y mother was always impulsive and eager to please. She also was fascinated by the Roman story of Cornelia, and loved to show off her “two
jewels,” as she called my brother and me. I think she went overboard during my 15th summer, but I have been ever grateful that she did.
It had been my custom since the 6th grade to find summer employment to pay for the books for the next school year. That year, Dad was taking my
brother and me to England with our step-mother, so I was having trouble finding a job for just part of the summer. One day, Mom came home with a deal for
me. She had volunteered me to translate a book on blindness, La lotta contro la cecità. The Italian Society for the Prevention of Blindness
was sponsoring a lecture tour by the author in the United States, but could not afford to have the book translated into English. The Society offered to pay
me 250 lire/page (USD 0.40), which was less than the going rate for simple typing. But they gave me a typewriter and a copy of the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary to keep. They also arranged for a professor at the British Council to review the translation.
The value of a liberal education and an insatiable curiosity remain as important today as ever.
The fact that I could not type and had never translated anything longer than a newspaper article meant nothing to Mom. I was terrified, but also excited.
The book did not seem that intimidating. After all, it was written for a general audience, and I had been an unpaid interpreter for almost four years
already. We signed the contract in June, and I went off to England with Dad and my brother.
When we returned, the first of a lifetime of deadlines was hanging over my head. I turned to my best friend, Walter, who could type. We holed up in the
back of his father’s store for six weeks, while I sight-translated the book to him, walking in a circle around a big table. He taught me ten-finger
typing on the old 1896 Underwood, as I typed and re-typed the drafts of the manuscript. I delivered on time (28 August 1962), collected my fee and bought
my books for the coming school year. The professor at the British Council gushed with praise, but I cringe to think of how the translation would appear to
my ears and eyes today!
The point of this story for us is not that I was translating at an early age, but that I was not held back by my age or my lack of a diploma. It is a
blessing and a curse that our profession remains as unregulated today as it was then. A bilingual who can read the source language critically and write
well in the target language can learn our trade, and learn it well. Our age, sex, race, religion, or political leanings need not hold us back. We
don’t need a particular degree to get started. There is opportunity in our profession, and for all it may be abused by many, openness remains one of
its distinguishing features. Of course, that means that we must be self-starters, because we are responsible for our own professional growth.
Plus ça change…
A lot has changed in fifty years.
Consider the equipment I was using: a heavy, black, manual typewriter; carbon paper; ink erasers; a couple of printed dictionaries. Our value-added skills
were ten-fingered typing and our personal, brain-stored memories. A trip to the local library or a phone call to a local expert was the extent of our
research capability. I made the typewriter “portable” by lashing it to a board on the rear rack of my bicycle.
At Naval Academy, I added specialized dictionaries to my small professional library. I discovered the joy of easy access to a University library.
For twenty years, I typed my translations with the source on paper in front of me. The typewriters got better: Smith-Corona portables, IBM Selectric®
(you could buy different typing balls for the different letter sets and languages), and Olivetti machines of various makes and models. I still have three
In 1980, we got Wang and IBM PS-2 “personal” computers at the Pacific Fleet Headquarters where I worked. Suddenly, I could type a draft and not
re-type every page with more than a certain number of errors. It might take a few tries to get the printed copy to look like what I wanted (the screen was
text-only, no formatting), but it was the most liberating thing to happen to me as a translator yet. In 1981, I bought my own PC, a Sanyo MBC-555 with no
hard drive. It had two slots for 5.25-inch floppy disks. One had the program software and operating system (DOS 3.0); the other had my files. When I
removed them, there was nothing in the machine. When the Navy sent me to Naples in 1985, I doubled the computer’s memory myself, to 256 KB! That PC
took me through the rest of my active duty in the Navy. It rests in my attic today, with a nine-pin dot matrix printer and the daisy-wheel printer that it
used to drive. The daisy-wheels, like the typing balls on the IBM Selectric®, could be changed out for different languages, fonts, etc.
The work used to come in by mail. Or I could ride downtown if the job was local (and much work was local in large cities like Rome, Naples or New York).
During the 1980’s, some translation agencies had telex machines, but the translator had to go get the incoming telex and return the physical
translation. By 1989, however, I was routinely getting source files by fax and returning the translations the same way. E-mail was introduced, but most
projects were still set up with long-distance telephone calls.
In 1989, I hung up my uniform and went to work at the University of Virginia, a large research University at the front end of the internet revolution. We
were using email in the Physics Department long before the general public. Attachments became common in the early 90’s and I rapidly found myself
upgrading my personal suite to DOS 6.22 and thence to the WYSIWYG [what-you-see-is-what-you-get] world of Windows and the PC’s, which we take for
… plus c'est la même chose.
I joined ATA in 1985, and that allowed me to learn what my colleagues were doing. As my work changed from Navy assignments to private-sector work as a
freelancer (roughly in the decade from 1985 to 1995), I learned a few things. The basic principles never changed, but how we did them changed a lot.
- Being there. Communications have always been essential. Project managers (PM) used to find translators by going through their Rolodex® cards until a phone call got them someone who would take the job. I made a point of checking my voice mail many times a day. Then I got a pager. In 1991, I bought one of the first cellular phones in our area, a six-pound “bag phone” that I lashed to the rack of my bicycle (remember the “portable” typewriter?). I have had a mobile phone ever since. Today Outlook® has replaced the Rolodex®, but the first one to connect with the PM still gets the job.
