fter more than 30 years of making money as a translator, I wonder why no one ever thought of guiding me in that direction. Instead I was left to find it for myself, as the result of fortunate circumstances and opportunities I somehow created for myself.
I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts in the 1950s. This suburb of Boston had good schools and libraries and showed us that the famous New England writers had written for us and the American language was our own. I studied Latin and French in high school, but also took as much history and science as I could, interested in knowing what was really going on behind the genteel mask of the Eisenhower era that was punctuated by the vicious eruptions of McCarthyism.
I went to college in New York City, wanting to be part of what I took to be the real world and the new awakening Kennedy seemed to bring. I decided to be a medievalist, because it involved languages, history, art history, perhaps even archaeology. And it would require spending time in Europe, in those days a remote and romantic opportunity. I learned German and having married a German major while in college, Germany looked like the best place for us both to continue our studies.
A DAAD fellowship brought us to Munich (one inch from Venice on the map in my historical atlas), in time for the birth of our son at a university clinic a few months later. The contrast between the Seminar für nordische Philologie und germanische Altertumskunde where I studied and the Mutterberatungstelle (Well Baby Clinic) could hardly have been greater, especially since few of the other students were married with families. It certainly gave me insights into German society and German ways of doing things. The occasional paid translation that came our way indicated that the typing I had picked up in high school and secretarial skills acquired during summer jobs in Boston and New York could be extremely useful.
Our return to New York City after three semesters in Germany offered new opportunities. I looked for translator positions in the New York Times (after Trainee and before Travel Agent), but soon opted for computer programming, the new career of the late 60s that no one could yet study for. Two years of life in New York City with a growing family motivated us to look for a better way to live, and in the aftermath of Expo 67, Montreal looked like the coolest place within reach.
I discovered while waiting for my second child to be born (this time in English) that the Montreal job market was less accommodating to women and decided to wait to return to programming. In the meantime, there were occasional German texts that required translationit seemed natural to find friends among German immigrants to Montreal as well as Americans, and our portable typewriter saw me through.
Only when my husband began to work on the Organizing Committee for the Montreal Olympic Games (held in July 1976), which involved observing the preparations of the 1972 Munich Games, did the real breakthrough occur. First I translated German documentation, but then I realized that if I wanted to work in Montreal, I would have to translate French too.
I believe it was at this point that I began to have my own ideas about how translation was done. And one such idea was that what was most important was your knowledge of the target language: if you read carefully enough or found people you could ask, you could find out what the source language meant. The "translation task" was pretty much the same, whatever languages you worked from. I developed my own technique, which consisted of not reading the text first but immediately doing a draft translation, leaving the dictionaries and the library research until there was a text in English ready to work with. Once there was something down on paper I could work with, it was time to make sure that my translation made sense and really expressed the message of the original. I found reading out loud to be an especially helpful way to make sure that the result was idiomatic English. These techniques I would later call my "patented approach" to translation. It has always aroused vigorous opposition from academics and strong support from students.
I translated free-lance, with young children at home. When I realized that the Université de Montréal had a master's degree in translation with an option to study interpretation, I thought that it might provide another kind of opportunity. The program provided an interesting encounter. Most of the courses were taught by academics who had probably not translated as much as I already had, and I found their translation methods (read first, underline expressions you don't know, don't even think of translating until you understand the whole text) pointless, but they provided much useful background information, gave me a better idea of what was expected of a professional translator, and drastically improved my French. Interpretation was a stiff and stressful challenge and I wondered if I would ever be able to understand the conversational tone used in negotiations and union meetings, as opposed to the more formal discourse of scientific congresses. Nevertheless, the program gave me much useful information, a respectable graduate degree, a much better understanding of French as used in Québec and above all, contact with the Société des traducteurs du Québec (STQ).
I went to the first STQ event because I couldn't imagine what a room full of translators would be like, and found them to be surprisingly business-like and helpful. I took the Admission Examination and found I had done well enough to attract attention. Invited to join a committee, I was pleased to take part and get to know colleagues. We went to visit the translation programs at universities, explaining the benefits of membership and professional status. These were becoming increasingly obvious to me: the people I met on the committees began to refer work to me and helped me get to know the Montreal market. A talk to students in the McGill Continuing Education Translation Program about the STQ resulted in an offer to teach in their program. Figuring that if I had managed to toilet-train two children, I could teach adults to translate even without any other teaching experience.
One of the benefits of having just completed a translation program was that I knew exactly what I thought was useful and what wasn't, and I applied that knowledge to my students. Most of the texts I gave them to translate I had already translated myself for money, so that I knew there was some purpose in working on themthis meant very few newspaper and magazine articles! I gave them no choice about which texts to translatewhat freelancer really has any choice, and who knows what subjects will be interesting in advance of a real encounter. I gave them no background before they did the texts, and had each student present one text to the class, explaining what research had been helpful. I also discussed the possible translations before handing back their work, knowing that no one listens to a discussion of mistakes they haven't made. In the days before computers, very few students had copies of the work they had handed in!
