ittle did I think, back in nineteensixtysomething, that a casual courtesy translation of a French semiconductor research paper for a colleague would one day lead me to brazenly expose myself in the virtual pages of this hallowed publication. Never mind that at the time, none of us even conceived that such a publication could exist.
It might have ended there; after all, how habit-forming can a single translation be? I soon found out, as other colleagues, researchers in other groups with whom I rarely exchanged a word, heard of the wizard that could transmute one language into another and beat a path to my office asking me to disclose the mysteries of French scientific research. Although pleased to be so popular among my peers, it eventually dawned on me that the service I was providing might be marketable; a simple search of the yellow pages confirmed it. I made a few phone calls, sent out a fewvery shortrésumés, introduced myself, and waited. The response was not overwhelming, but encouraging nevertheless, insofar as I was working as an engineer at a semiconductor company, and transistors were on the verge of becoming the microcircuits that eventually paved Silicon Valley. The lesson was not lost: language may be the prerequisite, but what they want is specialization.
The lesson was not lost: language may be the prerequisite, but what they want is specialization.
Just about then, the American Translators Association (ATA) held one of its conferences in Californiamaybe its first one west of the Mississippiat Stanford University, a few miles away from my house. Even though many of my evenings and weekends were by now devoted to translation, I saw myself as a part-time dilettante; unsure of my position among career translators, I hesitated to attend. A pioneer organization at the time, the ATA had brought together a modest number of registrants and although I don't remember the details of the event, I do recall its genteel, urbane, salon-like atmosphere, so different from today's massive meetings: translation had not yet become an industry. This dedicated group of professionals inevitably noticed the presence of a stranger, and much to my relief, cordially welcomed me as one of their own. Lesson number two: if you translate in exchange for valuable consideration, you are a professional.
Spurred to greater dedication to the craft by the acquisition of a mortgage, I progressed from a manual to an electric typewriter and then, several years before the advent of the revolutionary IBM PC, I opened a personal account on Stanford University's mainframe computer. It was the beginning of a lifelong love/hate relationship with the wonders of modern electronics.
I spent my days working with computers as an engineer in a Stanford physics laboratory, and my evenings and a good part of my nights translating at the campus computer center. Even if the mainframe's rather clumsy text editor did not significantly speed up my work, it did make it easier: I could edit my text on a screen rather than on paper with whiteout, and the mainframe's laser printer delivered impeccable copy that was highly appreciated by my clients.
Much as I enjoyed the casual environment of the computer centera community that was already setting the tone for the lifestyle of today's dotcom enterprisesI did miss family life. Through various delicate negotiations with my new computer-world acquaintances, I set up in my home office a simple "dumb" terminal and a 300-baud modem through which I dialed into the mainframe. Access to my reference books and sources increased my total output, but there came a point at which I could type faster than the modem could transmit.
Some 15 years after I became a part-time translator, the IBM PC was announced with great fanfare in 1981, and while I lusted for it, its cost placed it out of my reach. Waiting to finally afford a store-bought computer, I installed, and one by one scrapped, a series of substitutes with disparate parts and software that I would pick up here and there; each of these homemade machines left me with a mental legacy of various operating systems, editors, and database programs. But they allowed me to cut the umbilical cord to the mainframe, albeit at the cost of a roomful of whirring electronic machinery and blinking lights. I was now launched on the sea of automation. If it does nothing else, this protracted chronicle should place in some historical perspectiveand not a very distant one at thatthe powerful tools that today are taken for granted; the subtext of this perspective being a question that today's generation of translators might want to raise within the industry: is the ancillary automation turning out to be of greater consequence than the craft of translation? Lesson number three: the present is evanescent and the future will always astonish you one way or another.
In the meantime, in 1978, a few translators in the San Francisco Bay Area founded a chapter of the ATA, the Northern California Translators AssociationNCTA. I attended some of the early meetings of the new association; partly because I had a computer and could easily create and maintain a membership list, and partly because I always had something to say at meetings, I was invited to serve on its board of directors. I did this for about six years, at the end of which the membership, for reasons of its own, elected me as president of the board, an office that I filled for six more years.
I cannot close the NCTA chapter without confessing that aside from my family, the period which I dedicated to the association's affairs has been one of the most fulfilling, rewarding experiences of my life. I reluctantly accepted the responsibilities of board membership, expecting drudgery and frustration, but came to discover the satisfaction of teamwork, the warmth of friendship, the delight of jointly conceived ideas, the secret pride derived from implementing and seeing them flourish, the excitement of searching and moving beyond the accepted canon. And if I wax particularly lyrical about all of this, it is with the hope that it will encourage some readers to try the same for themselves and to leave their own mark on the profession. Lesson number four: there are deals that may not seem like much, but sometimes, when you least expect it, they will pleasantly surprise you.
The last and brightest highlight of my translation career, however, has been my partnership with Sylvie: the private one as my own true love, and the professional one as a solid collaboration of complementary capabilities. I will not delve on details of stormy Babelic disagreements except to say that we look back on each of them as fond memories. No public lesson here: discretion compels me to let silence veil that which we have learned together.
Beyond that, just like all of you, I have translated more words than I would have guessed existed, some of which should have never been written in any language, some others on subjects that broadened my perception of the world, and many which I mercifully have forgotten. I have had a grand ride on the translation roller coaster, and if I had another life to live, I can say without hesitation that I would want to live it as a translator.