Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999

Mike Stacy



Translation Journal
Translator Profile

Overcoming the Odds

Profile of a Technical/Legal Translator

by Charles M. (“Mike”) Stacy

How can one be born in a small West Texas town with a population of barely over 1,000 souls and become a corporate translator accredited in four languages?
   That is a question I have often asked myself.
   I was born into a family of English descent in Gorman, Texas, where no one spoke any foreign languages. I had a traditional education in a school system of less than 400 students (first through twelfth—kindergarten had not yet “arrived”). No foreign languages were offered.

No given language in itself is vague, specific, concrete, abstract, wordy or difficult. Writers are vague, specific, concrete, abstract, wordy or difficult.
At the end of the first grade, polio made an entrance into my life. Initially paralyzed from the neck down, I was left with one arm completely paralyzed and the other seriously affected. This arrangement meant I was probably not going to be a quarterback (or even a ditchdigger!) and convinced my family that education was going to be the key to my survival.
   I spent most of the second grade in physical therapy in the polio ward of the county hospital in Ft. Worth, where all the polio patients were segregated from other patients. At a time when the disease was greatly feared and the mechanism of infection was unknown, we were still educated by teachers who were selfless enough to come into our ward. Many of us did all our math drills and took all our tests orally. It must have been an incredible challenge for the teachers: we were of all ages and backgrounds, with varying disabilities, and most of us were bedfast and could not gather around the teachers in little groups. Little did I realize what valuable skills I was learning for use later in life: like saying it right—the first time. Since I was raised by grandparents who did not finish elementary school (my grandfather got to the fifth grade, my grandmother to the third) and since it took me years to learn to write again, this was no small decision on their part. I dictated every word of my homework to my grandmother, and she laboriously wrote it down. I remember choosing my words carefully, so that she would not have to erase. I remember telling her how to write a comma, and I remember her wonderment at the story of the discovery of America by Columbus. It was all new to her.
   For a third-grader, my grandmother was an excellent speller (she read widely, in spite of her limited education). But as I progressed to the higher grades, I had to watch her spelling and punctuation like a hawk. I had no idea that I was being trained for future editing and proofing!
   My grandfather read constantly. He was also an avid crossword-puzzle fan and an irrepressible story-teller. I learned at an early age that there was more to language than what a first glance might indicate: there were thousands of words in those puzzles that we did not use in everyday speech. I also learned how to set up a punch line.
   There must be a reading gene. I can hardly visualize my mother without a book. She reads while she eats; she cooks with a book in one hand and a stirring spoon in the other; she reads while she watches TV. My brother is a book reviewer—and a free-lance writer.
   Moving to Ft. Worth after the ninth grade, I found myself in a high school with nearly as many students as the entire population of my hometown. And it offered German and Spanish! The counselors refused to let me take both. “Let’s see if you can hack one foreign language first,” they insisted, but what I heard was, “Let’s see if you can survive a big-city school.” I started out with German.
   My grades were all A’s in the tenth grade, so there were no objections from the counselors when I continued German and added Spanish the next year. It seemed my small-town education had been a good one, after all. The tenth grade was the first of seven consecutive years when I studied at least two languages and often three at the same time. I had discovered the love of my life.
   I managed to graduate as the valedictorian of my class and win a full scholarship to Texas Christian University, where I had already decided to major in languages. For the fun of it, I took a course in advanced English grammar and an introductory linguistics class. Four years later, I had a B.A. degree with a double major in German and Spanish and a minor in Russian, ranking tenth in a graduating class of over 800. The faculty elected me the most outstanding student in the humanities, and I was honored with the Phi Beta Kappa Award.
   In the summer between my junior and senior years, I won a Texas Good Neighbor Commission scholarship to study in Mexico. It was my first immersion in a foreign language, and I loved it. I also met my future wife in Mexico; she is from Iowa and is now a high-school Spanish teacher. Since she had a non-transferable National Merit scholarship at the University of Iowa, we had to carry on our courtship by phone and mail till she graduated two years later, summa cum laude. We wrote each other a letter virtually every day during those two years.
