Volume 13, No. 4 
October 2009

Pimpi Coggins
  Translation Journal

Translator Profile

In Less Than Twenty Words!

by Pimpi Coggins

fter I accepted Gabe Bokor's invitation to be the profiled translator for the fiftieth issue of the TJ, he graciously stated: "Pimpi, there is no upper or lower size limit to the essay; just keep in mind that it will be mostly read on-line, and people find it difficult to read anything over 10-15 pages on the screen." To which I answered: "Gosh, Gabe, I can tell you the story of my life in less than twenty words!"

With that in mind, I began to muse about my life as a freelance translator.

The secret to becoming a good and insightful translator is to think, think, and think some more. Then research, analyze, read, and never ever lose your sense of humor.

In my case, the learning road has not been an easy one.

I never thought that technology would be such a fundamental part of my translation career.
I did my first translation when still very young, maybe 15 or 16, many years before I moved to the United States for the first time. It was a friend of my father who asked me to translate "Raising Angora Rabbits" into Spanish. I have no idea how long his passion lasted, nor why he abandoned it, I just hope it was not because of my translation. I cannot say if that was the moment when I declared myself a translator, but it was the time when I started to savor it.

Quite a few years later, a translator and interpreter friend of mine put me in touch with an agency owner who needed help with a big project: editing of several machine-translated manuals. It started with thirteen or fourteen translators and editors, but by the end, totally exhausted, only four of us survived. That was enough, I was hooked.

I never thought that technology would be such a fundamental part of my translation career. My first computer was a Compaq "portable" that weighed almost 40 pounds and the printer was a daisy-wheel the size of a microwave oven. Can't even remember the name of the first word processing program we used, but I remember we either printed our translations or copied them to a true floppy disk (5-1/4") that was delivered to the customer by hand or Federal Express (it was not FedEx as yet!).

A new era dawned when a modem was a peripheral we, freelance translators, could afford. I thought I was on cloud nine. Instant electronic delivery of translations? Must have been the devil's doing. Things were getting interesting when Word Perfect made its entrance in our world. No sooner had we mastered it that in popped Microsoft Word and we were forced to change. And even now, many years later, no matter how much we think we know how to use it, every now and then the contraption refuses to obey our command.

We thought we knew it all when Trados beckoned with the allure of translation memory dreams in the early 90s. After a couple of months of using it, I traveled to their headquarters in Old Town Alexandria to take the intermediate and advanced training courses. Apparently, I knew quite a bit and drove the poor instructor crazy. She finally took my mouse away so she could keep up with me. The rest is history....

Learning and investigating what different programs can do to improve our work shouldn't scare us. Believe it or not there are still some people who use the computer as a glorified typewriter, while others refuse to accept new technology. It took me three years to convince a very close friend of mine to buy Trados. Today, even though he doesn't use it to its full potential, he won't even translate a short sentence without it. Learning new things is not easy, but it is a necessity in our industry and keeps our mind from stagnation.

When I thought that I was done with learning translation tools, in came "localization." I once spent six weeks in Little Rock, Arkansas, doing localization work for a banking system. Part of the work involved changing all the "anos" to "años." It took seven strokes to insert that "ñ"—and two full days. With half-an-hour training, a monkey could have done it. I was trained—I was the monkey.

Editing is another area that we must often tackle and I must say that it has been a source of humble learning and provided me hours of entertainment. Since "think, think, and think some more" is my mantra, I always analyze the source language text before embarking on a translation or editing job. I make sure I understand the message and then I get rid of anything superfluous.

There are so many English expressions that we translate almost literally and without even noticing that we have incorporated them into Spanish. Some translators pick them up quicker than others. It is one of my strengths —after all, I am the self-proclaimed "reina de las redundancias" (or queen of redundancy). If analyzed, these expressions are funny in English because they use more words than necessary. Think about "true fact," "color red," "most, but not all," "exact duplicate," "round in shape," Continental Airlines' boast that they fly to some two hundred "foreign countries," and the most famous, "24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year" where "permanently" or "every day" would say it all. "Freshly brewed coffee" is another one that comes to mind. I have a colleague who refuses to send me any more of her translations to be edited because she swears she loses money after I chop off all of the words that add no meaning to the translation.

