haven't had a Sunday night since 1994.
I used to. Forlorn Sunday nights on Paris buses, trying to make it back to boarding school before curfew. Studious Sunday nights reading economics at the Université du Panthéon Sorbonne. Hurried Sunday nights doing laundry and polishing the navy blue pumps of a young financial analyst. Even the melancholy Sunday nights of a stay-at-home mother dreading another Monday alone with two babies. No matter what I did, the dreary, ritual of Sunday night and Monday morning seemed inevitable: back to school, back to work.
Sunday nights in school
It started in my traditional French boarding school, where I encountered both Latin and English at age ten. Latin was no problem: we plunged straight into grammar and declensions, familiar territory after an elementary education devoted to grammatical parsing and spelling "dictées."
English turned out to be more challenging. During the 60s, somebody in the Ministère de l'Education Nationale had realized that grammar and written translation exercises didn't adequately prepare French students for flirting with "les petites Anglaises" or directing American tourists to the Eiffel Tower. Since language labs were deemed too expensive, it was decided to introduce all 6th graders to the phonetic alphabet. Thus we learned each English word both in its normal form and in its phonetic form. I flunked my first foreign language mid-term and wrote home that English had its own alphabet, just like Greek and Russian. To this day, I can spell "the pig in the red hat is smoking the blue pipe" in the phonetic alphabet, but nobody asks.
I wish that I could list all the people who have mentored and guided me over the years, some of whom do not even know me.
Not that school was all Sunday nights. I remember hours of voracious reading in study hall. I also kept a diary for several years. Sadly, or fortunately if you subscribe to the old axiom that "Les gens heureux n'ont pas d'histoire" (Nothing much happens to happy people), there was not much to write about, so I just bounced words around with abandon. Once I realized that you could stretch usage conventions without necessarily flouting grammatical rules, I was off.
College at the Pantheon-Sorbonne brought historic high ceilings around the Place du Panthéon in Paris, jogging in the Jardins de l'Observatoire, learning macroeconomics from future Prime Minister Raymond Barre, studying English operas with American Fulbright TAs on the Censier-Sorbonne campusplus all the trimmings associated with studying in the Quartier Latin in the 70s. And then I landed rather randomly on the rural campus of the University of Rhode Island, thanks to a serendipitous scholarship from its Masters in Economics program. No more cinema at noon on Boulevard Saint-Michel, but September at the seashore, October foliage in New Hampshire, and the longest, coldest, sunniest winter I had ever lived through.
Then, for about three years, Sunday nights practically disappeared: I traveled, took various jobs (most involving too much accounting and too little writing), married, and followed my husband to work assignments in West Africa, France, Puerto Rico and finally back to Rhode Island. I cobbled my three degrees and random work experience into a professional-looking resume and landed a job in the corporate finance department of a savings bank in Providence.
Sunday nights in banking
A word about Providence. I grew up in France in the sixties, watching documentaries about the tall blond GIs who had liberated us from evil 20 years before. Alternatively, television showed willowy blond hippies singing under the California sun. Americans had gone to the moon, Americans drove huge gleaming cars on wide smooth highways. and golden arches spanned gloriously over their lives. Seriously. Then I landed in Providence, Rhode Island, smack in the middle of the first oil shock and an economic depression: I wrote home that cars were small and rusted through, roads were pot-holed, people were forever lamenting inflation, and most of them seemed to descend from Southern Italians. Providence's unofficial motto was "Lobsters and mobsters." And neither the phonetic alphabet nor my visits to England had prepared me for the local accent.
Still, by the time I took the banking job, the mighty dollar was regaining strength, roads were being repaired and Japanese car manufacturers had learned to prevent rust. In banking circles, the mood was upbeat and became downright giddy with the passage of the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act. Expand we could and expand we did. (Sadly, that dynamic little bank no longer exists: in less than 15 years, a financial institution founded in the mid-1800s collapsed under the weight of bad Venezuelan debt and commercial real estate gone sour in Texas. I am not making this up.)
I loved the job. My American colleagues were enthusiastic, straightforward and very forgiving of my quirky accent and eating habits. Most of all, I discovered that I loved financial analysis: it was great fun diving into a sea of numbers and linking them together so that they would make sense. Personal computers were popping up in American offices, and my department became increasingly sophisticated at projecting the future of our own balance sheet or dissecting the assets of a prospective acquisition. In essence, I played computer games all day long, in a virtual world that shuffled repackaged mortgages and made bets on interest rates. In Corporate planning, I became the queen of Excel's predecessor, Lotus, and eagerly discussed macros and curves around the water cooler. Vice-presidents took the time to explain the intricacies of treasury curves, mortgage-backed securities, jumbo mortgages, and tax timing differences. I was even chosen to draft the bank's comments on FDIC regulatory proposals. I was still subscribing to Le Monde, but I spent more time reading the Wall Street Journal, felt completely American, and all but took up cigar smoking.
