n my 29 years in government service, I've had the opportunity to work in language and information analysis career fields. I've worked as a translator, a supervisor, and eventually a senior manager of translators. I've also worked at the administrative and policy level for translations within the US government. This article carries this title because I feel that it describes at least 5 areas that people in our field will encounter. Whereas I feel that many of these same things may apply to the field of interpretation, since I've never worked as one, I shouldn't claim it in the title. Along this journey, I've had the privilege of working with professional government and non-government organizations, such as the American Translators' Association, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the Defense Language Institute, the Foreign Service Institute at the Department of State, and the Department of Defense's Center for the Advanced Study of Language, to name but a few. My academic achievements include a B.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Maryland, and an M.A. in Theology from St. Mary's Seminary and Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore.
This article might suggest that these chapters have taken place in linear fashion over the course of my career. That's not the case. They're all happening at the same time. They intertwine with each other, as do the chapters in one's life.
Chapter 1. BeginningI started out in the home speaking only English, not traveling beyond the borders of my country, nor being in much contact with others who spoke a language other than English. That was, until I was 14 and started studying language in school. In my case, it was Spanish, since that was the other prevailing language in Southern California. I found that I could pick it up and retain it easily. My teachers told me that I had "a knack" for learning languages. At 16, while still studying Spanish, I began studying French and maintained high grades in both. At 18, I began studying Russian. At 20, I began studying German. At 31, I began studying Arabic. At 39, I began studying ancient Hebrew. One might think, that with so many beginnings, where are the endings, or even the masterings before the next beginning? Those are good questions to ask, but, as I said before, this is not a series of chapters written in linear fashion. We all must begin somewhere, and if we're lucky and blessed, we will experience many beginnings in our lives. Often things will begin before the previous beginning is completed. As a translator, by training and profession, all of these "beginnings" build on a foundation of competence, ambition, confidence, curiosity, talent, and a dry sense of humor. Together, these things all gel to become "experience" that nurtures further growth. In this field of translation, for as many people you will ask, you will hear as many stories of "beginning", as an illustration that there is no one prerequisite of background to start. It's what you do after you've started that will matter.
Chapter 2, LearningIn this field, if you are to ever to become a competent professional, you must relegate yourself to the title of perpetual student. Language, and its many uses, never stops moving. It never stops evolving. It is in a state of constant change. Even for those colleagues whom I would consider "masters" in this field, I shall expect that they would still call themselves students. Language does not behave well, so anyone in this translation profession must be able to recognize when language usage in a particular context has changed and then accommodate to that change. To the point, you must learn how to translate. You must learn how to interpret. And you must continue learning how. As in most professions, there are always developments in how to improve at one's craft. We must pay attention to those improvements in the mechanics of how to do this as well as the raw material of language itself. Being open to correction is a positive trait that will also keep the paychecks coming in. By the way, I'm still learning Spanish. I'm still learning Russian. I'm still learning Arabic, and so on. I cannot afford not to. In this profession, the learning will never stop - it is only the scenery that will change. There are so many aspects to learning, in this profession that go beyond the raw material of the spoken or printed word. These aspects require one to learn the historical context behind why the words come out the way they do. I mean to say, that we must learn about the economic history, the geographic history, the political history, and the cultural history of the countries where people who speak these languages live. For those of us who did not have the advantage of growing up in those areas, we must take time and care to learn about it.
Chapter 3, ContinuingI've spoken with many colleagues and friends who would say that they entered this field because they couldn't find work anywhere else. Others came to it out of a true love of what they do. While for others, they may not consider this their life's calling, but find they can actually pay the rent with this skill until they reach their final goals. There are other reasons why people come into this profession and there are many reasons why they leave it, too. For those of us who remain in the profession, we find that one of the benefits is that there is such an expanse of areas in which one can specialize, that the opportunities for "beginning" and "learning" are endless. For my colleagues who work as professional interpreters, this is the type of skill that has all the aspects of a "verb of motion", in that you may need to practice this skill while standing, walking, riding in a vehicle, eating, listening to music, shouting, or whispering. How cool is that? How hard is that? Before going any further, I wish to point out that there are specific and distinct requirements for being a translator and being an interpreter. These modalities should not be confused as interchangeable. Being good at one aspect does not qualify you to be good at the other.
For me, I like the regular opportunities to begin and learn, even though I don't take advantage of all of them. I've had the opportunity to become a manager of translators and begin a small translation business for the government. Having the background that I do has helped me to attract and retain highly qualified people, and help advance the cause of translation alongside colleagues who've been working at this a lot longer than I have. I've had the opportunity to work at the beginner level, the middle supervisory level, the manager level and even the administrator level, and have enjoyed them allfor the most part. In the field of translation, I have enjoyed working with some very interesting characters, both ideographic and idiosyncratic. I will continue to do so.
Chapter 4, AchievingFor many years in this country, the translation and interpretation professions have had a respectable, but still largely misunderstood, place in society. Within the last few years, however, serious strides have been made to advance the understanding of this field by those who would make use of its services and the general public. The profession has been able to articulate stringent quality standards in the medical and judicial fields. Colleagues are working with state governments and legislatures to enact laws and procedures that will improve the level of service and care for people with limited proficiency. There are so many horror stories concerning how inadequate translation or interpretation has had devastating effects on situations ranging from the battlefield to the courtroom to the operating room. Better stories are emerging now, and they need to be repeated as often as the horror stories. The US Government's National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) focuses on an effort to start teaching languages in the elementary schools in an effort to increase the language proficiency of this country overall. There are too many challenges in this world that require abilities in languages other than English, and there are too few people available to meet those challenges. I get to play a small role in helping move this profession forward by trying to define and demonstrate how a government virtual translation activity should work, but would rather defer any accolades again to those who've been at this more diligently than I. To achieve something in one's chosen profession brings with it great satisfaction. There is still much more to do.
Chapter 5, InvestingIt has been my experience that this field is a rather frustrating one to those who would choose to use the services of translators or interpreters, because we never seem to be ready and available when needed, neither in the numbers of individuals required, nor at the skill level appropriate to the task at hand. We have been asked how much money we need to provide the requisite numbers and skills. We reply that this is not necessarily a matter of money, if you want both. The money will bring the numbers of people, but it won't bring the skills. We are all native speakers of something, and it shouldn't be assumed that speaking with an accent automatically qualifies someone to be a translator or interpreterfar from it. Money is part of the solution, but only part. Time plays as much a role as money does. Also, proper instruction, political support, and a good plan in both theory and practice make up the remaining ingredients. These have not been simultaneously joined, until now. Partnering between the government, private, and academic sectors with defined goals is still forming. This is good. Taking greater risks within the profession, in the way of partnering and communicating standards in testing and quality control need to continue. The investment will pay off, as long as the commitment is there. Those of us in this field need to invest our time and resources to ensure that those coming after us have the best foundations on which to build.