Volume 3, No. 4 
October 1999

  Judy Langley





Translation Journal
Translator Profile

In-House and At Home

The Best of Both Worlds

by Judy Langley
Early experiences

When Gabe invited me to prepare this profile I was flattered, as one might expect. I have always derived considerable personal and professional satisfaction from translating and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to share my experience with others.
All members of the English Translation Service at the United Nations must work from French into English and from at least one of the other official languages of the Organization into English

    I knew when I was in high school that I would ultimately put my knowledge and love of French and Spanish to use in my career. I learned both languages in the New York City public school system. However, my assumption back then was that I would be a high school or college teacher. "Back then" was the late 1950s, a time when translating was rarely if ever suggested as a career option. I majored in French and minored in Spanish and English at Queens College, which is part of New York City's public university system. My foreign language studies focused on literature, and I wrote my college senior honors thesis on Les manifestations de l'évasion chez Baudelaire.
   Feeling ready to escape as well, I spent ten glorious weeks in Europe the summer following college graduation (this was my first trip there), after which I returned home to start graduate school. I had been offered teaching fellowships at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Pennsylvania, and had chosen Penn for a variety of reasons. I took graduate courses for a year, during which time I decided that I would not, after all, pursue a teaching career.
   My introduction to translating—aside from the occasional assignment in college—had come during the summer between my junior and senior years in college when I worked at The Language Service (TLS), then located in Manhattan. Henry Fischbach, the Director of this translation bureau, was my first mentor in the profession, and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for him. Henry was demanding, but also patient and encouraging, and was always willing to help out when I had questions. I started out as a typist and proofreader and was rehired when I returned to New York after my year at Penn. In addition to typing and proofreading, I translated medical reports on tests of pharmaceutical products, business correspondence, and occasional documents on other subjects, and I assisted with office management duties.
   I first learned about the American Translators Association (ATA) while working at The Language Service. Henry Fischbach was President of ATA from 1965-1967, and it was during this period that I met many of ATA's early members, including freelancers who would stop in at TLS to pick up assignments or deliver completed translations. (We did use the mail and courier services, of course, but keep in mind that this was the era before computers and fax machines became standard office fixtures.) While employed at TLS I also helped out at the ATA conference in Washington, DC in 1965. I joined ATA in 1967 and became accredited in French into English and Spanish into English in 1977.

Broader horizons

One Sunday morning in the summer of 1966, while casually perusing the employment ads in The New York Times, I noticed that the United Nations was inviting people whose dominant language was English to sit for its English translators' examination. I took the examination and was offered a contract to work in the English Translation Service during the General Assembly that fall. I returned to The Language Service after the assignment.
   In November 1967 I joined the English Translation Service at the United Nations on a long-term basis. The nine years I spent as a full-time staff member there were among the most rewarding of my career. I initially worked under the guidance of several exacting revisers, honing my skills translating a wide variety of documents including—to name only a few—meeting records, national legislation, bilateral and multilateral treaties, national development plans, and project feasibility and implementation reports. The subject areas I grew most familiar with over the years were economic development, environmental protection, development of natural resources, international law, international trade relations and trade law, international peace and security, human rights, social and humanitarian issues, and education. I also had to train myself to use British English, and I learned the skill of précis-writing. Throughout my years at the United Nations I welcomed the opportunity to exchange ideas with my colleagues, I formed some lasting friendships, and I was generally glad to be working for an institution whose ideals I share.
   Some United Nations bodies, such as the General Assembly and the Security Council, receive verbatim records of their proceedings; these records are prepared by verbatim reporters. The Economic and Social Council and its subsidiary bodies, the subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and other committees which are entitled to written records of their proceedings are provided with summary records, which are prepared by précis-writers. Précis-writers are translators wearing a second hat, so to speak.
   When I first began working at the United Nations most meetings were covered by teams of three précis-writers. Each of us took notes for one-third of the meeting and assisted a colleague by taking notes for another third. Although cassette tapes have been available to teams since 1976, précis-writers still have to take notes—except of course when a speaker provides a text in advance (in which case it must be checked carefully against delivery). For many years now, précis-writing teams have normally consisted of four translators working in pairs in two shifts. The French, Spanish, and Russian Language Services also prepare summary records of meetings, and a team includes précis-writers from only one language service. On the rare occasion when an afternoon meeting is scheduled to go on well past 6 p.m. a relief team from one of the other language services will take over. Summary records are prepared in the target language of the team covering the meeting. The other language services then translate the records into their respective languages for the benefit of all delegations.
   All members of the English Translation Service at the United Nations must work from French into English and from at least one of the other official languages of the Organization—Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish—into English. Preparing and translating summary records is the translators' main task when the General Assembly convenes in the fall. This is the time of year when the Assembly's six Main Committees are in session, and they generally hold two meetings a day. One of these, the First Committee, which deals with political and security questions, including regulation of armaments, receives verbatim records. The other Main Committees—the Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the Second Committee (which deals with economic and financial matters), the Third Committee (which discusses social, humanitarian, and cultural issues), the Fifth Committee (which considers administrative and budgetary questions), and the Sixth Committee (which discusses legal questions)—receive summary records.
   Although translators at the United Nations are expected to handle material on any subject, they usually have the opportunity to specialize during the General Assembly, when they are assigned to one committee for the entire session. During most of my years as a staff member—and again later as a freelancer—I regularly prepared summary records for the Second Committee, as well as the Economic and Social Council and many of its subsidiary bodies.
   I found précis-writing as challenging and enjoyable as translating, and I welcomed the chance the task presented to work outside my office for several hours at a stretch. The pressure of meeting deadlines was always present, of course, but I quickly learned to take it in stride. One very tangible benefit of being a précis-writer was that I had the opportunity to go "on mission"—to cover a committee holding a session overseas at the invitation of a Member State—four times during my nine years as a staff member. My first such assignment, in 1968, took me to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Special Committee on the Sea-bed and Ocean Floor Beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction, the precursor of the Conference on the Law of the Sea. How fitting that the venue was a lovely hotel right on Copacabana Beach! In 1970 I was among the précis-writers sent to Kyoto to cover the Fourth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. My other two overseas assignments took me to New Delhi (1973) and Tokyo (1975) to cover the Committee on Natural Resources. Needless to say, I always managed to spend some annual leave before and/or after these missions exploring the country where I had been assigned to work. All these trips were priceless opportunities I might not have had otherwise.