   Fortunately for me, a few years earlier, the Russians had launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite, and Congress had decided to fund a National Defense Foreign Language fellowship program. I won one of these fellowships through the Slavic Language Department at Indiana University’s Graduate School.
   I soon found myself in an intensive Russian-language summer program with live-in native speakers in a reserved wing of a large dormitory. We had four hours of drills and conversation every morning, taught by émigré Russians who were forbidden even to mention grammar. American linguists taught grammar in the afternoons (in English—the only English I was to hear for the next three months). We also had an entire hour of instruction every day in Russian pronunciation and intonation. We were threatened with expulsion from the program if we spoke English outside the grammar class. This method got results: one of my fellow students, William Hopkins, became President Reagan’s interpreter in the talks with Gorbachev.
   The first six weeks of the summer were spent in Indiana, and the second six weeks were spent in the Soviet Union: two weeks in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), two weeks in Moscow, and two weeks in Tbilisi and a youth camp in the Caucasus Mountains. There were 132 students in my group that summer (1965), and I was the only Texan.
   We split up into small groups for classes every morning in the hotel and visited points of interest in the afternoons as a larger group: the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow State University, the Hermitage, collective farms, factories. But some afternoons were free and we were on our own. I got to know the Moscow subway fairly well and spent lots of time in parks just talking to people. I went to book and record stores, bakeries, art galleries and museums on my own, even attending mass at a Russian Orthodox church. I wanted to see and do everything I could in the short time we were there.
   It is a sign of the times that our instruction before departing for the Soviet Union included questions most likely to be asked by the Soviets. We were not told what to say, but we were given a few statistics: like how much the average American factory worker earned, for instance. I verified some of the information we were given and found it to be true. We did role-playing exercises in the conversation class by asking and answering these questions.
   Preparations also included memorizing some Russian folk songs, and this set me up for one of the nicest experiences of the trip. Every evening at Dombai, an alpine hostel in the Caucasus, we gathered around a campfire with Russian students our own age and sang these songs. I can still sing them now.
   I earned an M.A. in Russian in 1968 and took another couple of years of graduate courses, including three years of Bulgarian. I passed the German and French reading exams required of doctoral students. My wife got her M.A. in Spanish.
   One summer, the Rockefeller Foundation offered to underwrite an intensive summer Portuguese course if eight students enrolled. Only seven signed up. To this day, I have no idea how my name came up, but I was persuaded to volunteer (all expenses paid + a stipend = a strong argument). Six hours a day of non-stop instruction, 99% in Portuguese, made for an exhausting summer, but also a rewarding one. One instructor was from Portugal and the other from Brazil.
   At this point, I was planning to teach. I had audited a course on literary translation in the Comparative Literature Department taught by the legendary Willis Barnstone, and I took a course in manuscript analysis where we transcribed letters hand-written by Tolstoy so the professor could publish our work. Our copies of these letters were faint Xeroxes and parts of words were often missing. Sometimes only the upper half of the line was captured at the bottom of the page.
   I had no idea at the time what wonderful training this was for a future translator. I have since translated thousands of “missing” words, half-lines and faint images, not to mention forms filled out in semi-legible hands. Sometimes translation is a grand crossword puzzle: the clues are in one language and the answers are in another, and oftentimes not all the letters are filled in. But you get paid if you finish the puzzle! One eventually develops something of a sixth sense. A healthy dose of pathological optimism and confidence helps, too.
   But if Barnstone’s class taught style, context and creativity, the manuscript class taught the value of re-reading, perseverance and openmindedness. I remember once when the entire class was stumped (we shared the pain among ourselves) on a word that happened to be in one of the letters assigned to me.
   I finally took it to the professor, who read the word at first glance: Biarritz. This was a sea-side resort in France that was much favored in the nineteenth century among the Russian nobility. The reason none of us could read the word was that it was written in the Roman alphabet when all the rest of the letter was in Cyrillic. (As late as the 1920s, Russian texts commonly printed foreign words in Western alphabets.) We were so expecting a Russian word in Russian script that none of us recognized a French word in Western script!
