n her April 2000 Translator's Profile Susanna Greiss told us of her discovery that translators generally had started out with other aspirations and didn't wake up in the morning saying to themselves "My goal in life is to be a translator!" That has certainly been my experience with the translators of my own generation. (Since I have just passed my seventy-seventh birthday, you will understand that "my own generation" means people in their active and vigorous middle agepeople like S. Edmund Berger, Susanna Greiss, Henry Fischbach, and Louis Korda.) Like so many others, I have been steered into translation by a series of unforeseen events. But what surprised me is that many of the unforeseen events that have influenced not only my professional career but my life in general have looked like bad news at the time but turned out to be good news in the long run.
If you are going to develop an interest in foreign languages, Hungary is a good place to be born. Since the end of the First World War, Hungary has been a small country surrounded on all sides by countries whose people not only do not speak Hungarian but speak languages that are not even remotely related to Hungarian. No other European country is in a similar situation, and therefore Hungarians all realize the importance of studying foreign languages. When I was ten years old and attending first-year gimnázium (the European type of high school which goes from fifth to twelfth grade), I was studying four foreign languages: Latin because all gimnázium classes had to include Latin; Hebrew because ours was a Jewish school; German because it was an optional after-hours course available to first-year students; and English as a result of the first of the unforeseen events I mentioned earlier. My father's parents celebrated their golden wedding in December 1936, and since eleven of their twelve surviving children were already living near them in New York, the family sent steamship tickets to my father so that he could complete the family celebration. All of them set to work to persuade him to get out of Hungary while the getting was good, and the persuasion worked; my father came back to Hungary in January 1937 and announced: "Tomorrow we're going to hire an English tutor, we'll all learn English, and we will leave for America this very year." My knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and German faded somewhat in a few years, but I found a lot of pleasure in studying these four languages at the same time, and the idea that languages are fun has stayed with me the rest of my life.
If the source-language text is ambiguous, don't assume you know which meaning is the correct onefind out.
I arrived in New York on July 22, 1937 with my mother and my four-year-old brother (my father had arrived exactly two months earlier, on my eleventh birthday), and the four of us went to live in my grandparents' house, together with my two unmarried aunts and with my youngest aunt and her husband Jack, the only American-born member of that generation in our extended family. Uncle Jack did everything he could to improve my English so that I could do well when I started going to elementary school in September. At that time New York City schools had half-year terms, and I would normally have been expected to be placed in class 6A, but the combination of Uncle Jack's attentions and my European schooling impressed the registering teacher enough to put me into 6B. This half-year difference was the second unforeseen life-determining event in my life; it meant not only that I would finish my schooling a half year earlier but also that I would meet classmates completely different from those I would have met in 6A.
After two and a half years, from 6B through 8B, I started my first year in Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, which had a high reputation, especially in the scientific and technical field, and accepted students only after they had passed an entrance examination. Three other boys from my 8B class were accepted at the same time as I was, all of us planning to become engineers, and for the next four years we commuted together from the Bronx to lower Manhattan by subway, calling ourselves "Four of the Three Musketeers."
Every Stuyvesant student was required to study a foreign language, which was by no means true of every New York City high school. I chose French, starting in my first year, and it immediately became my favorite subject, with mathematics a close second. I have always felt that there is a similarity between language study and mathematics study because both require paying attention to a set of rules, a regular pattern that will work for you if you understand it.
I kept up and even improved my Hungarian by talking with my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a couple of other Hungarian-born boys in Stuyvesant and by reading Hungarian books from the public library. I also used a self-study textbook to revive the Latin I had learned in Hungary and then continued to the end of the book, after which I was allowed to take an advanced-standing examination in Stuyvesant and take the fourth semester of Latin to obtain a full two years' credit.
One of the books I found at the library was De Vitis's textbook of Spanish, and I tried to study it by myself, but there were too many other things to do, and I had to stop. But a few weeks later Stanley, one of the other three Musketeers, brought a thin little volume to school and suggested that it might be just what I needed. That little book made an enormous difference in my life. It was a Berlitz textbook of Spanish, from the early part of the twentieth century, published so long ago that the preposition "a" always appeared with an accent mark on it. Unlike most other Berlitz textbooks, which were always printed in the target language alone and depended on an instructor, this book was printed with explanations and vocabulary equivalents in English and gave a complete foundation in the language in just sixteen lessons. After that it was much easier for me to finish the DeVitis textbook, which gave me a larger vocabulary and reinforced my knowledge of the grammar rules I had learned from the Berlitz book. The third step was to ask Mr. Laguardia of the Stuyvesant faculty to lend me a Spanish novel with vocabulary and notes at the end, of the same type that I had already studied on my own to expand my knowledge of French. He was very glad to help me and lent me other books after I had finished the first one. Later I also borrowed an elementary Italian grammar used in Stuyvesant's Italian courses, but I did not finish more than half of it before the end of my final term.
I enjoyed the regular subjects at Stuyvesant and did well in them, but the language study was something I found to be sheer pleasure. I asked Mr. Laguardia whether one could make a good living with languages, and his answer was not very encouraging: "If you really want to make good money with languages, you can become a head waiter. Otherwise you can become a language teacher, but you shouldn't expect your income to be very high." So I decided to stick with engineering while continuing language study for fun. As things turned out, though, my knowledge of Spanish was not only to be important in my making a living in later years but also to save my life in the literal sense of the word, long before I became a translator.
A student who was on the interscholastic math team with me told me about Esperanto. He said he had been introduced to it by Dave Jagerman, a prominent Stuyvesant Math Club member who had graduated the year before and lived only about a half mile from me. I was curious about Esperanto from things I had read in Hungary (there was a joke in the paper about the proud mother who declares "Oh yes, my son speaks Esperanto like a native!"), and so I put on my trusty roller skates and went over to see Dave. We hit it off at once and have been good friends ever since. On his advice, I bought a 64-page paperback textbook of Esperanto, which I finished in one month (it was, after all, designed to be the easiest language in the world) and a little dictionary, and from then on much of our conversation has been conducted in Esperanto rather than English.
There was one disadvantage to being a Stuyvesant student: in the 1940s, just as it had been since its establishment in 1904, Stuyvesant was an all-boy school, and no feminine companionship was to be had there. This item of bad news was something I accepted easily when I entered the school at the age of thirteen, but it began to trouble me more and more with each new teen year. At the age of sixteen and a half my social life with the opposite sex was totally nonexistent, and even though this had the compensation of giving me more time to do well in my studies, I was far from happy about it. But this bad news also turned out to be good news, because my non-involvement with the opposite sex in school left me free for the unexpectedly happy change that was to come.
