give you food for thought. If you fail accreditation, you can always try again later. Accreditation and membership will get you listed in professional directories and lists consumers of translation buy. The ATA directory is on the Internet, and I have received a number of calls from that listing.
When I joined ATA and the New York Circle of Translators, it opened a whole new world for me. Not only did I learn from my peers and made contacts, but I found that one person can make a tremendous difference. I started the Continuing Education Committee, the Slavic Languages Division, and presented several sessions at ATA Annual Conferences, to mention a few of my professional activities. In 20 years, I only missed one conference, and everyone knows me or of me. It's almost like a passport (not to mention all the fun I've had along the way). But the point is that I started with no particular talents that qualified me over anyone else.
10. The most important thing is for you to be proficient, to be honest with your clients and to follow their instructions, particularly deadlines. Deadlines are the password in translation. A missed deadline could have dire results for your client, so honor it. If you find you have a problem with it, be honest. Don't bury your grandmother. After all, you only have two of those. Don't use her as an excuse for not delivering the job on time. Call your client and explain as early on as possible what the problem is. It is a good idea to look your document over immediately to check for any problems (legibility, missing pages, etc.).
If you have a genuine concern that you may not be able to complete the job on time, or that you may not be familiar with the subject matter, let the client know at once. For instance, a new client called asking that I translate a piece for some publication in Spanish. When I received the document, I saw that it was on architecture and had very specific architectural terms. I then called the client and told him that since this piece was going to be published, correct terminology was of essence and that architecture was not my field. I could do some research in the library, but the result might still be wanting and the job would be time-consuming. My client was silent for a moment, and then he said: "I am impressed by your sincerity and your professionalism. Thank you for being honest with us. We will certainly keep you in mind for other assignments because we value quality work." Within the hour, he was on the phone with another job. However, even if he hadn't, I am sure that he would have no problem recommending me to his colleagues.
The client will sometimes describe the document inaccurately; one of my least favorite terms some clients use is "straightforward." Very often what seems straightforward to them may not be straightforward to you. For instance, I once was given a brochure for pre-teen girls to translate into Spanish. The only problem was that in every Spanish-speaking country the designation for women's clothing is different, so they had to go through a string of "consultants" to decide which term would be understood by everybody.
11. Reputation is extremely important in our profession. Guard yours with great care. It will pay off.
To conclude, as I said earlier, freelance translating is not for everyone, but good translators can make excellent money these days. We have lawyers, engineers and other professionals who are making a good living at translation. We are also developing ways in which you can provide for your future with IRAs, KEOG plans, annuities, group insurance, and so forth. If you are looking for a full-time job, at this juncture your best bet is the government, but in the corporate world there are many jobs that are translation related, so develop other skills, the least of which is, of course, good typing.
Good luck, and may the Force be with you!