But Sunday night was back. Deep down, I was only playing at corporate America and did not feel that I really belonged. It was fun to learn new concepts, fun to analyze and do exercises, but I never really believed that banking and I would grow old together. At bankers' conferences in Boston or New York, I would shudder to find myself surrounded by hundreds of successful bankers in navy blue suits. I wasn't dedicated enough to systematically pursue what had only been a temporary game. Mildly upsetting at first, Sunday nights became miserable. I started looking for another job, but hit a snag: if I left banking and financial analysis, I would rightly be considered a beginner and would have to take a sizable pay cut. Besides, I enjoyed analyzing and dissecting bits of data: I just wanted something different.
Then serendipity struck again: another foreign posting for my husband gave me the perfect excuse to resign from my job. Then a baby. And then another. We went back to France for a year, and I marveled at how I had remained so French and yet become so American. I lovedabsolutelythe French tendency to split hairs and drift through endless intellectual and theoretical discussions. I missedterriblyAmerican directness and practicality at work. The French were so charmingly introspective. Americans were so winningly enthusiastic and hopeful. I tried to explain this to people around me, but they didn't seem to share my passion for interpreting their motives and manners in the light of my bicultural experience. Both my toddlers seemed completely unconcerned by their mother's dichotomy. To them, it was natural, and needed no translation. One country insisted on tasty three-course lunches for children. The other granted quick and easy peanut butter sandwiches. Both could be appreciated, and there was no reason to choose. Yet.
One element was common to both countries though: most women, including my sister and all my sisters-in-law were parking their children in day care and going back to work. Sunday nights melancholy came back. Once we had moved back to Rhode Island, I contemplated returning to banking, finance, something.
A new career
Then a journalist friend asked me to translate an article for her because the editor who usually did it for her was too busy. I demurred, saying that I had no training in translation. She pointed out that I had done nothing else during eight years of Latin and five years of Greek. And even while I was studying English at the Sorbonne, I had had to take two "thème" and "version" classes every year. Besides, she would pay me $200 if the result was halfway decent. I yielded, less for the money than for the challenge, and hunted for the lone dictionary on my bookshelves. Translating was slow, translating was frustrating. But it became exhilarating to take English sentences apart and recreate them in French. All new words, same meaning. I hoped. Like financial analysis: another kind of puzzle, but one that seemed infinite.
That summer, I translated about a dozen articles on the war in Bosnia, the Palestinian situation and other political topics. I bought a bigger dictionary and started calling my friend to ask whether she had more texts to translate. Gently directing me towards the Yellow Pages, she sent me exploring towards a new career. Not all documents were as well written and inspiring as my friend's articles. That first fall, I remember peering inside paper cups (What would the French call that little overlap that the manufacturer is so proud of?), quizzing my local bike store on Cannondale carbon frames (I owned a mountain bike, but it had never occurred to me that each part had its own name and specs), squinting through a magnifying glass at birth certificates, perusing a legal glossary in the marble halls of the Federal Court building in Providence. Still, it did not look like a secure way to make a living: "real" translators worked for the United Nations. Or they spoke a dozen languages fluently. Or they translated books by Thomas Pynchon, or at least Jackie Collins. And my European side felt sure that "real translators" owned a translation diploma granted by an official school. In short, I felt a bit like a fraud.
I was desperate for information. In the fall of 1993, the Internet existed, but there was no map for it. Yahoo had yet to be created, the American way, in a California garage in the spring of 1994. Back I went, to the Yellow Pages, this time hunting for independent translators. Strangely uncommunicative and wary of my questions, they had no time to talk, no pointers to give, no idea how I could train myself. Finally, a surly woman mentioned the American Translators Association, adding that she herself had no need for it since she was an already established professional translator.
Finally, some answers
And so I called the ATA, where a friendly lady named Maggie patiently answered questions that must have been put to her many times a week. I discovered that the Association was holding its annual conference a few weeks later in Philadelphia. There would even be an "accreditation" exam, something to meet my European need for credentials and an official stamp. My wonderful in-laws sponsored my trip (eager, perhaps, for quality time alone with their son and grand-children?). I jumped in my little red car and motored down to my very first ATA conference with reserved enthusiasm: I had been to large professional conferences in big hotels before, and I envisioned a gathering similar to the ones organized by the American Bankers Association. Not knowing anybody, I prepared myself for four days of silent observation and listening. I hopped directly into the accreditation exam. The texts seemed easy to me, but I was so scared of failing that I looked up every single word in the dictionary. In both directionsa habit left over from years of Latin and Greek translation. Woman Searches for Exact, Perfect Meaning.
