wo moments of epiphany determined my career as a translator. To start at the very beginning, or maybe not quite, when I was in kindergarten I liked to draw black abstract lines on white paper and finish my creations with a single red dot. This of course caused the teacher to write my mother a note announcing that I was deeply disturbed. My mother, an individualist herself, protected me from psychological intervention on the part of the Los Angeles public school system, and I was allowed to continue my education. Later, when I was in college, I saw an exhibit of Chinese calligraphy for the first time and said, "Ah, that's what I was trying for." I promptly signed up for calligraphy classes, discovered I had no talent, and began learning Chinese instead.
My second epiphany occurred in graduate school. I began my graduate studies in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University as a Hebrew Bible major. McMaster had a very sensible system at the time: if a student majored in a western religion, she or he had to minor in an eastern religion, and vice versa. So, I was able to continue with my Chinese hobby while studying Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and a bit of Egyptian. One morning, though, I woke up with the very clear thought that if I didn't find an academic job, knowledge of hieroglyphs was not going to help me find other employment. Acting on this revelation, I went into the university and switched my major and minor. As a Chinese Buddhism major, I could study modern Chinese and Japanese, which seemed much more practical.
Translators are first and foremost communicators who stand at a very interesting juncture between cultures.
While the sudden switch in major might seem a bit arbitrary, I was able to continue focusing on the research question that most interested me: What happens when a religious text is translated from one language and one culture to another? My M.A. thesis ended up being a translation of an exchange of letters between a Chinese Buddhist monk (Hui-yuan) and a Central Asian translator (Kumarajiva) written between 405 and 409 C.E. In the letters, Hui-yuan is clearly says that, yes, he understands that the translated Buddhist scriptures say, but what, really, do they mean?
While in graduate school, I was able to spend a year studying Chinese in the Full-Year Asian Language Concentration at Cornell University, followed by another intensive year at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies in Taiwan. I then spent a year at Fudan University in Shanghai, after which I moved to Japan to study and teach at Tsukuba University. I was still planning on an academic career, but in the meantime, I had married a particle physicist, and it was clear that we were unlikely to find two academic jobs in the same place. Since what I had been doing in my research was essentially translation, becoming a professional translator was a natural step.
When my husband and I returned to the U.S. after five years in Japan, we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, so that he could work in the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin and I could enroll in the Technical Japanese Studies for Professionals program taught by Professor James L. Davis. In Jim's courses, I learned a great deal of technical vocabulary, but also how to translate like a professional translator. In academics, one never quite has to make up one's mind about difficult termsfootnotes are not only an option, but also an art form. However, handing a footnoted translation to a client won't do, and in the Wisconsin program I began to learn the skill set that goes along with linguistic knowledge: research, use of parallel texts, terminology management. I also learned two other things that are essential for a professional translatorhow to accept criticism gracefully and how to defend translation decisions.
After I completed the courses for the Wisconsin certificate, I launched my career as freelance translator. The first month, I earned about $50, but my workload rapidly picked up as my client base expanded. At the same time, I realized that I really loved what I was doing. People were paying me to read interesting texts and to play with languagewhat could be better?
As part of my professional development, I joined the American Translators Association, began going to ATA conferences, and took an active role in the Japanese Language Division as newsletter editor. People starting out as freelance translators should know that even though they work alone, there is a translation community with people ready to provide advice and support and that being actively involved in the community is very rewarding.
After a few years of working as a general translator, I had another moment of epiphany. I was translating an extremely dull set of auto air conditioning specs when the mail came with a brochure from the University of Chicago Graham School announcing a new program in medical writing and editing. I had done some medical translation and enjoyed it, and looking at the brochure I thought, "There's a bus from Madison to Chicago. I can enroll in this program." A year later, I was the first person to obtain the Advanced Certificate in Medical Writing and Editing. Shortly afterward, I was offered a job as a copyeditor for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Despite preferring translation to copyediting, I decided to accept the JAMA position for two reasons: first, it would give me invaluable experience in working with the highest quality writing on medical research; and second, I strongly believe that alternating between freelance and in-house work is good for the character. After freelancing for too long, some people find it difficult to work with others and very difficult to accept criticism; too much in-house work can dampen initiative.
While working for JAMA and freelancing on the side, I took more courses at the U of C Graham School and obtained a certificate in management of clinical trials. The course work for the program and, in particular, an internship during which I observed monitoring visits, institutional review board meetings, and a Phase I test site have helped me immensely in translating pharmaceutical protocols. I would advise all aspiring technical translators to become as familiar as possible with how their target industry functions, both through study and as much hands-on experience as possible.
I became ATA certified for Japanese-to-English translation in 2002 and shortly afterward become a grader for the Japanese-to-English exam workgroup. I was later asked to be on the Certification Committee that oversees the exam. At about the same time, I began working with the staff at the U of C Graham School and outside experts to create a certificate program in translation studies. That program was launched in 2004, and I teach Introduction to Translation and tutor the Chinese-to-English students in the introductory course.
Because I teach, grade ATA exams, and do a fair amount of quality control work, I see translations with a wide range of quality. The main thing distinguishing a good translation from one that won't do is the textual level at which the translator worked (and this is always obvious from the translation). Beginning translators often translate at the word level, and, when corrected, they frequently defend their work by saying, "But that's what it says," assuming that the job of the translator is to turn each word in the source text into an equivalent word in the target text. Sometimes the reader can extract the meaning from this sort of translation, but more often a word soup is created that is of no use to anyone.
Translators with a bit more experience translate at the sentence level. This often results in understandableand sometimes even idiomaticsentences in the target language, but it is astounding how rarely translators working at this level go back over their translations and ask themselves the basic question, "Does this make sense?" For example, I recently proofread an English translation of a short Japanese essay on the history of a certain scientific development in which the translator said that a 1957 theorem was the precursor of another theorem discovered in 1915. Even a minimal scanning of the text to see that all the parts were fitting together would have prevented that mistake.
People who have made the jump to being professional translators translate at the paragraph level and are alert to how ideas are expressed differently in different languages, the flow of the argument (when there is one), and inferences that a native speaker would see. Expert translators move on to translating at the text level. They are able to remember decisions made earlier in a document and to navigate freely in a text as though it were a three-dimensional space rather than a linear one-directional object. At this level, the translator is most concerned with what a text means, the way in which the intended reader will use the text, and, as a result, with how to create a natural-sounding document that will be most appropriate for the end user.
Translators are first and foremost communicators who stand at a very interesting juncture between cultures. It is essential to remember that, in most cases, it is the message and not the text that needs to be communicated.