am pleased and flattered to have been asked to add my profile to the long list of illustrious colleagues in the prestigious Translation Journal. I hope that my story, which is as different and unusual as anybody else's in our profession, will be an encouragement to people wanting to enter into the world of applied linguistics and translation.
My story begins in the austere post-World War II years in The Netherlands. Though faintly recalling long lines of troops and rolling equipment leaving the city of Haarlem in May of 1945, I mostly remember the post-war stories. Stories of hardship, hunger, hiding places, killed relatives, neighbors that could not be trusted, and young women that were scorned for having "sympathized" with the enemy. My first exposure to foreign language at an early age was through Uncle Antoon, who could imitate Adolf Hitler's speeches to a tee. I loved the sound patterns, but didn't understand a word of it.
I grew up in a greengrocer's business and all I can remember from a young age is work; no questions asked. Everybody worked, and school was viewed as a place to get some rest. During fourth grade, the "authorities" (perhaps the parents?) decided whether you would start fifth grade in the A track or the B track. That seems innocent enough, but in fact it predestined you for either a life of continued study and some sort of profession (the A track) or a life of full-time labor as soon as your 14th birthday came around and you were legally allowed to work for wages. I (as well as my four brothers) was relegated to the B track and the prospect of working long days for very little money. High school was for the sons and daughters of the rich and the influential, and the rest of us worked; no questions asked.
Months before my 14th birthday, I started working for my uncles in the tulip fields, and finished 8th grade in my spare time. I handed over my wages to my mother, who would kindly give me 10 percent as pocket money. After a couple of years I noticed that our working class neighborhood was drastically thinning due to emigration. My school friends wound up in strange places in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the coffee plantations of Kenya. I liked being a tulip grower and could identify dozens of varieties by their shapes and colors, but seeing all my friends leaving gave me itchy feet. At age 16 I went to the Catholic Emigration Foundation and put my name on the list, with no preference for any particular country.
That same year my friend Piet and I packed a tent and some canned foods on the back of our bicycles and we pedaled to Paris, via the rolling hills of the Ardennes. The authorities stopped us at the Belgian border and called my friend's father to ask if we were running away from home. We stayed a couple of weeks at a campground in an old soccer stadium on the south side of Paris and in addition to seeing the usual sights, we witnessed the final stage of the Tour de France, which in those days finished at the Vélodrome in the Bois de Boulogne. The orange jersey of Wim van Est, a fellow Hollander, was the first to enter the stadiumwhat a thrill!
This trip gave me my first serious exposure to multiple languages. The campground was full of young people from everywhere: rugged Germans with great sun tans, a large group of kilted Scottish bagpipers, who practiced their art too early in the morning, and many French speakers from Belgium, France and Switzerland. And my friend, fortunate enough to be a high schooler, could communicate with all of them. He would send me to the store in the morning to get food, and I can still say the items in French to this very day.
At age 18, my quota number came up for emigration to the U.S. So I said goodbye to my parents, five siblings and my friends and pushed away from the dock in Rotterdam on the Ryndam II while a band played the Dutch national anthem. We headed through the English Channel to Le Havre, where our small ship moored in the shade of one of the smokestacks of the newly inaugurated France (this was 1962). Next port was Southampton, followed by Cobb and Galway before diving into the January cross-currents of the Atlantic. After less than one day, everybody was seasick, including the captain. While our ship with 1000 immigrants on board heaved and tossed to and fro and from side to side in the gigantic waves, the huge France, cutting sharply through the water, passed us like a sprinter, doing Le Havre-New York in 5 days. Next port of call after 10 days for us was Halifax, where it must have been 30ºF below zero. From there we went south to New York as the weather warmed up and we got about a foot of snow on the deck.
Life on the ship was an interesting linguistic experience. My hut mate was a Pole, who didn't say much, but I discovered he had put my tin of shoe polish in his bag. There were Dutch, German, Swiss, French and other people on board, young people and young families, all seeking a new life in America or Canada. Many were displaced Dutch-Indonesians heading for California as part of a special plan. I learned as much English on the ship as I could, as I somehow had to get to Chicago on my own, without going hungry. Interestingly, the black American porters in Hoboken spoke Dutch (after working many years for the Holland-America Line), but once I got on the Erie-Lackawanna train I was dumped into an English-speaking world. I had two suitcases, one holding my Viking speed skates, and the other holding my clothes. Somebody handed me a train ticket in Hoboken, along with twenty-five dollars, which at that point was all I had.
The train went through tunnels in Pennsylvania and endless flat snow-covered corn fields in Ohio and Indiana. Incredibly, without telephone, cell phone, email, etc., my sponsors were waiting for me in Hammond, Indiana to take me to their farm where I worked for two years. Life on the farm was the greatest learning experience of my life: operating big machinery, taking care of hundreds of hogs and steers, learning to drive, learning to drive in the snow, doing mechanical work, carpentry, etc., etc. Meanwhile I was learning English at night, mostly from such TV shows as Gunsmoke, Perry Como, I Love Lucy, etc. I remember that at precisely six months I could say everything I wanted to in English (which probably wasn't much).
I left the farm in search of opportunities to be a tulip grower, but wound up working in greenhouses in Holland, Michigan. I thought that the greenhouse owners would probably not let the plants freeze, so chances were that I would not be as cold as I was on the farm. Soon after arrival in Michigan I met a kind lady who said, "If you can learn English this well in a couple of years, you ought to go to school and become a linguist." I was used to taking orders, and I immediately applied to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were willing to overlook my lack of a high school credential if I was able to maintain a "C" average.
