Volume 3, No. 2 
April 1999

Cynthia Keesan

Sindi Keesan can be reached at
Web page: www.cyberspace.org/~keesan



What’s New?
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-99
  Translator Profiles
A Typical Translator?
by Cynthia Keesan
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Legal Translation
Pitfalls in Legal Translation
by Davide De Leo

Working in Brazil
by Danilo Nogueira.
  Translators Around the World
Translators’ Day in Armenia
by Narine Khachatryan
  Arts & Entertainment
Translation for Art and Architectural History
by Michael Walker
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XV
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’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Translator Profile

A Typical Translator?

by Cynthia (Sindi) Keesan

Every time the American Translators Association’s 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 in Macedonia).
   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. (Doesn’t 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 landlady’s 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 teacher’s 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 husband’s 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 jewelry.
   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 translator’s 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 jargon.
   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 owner’s 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, and ventilation.
   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 construction workers.
   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 don’t 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 friend’s 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 can’t 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 not fun.

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