he first thing that comes to my mind isdo as I say, don't do as I did. What worked when I first thought of becoming a translator won't work anymore today. Allow me to elaborate:
The following is not your typical profile. There are no prestigious learning institutions in my past, nor did I ever publish. Here I was, 39 years old, my youngest of three children in 8th grade, looking to land a job for the first time in my life. I took stock. Just what did I have to offer a prospective employer?
I had just finished some secretarial training, shorthand, typing, office machinesthey even offered keypunch in those days. My instructor had told me, 'don't learn that! Otherwise, you will be doing this kind of work from here on!' That did not sound too promising. So I complied. One day, after some soul searching, I had a brilliant idea: I know another language, so I will become a translator! I got my telephone book and looked under the heading Translations. Surprisingly, I discovered only a few entries, so I zeroed in on the biggest agency ad listed there. I went downtown and found the address. The place did not look too promising, but I forged ahead, ready to offer my services. The man running the office (the only person there) gave me a good look and asked: "What is your specialty: international banking, electrical or mechanical engineering, manufacturing, medical, pharmaceutical, chemical or legal?" My jaw dropped a few feet! Like most people, I had never given the matter any thought. It had not occurred to me that some expertise in fields outside of language might be required. The man was either desperate for someone who knew German, or I did not look quite as stupid as I felt. He gave me some work to do: the articles of confederation for an order of monks, some chemical correspondence for a company called Aquachem, the specifications for a coronary care unit. For the first two, I felt I did a pretty good job. With the last one, I had misgivings. Consequently, I called the appropriate department at one of our local hospitals, found a very nice and knowledgeable technician and asked some pointed questions. Still, I had the feeling that my work would be pretty heavily edited by the man at the agency. I never found out because shortly after that he disappeared, leaving no forwarding address.
If you are going to mess with the report, my name comes off the paper because it is then no longer my translation!
Seeing that I was never going to get rich this way, since the assignments had been coming in rather sporadically, I decided to apply for the job of executive secretary to the head of the transportation department in a company recently formed by the Siemens Corporation of Germany and the Allis-Chalmers Corporation here in Milwaukee. I had grand ideas and delusions about being the right hand of the boss, etc. The reality, alas, was quite different. The man had just fired his previous secretary and was anxious to find another victim.
Among other product lines, Allis Chalmers had been building ship turbines during World War II and had been looking for a partner to keep the faltering turbine business going. Siemens, on the other hand, wanted access to the U.S. market. They decided to join forces. In explaining my duties, my boss-to-be handed me an engineering dictionary and said: "You will also be required to do translations for me. Here are the technical words. The rest you should know!" The dictionary was not even a particularly good one. It was the De Vriess-Hermann not known for being the most accurate dictionary on the market. Mr. De Vriess was rumored to rummage through the desks of his personnel, collect any terms he could find, regardless of origin, and add them to his book. Strangely enough, after I had completed some work for my boss, such as welding procedures, damage reports, design specifications, etc., he told me: "I can't figure it out. When my engineer from the job site tries to explain something to me, I don't know what he is talking about. When you tell me, I understand it although you are new here." It took me a while to discover that the engineer in question was German, and while his subject knowledge was excellent, his language skills left something to be desired. Consequently, when he mangled his syntax, the boss was stumped.
After one year, the boss fired me as well. Perhaps had I mixed up the orders for some of his office visitorscoffee with or without cream? Sugar or no sugar? Maybe I was not deferential enough. He never told me. I know my shorthand and typing skills were fair, but I probably was a lousy hostess. Had I wanted to serve refreshments, I most likely would have become a waitress. Nevertheless, I must have had something going for me because I found myself transferred to the translation department to join three other novices. The administrator there told me: "If you can do the job, it's yours." No one ever mentioned any credentials. I was working for Allis-Chalmers Power Systems for ten years, until the company moved to Florida. I was one of the last persons out the door, mainly due to my willingness to do what had to be done and not uttering the words: "that's not in my job description!" In short, I was useful to have around.
Let me explain briefly how it was possible for someone like me to succeed in a field that is misunderstood not only by the general population, butunfortunatelyalso by managers of big corporations. From the above, you may very well deduce that way back in the seventies, translation in the "real business world" was considered more of a clerical function than a profession.