Charley and Rubin, the other two Musketeers, had been trying to persuade me to join a Zionist youth group they belonged to, but the idea didn't particularly interest me. However, I did accept an invitation to a Saturday night party at the group's meeting room in the spring of 1943, when we were in our seventh semester. In the course of the evening a young lady with big brown eyes seemed to take a special interest in me, we spent a lot of time talking, and by the time the party was over, I did join the group, to Charley and Rubin's great satisfaction. You may imagine my disappointment when, coming to the meetings every Friday evening, I discovered that there were two branches of the group in the Bronx, and Miss Brown-eyes belonged to the other branch, so that I never saw her at the meetings. I found out her address and visited her at home, which seemed to surprise her quite a bit. The more I talked with her the clearer it became that she had been part of a little conspiracy with Charley and Rubin to get me into the organization and didn't really find me extraordinarily interesting. But I was not to be discouraged as easily as all that. When I learned that she had difficulty with mathematics and Spanish in her high-school classes, I found the perfect justification for visiting her more frequently. Although she did not exhibit nearly as much romantic interest as I had hoped, she did appreciate the scholastic help, and I did help her to get good marks in school. I was certain that persistence would be enough to make her recognize my sterling personal qualities, and when the group asked for volunteers to be counselors and other workers at its summer camp in the Catskills, I volunteered eagerly, knowing that she had been there the summer before. I was firmly convinced that proximity for two whole months would improve our personal relationship immensely.
The beginning of July 1943 found me working at camp as a waiter, with Charley, Rubin, and fifteen or twenty other members from both branches of the group. But oh, bad news! The camp workers from the other group did not include Miss Brown-eyes. That summer she had decided to stay awayperhaps because proximity to me for two months was exactly what she wanted to avoid. Whatever her reason, this piece of bad news soon became the very best bad news of my whole life.
Since I was committed for the whole summer, I did my best to steer my thoughts away from Miss Brown-eyes and enjoy the summer activities, learn to dance the hora, sing Hebrew songs, refresh the little Hebrew I remembered from my last year in Hungary, and get better acquainted with the members of the other Bronx branch, both male and female. About the beginning of August I started paying closer attention to a nice-looking young lady named Miriam, with long black hair and harlequin glasses, and spending a lot of my time with her. The two of us took long walks along the back roads in the afternoons when we were both free, I walked around the grounds with her in the evening and showed her the stars and constellations, and when she told me that she would like to row her parents around the lake when they came to visit on a weekend in late August, I promised to take her out on the lake in the late evening and teach her how to row. She never did learn how to row, but I can honestly say that the evening hours we spent in the boat were not wasted. I will be eternally grateful to Miss Brown-eyes for two things: first, for tricking me into joining the group, and second, for not showing up at camp.
When we returned to the city after Labor Day, the group combined the two Bronx branches into one, so that I saw Miriam every Friday evening and escorted her home by trolley car afterwards. She was a good student in most of her high school subjects, but geometry and French were her weakest, and I was very happy to tutor her. We spent many hours sitting at the kitchen table in the late evenings after her parents had gone to sleep, and the math and French lessons were much more effective than the rowing lessons had been, but even so, we still had some time after the lessons to relax and get better acquainted. By the end of January 1944, when the school term ended, we had a definite understanding that unlike the other half dozen camp romances, which had ended with the summer, ours was never going to end.
I graduated from Stuyvesant that month. Since my father did not earn enough to pay college tuition, I started my pre-engineering studies in February at City College, which was tuition-free. I had a full program of required subjects, and adding a language course would have put me over the allowable limit of officially credited courses. But I wanted to learn German wellafter all, there was a war on and it could be usefuland I persuaded Dr. Süsskind, who taught the 9 AM first-year German class to let me audit, participating in the classroom work but getting no credit. His first words when we started the semester were: "How many of you know Yiddish?" Half of us held up our hands (I had learned a little Yiddish since meeting Miriam's family), and he thundered, "FORGET IT! It may help you understand German a little better, but it will prevent you from ever speaking it correctly!" (This phenomenon had also hit Stuyvesant boys from Italian families who had chosen Italian as their required language, thinking that the Sicilian or Neapolitan they spoke at home would make the course easy; in fact, it made the course harder.)
The German book we used was Evans and Röseler's College German, consisting of 21 lessons, each of which Dr. Süsskind divided into three days' work, according to a rigid schedule. As a result, when his father died and he had to be out for three days of mourning, the other students asked me to conduct the class for those three days, and so did the students in the ten o'clock class when I told them what the situation was. I called the students to the board for the prescribed exercises and corrected them, I gave explanations on any puzzling points of grammar, and when Dr. Süsskind returned, the class was able to continue on schedule. This was my first taste of anything resembling college-level language teaching, and I found it quite enjoyable.
During my last term at Stuyvesant I had applied, on Mr. Laguardia's recommendation, for the Pulitzer Free Scholarship, which was awarded to ten boys from New York City public high schools every year; the amount was $1,000, payable at the rate of $25 during each month of a four-year college program, but if the winner of the scholarship decided to go to Columbia University, he could go there tuition-free. Applicants had to pass tests in English, mathematics, a natural science, and a foreign language. I felt confident that my knowledge of French would carry me through with success, but in the spring of 1944 the foreign-language test was not in French but in Spanish, and I mentally blessed Stanley and Mr. Laguardia for making it possible for me to pass it. I did well on all the tests, passed the subsequent interview, and transferred at the end of the term from City to Columbia. In 1944 Columbia had a program of four-month terms because so many students were being drafted into the Army, and this meant that I could start my second term of college in July instead of waiting until September, as I would have had to do at City. What is more, if a student was drafted before the end of the four months, he could take final examinations at the end of three months and get credit for a full term.
My father finally obtained his American citizenship, but not until I had passed my eighteenth birthday, which meant that I was not eligible to become a citizen on his papers. This piece of bad news turned out to be a glorious blessing. Since the United States was at war not only with Germany but also with Hungary, I was an enemy alien, and therefore the Selective Service System sent me a questionnaire on which I had to fill in some relevant personal data and answer the all-important question: would I be willing to fight against the Hungarian government? Well, the Hungarian government at that time was completely under the thumb of the Nazis, and so the answer I sent back to Washington was an enthusiastic "Yes." But this procedure took about two weeks, which meant that I was not drafted until October; thus I was able to take advantage of Columbia's generous system and enter the Army with not one but two terms of college under my belt. The consequence was that during my 17-week basic training to become an infantry rifleman, I was given an opportunity to apply for the Army Specialized Training Program, under which soldiers who had completed at least two terms of college could be sent to a university to become engineers.