   I resolved never again to fall victim to narrow-minded expectations. Transcription, like translation, is a mind-expanding experience.
   Years later I was reminded of Biarritz when I hit the word guaya in a Venezuelan document from an oil field. No amount of research or inquiry turned up the meaning. I re-read the sentence for the fortieth time, this time out loud, trying to marry context to the most likely meaning, and it finally hit me: guaya was the Venezuelan rendition of the Texas pronunciation of wire, short for wireline. I was able to confirm the translation later. (Virtually all foreign oilfield workers in Venezuela were from Texas or Louisiana.)
   After taking an unreasonable number of courses in the Russian and Latin American area studies programs (scintillating classes like Marxist Economics and the Cuban Revolution) and a fascinating class on Russian folklore for sanity’s sake, it was finally time to decide whether to take the Ph.D. exams and write a dissertation or seek my fortune in the Real World. I opted for the fortune and have never regretted it. Candidates were averaging five years from the end of course work till getting the Ph.D. I wanted to get on with my life.
   My wife took her Ph.D. exams in Spanish literature, passing with flying colors, and wrote the first two chapters of her dissertation.
   Unfortunately, colleges were abolishing foreign-language requirements at that time. I was only able to teach two years as a replacement for other professors on sabbatical. So I came back home to Texas and landed a job as office manager for a translation agency in Dallas that was already dying and which expired altogether two months later.
   Following a lead from one of our customers, I approached the international sales manager of a Dallas oilfield equipment manufacturer and exporter for a job as translator (no opening had been announced). Unbeknownst to me, the company had just signed its second large contract with the Russians. Even more importantly, this very manager, a Cajun named Jean Préjean, had just gotten a $48,000 bill from an agency in Houston for translating the operating manual into Russian for the first contract. He hired me on the spot, through a thick fog of cigar smoke, at an annual salary of less than half the cost of that manual!
   And I was happy to get it. We both got a decent deal: people who knew Russian were not to be found on every street corner in Texas. On the other hand, neither were there many openings for in-house Russian translators.
   The manual for the second translation turned out to be a simple revision of the first one, so I enjoyed the immense advantage of being able to learn oilfield Russian while merely adjusting a few dimensions and part numbers here and there. My guardian angel was well into overtime. The manual consisted of some 1500 pages. In those pre-word processing days, everything had to be retyped on a typewriter. Needless to say, I became a fairly good Russian typist. Fifteen hundred pages will do that to you. To this day, I can touch-type Russian on an English keyboard.
   My career as an in-house translator at Otis Engineering Corporation lasted some 22 years, from 1972 till 1994. My professional development was fast, furious and extensive. I joined the American Translators Association in 1973 and discovered that other translators existed, even in-house ones.
   I passed the Spanish accreditation exam in 1976, the Portuguese exam in 1977, and the French and Russian exams in 1986, all into English. I regularly attended the annual ATA conferences. I was appointed Chairman of the Active Membership Review Committee and was a grader for the accreditation program for several years. I served as a director on the ATA Board from 1993 to 1995 and am currently Chairman of the Ethics Committee and an editorial advisor for the ATA Chronicle, for which I have written some twenty articles to date.
   The ATA Conference was in New York City in 1975 or so, and one of the excursions was to the Translation Section at the United Nations. This section is closed to the public and it had long been one of my great desires to see it, so I jumped at the chance. Here I saw a Wang unit, the first word-processing equipment I had seen that could handle Russian.
   First thing back in the office, I placed an order for three Wang units (they were $9,000 apiece, if I remember right) and a printer. By this time, I had hired a full-time Russian translator and a full-time French translator (both native speakers), so we were a department of three. But there was an inconvenience: the Wangs were designed to handle either Russian or English, not both simultaneously.
   That was fine for the Russian translator, since she never translated into English. But it was not so good for me, because when large Russian jobs came in, I had to do Russian, too. However, we soon discovered that we could convert them from one to the other by changing all the keycaps (the keyboard and monitor were a single unit, so we couldn’t just plug in the proper keyboard), switching out the character generator in the innards of the thing, and booting up with the proper system disk.