One of the many hats I've had to wear as translator is "technical support assistant" and "GPS consultant" for my traveling translator friends. Seldom does a week go by when I don't get a call from one of them asking me to get them out of high waters. See how it pays off to know technology? My best advice: reboot! All jokes aside, the camaraderie among translators is vital to maintain your sanity. Knowing that if you have to work until the wee hours of the morning, Messenger will be by your side. To be able to reach a friend who will assist with a word or phrase, to know that there is always someone out there who is willing to extend a helping hand in the middle of the night. Priceless!

Patience is another key ingredient I've had to master in my career. Patience with some clients. They may be agency owners or project managers, but many a time they understand very little of what they are doing. Take the case of this lady who e-mailed me the following message: "Sorry Pimpi. I sent you the wrong file. Could you send it back to me?" Or the one I received a couple of days ago after I turned down a translation because I had no time to do it: "I know you are very busy, but do you think you could do it for $(half the original fee) and deliver on Tuesday instead of Monday?" Colleagues also can test our patience, especially in large projects where many translators are involved. It is not so great having to deal with "egos" that get in the way of delivering a successful job—we've all been victims of it some time or another. The Spanish language lends itself to many "right" renderings; choosing the appropriate one for the job is not a question of nationality, years of experience, credentials or social status. It is just a question of common sense, and to make it prevail is so darn hard, my friends.

To test my steely resolve to try all aspects of this industry, I also delved into the world of interpreting for a few years as interpreter in depositions. Not an easy task in Houston where many lawyers think that they know Spanish perfectly. In one particular case that comes to mind, the defense attorney insisted that the translation for "cabbage" was "lechuga" (lettuce), but when the deponent said she stepped on "boiled lettuce" and slipped, all of a sudden things became something like a mesclun.

Other profiled translators before me have already mentioned the importance of becoming active in professional associations, and I could not agree more.

I participated in the efforts to revive the nearly-defunct Houston Interpreters and Translators Association, and with a handful of colleagues we managed to keep it afloat. With this in my pocket, I had to find out what a national association had to offer.

So in 1993, I packed my bags and off I went to my first ATA Conference in Philadelphia, where my life changed forever. I had taken no more than thirty CVs to the Job Exchange and was lucky enough to land my first direct client, a medical products manufacturing company that would issue a new manual every two or three months: a true gold mine.

Philadelphia marked a turning point in my life as a freelance translator. Not only did I get more work because of the conference networking that I did from then on, but also due to my involvement as speaker, presenter, organizer, activist, and "social butterfly." Participating, supporting and later organizing the famous Spanish Forum at the ATA Conference was an indescribable experience of an eight hour presentation dedicated to just one language. It was the first time that attendees freely contributed ideas and we all learned from each other.

In 1994 the local associations were asked to help organize the next ATA Conference. A newcomer and already getting my oars in, imagine that. Austin 94 turned out to be day and night compared to Philadelphia 93. So many changes: maybe the most important one was that ATA decided to share the opening reception with the newcomers, instead of holding a special one for them separately; the Job Exchange was given the importance it deserves and brought to the front, out of the last small and dark room where it had been hidden; the ABC Networking Sessions (for Albin, Bonnet and Coggins, the "ideologists") were born; the "Daily News" was distributed for the first time, the praiseworthy labor of Cristina Helmerichs; and the "colored dots" placed next to the name of the participants to recognize the languages they translate, made their debut.

It has been a very enjoyable ride. However, after a long career, it was about time for me to sit back, relax, continue my daily freelancing, and let the younger generations of translators take the torch. See how they work to keep up these good beginnings and take advantage of the many professional opportunities that the ATA offers today...

Did I say less than 20 words?