During basic training, three members of our company were called down to Infantry Replacement Training Center Headquarters for interviews to reconfirm that we were willing to fight against Germany, Spain, and Hungary, respectively, and having answered yes, we were sent by bus from Camp Blanding, Florida to Federal District Court in Ocala, Florida, together with about a hundred other soldiers, and became American citizens on January 26, 1945. So I had enjoyed the one and only advantage of non-citizenship just long enough to reap the precious reward of a two-week delay, and now I had all the advantages of citizenshipthe best of both worlds. Most of the hundred naturalized with me were from the New York area, and it turned out that I knew no fewer than six of them, from the City College German class, the Zionist youth group, and other New York contacts.
While most of the men in my training company were sent to the battlefields of Europe in February 1945, two of us were sent to the University of Kentucky to become civil engineers after completing three 3-month terms But the third term ended at the end of November 1945, when the war was over and the Army no longer needed so many civil engineers. The whole company of engineering students went from Lexington, Kentucky to San Antonio, Texas, where we became part of Headquarters Company, Fourth Army, and all of us were assigned to various offices for the rest of our Army time. On the basis of my knowledge of French, Spanish, German, and Hungarian, I was assigned to Intelligence (G-2), where I learned shorthand, typing, and filing and earned successive promotions over a nine-month period as the non-coms above me were discharged on service points, so that I became a Technician Fourth Grade, which entitled me to answer the phone legitimately with "G-2, Sergeant Schwartz!"
It was at Fourth Army Headquarters that I did my first bits of professional translation, all of which actually had some degree of military relevance. For example, there was a letter in Spanish that read: "Dear General Wainwright: Here is a picture of the two of us taken when you visited me in Mexico last month.[signed:] General Quiñones." Another Spanish letter read: "Dear General Wainwright: Could you send me something you wore in Japanese prison camp? I already have your autograph." A letter in French had to be translated for a colonel who had made friends in Luxembourg. I had to read a fifteen-page single-spaced mimeographed bulletin in German that had been circulated by an organization in Brazil, so that I could tell my superiors whether the organization was a bunch of neo-Nazis; as far as the evidence in the bulletin went, they were not. And what I translated from Hungarian was a printed set of instructions for a light meter that a warrant officer had acquired (I will not say "liberated") in Hungary. Not exactly documents of earth-shaking importance, but it was unquestionably professional translation; what is more, working in Intelligence got me a "Secret" clearance, which came in handy in my civilian years.
I was discharged at the end of July 1946 and went back to Columbia to continue my engineering studies. Besides studying at Columbia Engineering School, I spent some of my time studying foreign languages, which was much less like work than what I did at school and much more like fun. I finished my study of the Italian textbook and went through Williams's Introductory Portuguese Grammar, a slim but very informative volume, which was easy for someone who knew Spanish and two other Romance languages. Later, inspired by the novel and movie "My Friend Flicka," about a horse whose name meant "girl" in Swedish, I bought a textbook of Swedish and went through it in about six months. After Swedish, Norwegian took less than two months, and armed with these two, I went through a short textbook of Danish in less than two weeks. Of course, I made frequent visits to the second-hand bookshops on Fourth Avenue and equipped myself with some serviceable dictionaries in each of the languages I had studied.
I also worked after class, partly as a stenographer and typist in a law firm and partly tutoring a high-school student named Bobby who was doing poorly in all his subjects, particularly math and French. I also resumed going to Zionist meetings on Friday nights and seeing Miriam on other occasions as well, so that we were engaged early in 1947 and were married on August 31, 1947 with Charley as my best man, Rubin, Stanley, and a couple of Pulitzer winners from Columbia in attendance, and Dave photographing the proceedings. We spent our honeymoon in Quebec, where I found out that I could speak French well enough to make people understand me but had a lot more trouble understanding them. Then we returned to the Bronx and settled down to what was considered a normal married life for many veterans in those days.
We lived down the block from my parents, in a former apartment building broken up into furnished rooms. We had a tiny sink in the room itself, but the bathroom and kitchen were down the hallthe kind of living conditions suitable only for young couples who were very much in love. Miriam earned most of the money as a bookkeeper, stenographer, and typist, but I made a reasonable contribution by working in the law office after classes and tutoring Bobby. As a married veteran going to college, I also received $90 a month subsistence from the G. I. Bill of Rights. When Miriam's lawyer cousin, who knew many real-estate people, found an apartment for us in the spring of 1948three rooms, fourth-floor walkup, at $42 a month (yes, the value of money was different in those days)we were ecstatic.
The only unfortunate event of that spring was that since my Columbia schedule had changed in February, I had to stop working at the law office, because the hours when they needed me were now class hours. But I soon found another after-class job with an office-temporaries company (a novelty in those days), which sent me to different offices on different days at a rate of pay that was not much less than what I had received at the law office. One afternoon they sent me to work for a man in the Wall Street area who had on his desk a copy of Koolhoven's Teach Yourself Dutch. After glancing through it, I decided to buy myself a copy. I went through the book in about three months, and while it took a lot more reading for me to learn Dutch well, this was a good start. When my Columbia term ended, the G. I. Bill subsistence ended with it, and so in June I started working full days for the temp agency.
That's when disaster struck.
One warm June day, when I was working as a temp at a travel agency, I found that my wrists were starting to hurt as I typed. I quit work for the day and went home, hoping that the next day would find me as good as newbut it didn't. I called the agency and told them that I could not work on a manual typewriter for the immediate future, and they were considerate enough to send me to an office that had IBM Electromatic typewriters, with a much lighter touch than a manual machine. I lasted over a week at that office, but I finally had to stop because even the Electromatic was too hard for my wrists, and in fact I found it painful even to write with a pen. I went to an orthopedist, who told me that I was suffering from tenosynovitisinflammation of the tendon sheaths of both wristsand informed me too late that it was a common occupational disease of typists, particularly those who had to work on older machines, which of course I had done in some of my temp work. He said that if I was lucky, I might improve in a few months, but then again, it might take years. Very bad news indeed, and it was quite a long time before I found out what monumentally good news it would eventually prove to be.
The disability was undoubtedly work-related, but all I got from the Workmen's Compensation Board was $500, which did not go very far. The high-school year was over, so that I was no longer tutoring Bobby and thus had no income of my own at all. So I spent the summer doing something that was both enjoyable and remunerative: I took three courses at Columbia, in French, Italian, and Portuguese, which entitled me to the full $90 a month subsistence payment.
Bobby's uncle worked at the Engineering Societies Library, and I asked him what I could do with a knowledge of ten foreign languages. He said I should look through the Manhattan yellow pages and contact every translation agency I could find, and with luck I might get work from at least a few of them. I bought a second-hand Electromatic, had hundreds of resumes printed up by a downtown firm, and set out to follow his advice. I did indeed get a small number of translation assignments, since ten languages provide more opportunities than one or two, but it was evident that I would not get much income from translation as matters stood at that time. One of the firms that gave me some work was owned by Lewis Bertrand but was managed at the time by Henry Fischbach while Mr. Bertrand traveled all over the world. The work did not amount to much, but I was to find out later that "Great oaks from little acorns grow" was not just an empty saying.
