learned my languages the hard way. In school. From teachers who weren't native speakers of the languages they were teaching, and even some who weren't native speakers of English. Until college. But despite the fact that my teachers thought I had a knack for languages, and unlike most of my classmates, I actually enjoyed studying them, I really didn't know what it meant to speak a foreign language until I spent some time living and studying around the world, in China, Spain, and France, mostly, with a number of stops in other countries, from northern Africa to Scandinavia. That is to say, as a shy kid from Detroit, I had to get out of town.
But that's not to say I wasn't exposed to foreign languages as a kid. My grandmother, who lived with us for a while, spoke German, as did a number of neighbors, predominantly immigrants working for Volkswagen at the time. I also had friends, neighbors, and classmates who spoke Italian, Greek, Tagalog, Polish, French, Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese, among others, so I knew there were languages out there. I even listened to the only French Canadian radio station I was able to pick up on my clock radio at night.
I really didn't know what it meant to speak a foreign language until I spent some time living and studying around the world.
I had also heard about translators, and was intrigued... My parents had some friends, who had a friend who worked for the government as a translator back in the 60s or 70s, and the way I remember the story, men in black would fly in helicopters up to this guy's hermit hideaway in the mountains and drop off documents for him to translate... I'm sure that wasn't quite the way things were, but it sounded pretty cool to a kid.
While living in Seville, Spain in the mid-1980s, I met my first real translator: a hard-living Brit, perpetually sheathed in a leather jacket, who had become something of a fixture in town. He translated technical manuals into Spanish (breaking what I would later learn was a cardinal rule not to translate out of your native language), and seemed to make a great living... His facility with spoken Spanish made a deep impression on me. This guy, whose English accent marked him as a Londoner somewhere in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum, transformed, even physically, when he started speaking Spanish. His virtually transparent, parchment-colored skin even seemed to take on olive tones as he bellowed and gesticulated in pure Andalusian slang. He proved to me it was possible to really speak a foreign language.
But for one reason or another, I never really thought about translating too much. Sure, as a language major in college, I had to translate, and I recall thinking how impossible it was to translate French romantic poetry into English. And while abroad I took on a few little translating and interpreting jobs, thinking more about the paycheck than the actual job itself. I was all about literature, writing, and teaching, figuring a secure academic career was in my future: nine months of work in the classroom and free summers to indulge myself. It was a nice theory. All I had to do was implement it.
So I came back to the states to finish my bachelor's degree in modern foreign languages, and ended up translating a Chinese novella and writing a pastiche of Samuel Beckett's trilogy in French for my graduation project. This gave me some practical experience in doing the impossible: capturing socialist-realist romantic humor in a way an American would have a chance of understanding, and imitating a Nobel laureate. I still didn't see the writing on the wall.
I was offered a scholarship to go to Harvard to study something called "Regional StudiesEast Asia," a "terminal" master's program (little did I know how accurate that term would be) I was assured would lead me into doctoral studies and the cushy job of my dreams. I honestly had no clue what I was getting myself into. I had done my undergraduate work at a small liberal arts college, and though I'd studied abroad in some larger universities, I really had no idea what the academic life was all about. Intellectual insecurity, publish or perish, cutthroat competitiveness were all concepts I had heard of, but never actually witnessed first hand.
In a matter of months I moved from middle-of-nowhere, Ohio to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study, essentially, anything and everything Chinese. I thought my Chinese was pretty good for a 老外, but then I met some of my peers: a Spaniard who had done her bachelor's degree in classical Chinese literature at Beijing University, a former student activist in the 60s who had been running an exchange program in China for the last several years, a British woman who had also spent years living and studying in China, and that didn't include all the Chinese students. No longer a big, strange fish in a small, isolated pond, I had a little adjusting to do.
When I told my advisor I had translated a novella, he was intrigued. He looked at my work, and hooked me up with a respected colleague at another university who was putting together an anthology of Chinese fiction in translation. I contributed a story that suddenly turned me into a published literary translator.