After four years I graduated with a BA in Classical Greek, having been on the Dean's list a couple of semesters while I was taking several languages at once, and headed for a short-term assignment with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Peruvian rainforest in 1970. We (I had gotten married during college) stayed for a little over two years and did anything from learning Spanish and the Ashaninca language (an indigenous group of 15,000 people), training and supervising bilingual (Ashaninca and Spanish) teachers, visiting Ashaninca villages along the upper tributaries of the Amazon River and playing doctor and pharmacist for many needy people. We would fly upriver by seaplane and float down on a balsa wood raft, visiting villages along the way, for about three months at a time, which is about the amount of time it takes a balsa raft to get waterlogged and start to sink.
I wasn't a linguist yet, but the languages were starting to add up: Dutch natively, Greek, Latin and Hebrew in college, as well as German, and now Spanish and Ashaninca. I was hooked on the idea of linguistics and we went to the University of Oklahoma and to the University of Texas at Arlington for graduate studies in linguistics. After more field trips to Peru, I received my MA in theoretical linguistics in 1980. After that we worked for eight years in southern Chile among the Mapuche people, about 500,000 speakers of the Mapudungun language. Here I really dug into the language, doing dialect surveys, language learning, phonological and grammatical analysis, presenting papers at symposia throughout South America, publishing articles, teaching classes at the universitynow I was a real field linguist, and I loved it.
Countries like Peru and Chile (though very different) are so interesting that you want to spend the rest of your life there. But family circumstances took us back to the U.S.at the closest place to South America, Florida. Ia field linguist with an MA in linguisticswent looking for a job. Who would hire me? An acquaintance employed me as a writer of tourism materials for one year, and then his business folded (perhaps because of my writing). I got a job at the high school level (my first experience with high school), teaching Spanish, German, Latin and ESL (don't we all), and tutored at night at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, teaching the initial English phrases to such tennis greats as Tommy Haas and Iva Majoli, who were about 12 years old at the time. (No, Anna Kournikova showed up one year later, and I could only take 1 year of this work.) After that I was hired as a Spanish translator by a large testing company, doing all of the things one should not do: I was translating into Spanish and narrating Spanish tapes for non-reader candidates to such professions as cosmetology and food management, and I was doing basic psychometrics without being a psychometrist. But I needed a job, and I worked my way through it, and everybody was happy.
This job led to freelance translation work and when I no longer had time to go to work and was earning as much away from the job as I was on the job, it was my signal to go on my own. The first thing I did was join the American Translators Association (ATA), joined the Florida Chapter (and drove 4 hours to go to meetings in Miami), went to the ATA conference in Philadelphia in 1993, and haven't missed one since. I met the Dutch translators and many Spanish translators at that first conference and one of them encouraged me to get CompuServe and get involved in FLEFOthe Foreign Language and Education Forum. That was the single best piece of advice I ever received as a freelance translator. I checked into FLEFO for at least ten years (it is mostly defunct now), multiple times a day with my speedy and trusty OLR (off-line reader) TAPCIS, which was also recommended by the same colleague (thanks again, Dick). The participants on FLEFO, mostly from the Americas and Europe, taught me most of the ins and outs of the commercial translation world, along with many human lessons. Even though you can't see each other online, many people on FLEFO bared their souls enough in their discussions and eloquent (though not always civil) debates, that we got to know each other very well, and many of us have become friends for life. I also found my best client on FLEFO. She posted the need for a particular assignment and since communication was still fairly slow by doing periodic dial-ups, I went into the CompuServe archives, cross-referenced the client's email account to her city of residence, called the telephone directory service, and found the client at the desk of her brand-new company. She was so impressed by my sleuthing that I got the job and her company has been my biggest client for more than 11 years and continues to be so.
I scored one other mentee victory. During my first ATA conference, a Dutch translator said that I could call him anytime I had a question and he was willing to help me build a business. In fact, he sent me a disk with his entire client database, annotated with all kinds of useful information. He told me to send my résumé to all of his clients. And this was before the days of John Glenn's client list.
The business grew, we moved from Florida to South Carolina for climate reasons, I learned better what I was able to translate and what I should not get into, and I built a solid reputation of accommodating my clients (mostly by working 24/7) and never missing a deadline. As of last year, we now live near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I feel as if I have been around the world and back to where I started my linguistic life. I am now just beyond the "ATA age of accountability" and I think I will probably be a translator for the rest of my life, although sometimes I wonder if there might be an easier way to make a living. And, honestly, if I win the lottery (and I have never even bought a ticket) I would probably pass my clients to my friends, get on my motorcycle and see if there are any of those Ashaninca people left. We could sit around the fire, drink pre-chewed fermented manioc drink, and share stories as we used to.
I have tulips in my garden in Michigan, but I never became a commercial tulip bulb grower. Instead...of all things...I became a linguist. And today I am translating letters to and from prison, pharmaceutical trials, hospital consent forms, annual financial reports, food management books, fancy light fixtures, etc.
If I had to do it all over again I would try to take Greek history before Roman history, rather than the other way around, I would study Homer before Herodotus and before learning Koine Greek. I would have spent more time on Physical Science, rather than thinking that Classics majors do not need that. I would definitely bite the bullet and take the courses and write the dissertation for a Ph.D. Fascinating research and teaching jobs are available in linguistics and anthropology, but only for Ph.D.'s.
Finally, I am grateful to my clients for allowing me to work for them, to my colleagues for sharing their expertise, and to my dear wife, Gabriela, and my family for allowing me to work long hours and be my support team.
Oh yes, lest I forget, I want to thank the ATA staff, leaders and fellow board members for three great years on the ATA Board. I am really impressed with people who volunteer so much of their time to make a positive contribution to the T&I profession and to do so without promoting themselves. I also want to thank the many volunteers on the Chapters and Affiliated Groups level with whom I have had the privilege to work during my nearly four years as the ATA Chapters Committee Chair.