   An even greater inconvenience was that Otis part numbers were alphanumeric, like 12RDH38100. It was decreed that these part numbers had to appear with the English letters intact in Russian translations. We solved the problem, if it can be called a solution, by counting the number of spaces in each part number and leaving it blank in Russian. We then rolled each page into an English typewriter, aligned it and typed in the entire part number. There were often several part numbers on a page, and the spec sheets had dozens. And the manuals had hundreds of pages. This was not fun. The usual clerical assistance was not available, since you had to know Russian to be sure that each part number was typed in the right place. There was no way out of doing it ourselves.
   The Soviets handled the problem by writing in English part numbers by hand.
   Fortunately, WordPerfect soon came to our rescue with an integrated Russian/English word-processing capability, so we bought IBM computers and learned WordPerfect. We could now switch between Russian and English with two keystrokes, and it was like a gift from heaven. When we had become comfortable with the IBM machines, the company switched to Macintoshes and Microsoft Word, then back to IBM’s, but retaining Microsoft, which is what I still use today. The company also linked all its offices worldwide with an e-mail system, so now I could instantly access any company personnel at any foreign office to track down troublesome terms.
   The 70s were also rewarding years for our family. Our older daughter was born in 1970 and our younger daughter in 1974. In 1976, we adopted an orphaned Costa Rican boy, and in 1978 we adopted a close friend of his from the same orphanage.
   Back at the ranch (or office, as the case may be), the 1970s were glory years for Big Oil. High-level Russian delegations visited from time to time, and I got lots of practice at interpreting during meetings, plant tours, technical discussions and training classes. Otis had a school for its own field employees, so I took the same courses (at my own initiative). I was then able to serve as a more knowledgeable interpreter for Russian and Latin American engineers and technicians taking these classes.
   At work, my most challenging interpretation experience occurred during a visit by one of the Soviet oil ministers. I had gotten accustomed to technical question-and-answer sessions, tours of the deep-well simulation unit, the computer-assisted design department, the elastomer lab, the heat-treat plant and the numerically controlled manufacturing shop. But in the middle of this particular tour, the manufacturing manager, without telling me beforehand, decided to show the minister a brand-new company film about his department. Nearly all my interpreting had been simultaneous, but keeping up with a fast-paced state-of-the-art film was a fresh challenge. The narrator of that film evidently had no need to breathe: there was no break from one sentence to the next. I was as limp as a wet noodle afterward, but not so limp that I didn’t have a man-to-man talk with the manager afterward about cruel and unusual punishment of interpreters.
   Another interesting (and equally nerve-wracking) experience involved a Soviet delegation that was sponsored by Russian-speaking officials from the Japanese Oil Ministry. You just don’t hear much Russian spoken in Texas with a Japanese accent. Russian ‘klapan’ (’valve’) came out ‘crappan,’ for instance. I’m sure my less-than-stellar performance that day betrayed my discomfit. One of the international sales reps dropped by my office one day when I had stepped out. He wanted me to fill out a bilingual form for him in Russian. He said he would wait for me, so a co-worker of mine, making small talk, mentioned that a back-up Russian element had just come in for my typewriter. “Aha!” said the rep. “I can do it myself then!” And he popped the Russian element into my typewriter and proceeded to fill out the short form in “Russian.” He had finished and was long gone by the time I got back.
   When I returned and heard this story, I hurried to his office and did my best to explain that he was not typing Russian just because a Russian element was in the typewriter. I don’t think I ever convinced him. What he had typed looked just like Russian to him. I retrieved the form anyway and filled it in properly. I still cringe at the thought of the impression his antics would have made on Soviet officials—or on my next raise, for that matter.