My hands were not much better when the engineering courses resumed in September. I tried to make a go of it by asking other students to take their notes with carbon copies for me, but it did not work out very well, and within a week the decision was taken out of my hands when I fell ill with viral pneumonia and spent five and a half weeks at the Bronx Veterans Hospital. I never went back to engineering school and had to cast about for some new career that I could work at even with weak hands. Bad news indeed.
What could I do with the abilities I had? The most attractive idea was teaching languages at the university level. So I went back from Columbia Engineering School to Columbia College and took a program heavy on French, Spanish, and linguistics courses. However, since such a job might not be easy to find in the early stages, I wanted to prepare also for the possibility of teaching in high school, and that meant that I had to satisfy the New York City Board of Education requirement of 30 credits in education courses. I accumulated these courses at City College, Columbia, New York University, and Hunter College. The courses were not too difficult to pass, but I did not get the feeling that I was learning very much. What was worse, I found that New York City license tests for high-school language teachers were not given every year and I might have to wait a long time for the next one. I was advised to get into the city education system the quickest way possible, which was to get a license as an elementary-school teacher and transfer to the high-school level when the first opportunity arose. So after getting my Columbia A.B. degree in 1950, I took the license exam for elementary-school teachers (my hands were not back to normal, but they had at least improved enough for a limited amount of writing and typing) and passed it easily. I was assigned to Public School 2 in the Bronx, which was the oldest school building in the borough, if not the city, dating from about 1870.
My first day of work in the fall of 1950 was quite easy, consisting of a two-hour conference in which the principal welcomed the new teachers and gave them an idea of what they would have to do. The second day was when my fourth-grade class actually arrived, and before the end of that day I knew with absolute certainty that this was not for me. Bad news again. It was still early enough in the term for me to enroll in a course for student-teachers of high school mathematics. I applied for a course in the City College education department, but I was faced with more bad news. I was rejected because, according to the department, my English pronunciation was inadequate: I spoke with a hissing "s." What to do? There was still one chance; on the last possible day, I applied for a student-teaching course at Hunter College, and I was accepted. I was assigned to William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx, where I would sit at the back of a geometry class for every lesson, teach some practice lessons myself, and presumably be ready to teach mathematics in high school when an opportunity came along. After a week of this course, things seemed to be working out fairly well. But at that point a voice came out of the past: Henry Fishbach, having left the Bertrand office, was setting up a new bureau of his own, which he called The Language Service. Remembering that I knew ten foreign languages and that the few assignments I had done for him had been done quite well, he asked me to come into the new venture with him. I told him that I could not work with him in the mornings because I was student-teaching at Taft, but I would be glad to go directly from Taft to his office and work every afternoon.
Working at The Language Service, typing one or at most two hours a day, was a great pleasure for me. Besides translating miscellaneous assignments from most of the languages I knew, we also did a great deal of work on the preparation of package inserts in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese to accompany the bottles of Pfizer's new antibiotic Terramycin. Native translators translated Pfizer's lengthy text into those four languages, and then we proofread them at the office in collaboration with the translators and made whatever changes were necessary. But by the end of four months I found that my wrists could not take even the limited amount of typing that I had to do, and I regretfully told Henry that I would be leaving at the end of January 1951.
What would I be doing? Here at last is where some good news came in. The other student teacher at the Taft math department told me that she was leaving teaching at the end of the term to go into industrial mathematics, a concept I had never heard of until then. When she explained that the Hunter College employment office had found good jobs for math majors to work in a computer laboratory at Reeves Instrument Corporation in Manhattan, I found the idea very appealing. In February 1951 I enrolled at Columbia for six courses in nothing but mathematics, including courses in digital computing and numerical methods. After this I applied for a job at Reeves, andmiracle of miracles!I got it. It had taken a succession of bad-news events to bring me, by a very roundabout route, to a desirable goal whose very existence had been unknown to me a year earlier.
Project Cyclone, a computing center on 91st Street in Manhattan, maintained and staffed by Reeves and subsidized by the Navy, simulated differential-equations problems that represented industrial and military situations of various kinds. The variables in the equationsthe thrust, wingspread, and other features of an airplane being designed, or the power, coolant flow rate, and emergency safety measures of a nuclear power plantwere represented by direct-current amplifiers interconnected to form a circuit governed by the differential-equation system representing the physical situation. Once the problem was set up on our analog computer, we could determine what change would result from making the power greater or lower, from changing the yaw, or pitch, or roll rate of an airplane, by simply turning a multiplying potentiometer to make the values larger or smaller, and connecting or disconnecting a patch cord going from one amplifier to another, and starting the computer. A computer run, ranging from a fraction of a minute to several minutes, would show the values of the relevant variables on moving-paper recorder graphs somewhat like electrocardiograms. The designers, who sometimes worked with us in the lab, would then decide which values were desirable and should be chosen for the final product. The work was diversified, challenging, and well paidmy initial rate in 1951 was $65 a week, which was considered quite acceptable for a beginner in those days.
An additional attraction of the job for me in particular was that one of the mathematicians working there was Dave Jagerman. We would often spend our lunch hour talking in Esperanto, so that Esperanto became the one language besides English and Hungarian in which I can consider myself truly fluent. When our co-workers were puzzled by our conversation, we would say "Learn Esperanto yourself and you can join init's very easy." But we never got any takers.
Most of the mathematicians who had only bachelor's degrees took evening courses, generally at New York University which, unlike Columbia, welcomed people who had full-time jobs. By 1956 I had my M.S. in mathematics and an increased salary to match, but I did not neglect my language studies. Besides French and German, I found that Russian was a useful language for mathematicians to know, since many textbooks had not yet been translated into English. I tried studying Russian by myself, but I found it too tough, and I decided to start with a Slavic language that was written in the Latin alphabet. I bought a copy of Patkaniowska's Teach Yourself Polish and studied it through, getting a good grounding in Polish but finding that it really was not all that much help in studying Russian from a textbook alone. So I enrolled in a crash course at NYU, five weeks at seven hours a week, with an excellent instructor; at the end of that course I was able to continue with the rest of the textbook by myself, followed by a set of Russian readers with vocabulary, similar to those I had used for French and Spanish. Then I was able to tackle Russian math textbooks and understand them.