I taught in the translation program for 15 years and found it a wonderful way of staying fresh. Having your work questioned makes you think harder about what you do, and my students seemed to appreciate the totally pragmatic approach I used. After working all day alone as a translator, I found it a pleasure to be in the company of other people, especially when they were willing to listen to me talk about what translators do.
At the same time, I was fairly active in the STQ. I took the Certification Examinations in German and French and chaired first the Admission Committee and then the Certification Committee. At that time, the organization did not have much of a permanent staff, and most of the work was done by volunteers on committees. We read through applications, found texts for the exams and arranged for the correcting. In the two admission exams per year, we had close to 500 people seeking to join (fewer than 50% actually passed). The certification examination was administered by CTIC, the pan-Canadian organization of translation associations, and that meant finding texts and preparing exams for 3 provinces at first, with more to come later. One year I had to find texts in 48 language combinations (all exams had to be either into or out of English or French).
The work on the examination led me to find out more about the American Translators Association (ATA), since it too had an examination but one that was apparently based on different principles. I went to the ATA Conference in New York City and decided to take the French examination, since I was staying with a friend who had French dictionaries. Doing 3 out of 5 texts on such different subjects (none of them in Québec French either!) was a challenge and I was glad I passed, but it made me feel that I had a stake in that organization as well.
All through my career, I have tried to be sure that I used whatever technology would save me time and effort. The mechanical typewriter was replaced by a correcting Selectric as soon as I realized I was actually earning enough to pay for it. That was replaced by a Displaywriterin fact, in 1981 I ordered the first word processor IBM sold in Canada, even though it cost as much as a car at the time and the bank was quite mystified at how to give an individual a loan for a "computer". When I needed to use a PC in order to run an HP laser printer (it cost over $4,000 1984 dollarsbut it was fast, quiet and could run unattended), I switched to a personal computer. And after using Volkswriter (good for generating diacritical marks) and then switching to Xywrite (highly customizable and very fast), I finally switched to Word after a European trip in 1994 convinced me that it would avoid using the conversion programs (like Software Bridge), required to move from one word processor to another. But having computers meant it was relatively easy to hire students to help me out, especially "stagiaires" completing their translation programs at one of Montreal's universities.
At first I just let students enter corrections in the word processornot too many knew how to use the programs in those days. Later, I learned to integrate them in the regular work flowanswering the phone, dealing with customers, learning specific vocabularies. Just as I never felt the time spent doing STQ work was wasted but rather had the effect of expanding my contacts and range of potential clients, hiring students turned out to be a highly effective way of expanding the time available to do work. Rather than accepting occasional tasks from many agencies, I could become the sole supplier of a few clients, get to know their needs and make sure that there would be someone there to meet them. Some of my student employees became excellent translators, while others found careers in other fields. But each one has taught me something about what they knew and what they found obvious and difficultnever entirely the same.
After attending many ATA conferences, I found that speaking out, sitting on panels and offering information to others was an excellent way to get to know other people and pick up new information. Networks of contacts develop naturally from these work-related activities. In the early days of computers, there were workshops to help translators use these new tools. These offered a great chance to share what I had figured out or learned from others with professionals eager to learn. The biannual ATA German translators' trip has been a model of such opportunities. Besides providing a chance to meet wonderful colleagues in a "recreational" setting, it offers an unequalled chance to upgrade knowledge of German on a regular basis and a vacation that no tax collector could disallow. Long before any "continuing education" controversy, I realized that no translator can afford to stay away too long from his or her "source language".
Montreal is an ideal site for a translator. Translation is needed, appreciated and well paid. The STQ had become a professional order (like engineers, physicians, dentists, psychologists, etc.) and a restricted title (Certified Translator) that makes our translations recognized as official in Canada with only our signature and stamp. While more than 80% of members work into French, there is a close-knit network of English translators, along with many opportunities to know our French colleagues. There are staff positions in translation as well as free-lance opportunities, and the careers of many colleagues have included both. The translation programs train new generations of translators, looking for advice and contacts and interested in getting to know those of us with more experience.
My career as a translator has been long and productive. I truly love what I do and the opportunities it has given me to find out how the world works. The subjects have modulated over the years, as long-term clients gradually appear and disappear, but the excitement of being in touch with the latest, the newest, the most interesting, has never failed. Whatever time I have given away has been more than repaid in work, friendships and intellectual stimulus. Whether a guidance counselor noticed it or not, I am convinced it is what I was meant to do.