Volume 2, No. 4 
October 1998

Steve Vitek

Mr. Vitek can be reached at



A Unique Medium
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-98
  Translator Profiles
May Your Neurons Never Get Tired of Your Challenges
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Business of Translating
Danilo Nogueira
  Literary Translation
Translating Poetry/The Work of Arthur Rimbaud from French to English
by Michael Walker
  Art & Entertainment
Translator, a Lovely Profession
by Karin Almegård Nörby/Monica Scheer
Fernsehuntertitelung in Flandern
by Luc Ockers
 Biomedical Translation
Immunology—a Brief Overview, Part 2
by Lúcia M. Singer, Ph.D.
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XIII
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Translator Profile

May Your Neurons Never Get Tired of Your Challenges

by Steve Vlasta Vitek

The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question,
nor is it bought with going to amazing places.

Until you’ve kept your eyes and your wanting still for fifty years,
you don’t begin to cross over from confusion.

(The Persian poet Rumi, born in 1207, in a translation by Coleman Barks)

I have a theory that some people are born to be translators. These fortunate people are born with a natural and unsatiable curiosity about foreign languages and later become translators or language teachers, just as other people who are curious about numbers or animals become later mathematicians or veterinarians. I remember that I was very curious about my first foreign language—Russian, when I started learning it in fourth grade. Russian was an obligatory subject in communist Czechoslovakia where I was growing up. For the life of me I could not understand why the Russians insist on their funny Cyrillic alphabet and why they add strange endings to words that mean something else in Czech. As far as I was concerned, Russian was a funny language that one did not really have to learn too much because most words were understandable to a Czech kid anyway.
    But I fell in love head over heels with French when I started learning it in high school. I started reading “simplified French books” for children, published by the Ministry of Education in Moscow with a French-Russian dictionary at the end of books written by Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas and other French authors. My favorite station on the radio was France International (or “France-Inter”) which could be clearly heard in Central Europe on my short wave radio. By the time I was 16 I knew that foreign languages would become the biggest passion of my life. In addition to French, Latin and Russian which I was learning in my high school, I was also learning German and English on my own. I started taking Russian seriously once I discovered its mysterious beauty as a teenager. As a teenager I also thought that Latin was the coolest language of them all because nobody spoke it anymore and yet, people were still learning it. Everything sounded so noble in Latin. “This town is pretty” is just another sentence, but if you say it in Latin, “hoc oppidum pulchrum est” has such a noble ring to it. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a Latin translation of New Testament and I read it with a Czech translation when I was 17. This Latin was much easier to understand than the excerpts from classical authors that we were reading at school. When I was 16 I spent a summer in East Germany through a program for exchange of high school students and when I was 18 I went with a similar program to France. I went to Nice, Monte Carlo, the Alps, Paris. I had very little money, only the little bit that I earned during a summer job for foreign students in the Maritime Alps. But everybody around me spoke this beautiful language and I could finally practice my high school French, refined with the help of simplified books published in Moscow and broadcasts of French radio stations, with native French speakers.
    I studied French and Latin for four semesters at the Charles University in Prague. I was still in love with the French language and everything French, but my initial passion for Latin gave way to disenchantment. There was nobody to talk to in Latin. I tried to listen to Radio Vatican in Latin on short waves, but it was not very interesting (probably not even for priests). Not nearly as interesting as “France-Inter” with those incredible French songs, sung by Aznavour and Adamo, and late night interviews with pop music stars in Paris. I wrote a letter in Latin to an Italian girl who listed Latin as her interest in a newsletter for pen pals. She was very impressed, but when she replied in English, I knew I had to switch from Latin to modern languages. By then, I could not go to France or Italy any more, even though my pen pal was asking me to come. Traveling to a Western country, difficult and very expensive during a short period of liberalization in the late sixties, was now almost an impossibility in the seventies. The university turned down my application to be allowed to study a modern language instead of Latin and classical Greek. The choice I had was either to finish my combination (Latin and French) or drop out. The rules were very strict because otherwise too many people would keep changing their minds, making life difficult for the teachers. I wonder if the university was as inflexible in 1343, when it was founded, the language of instruction was Latin and the only foreign language that was taught was classical Greek, as it was in 1972 when it turned down my application for transfer to a modern language.
   I dropped out from the university, served for two long years in the Czechoslovak army, and then applied again at the same university for a different language combination—this time it was English and Japanese. It is true that we get two chances at everything in life. I had a second chance now, and I was not going to blow it this time. But I was scared. I chose Japanese out of bravado—I read somewhere that Japanese is the most difficult language in the world to learn—so how could I possibly resist? But could I really learn all those squiggly characters? After almost 25 years, I tend to agree that it is probably the most difficult language to learn. But I am a pretty good beginner by now and I have the rest of my life to keep working on it.