I saw a classified ad in the New York Times which asked for translators to translate Russian articles from the Soviet Journal of Atomic Energy. The only thing I knew about nuclear power plants was what I had learned in simulating them at Project Cyclone, but fortunately we were living near what was then the Bronx campus of NYU, and I contacted Professor James Barker of the nuclear engineering department. I asked whether he would be interested in reading some Soviet articles months before they appeared in English translation, and he liked the idea. Every month from then on for a number of years, I received the Russian table of contents for the next issue and translated the titles over the telephone for Jim Barker, he selected the articles that interested him, and I asked the agency to send me one or more of those. I translated those as best I could, dictating into a tape recorder (a Webcor, six inches high and sixteen inches squarea far cry from the 2" by 4.5" hand-held Panasonic on which I'm dictating this profile) and indicating the portions that puzzled me; then I sent the carbon copy to Jim, he sent it back with corrections and explanations, and I sent the corrected copy to the agency. This arrangement made everybody happy: the agency got its translations, Jim got his early look at the material, and I got my money (also a far cry from present standards, at 3.8¢ per English word.) It encouraged me to go back into freelance translation after my regular working hours. I contacted a number of the agencies I had tried in 1948, and I did get a moderate number of assignments in various languages.
Of course, my first phone call went to Henry Fischbach, who had expanded The Language Service and moved it to larger quarters. He urged me to join the fledgling American Translators Association, and I did. My first ATA conference, in December 1961, was extremely modest in scope compared to the annual conferences of today. It lasted about three hours and was held in a hall at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science that accommodated several hundred. But the most important fact about that conference from my point of view was that the guest speakers were from the United Nations: an English translator, a French translator, and a Russian interpreter. (This was the first time I found out about translation work at the United Nationsup to then, like most people, I had thought only about interpreters, those amazing and highly publicized people behind the glass who listened to what diplomats were saying while telling their audience what those diplomats had said fifteen seconds earlier.) The guest speakers told us that the United Nations was actively seeking new translators, that an examination for English translators would be given in the spring of 1962, and that applications would be accepted in January 1962. The opportunity seemed to be the best I could ever imagine, and I submitted my application the next month.
Two months later a crushing blow struck Project Cyclone: the Navy had discontinued its subsidy, so that the 25-member staff had to be reduced to three, and I was number four on the list. If this news had come in November 1961, I would have been devastated. As it was, however, being confident about my United Nations prospects, I took the news with equanimity, went searching for a new job, and quickly landed one running the entire 200-amplifier analog-computer installationabout one-fifth the size of Project Cycloneat a manufacturing firm in New Jersey, while I waited for the job at the United Nations to materialize.
I felt a little nervous about the United Nations examinations I had to take, since they required a three-hour written test in translating from French in the morning and a three-hour written test in translating from Spanish in the afternoon. But I need not have worried: they were quite willing to let me dictate my translation, have it typed up, and then correct the draft, inasmuch as that was the way most translations were actually done at the Secretariat's Translation Division. So on Friday, April 13, 1962 I took the two tests and passed them. I have regarded Friday the thirteenth as a lucky day ever since. Even though I enjoyed computer work, I had every expectation of enjoying translation work much more. At the age of 36, I had found the ideal job for me, and I worked at it from September 1962 until May 1986.
September was a good month to enter the English Translation Section (the loftier designation "Translation Service" was not introduced until years later) because it gave me several weeks to get acclimated to my surroundings before the serious work of the General Assembly began after September 20. Those of you who have read Judy Langley's profile of July 1999 will remember that in addition to doing translation work, every translator in the English Service has to double as a précis-writer, preparing summary records, shortened versions of the proceedings of the Assembly's main committees. This presented a serious problem for me because most précis-writing was done on the basis of notes taken in the committee meetings, and my wrists were still too weak to take long detailed notes or do any long stretches of handwriting. Fortunately for me, the summary records of the First Committee (Political and Security Council Affairs) did not require note-taking because First Committee meetings were given the full treatment of verbatim records, like the plenary meetings of the General Assembly and the meetings of the Security Council. I was therefore assigned to prepare summary records of the First Committee, dictating them to be typed up in draft form and then correcting the drafts in red ink, an amount of writing that was not too much for me. I had the benefit of a successful precedent: one of the other two précis-writers on the First Committee was Louis Jay Herman, whose arthritic hands limited the amount of writing he could do. On most days, half of my hours were spent in preparing First Committee summary records, and the other half in translating summary records of the other committees from French or Spanish. Each half-day's "take" amounted to three or four single-spaced French or Spanish pages, making between 1,000 and 1,500 words. The General Assembly sessionlate September through mid-Decemberwas always a very busy time, but the 1962 session was busier than usual, because October brought the Cuban missile crisis. That was when I found out that the Secretariat was not an ivory tower isolated from the world. We stayed up later and worked harder than would have been the case in any other year even during the Assembly session, and we got more excitement than any of us had bargained for.
After I had corrected my drafts, all of my work, whether English summary records or translations of any kind, was revised by a more experienced translator before it was issued in final form, and the revised drafts were returned to me before being placed in the files. The revisers pointed out my errors in United Nations terminology, my misunderstandings of the foreign terms, my use of American instead of British spelling in various places, and numerous other defects. From time to time a reviser could find a few minutes to go over a revised text with an inexperienced translator and give various pointers that went beyond the revision of an individual document. It was invaluable experience, and every new translator was grateful for it. When time permitted, even the texts of translators who were not such novices as I was were revised in the same way, because two heads are always better than one and four eyes catch more errors than two. A reviser would normally check a summary record that had been prepared or translated by three or four précis-writers or translators and thus could get a better overview of the entire record than any individual translator had.
Once in a while even the revision system failed to catch a dangerous mistake. On one occasion I was translating the last portion of a French summary record of the First Committee, in which the representative of the Soviet Union objected vehemently to the statement (we never called them "speeches") made earlier in the meeting by the Argentine representative. I borrowed a copy of the early part of the summary record and could not understand the reason for the Soviet objection. There was no reference to the Soviet Union in the Argentine statement; the French précis-writer of that portion had put simply: "The representative of Argentina narrated an anecdote about a disarmament conference between the animals of the forest." Fortunately, the Spanish text of the Argentine statement had been attached to the summary-record text, so that I could read the entire anecdote. The wild boar had called for the abolition of poison fangs, the wolf had demanded the abolition of tusks, the eagle had demanded the abolition of canine teeth, and each animal wanted to abolish the weapons which he did not possess. Finally, the bear stood up and said: "My friends, let us abolish all of these things and join together in a great big hug!" Apparently the summary record was too long for one French reviser, so that the French reviser of the part relating to the Argentine statement did not know that there had been a Soviet reply later on. I had to show the text to the French précis-writer and inform her that even though her summary of the Argentine statement looked all right by itself, it was absolutely necessary to include an explicit reference to the bear.