In retrospect, translating Chinese into English was probably the best training a Spanish and French translator could have. Carrying ideas across a divide as vast as that between English and Chinese trains your mind to think more conceptually, to reach beyond dictionary definitions, since literal translation is a virtual impossibility.
Anyway, I finished graduate school, got my "terminal" degree (that only really killed my academic aspirations), and began looking for a job. No longer so sure what I wanted to do with my life, I applied everywhere. Despite the fact that I had worked through college and graduate school, my resume was a bit eclectic: undergraduate teacher's assistant in French and Chinese, short-order breakfast chef at Greek diner, library slave, door-to-door salesman of cleaning products, quality control technician for automotive parts manufacturer, ESL teacher, bartender, lifeguard, and literary translator.
As fate would have it, after writing a few articles for a local arts newspaper that didn't even come close to covering my share of the rent, it was the "literary translator" entry that got me in the door for an interview with the translation department of a language institute in Boston. It was then my reasonably quick and readable translation of a Chinese diploma that got me the job as "assistant director of translations." The language institute had three departments: foreign language instruction, in any language anyone would pay to learn, ESL instruction for foreign students and executives, and translation and interpreting services. In the translation department, I worked under a colorful, bright, chain-smoking Frenchman, a former orchestra conductor and taxi driver, who initiated me, in his wonderfully chaotic way, into the business of translation.
I quickly learned the basic routine of a project manager in the pre-Internet age. Lots of talking on the phone, the art of persuading busy translators to accept impossible deadlines, translators dropping by with disks, how to load the fax machine with thermal paper, and where to get my boss espresso and cigarettes. More importantly, however, I discovered the ATA, just as it was being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission regarding its publication of rates. It was that very publication that drew me to the ATA, and made me realize that a translator could make a decent living.
I also met many translators and had the opportunity to review their work. Studying how different translators solved a wide range of translation problems and assumed the written identities of a variety of authorsfrom business people and policy-makers, to technical writers and journalistsfascinated me. It was like acting on paper. And I was increasingly given the opportunity to translate myself. The language institute is also where I met my wife, a shoe designer who came from Spain to study English. I hadn't spoken Spanish since my days in Seville many years earlier, but with the help of a few patient bilingual friends and the seldom-lauded benefits of the audio-sexual method of language acquisition, I was speaking Spanish again in no time.
As love, work, and life merged together in my early days among the gainfully employed, I discovered my calling. All of a sudden, things became very clear to me. I was a translator. Perhaps not a very good one yet, but a translator nevertheless. I somehow knew I had what it took to do this impossible job. I sought out advice, went to local translators meetings, and eventually, my first ATA conference.
Of course, in all this time, never once had I studied translation, per se. I had only done it. In meeting translators and interpreters far more skilled and experienced than I was, I also started to get another message. You need to specialize, find a niche, use any practical knowledge you have from other work you've done, etc. Suddenly, my eclectic work experience seemed to have some value. I found a little niche translating technical quality control manuals, and doing work for the food and beverage industry. I also discovered that I was surrounded by lawyers and scientists in the form of my roommates and best friends, who suddenly turned into terminological and technical resources.
The fact that I had never studied translation both disturbed and excited me. On one hand, up to that point in my life, I had really done nothing but study, and felt I had little practical experience in anything marketable. On the other though, I reveled in the fact that I was now a practitioner, making an honest living by the word.
Somewhere around this time, with far too little experience under my belt, I made the decision to launch my freelance career. Having no real business experience, I probably made every mistake imaginable. It didn't take long for me to realize that it wasn't as easy as it looked from the project manager's seat. I needed to build a clientele, and many translation agencies were much more selective than my former employer.
I cultivated the relationships I had built while at the institute, and made some friends in the industry. One was kind enough to offer me a part-time job in another translation agency that was also part of a larger corporation, devoted to trade with China, the publication of a newsletter on the same topic, and a consulting practice.
