Every time the American Translators Associations Translation Services Directory Questionnaire asks me to list only five languages
(plus one more in additional information), I have to persuade them that
there really are those of us who translate ten or more languages, in particular
Slavic language translators. There are ten Slavic languages, and for fun
we generally also study something else from the area such as Hungarian,
Georgian, Lithuanian, or in my case Albanian (which my landlady in Skopje
spoke) and Romanian (which is close to what the Aromanians or Vlachs spoke
My first language was English, but my parents, whose parents immigrated
from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish. My mother learned English in first
grade, and spoke Yiddish with my father when they did not want us to understand.
I went to Hebrew School and learned the alphabet (which they continued
to teach for months on end). After I started German in eighth grade my
parents switched to bad French. Which did not work too well after I took
a few years of Latin and audited French. During a boring summer job I read
Spanish for Adults. A friend was taking Russian so I went to a course taught
by MIT students, where we learned the alphabet the first day. In high school
I was a science major. In college I was a biochemistry major, but took
a lot of botany and geology and physics and math for fun. And a bit more
German, and a one semester course in modern Greek (where we started reading
the first day, as I had skipped first semester). And three years of Russian.
And a semester of linguistics.
I applied to grad school in botany, food science, and Russian linguistics.
I got scholarships in Russian and did my M. A. at a small school with a
small Slavic/Linguistics department and a fantastic department head, who
taught us Sanskrit and Classical Armenian, another linguist who taught
us Czech for Slavicists (a month of grammar and then we started reading), and
an imported linguist from Zagreb who taught us Serbo-Croatian and sent
me to summer school in the former Yugoslavia.
In one summer I had three weeks of Slovene (taught in German), two weeks
of Macedonian, and then some Croatian. And decided I liked the place, and
went back to Belgrade for a year. I decided not to speak any English for
a year, even with the other Fulbright Scholar there, so I quickly learned
to dream in Serbian and was mistaken for a native by some Americans on
a bus asking directions. (Doesnt she speak beautiful English?) It takes
a while for your tongue to return to its former positions.
I had a Hungarian speaking roommate in Belgrade (but did not manage
to learn the language) and was friends with Macedonians, Romanians, Montenegrins,
and a family that was mixed Serbian-Albanian. I learned to make Serbian
palacinke (pancakes) in the restaurant of the hotel where the summer school
hosted us, after asking the Albanian waiter for the numbers, learned to
spin wool from the landladys mother, and learned to live with little
hot water (one bucket once a week) or heat. I made repeated visits to a
small village that our summer school had visited, where I had gone back
in the kitchen to meet the waitresses (the entire eighth grade class).
I visited students, their cousins, their teachers, the teachers sister
in another city, someone I met on the beach, and some Slovaks I had met
in Macedonia, and spoke Serbian with all of them. I attempted to teach
myself Albanian, audited the ethnomusicology course, and went along on
a field trip to an Albanian village where they still swaddled the babies
and women needed their husbands permission to have their picture taken.
I met a nice Albanian family that I visited again later, who dressed me
up in Turkish-style fancy dress for a photo and taught me to make bead
It was real culture shock to go back to the USA and see all those enormous
cars roaring around. I entered a doctoral program at U of Michigan and
spent summers in Eastern Europe, picking up some Czech and Bulgarian at
summer schools and visiting people. And two more years in Macedonia doing
dissertation research on dialect phonology, which was a perfect excuse
to visit villages. I visited Hungarians and Germans in Romania. I rented
a room for three months from an Albanian family, and one month from a Turkish
family on Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. When I came back I audited and
Romanian and taught myself more Albanian. For the PhD requirement I took language exams in three Slavic
Languages and Albanian. (Forget German, no fun.) I went out
of my way to meet Slavs in Ann Arbor and practiced speaking with them.
I taught Croatian to a Hungarian who fed me supper. We hosted two small
Bulgarian children with little English for a few days. I finally got my
dissertation research done, started writing it up, and looked for teaching
jobs. There was one, and they did not answer my letter of application.
While an undergrad, I had answered an ad for someone to transliterate
Russian and I paid for my senior year living expenses as a professional
transliterator (with much use of the copy machine). The head translator
let me translate a bit, too. I did some free translating for an Iranian
student of Russian art, who fed me supper. I did a bit of work for another
local agency (and still work for them). As a grad student, when the grants
ran out, I translated most of the Slavic languages for a local agency,
pharmaceutical and medical. I audited a course in pharmacy, and sent out
more resumes, and joined the ATA. When the accreditation exam came to Ann
Arbor around 1985, I took the Russian exam, got in the TSD, and work picked
up some. I no longer had to work for the JPRS, wondering if there was any content to what I was translating.
While earning $2000/year translating, I helped my partner Jim Deigert
with his cobbled-together business managing and maintaining rental properties
for a few friends and neighbors. We painted houses together, interior and
exterior, with help from my Chinese housemates, computer engineers who
had painted window frames during the cultural revolution, and a Japanese
artist. I learned a fair amount about storm windows and plumbing, and renters.
Jim is a self-taught maintenance person. Before that he spent one year
at Annapolis deciding he was not going to be a naval engineer, studied
a bit of graphic arts, co-authored a TV program which advertised houses
for sale, worked in precision repair of balancing machinery, was an apprentice
electrician, studied nursing, and studied digital electronic repair (with
nary a completed degree).