My years in engineering school and in the computer lab stood me in unexpectedly good stead. If a foreign text of a scientific or technical nature came in, it was usually assigned to me, and over the years I worked on the translations of a French book on ground water in Africa, a Spanish book on earthquake-resistant buildings, a long Polish report on modular construction, and portions of the annual Soviet report on space activities. After a dozen years, when I myself became a reviser, I always revised the entire Soviet space report, which had been prepared by three or four translators. Surprisingly, no fewer than three translators, who translated well from Russian in other respects, made the same gross error with the Russian expression Mirovoi Okean; since mir is the Russian word for "peace," it seemed obvious to them that Mirovoi Okean was the Pacific Ocean. I had to point out to each of them that the word mir in Russian means both "peace" and "the world," that the Russian adjective for "pertaining to peace" is mirnyi, and that mirovoi means "pertaining to the world," so that Mirovoi Okean means "the World Ocean," that is to say, all the oceans of the world combined and considered as a single ocean. None of them had remembered that the Russian expression for the Pacific Ocean has nothing to do with the word for "peace" but is Tikhii Okean, or "the Quiet Ocean."
Even the best translators, at the United Nations as anywhere else, are not immune from occasional gross mistakes. Two of our best translators, each of whom served later as Chief of Section or Chief of Service, made conspicuous errors that caused some unpleasantness at meetings. One of them had looked at the abbreviation OAG and misread it as OON, an abbreviation that occurs in Russian texts a hundred times more often; as a result, his translation of a Soviet document relating to the 1965 Dominican crisis referred to "United States forces using the flag of the United Nations as a cover" instead of "the flag of the Organization of American States," which was referred to in the document. The other translated a Cuban representative's statement as condemning "social discrimination." This created an incident de séance during which the representative of the United Kingdom said, "I would defend to the death the right of the representative of Ireland to discriminate socially against me." The Cuban representative had, of course, referred to discriminación racial and not discriminación social. And I can remember my own unfortunate experience with the Russian word sudoustroistvo. In Russian sudo- is a prefix derived from the word sudno, meaning "ship," and ustroistvo means "structure" or "construction," so that I translated the word, which occurred without any helpful context, as "shipbuilding." Fortunately the person who looked over my translation caught the error in time and recognized that in this case the prefix sudo- came from the word sud, meaning "court," and that sudoustroistvo means "the structure of the judicial system," whereas "shipbuilding" is always sudostroenie. We're all vulnerable, but I was lucky enough to have my mistake caught before it went out in final form.
Peter Wheeler, in his July 2002 profile, talked about his problems with little things in United Nations terminology, such as prepositionsis it "on human rights," "of human rights," or "for human rights"? But trouble can be caused by even smaller things, such as hyphens. During the Dominican crisis, there was a lot of correspondence between U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Galo Plaza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and translators had to take extreme care about where to put and where not to put a hyphen.
As the years went by, I continued my study of new languages, mostly by self-study, and so I built up a collection including Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Czech, Icelandic, and Catalan, and I learned enough Belarusian (then called Byelorussian) and Ukrainian to translate the credentials of Byelorussian and Ukrainian diplomats who attended the sessions of the General Assembly. Since Chinese is an official language of the United Nations, every staff member has the right to study Chinese in classes at the Secretariat (on his own time, of course, staying late at work on class days), and I studied Chinese for three years, not only learning enough Chinese to translate United Nations documents but also gaining at least a minimal ability to converse in Chinese. Japanese is a language I learned when I was told in 1974 that I might have to go on mission to Osaka the following year; I studied a four-record Japanese course at home and then continued my Japanese studies at Japan House, which is on 47th Street, half a block from United Nations Headquarters. I learned some Slovene from an Austrian-Yugoslav treaty which I translated primarily from German, and Slovak from an Angolan-Czechoslovak treaty which I translated mainly from Portuguese.
There was one occasion when I had to translate a Bulgarian-Mongolian treaty on Social Security in which the Bulgarian and Mongolian texts were accompanied by a Russian text that would be decisive if the Bulgarian and Mongolian texts disagreed. I noticed that in one article the Bulgarian text referred to "two months," while the Russian referred to "two weeks." The only way to decide how to translate the article was to find out just what the Mongolian said. I went to the office of Georges Schmidt, the Chief of Terminology, who had previously been a French translator and was the multilingual phenomenon of the twentieth century. When asked how many languages he knew, he would reply that he had known 66 languages at one time or another, but never all at the same time because as he learned new ones, he forgot a few of the old ones." His name was in the Guinness Book of Records until his death in 1990. When I asked him whether he had any Mongolian textbooks he could lend me, he immediately went to a particular shelf among the many that adorned all the walls of his office, covering over 200 languages, and said "Here you are, a Mongolian textbook and a Mongolian-English dictionary. Take them with you, and you should be able in about three days to learn enough Mongolian to get the correct meaning of that particular article." He was right, and I found that the Mongolian text agreed with the Bulgarian and that the Russian text, included to eliminate discrepancies, was wrong. Sometimes diplomats outsmart themselves.
The United Nations Treaty Series consists of thousands of volumes, containing tens of thousands of treaties; every treaty registered with the Secretariat must be translated into English and French if those are not the official languages of the treaty, and having a large number of languages at my disposal, I spent a lot of my United Nations time translating treaties. If the subject had been dealt with in earlier treaties of the United Nations Treaty Series, we had to use previous models and copy the same wording wherever possible. This could lead to trouble when a translator found a model text that looked very much like the treaty he was translating but was not quite so much like it as he thought; in such cases the translation of a new treaty could wind up containing terminology or conditions reproducing those of the model because the translator had neglected to check those crucial words in the new treaty that differed from the model. This meant that the reviser of a treaty translation had to be extremely careful not to put ancient history into recent treaties. I discovered, however, that not only translators but the negotiating diplomats themselves often used previous models and could be just as negligent as translators could. I once had to translate a veterinary treaty between Austria and Hungary in which the German text specified that "cattle must be vaccinated not less than three months and not more than two weeks before shipment." I was saved from having to translate this absurdity by the Hungarian text, which had it right: "not more than three months and not less than two weeks." However, the next Austrian veterinary treaty was with Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian text had exactly the same absurdity as the German text. On consulting the Treaty Section to ask what could be done about this problem, I was told that it would be reasonable for me to translate it so that it made sense in English and to make sure that the French translator did likewise but that no power on earth could persuade either Vienna or Sofia to change the text as it stood. And that is how it appears in the treaty volume to this very day.