I was born in what is presently the Czech Republic, from where the native German population was "ethnically cleansed" after World War II. We managed to rent a truck and flee before we could be forced out or murdered. This way, we were able to take at least a few possessions. At the time when I grew up at home, radio had been around for some time, but there was no TV and no computer to distract kids from focusing on their studies. Being an only child, with my father, an ophthalmologist, away in a hospital in the Austrian Alps, where he hoped to be cured of his tuberculosis, I spent my free time browsing through his library and reading, with great interest, everything I found. I was a curious child. I thus managed to expand my knowledge beyond the subjects usually taught in school. While the early years of my secondary education were not quite adequate (first year at home, while the bombs were falling, second year in rural Austria, third year in Munich), I was able from then on to stay at least in the same location, although I had to walk an hour to the train station and hop on the smoke-belching local to take me to school. We had English from 4th grade on, and four years of Latin with two years of Spanish as an elective course, which meant that we did not take it as seriously as we should have. Starting with a general subject called 'Science' in grade school, we had Chemistry and Physics throughout our secondary education, not to mention History and Geography. In addition to that, I read extensively. All of the classes were mandatory. The reason I mention these things is my firm belief that I would not have succeeded as well as I did without the good foundation I had received throughout my school days in spite of the rather dismal living conditions as a refugee in post-war Germany.
After my father had passed away, my mother remarried in 1954 and emigrated to the United States. My husband and I followed a year later. Married at age 20, I had by that time two small children, which put my plans for a career on the back burner for a while. Having become a citizen, I took classes whenever there was time to obtain my U.S. high-school diploma in preparation for eventually attending college. Then, as mentioned earlier, I went to work in 1973. The company had a tuition refund program. They would pay for the studies if the grade obtained was B or better. I took advantage of that offer by enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Campus, and attended one class per semester. It was a slow process, but when the company decided in 1984 to move to Florida for the first time, I had completed two years toward my degree. I had also become accredited by the American Translators Association in 1978, which meant a great deal to me and to my self-esteem. Not wanting to relocate, I stayed behind. I had paid for the third year of college from my savings when, strangely enough, the company returned to Milwaukee. It seems that they could not find the skilled workers they needed in rural Florida. I was rehired and continued to work but, having to care for my aging mother as well, could not find the time to finish that last year of my college education.
I was in my 19th year of working for the company by then called Utility Power Corporation, when Siemens bought the nuclear division of Westinghouse. Since most of the manufacturing plants and other facilities they owned were situated in Florida, Siemens decided to return there. I would have liked to finish my 20th year, but the contract offered was so vague as to be very unattractive. Had I signed, I would have lost my seniority and they might have assigned me to clean the restrooms. That adventurous I am not! As it turned out, we displaced workers were visited by Workforce Development, a federally funded state agency. When the representative asked us, "who needs to finish a degree?" my hand shot up, I was deemed eligible and the state paid for my last year of my education. I was elated to be asked to join the Golden Key honor society on the basis of my grades, and graduated with a degree in English as the oldest student of the year 2001. I had finally proven to myself that I was indeed legitimate and could call myself a professional. I then kept my promise to the head of the German Department at the university to teach German translation. That semester, I had six students, two of whom remained for a possible advanced class. The university, however, declined to fund so small a group.
A few weeks ago, I turned 70, and I am still working three days a week as assistant to the chair of the Natural Sciences Department at Cardinal Stritch University. On the side, I have just finished translating a 26-page article about the life of a 15th-century nun for the Franciscan Center here. I will continue to work for as long as I am able to, because I enjoy what I am doing. But now, I would like to talk about what I have learned during all these years on the job.
Although I have a strong interest in literature, I have been calling myself a technical translator (literature and publishing are hard fields to break into and I was not ready to collect all those rejection slips the publishers love to send out). When I first started to translate for my boss, I had no choice and no one to look over my shoulder to see what nonsense I might have been producing. When I joined the translation department, all our work was edited by another member of our team of four. We called it peer review and I learned, among other things, to edit fairly (there is more than one way to express oneself, and changing someone else's text merely because we might have said it differently was not a valid reason to do so). It was also understood that our ego would have to take a back seat to the necessity of getting the job done and getting it done well. We learned not to kill each other, but to remain polite and gracefully accept a better version. In the end, the project was the important thing and in a few years no one would ever know which portion of the text was written by whom. We were dealing with a lot of design documentation then and would be reviewing and upgrading the old information written years ago. Sometimes I caught myself thinking: "Did I really produce that stuff?" In retrospect, what I had written sounded so educated and knowledgeable, at least to me!
The technical field is a huge and multi-faceted one. No one can claim to be familiar with every aspect of it and most of it cannot be taught by any school. As in many other professions, company-specific knowledge is gained on the job. Since the engineers we were in contact with had no idea what was involved in our jobs, we had to be very careful to limit our questions to a few well-chosen ones to avoid being seen as wasting their precious time. We learned to be concise and to the point. Yet these people were our most valued resource and most were gracious enough about accommodating us.