   I graduated with a master’s (magister) degree in Japanese and English from my university in 1980 and landed my first job as an in-house translator for the Czechoslovak News Agency in Prague. It was a very interesting job. I was following in several news agencies the latest news as it was developing and translating news releases from German, French, and Russian into Czech (there was nothing in Japanese), and there was a good chance that I would be sent abroad after a few years as a foreign correspondent, probably to Tokyo. There was a small catch, though. I would have to join the Communist Party.
   So I decided to drop out again. I bought a tour for myself and my girlfriend to Yugoslavia, hitchhiked across the porous border from Yugoslavia to Austria and Germany (without the girlfriend, who did not want to go with me). Once in Germany, I applied for immigration to US, Canada, and Australia, since all of these countries were accepting political refugees from Europe in the early eighties. The US embassy in Frankfurt was the first one to grant me an interview, and I found myself in San Francisco in the summer of 1982.
   I worked for three years as a visitor information representative for the San Francisco Convention Bureau, which basically meant that I was telling people in English, Japanese, and European languages how to get from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf, Yosemite, and the Wine Country. I also started translating for translation agencies in San Francisco, at this point only Czech, simple things like birth certificates and correspondence on my typewriter. My job was easy and enjoyable. I became an instant expert on San Francisco, or at least I had to pretend that I knew everything about it, my funny Central European accent notwithstanding. After almost three decades of walking the streets of Prague and medieval towns in Bohemia and Germany, I was now walking the streets of San Francisco, taking the cable cars from downtown, where I worked, to my small cheap apartment which I somehow found on lower Nob Hill, with a view of the city skyline on one side and Chinatown’s restaurants just a few steps away. I used to jog every Saturday from my place on Joyce Street to Golden Gate Bridge and back. Most weeks during the theater season I would have some free tickets to theaters and concerts, even the opera in San Francisco as a perk of my job.
   Soon after I married my wife Yoko in 1984, I decided to go with her to Tokyo. It took me three weeks to find a job as a translator for a small Japanese import company which was importing BMW cars from Germany. This was a new venture for this company, and my job was to translate German into English and with some help from a Japanese secretary into Japanese, and also Japanese into English. I also started taking on jobs from translation agencies in Tokyo. I remember one long translation of documentation (in Russian) about a gas pipeline project in Siberia. All of my translations were done on a typewriter, although I had been using a computer on my first job as a translator for the Czechoslovak News Agency in Prague in 1980 and 1981. I was now walking the streets of Tokyo, learning the subway and bus lines, just as I did in Prague, Nuremberg and Munich, and then in San Francisco a few years ago. Unlike most “gaijins” (foreigners) around me, I could read the signs and talk to people in Japanese. But to my surprise, they would often insist on speaking broken English to me, refusing to accept the possibility that this “gaijin” might actually understand what they were saying in their own language. After a while I got used to it. If they insisted on English, I did not insist on Japanese. Only if they knew no English whatsoever, was I free to practice my Japanese with them. My wife explained it to me this way: ”When I see your face, I just have to speak English.” I remember that once when I was in a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo with my Japanese colleagues, I tried to respond to a joke that our waitress told us in Japanese. I thought that what I said was pretty funny until I saw her face freezing up. She looked at my Japanese friends and said in Japanese, ignoring me completely: “I hate it when a “gaijin” does something like that to me.” I have never been more insulted in my whole life. I think that I have a pretty good idea now, after having lived in Japan for a while, what it may feel like to be a black or Asian person who lives among mostly white neighbors.
   All of a sudden, I felt homesick. Actually, California-sick was what I felt. When my wife finally got the visa she needed for her green card at the US embassy in Tokyo, I quit my job, and we decided to take our delayed honeymoon trip to Hokkaido (which my wife always wanted to see), and then we went back to San Francisco. I was walking the familiar streets again, watching the cable cars loaded with tourists freezing in their shorts and T-shirts in the San Francisco fog, jogging in Golden Gate Park and checking out with my wife Korean and Vietnamese restaurants in the Richmond district of San Francisco where we were now living. I was happy to be home again. Nobody was surprised to see my white face and hear my funny accent. My accent might have been kind of interesting, but not out of place. Not in San Francisco.
   It was at this point that Alex Shkolnik, a technical translator from Russian and Japanese in San Francisco, introduced me to Donald Philippi, who as it happened, lived in the same neighborhood just a few blocks away from my place. I read a translation of Don’s translation of Kojiki, a Japanese mythological version of the origin of the world and other Japanese legends when I was studying Japanese in Prague in the seventies. Actually, my girlfriend at that time (the one who would not go with me to America) gave me a translation of his English translation of Kojiki (into Slovak) for my birthday in 1977. When I saw Don’s house, where three bedrooms on the second floor were turned into one huge study with bookshelves overflowing with technical dictionaries, etymological dictionaries and all kinds of reference works, it dawned on me that I could make a living by basically imitating Don’s way of making a living. Don was originally a linguist without any technical background. And not just some kind of linguist. He was working for many years in Japan on the first dictionary of the language of Ainu—the original