Moving on

In mid-1976 my husband and I began to think about starting a family and by September, when he was offered an excellent job in Houston, I had already decided that I would not work at all when our children were very young. We were fortunate that we did not have to rely on two incomes at the time. I resigned from my United Nations post in November 1976 and moved to Houston, knowing that I would return to my work at some future date. That date came sooner than I expected, when I was invited to return to the United Nations to help out during a busy period in June 1977. This was to be the first of many freelance contracts at Headquarters/New York over the next 20 years. As it turns out, I did do a bit of freelancing from home for translation bureaus when our two children were very young.
   Between 1982 and 1987 my family moved several times, first to Connecticut, then back to Houston, and finally to Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute super-ferry ride from downtown Seattle. When we were in Connecticut I occasionally accepted short-term contracts at the United Nations, and from 1989-1997 I returned there regularly for two longer contracts totaling about three months annually. During the time we lived in Washington State I also freelanced part-time for translation bureaus and for direct clients. My work for direct clients was done under my business name, French and Spanish Language Services (FSLS), and while wearing my FSLS Director's hat I also coordinated many projects requiring translations from English into French and Spanish.
   One particularly satisfying project called for translating several automobile safety and insurance information brochures into Spanish for use in the United States. The marketing director who contacted me (her firm is a major insurance company on the West Coast) preferred working with small businesses such as mine, and I considered her to be an ideal client. Although she insisted on getting feedback on the translations from several of her company's Spanish-speaking agents in the field before the final production phase, she fully agreed that the translator and editor should have the last word on all language-related issues.

Back on a regular schedule

Although I have been an ATA member for most of my career, I have not attended its annual conferences regularly. In 1997 I decided to go to the San Francisco conference, a decision that proved instrumental in bringing about a major career redirection. I had already been thinking of working full-time again, and I had promised myself that in early 1998 I would develop plans to expand French and Spanish Language Services. While wandering around the Job Exchange room early in the conference I noticed an ad indicating that the World Bank was seeking an English translator to work at its Headquarters in Washington, DC. To make the proverbial long story short, I found the prospect enticing, applied for the position, was offered the job, and began working there in June 1998. I definitely miss the Seattle area, but I am also glad to be back on the East Coast, closer to family and old friends.
   I adjusted surprisingly quickly to being on a more regimented schedule, though I must admit that I do miss the flexibility afforded by working from home. My colleagues at the World Bank are among the most congenial and helpful people I could have hoped to meet, and they have helped make my transition to the new environment a breeze.
   Most of the texts I translate or revise are directly related to Bank-financed development projects. There is also the occasional scholarly paper as a treat for dessert, so to speak. I am fortunate to have excellent online terminology resources at my fingertips (this was true during my later years at the United Nations as well), and we are about to start using speech recognition software, a technology I am very keen to learn. In a sense, my modus operandi has come full circle. When I first joined the United Nations in 1967 I used a dictation machine employing plastic belts, which were then sent to the typing pool. The only other option was to use a manual typewriter. We later switched to cassette-based dictation machines and, finally, to computers. The typing pool is now the Text Processing Unit, and it is responsible for preparing the final copy of translations. The English Translation Team at the World Bank has no typists, and team members produce the final copy of all work sent to translation users.

Giving back to the profession

I have always welcomed the opportunity to work with other translators to improve the professional environment for practitioners of our art. In order to put this interest into practice, I played an active role in two local organizations for translators and interpreters. When I first moved to Houston in 1976 I consulted the ATA Membership Directory in order to find other translators in the area, and thanks to these contacts I became an active member of the Houston Professional Translators Forum.
   When I relocated to the Seattle area in 1987 I again sought out local ATA members. They turned out to be a very dedicated group of people who agreed that the time was ripe to set up a local group for translators and interpreters. ATA was about to hold its 1988 conference in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region was expanding its international reach. In 1988 this core group of ATA members and other interested individuals and translation bureaus established the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS), which has become one of ATA's most energetic cooperating groups. I am very proud to have served as the first President of NOTIS and as a member of its Board of Directors, and I highly value the many friendships I made during my active years with the organization. I recently joined the National Capital Area Chapter of ATA and look forward to participating in its activities as time goes on.
    The teacher in me has also had a chance to practice a bit over the years after all, though not as a language instructor as I had envisaged myself doing back in high school. I presented workshops on translating and précis-writing at the Center for Translation and Interpretation of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and at an ATA Summer Translation Workshop at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I have also lectured on translating and précis-writing at the Translation and Interpretation Institute in Seattle, the University of Washington Extension in Seattle, Rice University in Houston, and Carnegie-Mellon University.
   To sum up, as I look back over a very satisfying career I feel that the combination of working from home part of the year and working in-house at the United Nations for extended periods offered me the best of both translation worlds. I look forward to following a similar pattern when I retire from the World Bank.