There, in addition to learning about their various businesses, I was able to build more skills, like learning to edit and write for business, learning how to market services, learning about international trade, understanding all the mistakes I hadn't really realized I was making at the language institute, and much more. In short, I learned the key writing and business skills that helped me transition from amateur to professional status, and how to do things right. When the translation business was spun off as an independent company, I ended up as the number two man in charge, and had been building a freelance translation practice on the side.
As this company grew and acquired new clients, a reputation for quality, and a solid, admirable service ethic, I started getting antsy again. Now married, but by no means settled, and having lived in Bostona notoriously transient cityfor a number of years, I thought I must be missing something, so after a couple trips to visit my brother-in-law, who had recently relocated to Miami, we decided to pack up and make the move.
Having failed on my first attempt at going freelance, I was much more prepared the second time around. I saved up money, had all the equipment and contacts in place, had a local and national base of reasonably regular clients, and was marketing my services.
One of the first things I did after moving to Miami was join the local ATA chapter. While in Boston, I found the New England Translators Association a thoughtful group of generous professionals who provided great insights into the profession for newcomers. ATA's Florida chapter, FLATA, wasn't as large, but was no less welcoming, and I quickly found myself lending a hand to my local group. This introduced me to some new clients and colleagues, helped my business grow, and not long thereafter, I found my arm being twisted to run for president.
Having no experience with running an associationeven a small onemy term as president was a constant lesson in diplomacy, a master course in trying to please an incredibly diverse membership (an inevitable truth in translators' associations of all sizes), a primer in event planning, and an incredibly valuable experience in volunteer management. In short, all of these lessons combined in a single piece of advice I'm honored to share with the readers of the Translation Journal: Never, ever, forget the corkscrew...
During my tenure as FLATA president, I was nominated to run for the ATA board. I didn't get elected the first time around, but was asked to chair the Chapters committee. That led to a second nomination, where I finally got the chance to serve on the board. My two-term tenure on the board and several committees, primarily the Chapters and Public Relations committees, gave me some great insights into how the industry works, how the association works, and how translators work in an association context. Even in the ATA, my corkscrew lessons served me well.
Interestingly (for me at least), after accompanying several friends through law school and PhD programs in the sciences (primarily after hours), and watching and listening to them become increasingly specialized in their areas of expertise, it may have been that very corkscrew that led me to find another specialty of my own.
I still genuinely enjoy legal translation. Legal documents, whether contracts, bylaws, treaties, or legislative texts, have a story to tellsome more interesting than others, grantedbut stories nevertheless. Scientific texts are equally fascinating to me, illuminating the hows and whys. But the corkscrew opened the door to wine for me, and specialized wine translation. A way for me to combine my interests, skills, and eventually, expertise.
Texts about wine range from the legislative to the scientific, from the poetic to the persuasive, and despite my taste for the subject matter, I initially found wine texts frustratingly opaque. So I took a course to become a certified sommelier.
As translators, we train our eyes and ears (and the gray matter between them) to do most of the work for us. We, collectively, have an ear for language. We "listen" to our texts. As an aspiring sommelier, I had to learn to use my nose and mouth as well. And once I did, the terminology that frustrated me so, suddenly all made sense. The legislation grew out of the history, which had to do with the grapes, their chemical properties and transformation into wines, the odes they inspire, and the way they are sold. Again, it was the practical, rather than the theoretical aspect of the subject matter that fascinated me.
In many ways, my certification as a sommelier was also my baptism as a truly specialized translator. I had begun to master a minor, arguably insignificant field, but I had learned what mastery of a field meant. I knew where to find answers, and how to do a hard job right. Not only has this expertise opened many professional doors for me, including interesting work for wine and spirits trade organizations, but it has also made me a better translator in countless ways.
And now, as a translator who does do work for the government, among other clients, even though the men in black don't airdrop documents at my little house near the beach, I continue to find great satisfaction in this brutally honest living we call translation. Doing a hard job right.