Besides full translations of documents, I had to summarize a lot of letters in many languages from all over the world to the Organization, mostly addressed to the Secretary-General. Some of them were serious complaints about violations of human rights in various countries, some were serious discussions of international affairs, but many were from people who were badly mixed up mentally or were at least very naïve about what the United Nations was and was not qualified to do. Some letter-writers complained that they were unjustly confined to mental hospitals, while others said that they were being attacked by mysterious rays controlled either by their government or by some forces from outer space. One letter in Swedish informed the Organization that before his death in a plane crash, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld had appointed the writer as his successor; he attached a statement purporting to bear Hammarskjöld's signature, but the credibility of his communication was weakened by the fact that both his letter and Hammarskjöld's statement were typed on the same typewriter, with the same purple ribbon, and bore signatures in very similar handwriting. A woman from the Netherlands wrote of her deep love for the Secretary-General and attached not a photocopy but the original of her Indonesian divorce certificate to prove that she was available; I did not know any Indonesian at the time, but I did go to the library and consult an Indonesian dictionary to confirm that the document attached was indeed a divorce certificate. Many of the serious letters addressed to the Secretary-General were in Esperanto, since the writers assumed that if there was any place in the world where Esperanto was known, it would have to be United Nations Headquarters, and so long as I was there, that assumption was justified.
Representatives of Member States who speak at a meeting of any United Nations body are required to use one of the official languages, which were originally English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese but now also include Arabic. Any representative who wishes to speak in a different language must first submit a translation of his statement into one of the official languages, so that interpretation into all the official languages will be available at the meeting. As a result, when a Head of State or Government or other high governmental official came to speak at Headquarters, the mission of that Member State sometimes asked members of the English Service to translate the statement into English in advance of the meeting. I can remember a couple of occasions when I worked as part of a team (on our own time and being paid by the mission) on the statement of the Italian Foreign Minister, and later I translated the entire statement of the President of Brazil from Portuguese into English as a private assignment. The incident in the Hitchcock movie "North by Northwest" that shows a Hungarian representative speaking his own language and replying in emphatic terms to something another representative has just said, while elsewhere at Headquarters somebody is being murdered, makes for interesting cinema but could never really happen.
When President Mitterrand of France spoke at Headquarters, Laurie Treuhaft and I (Laurie was president of the New York Circle of Translators some years ago and is still a member of the English Service) went to the French mission to prepare an English translation so that it could be circulated at the meeting the following day without having to wait for the English Service's official translation. We had to wait four hours before even getting a look at the French text because the President was very fussy about his words and would not let them out of his hands until he was fully satisfied with them. As a result, we did not finish our portions of the translation until well after midnight, at which point the mission officials took the translation without giving us time for rechecking it because the copies had to be prepared for the morning meeting. We both felt a certain lack of artistic satisfaction, but the mission scrupulously did pay us for our waiting time as well as our working time.
Although I have never become a foreign-language teacher, I did come close to it in a sense when I had to give a brief course to a group of English Service members who had learned Russian but had not had much experience in translating Russian documents. I assigned previously translated documents each week and asked the novice Russian translators to submit their own translations; after I had gone through their papers, I would have a meeting with the whole group and explain what needed to be corrected, so that they could learn not only from their own mistakes but also from those of the others. Naturally, the course was in addition to the regular English Service work, both theirs and mine, and at the end of several months they had all learned quite a bit and I had had a lot of fun and, as is inevitable in teaching, learned a few things myself.
In May 1986, when I committed the unforgivable sin of reaching the age of 60, at which all permanent staff members below the level of Assistant Secretary-General had to retire, I felt some concern as to what I would do afterwards, but again, I need not have worried. After 24 years as a permanent staff member, I received an annual pension of 24/55 of my final year's salary, besides which I was allowed to work at Headquarters for several months during the year on short-term contracts, so that financially we had no serious problems. Some of the short-term contracts were at the English Service, but some had me working as a reviser in the English Verbatim Reporting Unit. There I revised final versions of the English verbatim records, which meant correcting the errors made by the typists, those made by the verbatim reporters who had dictated to the typists, those made by the interpreters whose texts the verbatim reporters used for their dictation, and those made by the diplomats themselves. Both in Verbatim and in the English Translation Service, we had to watch out for diplomats' carelessness in terminology. It was quite all right for diplomats to use colloquial expressions like "the British" or "the Americans," but précis-writers, verbatim reporters, and revisers had to refer to "the United Kingdom" and "the United States" in every case. Peter Wheeler's trouble with "the Lao People's Democratic Republic" was just one example of the tricky problems involving the names of Member States; we also had to know what a country's name was at different times in history. When the representative of Spain reviewed the history of Gibraltar, even if he referred to "los británicos" or "los ingleses," in my summary I had to take special care to refer to the invasion of Spain by England in 1704, the Treaty of Utrecht with the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1713, the disputes between Spain and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century, and the problems they continued to have in the latter part of the twentieth century with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I made the rounds of the translation agencies again, and this time, when I could boast 24 years of experience with the United Nations, the responses were more favorable than when I had made my previous efforts. In addition, the Contractual Translations Office of the Secretariat generally gave preference to freelance translators who had been permanent staff members, so that what was a disappointment to Peter Wheeler has been something that gives me a definite advantage. Many of the texts assigned to freelance translators by the Contractual Translations Office are international treaties, where a knowledge of nonofficial languages is very useful, but there are a considerable number of translations from official languages as well. When I translate for other clients, I omit from my repertory the languages from which I work more slowly, since I no longer have a regular yearly salary but work on a per-word basis instead, so that time is indeed money. But when the United Nations asked me, I have also undertaken work from the "slow" languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and Icelandic. Not having the Secretariat's English Typing Unit available to me, I give my dictations to my son Danny, who also lives in the Bronx. He is primarily a freelance computer consultant and technician and has procured, installed, updated, and repaired computer equipment for a number of members of the New York Circle of Translators as well as for me, but he has also been doing all my typing, except when the job is so short that I can type it myself.
For some time I felt sorry that I had not come to the United Nations much earlier in my life. If I had realized that translators' jobs were available, I could have started working in the English Section in the early 1950s, which would have meant that I not only had a longer period of service, and therefore a higher fraction of my final salary as my pension, but also that that final salary would have been higher after a longer period of service. But I was disabused of this idea by a visit from Lou Herman, who came to the English Service office in 1992 to show us a copy of the Guinness Book of Records with his name in it. When I told him of my regrets about not having come to the United Nations until 1962, he told me that I should be very glad I had come so late. When he had come to the Secretariat in 1958, his inability to take handwritten notes had threatened to be a serious obstacle, because every other translator could serve as a précis-writer in any committee, whereas he could prepare summary records only from the First Committee verbatim records. The chief of the English Section finally decided that despite this handicap, the fact that he had worked for years on a political journal and that he knew dozens of languages justified hiring him on a trial basis, in the hope that his special abilities in translation would outweigh his disadvantages in précis-writing. It was Lou's success during his probationary period that paved the way for my being accepted in 1962; if I had come to the Secretariat in the early 1950s, I would have been rejected. So once again, what I thought to be bad newsapplying years later than I could haveturned out to be good news, since it meant applying at the only time I could possibly have been accepted. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.
"But why does the book mention you with only 25 languages?" I asked Lou. "You know 35."