   On another occasion one February involving three engineers from Siberia, this same sales rep insisted on driving us by his home on the way back from lunch to see “a rare and beautiful sight” that he wanted to present as a surprise. I should have sensed impending doom. The “rare and beautiful sight” turned out to be a Douglas fir dusted with a 1/2" of snow. He gestured at the tree triumphantly and the Russians looked everywhere for “the rare sight.” I had to explain surreptitiously to the Russians how rare snow was in Dallas, and they effusively and dutifully did some serious admiring of that tree, but after we got back to my office and he left, we all laughed till our stomachs hurt and then laughed some more. I called the guy later at home for a short conversation on the non-rarity of snow and trees in Siberia and the dubious value of such ‘surprises’ for interpreters and guests alike, not to mention the company’s image.
   I did a fair amount of what today’s corporate handlers would call ‘internal customer education.’
   My favorite interpreting assignments had to do with lunches at country clubs. Films and long meetings may have been exhausting, but I never had any difficulties interpreting and eating simultaneously, as it were.
   I discovered that people everywhere have a sense of humor. One evening I had invited some visiting Soviet engineers to have dinner at my home. Pam Kaatz, a dear friend of mine, desperately wanted to meet some Russians (who were almost as exotic as Martians in the early 1970s in Texas). We agreed that this dinner would be the occasion for the Great Encounter. For three days beforehand, she practiced the Russian phrase ‘do svidaniya’ (’good-bye’), which she intended to say when she left. But after a long and enjoyable evening, when the moment for her Russian début finally arrived, the only Russian word she could remember was “Dostoyevsky.” I quickly whispered to the amazed Russians that this was her well-meaning attempt at ‘do svidaniya,’ and one of the Russians immediately and loudly waved, “Shakespeare!” It was a small but wonderful moment of Soviet-American détente.
   Occasionally, there were interesting insights about foreign visitors at American companies. These visits, for example, always allowed for a few ‘contingency days.’ I soon discovered that the proper translation of ‘contingency days’ was ‘shopping days.’ (I often translate English to English for my own entertainment: it’s one of my many harmless pastimes.) Immediately on the heels of that discovery, I learned that once a contract was signed or a training course had been taught, the company had considerably less interest in any foreign guests who continued to hang around.
   So the hosts did everything possible at that point to get out of their hosthood, invariably making a gracious exit by presenting gifts of one kind or another (usually cowboy boots or western hats—remember, the context here is Texas). I was offered whatever incentive it took to persuade me to chaperone the now abandoned foreigners to wherever they wanted to go. “But I have other work,” I said the first time this happened. “Farm it out,” they said. “But I don’t drive,” I countered. “We have company drivers and unlimited credit cards,” said the powers that be, clearly a premeditated answer, and this time the tone was final. I said, “I see.”
   So off I went on various and sundry ‘contingencies,’ all of which sooner or later involved my choice of nice places to dine. We sometimes tested (or tasted, as it were) whether those credit cards really were unlimited, but I never heard so much as a murmur of protest from the company.
   There were also insights into company maneuvers and machinations. When management decided that foreign visitors were not sufficiently forthcoming with the details (or when their statements did not make sense), I was assigned to take them to some local attraction and somehow elicit the desired information as unobtrusively as possible in a less formal, non-corporate environment. I felt like a CIA mole the first time, but I have to admit that the company knew what it was doing. In those days, heads of Soviet delegations felt obligated to answer questions personally during formal meetings, and their subordinates never dared to correct them.
   I remember vividly one such occasion. The head of a delegation insisted at the first meeting that the wells in his field did not produce sand in the crude. I was directed to ask the question a second time, and he firmly repeated there was no sand. This was a critical issue, so my assignment at the reception that night was to research the sand issue further. As it turned out, I didn’t even have to bring the subject up. One of the engineers in the delegation approached me apologetically, explaining that his boss was not really familiar with certain ‘minor’ details and that their crude was loaded with sand. The company paid me for this information in hors d’oeuvres, and I glimpsed why the Soviet Union was so badly mismanaged. Communism did not reward intelligent business management.
   Compared to translation, interpreting opportunities were relatively few and far between. A typical day involved translation only, often of diverse documents and a mix of languages. Since Otis’s Dallas offices were the company’s world headquarters, all work flowed here: accident reports, hospitalization records, death certificates, insurance policies, academic transcripts and diplomas, business cards, correspondence of all kinds, internal complaints and audits, theft reports, leases for any of 35 offices and warehouses abroad, shipping documents, orders, accounting records, lawsuits, company benefit brochures, corporate policies, mission statements, sales and promotional literature, and on and on.