I started translating with one used Russian dictionary, a pencil, and
some yellow lined paper. I bought a new German dictionary and a $5 manual
typewriter, eventually upgraded to a $150 used electric SCM with interchangeable
keys (for science symbols and ), and in 1985 purchased a very expensive
8088 Zenith computer with no expansion slots because everybody knew that
you did not need a hard disk for word processing and they cost $2000. Not
too long afterwards I paid $200 for two expansion slots and got a free
used 10M hard disk, still in use on my original computer.
I upgraded from 9-pin to 24-pin, from 1200 to 9600 bps (my computer will not run 14.4 external modems), and got a new fax machine. I recently
upgraded to a used one with paper cutter and paper feed. I have spent maybe
$1500 on hardware in 14 years.
I switched from Wordstar to WP4.1 to WP4.2 to WP5.1, which is readily
convertible to the now-popular MSWord for Windows. I am a verbal sort of
person and cannot stand little colored pictures, and have too poor an aim
to find and move the mouse and then find the keyboard again. Jim has been
loading all sorts of custom software on the computer, even wrote his own
Assembler language editor to find little problems in the WP files that
interfere with modeming (back in those distant days of 1997 when I still
direct-modemed, and by the way Gabe was the first one I ever modemed to,
he wanted a modemed translation the day after my computer arrived, back
in the days when modeming was an art not a science). A year ago Jim dragged
us into the age of email after one company refused modem transmissions.
Free, on my 1985 computer.
I joined a local conferencing system called grex, which you are all
invited to visit by telnetting to grex.cyberspace.org or via the website
www.cyberspace.org, where I am hoping to start a translators conference
in which we can get real-time answers to some of those puzzling abbreviations
in school documents, etc. For details see the Chronicle or SlavFile, or
e-mail me. This group, volunteer and supported by donations, lets anyone
use it for free and is a wonderful place to learn about computers, as it
was founded and is run by nerds who love to answer questions. The translators
conference may have a computer-hardware discussion. I have learned to use
email and can access the web (in monochrome text only) to search for all
sorts of useful medical information, the Latin names of bugs that the librarians
could not find for me in an aisle of entomology books, and info on washing
machines. I appreciate the lack of advertising in my monochrome text world.
On this webpage, I plan to publish a typed version of a book I have
been retyping for several years for its author, a graphic artist in Ohio
who grows rare fruits and has assembled 500 single spaced pages of handwriting
about them. I still enjoy botany, grow pawpaws and clove currants, and
am also trying to start a fruit-growers conference on grex. I do an occasional
free Russian translation about how to grow grapes in Siberia (bend them
down in the fall, cover with 2 feet of leaves and then a few feet of snow).
I only learned about this journal a few days ago when Gabe asked me
for a profile. I told him I was not a typical translator, my equipment
was obsolete and I was working half-time at translating and half-time building
a house and half-time volunteering repairing electronics at a Kiwanis rummage
sale, but who knows, maybe there is no such thing as a typical translator.
I can now do translations on linguistics, life and health sciences, electronics,
construction, and horticulture. I think the hallmark of a good translator,
unless they are really narrowly specialized, is to know a little about
a lot of subjects. Jim helps me with translations about computers, electricity
and electronics, nursing, industrial processes, automobile repair, and
military. When I get a patent about paint sprayers with no diagram, he
draws the diagram and tells me how they should have redesigned it to work
better. He is one of those valuable rare creatures who speaks only English,
and when I read my literal translation can convert it to vernacular or
We have been building our house for some years now. The house is superinsulated and is expected
to be heatable for $100/year, by electricity. I have learned plenty about
trenchers (I had to give the owners 16-year-old son directions on how
to flatten the driveway area with it when his father and Jim drove off
with a truckload of fill sand), masonry construction (I mixed a lot of
mortar with a hoe), calculating girder sizes, glazing windows, insulation,
wiring, plumbing, roofing (ours is stainless steel), heating, sound control,
We would be happy to answer questions on home building, maintenance
and repair. I had one interesting Polish translation on why the roof of
a building built for a major American company collapsed when it snowed
(they got the pitch wrong and then built it up with tarpaper, which is
heavy when wet). We have given free advice on stereo systems to one translation
agency. At the rummage sale, I practice Albanian, Czech, Ukrainian, Macedonian,
Turkish and Russian with the customers, and one of our computer volunteers,
who teaches American literature, speaks Spanish with our numerous Mexican
We now have a computer set up at the new house with internet access
(but no plumbing, that is not a priority). Just got a call from my author,
who will be giving out my e-mail address to Filipino horticulturalists
for the online conference. Computers have definitely changed my world,
and you dont need a new one. We are experimenting with a DOS-based shareware
browser that will do frames and color graphics (NetTamer). I have online
conversations in Bulgarian with a student studying in England, in two different
transliteration systems (gj or zh), and was sent photos of a Czech friends
kids by email (although our system does not support graphics or color, you can download
jpeg and gif files using lynx). An Indian email pal, who
shared a room without plumbing with five friends, was surprised that I
could not receive his photo by email.
I never thought, 25 years ago, that the translation business would turn
out to be so much fun. Or related to so many other parts of my life. I
doubt there is such a thing as a typical translator, at least in this country.
I never feel that other translators are rivals. I have a five-page list
of other Slavic and East European translators (both directions) and enjoy
helping agencies who need an emergency Bulgarian interpreter to fly around
in a helicopter for a week, or a Georgian translator for a birth certificate,
and in exchange I get jobs referred to me for which I am much more qualified.
(No, I cant send you the list, it is not all that legible). Clients turn
into friends, friends into translators. This is a profession in which life
and work are not always separable. The accounting end of the business is