inhabitants of Japan, and he translated Kojiki (a book of Japanese mythology) and Norito (old Japanese Shinto prayers) into English. But since it is much easier to make a living with technical Japanese than Japanese mythology, he eventually became a technical translator specializing in nuclear reactors. Don was also fluent in Russian, a language that he loved passionately. We spent many evenings watching news in Russian on a TV channel in San Francisco, following the breakup of Soviet Union and discussing Russian politics, leafing through Russian etymological dictionaries and listening to Don’s collection of unusual records and CDs—anything from Byzantine music to guttural songs of Mongolian nomads. Don was also holding meetings for Japanese translators in the Bay Area until he died in 1993. During those few years from 1987 to 1993, I was fortunate to meet a number of other translators from Japanese and other languages living in the Bay Area, mostly through Don’s meetings. (There are three interesting interviews with Don Philippi on Don Philippi's memorial Web page at http://www.jai2.com/dlpivu1.htm. These interviews were conducted by Fred Schodt in 1984.)
   Under Don’s influence, I started specializing in Japanese patents for two very good reasons: 1.—there are so many of them, and 2.—somebody has to do it. Since I translate several patents (mostly from Japanese, but also from German, Czech, and French) a week, I must have translated thousands of them since 1987. Some of them are sent to me by law firms in the Bay Area and elsewhere in US. An agency in Tokyo sends me, once or twice a year, materials from the Japan Patent Office. I translated JPO’s Web site with an interesting history of the development of the intellectual property system for patents in Japan. A large patent law firm in San Francisco keeps me busy on a good year (such as this one) with boxes of Japanese patents, which I first have to sift through and identify in their office in San Francisco.
   Some people are born to become translators, as other people are born to become painters, architects, or tennis players. But although most people are born with a unique talent, relatively few people will ever find out what their special talent is, let alone realize its full potential. Those who discover their calling and later work hard on what they have been born with will eventually become very successful in their field—but more importantly, unlike most people who wake up every morning to go to work to pay their bills, they will truly enjoy their work. Perhaps I was a translator in another lifetime. I might have been a scribe translating the Bible from Aramaic or Saint Augustin from Latin with a quill and an inkstand in some Middle Eastern country. If I close my eyes, I can still see the dark and dusty cave where I was working on my translation and smell the flickering candle in my translator’s office, fifteen hundred years ago. The holy texts of our time, for me, anyway, are patents and scientific papers that are at the beginning of every modern invention, from ATM machines, modems and cell phones, to the cruise control in your car and satellite transmission of your TV stations. Thanks to my Russian, French, Latin, and science teachers at my high school, my Japanese teachers at my university, Don Philippi and other people who showed me the way later in life, the little bit of talent that I was born with was not wasted on a boring nine to five job. I can only hope that my children will be as fortunate as I have been with their teachers and friends.
   Most of the patents that I translate at this point deal basically with one problem: How to cram more circuits and semiconductor elements into a tiny computer chip. There seem to be no limits to miniaturization of circuits for engineers working on the design of memory chips. A tiny computer chip can provide an almost infinite amount of space if you know how to arrange properly all the elements in it. I wonder what will happen when all of the seemingly infinite amount of space is finally used up. At that point, the chip design will be probably thrown out the window and replaced by a different concept, just like the vacuum tube was replaced by a transistor. The only chip that does provide an infinite amount of storage for information is the human brain, with its billions of connections between the neurons, arranged in layers and designs that nobody will ever understand. Unfortunately, this storage is not permanent. But then again, nothing is really permanent.
   It is my job to transfer information that was arranged according to the rules of one language into another language, using the rules of both languages that I am working with and my understanding of the concept of what is said in the original language. It is a highly enjoyable and challenging job. It keeps me on my toes, and it often makes me very tired. Japanese is so different from an Indo-European language, it is almost like visiting another planet. To translate a long, rambling sentence in a claim of a Japanese patent, you first have to run a wrecking ball through the structure of the sentence and break it up into individual bricks. If you understand the design (the meaning) of the original wall and of the new structure in the other language, you can then put the bricks back together in the proper order. You can start your analysis of the original sentence from several places in Japanese, although the end of the sentence is usually the best place. The key is your understanding of what is being said. You will never know as much as you need to know about any language, or any technology. But the more you work on the architecture of the language and of the technology, the more you understand it. And after twenty years or so of running your wrecking ball through the walls in foreign languages and building new structures from the old bricks, you will be a pretty good beginner at the old and noble art of translation.

May your experience be as enjoyable as mine!

May you and your children be blessed with good teachers and friends as I was!

May your eyes, neurons, and fingers never become tired of the challenges that translators struggle with every day in their never ending struggle to ensure continuation of civilization and technology on this planet!

Steve Vlasta Vitek, technical translator

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