   But tenders, contracts and minutes of meetings comprised the majority of my work.
   There were sad duties as well. I translated a Telex from Algeria informing the company of Mr. Préjean’s death in a plane crash in the Sahara. Over the years, I did a number of foreign coroner’s reports. Oilfield accidents sometimes involve fires and explosions, and the consequences can be gruesome. Roughnecks can be a reckless and rowdy lot, too. I remember translating a police report from the Canary Islands about an unfortunate (and unsober) fellow on his way to an assignment in Africa. He returned to his seventh-floor hotel room at 3 a.m. one morning after a hard night at the bar and walked straight off the balcony. My office became a small library. In addition to company catalogs and other technical publications, I accumulated a collection of (a) a good monolingual dictionary; (b) the best general bilingual dictionary; (c) and all the bilingual business, legal and oilfield dictionaries I could find in my active languages. The company, with its deep pockets, never objected to a single purchase. In 1984, I published a bibliography of petroleum dictionaries that covered 90 titles in 24 languages.
   I was authorized to send out jobs in Arabic, Romanian, Greek, Norwegian, Turkish, Japanese and Chinese after I finally convinced my superiors that just because I knew a couple of languages didn’t mean I knew them all. I had inadvertently established an unfortunate precedent in their mind by teaching myself French and Italian on the job during the great oil slowdown of the early eighties. I had to lay off the French and Russian translators.
   As the volume of work continued to shrink, I figured I could increase it by learning more languages. It worked. And when no other work was in and my mind could not absorb any more French or Italian, I sometimes translated short jobs from near-miss languages, like Dutch and Serbo-Croatian, which I could do fairly easily with a good dictionary and plenty of time. I could always track down any recalcitrant terms by Telexing the appropriate foreign office.
   But the industry revived, and by the time I took up Bahasa, I had learned not to admit that I was studying yet another language. This was just as well. There was an encouraging flow of work from Indonesia, but I was never able to devote enough time to it to become comfortable with the language.
   I had been ‘promoted’ from hourly to salaried status, but after 50 or 60 hours a week, enough was enough—overtime was no longer paid.
   I was fortunate to have begun working at Otis in the Technical Publications Department. That was where all the technical writers were caged, and they were extremely useful resources to me. They actually understood all the operating instructions for the tools the company made. Since the product line exceeded 2,000 items in a mind-bending array of sizes, alloys and threaded connections, this was no small matter.
   When there was more work than I could handle, I shifted into-foreign technical jobs to our foreign offices, where it was sometimes done better—and always more cheaply (all translation jobs were charged back to the departments that requested them). All of Otis’s foreign offices had technical personnel who could do occasional translations. The major offices had lawyers, too, but they were American lawyers who did not know other languages. So as time went along, I found myself doing more and more legal work and less and less technical work.
   My work log began to indicate a trend away from into-foreign jobs in general toward into-English work. Foreign technical personnel, it seemed, were learning to read English faster than attorneys were. Eventually, I was transferred to the Legal Department.
   Suddenly, I found myself in an office with windows and carpeting. A no-nonsense secretary guarded the only way in, and the ambiance was what I liked to call ‘hushed plush.’ A top-of-the-line Dictaphone appeared and a pool typist now transcribed my dictated translations. Instead of graphics artists and technical writers for co-workers, I now had attorneys.
   Megamergers were taking place on the Outside. Otis was acquired by Halliburton, which took note (and advantage) of the in-house translator that came with the deal. Halliburton was a much larger company. Contracts for $5 or $6 million that had once been considered huge were now seen as paltry. Halliburton’s deals were sometimes worth hundreds of millions. Even so, Russian work died with the Soviet Union. My remaining work was all legal and in Spanish, French or Portuguese.
   Finally, in the cost-cutting craze of the mid-90s, Halliburton eliminated the translation function altogether by hiring a Spanish-speaking attorney in the Latin American Section and a French-speaking attorney in the Europe/Africa Section, and I was promoted to free-lance status.