"The Guinness Book is interested not in how many languages a person knows, but how many he has used professionally. I have never done professional translation except at the English Service, and the United Nations doesn't have much use for Ancient Greek, Old Church Slavic, or Gothic."
"Well, in that case I would qualify with a larger number," I said. "I have only 31, but I've used all of them here."
"Sure you could," he answered." But would you do me a favor? Don't contact Guinness until my name has been in the book for at least a full year."
We agreed on that, and at the beginning of 1993 I wrote Guinness in London and sent them confirmations signed by our then Chief of Service and by her predecessor. The Guinness people were duly convinced, and they sent me a certificate calling me "the greatest U.S. linguist," which I keep framed at home. Of course, they were using the word "linguist" in the British sense, meaning simply a person who knows many languagesnot a philologist, which Lou Herman was but I was not. And so upon the publication of the 1994 Guinness book (American Bantam edition) I found on page 391 the statement: "Alexander Schwartz of New York City worked with 31 languages as a translator for the United Nations between 1962 and 1986." It was a satisfying feeling.
But oh, horrors! Directly above that sentence I found a photograph of the General Assembly hall at Headquarters, and the caption referred to "an assembly of the United Nations." How could they make such a mistake? The United Nations does not have a number of assemblies; it has only the General Assembly, and the caption should have read "a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly." Finding this glaring error made me wonder whether there might be others, so I went through the entire eight-page "Language" section and then the first 160 pages of the book, and the number of mistakes I found astonished me. The shortest navigable trans-Pacific distance was said to be the distance from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Bangkok, Thailand; Newfoundland was called the largest island in North America, disregarding Baffin and Ellesmere; a reference was made to "eastern Antarctica," which is a meaningless expression, since on most parallels of latitude in Antarctica you can travel forever in an easterly direction and never reach any part of the continent that can be called "eastern"; sea cliffs in Maine that are 100 feet high were called the highest in the United States, immediately below a paragraph which mentioned 3,000-foot cliffs in Hawaii; the Latin name of the mallard duck was given as Meleagris gallopavo, which is actually the name for the turkey; there was a reference to Brno, Slovakia, even though Brno is actually in Moravia; the volume of a mountain mass was given in square miles, while an astronomical distance was given as 5.8 x 1020, without specifying any units at all; and there were many examples of misspelled names, contradictory measurements on different pages, and many mistranslations and misspellings of foreign (and sometimes English) words.
I sent a long but only partial list to Guinness in London, suggesting that someone should check the text for errors of this kind before the final version of the book was published. They wrote me back saying that they had never realized how many errors there were and that I seemed to be the best person to do the checking. Over the next three years I proofread the galleys of nine out of the eleven chapters of the Guinness Book, and while I could not possibly have corrected all the mistakes, I feel reasonably confident that after I corrected the galleys, the published book was substantially more correct than when I had started. It was a job that truly combined fun and profit.
The Guinness Book is by no means the only annually published reference book in which many mistakes are likely to occur. When I tried one of the standard almanacs published in the United States, I found quite a few absurdities: the latitudes of the North and South Poles were given as 0° North and 0° South; there was a page that listed the populations of the 50 states and their relative ranking in order of decreasing population, but the population figures given on the page proved that the rankings given on the same page were wrong in a number of cases; and a biography of Andrew Jackson described him as being so disgusted with life in Washington that he retired from the Senate in 1797a year when the city of Washington did not yet exist. When I contacted the editor, he wrote me back saying that it was obvious that the book was sadly in need of proofreading, but he could not persuade the publishers to appropriate the money for the job. But the next year's edition had the latitudes of the poles correctly stated, and the contradiction between state populations and rankings was eliminated by simply omitting the rankings entirely, which means that my letter did do at least a little good. When I looked at other American almanacs and at similar books printed in Britain, they proved equally unreliable. So beware of putting too much faith in annual reference booksit's a jungle out there!
The thing most important to translators about the Guinness Book, however, is that it has been translated into many languages, published in many countries. The London firm has nothing to do with those translations, and I have never proofread any of them, but I did buy translations into three languages and found, as you might expect, that besides the errors in the English text, translation errors also crept in. I'll mention just a few of them because they illustrate different types of danger that await the unwary translator.
In the "Transport" chapterthe only one (apart from the huge "Sports" chapter) that I did not proofread in Englishthe highest price ever paid for a license plate was said to have been paid for a 1994 Hong Kong license plate bearing the number 9. The reason given in one of the translations was that "The Chinese word for 'dog' sounds like the English word 'nine' and 1994 was the Year of the Dog." The translator had misunderstood the English words "'Nine' sounds like the word 'dog' in Chinese." What the writer of the English text had meant was: "In Cantonese the words for 'dog' and '9' sound exactly alike." Moral: If the source-language text is ambiguous, don't assume you know which meaning is the correct onefind out.
A second case, in which the English wording was exactly correct, concerned the extremely heavy casualties suffered in the Second World War (according to the translation) by "the center of the German Army Group on the Eastern Front." The English text had read "German Army Group Centre"that is to say, Armeegruppe Mittel, one of three German Army Groups, between Group North and Group South. Moral: Look out for nouns that can turn out to be modifiers. (This danger is most likely to arise in translations from English, which often uses a succession of nouns and adjectives without any helpful prepositions to show which noun an adjective modifies; another example in the book was the translation of "the Great Mississippi River Bridge" as "the bridge over the Great Mississippi River.)
The third error that stood out in my mind was not the fault of the English original in any way. It related to a giant snail which was shown in a photograph that took up both the left-hand page and the facing right-hand page in the large hard-cover British edition, showing the snail as 16.5 inches long The caption read: "Actual Size." Unfortunately, while the translated version of the book was also large, it was not as large as the original; thus, despite the translator's perfectly correct rendering of the English caption, the printing stage that followed the translation stage betrayed him and showed the snail as about 14.5 inches long, making everyone involved in the whole operation look silly. Moral: If you possibly can, find out just how your words are going to be used and adjust them if needed.
A final note: The length of this profile may surprise a lot of people, and I must resort to Horace Greeley's explanation of an outlandishly long editorial: "I didn't have time to be brief." I thought the profile would take just a few pages, but the more I dictated the more things popped into my head, so I figured I would get it all printed up and then trim the draft down drastically. But just when I was ready to do that, the Hungarian-Estonian treaty the United Nations had promised me in May arrived, together with four previously unannounced treaties in five languages, all of them marked "extremely urgent," and I had to give that work priority. When I told Gabe Bokor that I could not shorten the profile by the mid-June deadline, he assured me that the unusual length would not prevent it from appearing because the Translation Journal, being a web publication, is not restricted by space limitations the way one printed on paper would be. "If it's interesting," he said, "they'll read it." I hope that I have come at least reasonably close to living up to his words.