Once the exam was over, I stepped into the Welcome Reception and was instantly surrounded by several hundred translators in a hotel grand ballroom. After all these years, it's still my favorite event at the conference. I do not always attend the final banquet. I have occasionally had to skip the annual meeting. There was even the year that I worked the hallways so eagerly that I pretty much failed to attend most of the presentations and seminars. But I have never missed a Welcome Reception. When I entered, I didn't know a soul. But before I could even grab a (free) drink, another French translator had noticed my very French name and started a conversation. Within half an hour, I had met several enthusiastic French translators, whom I could barely understand above the joyful, noisy enthusiasm around me.
None of these people displayed the aloofness of the translators I had queried on the phone. They waved happily across tables, hugged each other, squinted at name tags and introduced themselves, and they talked, or shouted, non-stop, in all kinds of languages, at top speed, eagerly compensating for 360 days of silent, lonely toil in the company of their dictionaries. They talked about other translators, about clients, about projects, about computers, about clients, about the ATA, about dictionaries, about clients. (Well, it takes two to tango and there would be few translators left if there were no clients.)
That sense of communication prevailed throughout the conference. I had checked the program and I tried to attend as many sessions as possible. About legal translation, about interpreting, about relations with clients, about the Internet, about something new and wonderful called Trados Workbench, about translation agencies, about writing a contract for a client, about something mysterious called FLEFO, about how to become the perfect independent translator.
I was taking frenzied notes about some flabbergasting facts: in one session, the presenter asked how many of the attendees had a college degree. Everybody raised their hands. How many had studied in a translation program. Less than a quarter. If I was a fraud, at least I had lots of (highly educated) company. The flow of information continued outside of the sessions: wherever I turned, in the exhibits ballroom, in all the hallways, on the escalators, waiting for elevators or for a seat in front of the restaurant, I could almost always step into a conversation or start one and ask questions, all the questions that had been piling up for months.
Even after 15 years, I am still amazed at how much I learn during ATA conferences. In the early years, I focused on the basics of the translation business: how to deal with customers, what dictionaries to buy, the best strategies for editing, easier ways to invoice. Today much of that information is available on the Internet, and ATA conferences seem to have evolved accordingly: now they offer many more focused technical sessions. I can honestly say that 90% of what I have learned about this profession has come from ATAthrough the conferences, through reading the Chronicle, or through people that I have met because of the ATA. I even learned about the New England Translators Association, my very active and helpful local group, when an ATA member mentioned it to me.
I wish that I could list all the people who have mentored and guided me over the years, some of whom do not even know me. Actually, most of them are easy to find: they're the ones presenting sessions at conferences, running for office in the Association, publishing articles in the Chronicle or the Translation Journal, starting mailing lists on specific topics, creating newsletters for other translators. They share their knowledge, they pass on what they have learned. I listen.
The end of Sunday night
When I went back home, four days later, I was reborn as a professional translator. There was no doubt in my mind that I could become a "real translator": I had just talked to dozens of live translators, many of whom acknowledged knowing just two or three languages, had never set foot at the United Nations and had never gone to "translation school." Clearly, all it took was a passion for words and a lifelong desire to learn. Finally, the years of computer games and intellectual analysis at the bank had not been a dead end: all the financial knowledge I'd accumulated was going to feed my new passion. Like a born again convert, I spent the next few years trying to persuade all my bilingual friends to give up their tame careers in teaching, in art, in banking: they could be free, they could get paid to sit down and play with words all day long!
I haven't had a Sunday night since.
I feel no dread at the end of a weekend, or even at the end of a vacation. But there can be longing: I'm already wondering what the next job will be, what puzzle is waiting within my email. Diving into a new translation project gives me the same elation that I get when I open a new book. The possibilities are endless. Most of these documents are "alive". Two companies are merging. A revolutionary product is being launched. New laws and regulations are being adopted. Inflation is up, growth is slowing. Inflation is down, the GNP is expanding. Over the years, I have seen microfinance, one of my favorite subjects, become almost a household word.
The life of the freelance translator is also devoid of another type of pressure: I know that I, alone, will decide what I will work on. Yes, I will happily translate the microfinance report, a field where I feel that I have become an expert. But I will refuse the medical study for which I am really not qualified. Ditto for the lengthy legal document offered by a disorganized and late-paying agency that I blacklisted last year. Because translation has also brought independence: I can chase a term for two hours if need be, I can type into the night while listening to Philip Glass on Pandora, I can mosey to the beach for a two-hour picnic lunch.
And I'm hardly ever too busy to answer questions from wannabe translators.