   At the time I left, hundreds of employees were being laid off every few weeks. Knowing of entire warehouses full of former employees’ desks and filing cabinets, I inquired whether I might “buy my office to set up at home.” No one ever accused me of being shy.
   It took a few days to determine that the head of Facilities Maintenance had the responsibility for answering this question, which it seemed no one else had ever asked. So I asked him how much he wanted for my desk, four filing cabinets, four bookcases, a chair and a few books... like 300 or 400 books, maybe. It happened that he and I had become good friends after I helped mediate a festering argument between a Cuban employee with practically no English and one of the Maintenance supervisors. He winked and said, “Forty bucks.” I thought about that for three or four seconds and said, “OK, if you’ll deliver them.”
   The next day my entire office, books and all, arrived in a company truck. The desk was too big to fit through the door. “No problem,” they said. Having brought hammers and screwdrivers, the guys simply removed part of the door frame, manhandled the desk through it and then replaced the frame like new. The following day I was in business. I am legally set up as The Word Wizard, Inc., an S corporation. Most of my work is still done directly for large oil companies.
   So what have I learned about language, languages and translation over the last 25 years?
   Well, to begin with languages:
   I have learned to dismiss stereotypes and generalizations about languages. No given language in itself is vague, specific, concrete, abstract, wordy or difficult. Writers are vague, specific, concrete, abstract, wordy or difficult.
   As for language:
   Any given language, from a translator’s point of view, actually turns out to be a collection of sublanguages. The difference in terminology, for example, between a set of hospital records, a packing list, a corporate procedure, a field test report, a scientific paper and a sales contract (in any one language) is enormous.
   Terminology may also vary considerably even when the same subject is under discussion. Here is a partial listing from my personal glossary that illustrates the magnitude of the difference between English as written by field personnel in daily logs and English as used by engineers in reports (i.e., an English-to-English glossary!):
Cresent wrenchCresent [from brand name]
drilling fluidmud
exploratory wellwildcat
gas wellgasser
gravel packerGravel Gertie
[from the character in Dick Tracy]
hydraulic fracturingfraccing
mast gin pole
pressure surgekick
safety jointslick joint
static pressureshut-in pressure
well hole
wellheadChristmas tree

   These differences are mirrored in other languages as well, of course, and also at times from country to country, as shown below:
English MexicoVenezuela
tubería de
sarta de (tubería
de) producción
wirelinecable de acero guaya

Mexico and Venezuela are both Spanish-speaking countries, of course, but I estimated the overall divergence of oilfield terms at about 60% between them. However, word lists only scratch the surface.
   That is to say, it is difficult for glossaries to address non-terminological differences. In English, for example, ‘pipe’ is both the singular and a collective (the plural ‘pipes’ is not used in the oilfield): All the pipe was delivered on time. Note how the English count plural is expressed with the singular of ‘pipe’: These four joints (of pipe) are defective. There is no such restriction on the use of plurals like tuberías in Spanish or tubes in French (Estas cuatro tuberías...). Further, ‘pipe’ is used in English in the context of wells and pipelines, but ‘piping’ is used at surface facilities like offshore platforms and refineries.
   Finally, some industries are so broad and multifaceted that it means little to say that one is ‘specialized’ in a field like the petroleum industry. My own experience, for instance, is limited to drilling, production, pipelines, well maintenance services and related tenders and contracts. I know very little about geology, geophysics, geochemistry, petrography, prospecting, reservoir engineering, refining processes, petrochemicals or marketing, which are also major branches of the petroleum industry.
   As for translation:
   My respect for translation continues to grow. It is humbling to admit that simply knowing a couple of languages and having a passing knowledge of a subject area are only the beginning requirements. Translators must also command an immense vocabulary and know how to write well. Even so, truly good translations are the result of several years of concentrated experience. There is simply no other way to acquire familiarity with the inevitable subsets of language, regionalisms, subject matter and styles that are involved.
   The nature of the translation process guarantees a humble attitude and a never-ending learning experience.