As any serious translator knows, dictionaries are a tool of only limited usefulness. Most subject-specific dictionaries tend to be outdated by the time they are published. Sometimes they can do no more than give us a few less-than-satisfactory choices. If we were good at explaining what we thought the word in question might be called, we were rewarded by an engineer exclaiming: "Oh, I know what you are talking about! But we call it 'xyz'"
In some cases, when we were unable to solve a puzzle or describe a procedure hitherto unknown in the United States, we would call the author of the document in Germany, who was invariably happy to find someone to explain things to. The people there, although required to express themselves in English, did not always have the skills necessary to do it well, and were therefore glad that someone took the trouble to make them sound good to their American counterparts.
Unfortunately, libraries were of no use to us. First of all, we were not allowed to leave our desks, because we had to be available to answer the phone if someone at the construction site had questions. Then we realized that we were pretty much on the forefront of technology in our specific area and that what libraries had in stock was years behind our needs.
For this reason, we established our own company-specific terminology database and printed out our own dictionary for those of us who did not feel comfortable working with it online. As a matter of fact, I never saw any one of us use anything but the paper version, since it enabled us to view at least two pages of entries without cluttering up the screen. We did not have the luxury to operate two computers simultaneously.
Based on all the strategies we developed on the job, we became pretty good at what we were doing. It was therefore all the more galling to come across some individuals, who in their own little minds still considered our work to be somewhat of a clerical nature. And I had thought that the dinosaurs were extinct! Some species were alive and well in our midst. Nor was advanced age a prerequisite for antediluvian behavior. One young hotshot, fresh from engineering school, came into our office one day (I shared my cubicle with our database administrator at that time) and questioned the spelling of something she had provided him with. Turning to me she asked: "Is this word spelled correctly?" I told her it was, but the man ordered: "Look it up anyway!" I seethed, but decided to ignore the lout this time since it was not really my business directly. I just smiled and whispered quietly and sweetly: "If I didn't know how to spell, I would not have had the guts to take this job." Since nothing really bad had happened to him that time, he self-confidently sauntered in one fine day at a later date and wanted a printout of one of my translations. "I have to fix your grammar," he said, "before I can give it to the customer." My young office partner held her breath. I slowly turned to face the guy, gave him an icy stare over the rim of my spectacles and growled: "I took Advanced Technical Writing at the university! I aced the course! You do not fix my grammar! And furthermore, if you are going to mess with the report, my name comes off the paper because it is then no longer my translation! Just do what you are supposed to do, which is to take sensitive information out of it!" From that day on, said young man became very polite, but tried to limit his interaction with me. I considered that to be no big loss.
The reason I relate this little anecdote is an important one. All of us owe it to our profession to tolerate no disrespect for the job we do as technical communicators. We need to educate the public, whenever appropriate, that it involves effort and dedication to provide as accurate a rendition as possible of the significant contributions to technology its authors have made and will make in the future.
For the students in my translation class, I had a few pearls of wisdom which I have collected over the years. Foremost is Ingrid's Golden Rule:
You cannot convey what you do not comprehend. That seems to be so obvious, yet there are those among us who think nothing of using some big two-dollar words to gloss over the fact that they don't quite understand what the text is all about.
Just as important is the summary of my on-the-job training:
I now know when I don't know. Many errors in translation occur because the translator presented, in good faith, the facts as he saw them. However, he or she may have lacked the expertise or subject knowledge to question matters which seemed so obvious at first glance, but were more intricate than anticipated. After years on the job, most translators do develop a feeling which tells them when further research is indicated.
The fudge factor is not a translation tool. In the technical field, accuracy is crucial, especially with respect to hard data, such as measurements. When in doubt, analyze, clarify and re-check. Which brings us to one more rule:
Do not use disclaimers. When you do not know, do the research. A document with a disclaimer is worthless. If the client cannot rely on the information provided being correct and complete, of what possible use is it and why should he buy it?
A few final thoughts: Considering all the learning opportunities I have had, I am most grateful for the wealth of knowledge to which my membership in the American Translators Association has given me access. As soon as I discovered a copy of the Chronicle, I was hooked. Here was an organization where one could meet one's peers and exchange information and, perhaps, commiserate. Since I first joined in 1977 and became accredited, I have watched our Association grow from about 600 members to the present size. The numbers do fluctuate, but we have become a well-run professional organization which has recently even caught the attention of the State Department. Our government needs us now more than ever before. Thanks to the foresight of our founding members, we have come a long way indeed.
At the beginning of this article, I stated: "do as I say, don't do as I did." With new concepts such as globalization and localization, the need for good translators is growing. There are at present many more opportunities for study in the field of international trade, and with new recognition of our usefulness growing even among the dinosaurs left over from the last century, it is much easier to find work that will pay a living wage. I would encourage newcomers to the profession to first select a field of study in which they excel and then apply their language knowledge to best advantage. Translation is not always an easy career, but it is an ever-changing, challenging, and therefore exciting one.