- Being available. I learned quickly that PM’s like to work with people they know (so I started going to ATA Conferences as soon as I could).
They also like to use translators that they have used before. I also learned that those translators take vacations. In the early years of building my
private business, I got more new clients in July and August than all the rest of the year. Once they tried me, the new clients became old clients. The
secret was being available when they called the first time.
- Being part of the team. I made a point of referring the PM to some ATA-certified colleagues any time that I could not take a job. No referral
fee, I was just trying to help my client. A couple of things came from this:
- My colleagues returned the favor, even ones that I had not met yet. Soon, I was getting more new clients from referrals than from the summer holiday
- Clients started calling me first, even when I was not available. I asked some of them about this and they said, “We call you first because we know
we will place the job faster. Either you will take it, or one of your referrals will. And you always give us names after learning about the job, so the
referrals are a good match.” I had not planned on that, but I certainly was not complaining.
- Keeping the marketing cost-effective. Marketing by mail was time-consuming and expensive. At first, I pitched market letters only to companies
that supported ATA by advertising in the Chronicle. Then Glenn’s Guides came along in the late 80’s and was the basis of the only
mass-mail-marketing campaign I ever did. Those two tactics worked: many of those contacts are still clients today.
- Keeping the marketing up-to-date. I copied my first web site from the internet before there were user-friendly HTML editors. I did not know the
codes for colors and formatting, so I found a site with a simple, clean appearance. I knew enough about markup language to replace the text in the
downloaded web page files with my own content and voilà, I had my own website. I have tried to keep it simple, because my readers may not have
the latest technology or a high-speed internet connection. You won’t find dancing bears or audio at www.scriptorservices.com. I use LinkedIn and Facebook. I will probably start a blog later this year. Most
important, I keep my profile up to date at the ATA Translation and Interpreting Services Directory (TISD). More than four years ago, the TISD surpassed
referrals as the primary source of new clients, and it remains the most frequent reason that new people call or e-mail me.
- Thinking like a business person. The Navy and the University trained me as a financial manager, so transferring those skills was not a big leap.
From the very beginning I observed two rules:
- Keep the business separate from the personal life. This meant separate checking accounts, separate books, separate credit cards, phone lines,
long-distance serviceeverything. There had to be a business reason for everything I bought with business assets.
- Make the business pay its own way. I started out with a “day job” that put a roof over our heads, fed us, etc. From the first outside
translation job during my Navy days, I used the money from translating to buy things for the business, which is why it took a long time at first to get my
own PC, fax machine, cell phone, etc.
- Studying the profession. Because I did not know any translating and interpreting schools, I had to study about translating and
interpreting on my own. Today, one can get a PhD in Translation Studies, and there are all levels of schools for learning how to perform
interpreting and translating. Learning about what we do, why we do it and why some things work and others do not are activities that engage us in our
profession and keep it fresh and alive.
- Learning as much about everything as possible. We don’t translate languages; we translate content written in languages. Subject matter
expertise at some level is a requirement, and the more things we know about the various subjects that we like to translate, the better we can do our jobs.
Language mediation (translating and interpreting) is and will remain a human activity.
Language is inherently human and infinitely complex. As long as humans can still get excited about a pun or a new way of expressing an idea or a feeling,
there will be translators and interpreters helping us share that excitement with one another. I challenge the machines to keep up with the teenagers
changing our languages as fast as they can text their friends!
Given that our languages keep changing, we have always had to keep ourselves up-to-date in source and target tongues. We bought new editions of
dictionaries and subscribed to magazines. We traveled to hear and see how the language and the culture were changing. We still have to do that. Only the
speed and the resources (internet, social media, RSS, etc.) have changed. The task remains the same.
The Common Law of Business Balance remains solid.
In part, it reads, “There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person
who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.” We have always had bottom-feeders. Their schemes for taking advantage of both customers and
language mediators will keep changing, but honesty will almost always win in the end. I truly believe this, and so far, my life has not contradicted me.
At the turn of the 21st century, I noticed the drop in work as companies “went offshore” to have their large financial and legal
documents translated more cheaply. My clients (the translation companies) confirmed my suspicions, so I started taking in a wider variety of work (it
helped that the Navy gave me a broad technical background). I was not terribly worried, because an Annual Report may look like boring financial jargon, but
on Wall Street, Fleet Street and the Piazza Affari, it is also a sales document, aimed at the big investors who buy millions of shares at a time. Sure
enough, a year later, almost all the financial and legal work was back, and it continues strong today. I never lowered my rates.
The value of a liberal education and an insatiable curiosity remain as important today as ever. I am not talking about university degrees, but about lifelong learning. I was an intellectual sponge as a teenager; I am still learning new things all
Whether we acquire it in school or by self-study, a liberal education makes us familiar with a wide range of subjects and gives us the research skills to
find out quickly what we do not know now. As language mediators, it enables us look up a new topic quickly and understand what comes back from our
searches, so we can choose the right words or phrases. As workers in the Information Age, our curiosity will lead us to the cutting edge of new technology,
so that we can refashion our work quickly and be where our clients, family, and employers need us. For me, that aspect of our profession does more than put
food on my table; it feeds my soul.
And now, the sea stories.
Please don’t try to draw lessons from these vignettes. Enjoy!
1962. Rome, Italy.
Mom and I own and operate the sauna concession in the basement of the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel. Vatican Council II is in session. Bishops and cardinals are
everywhere, and the American delegation is struggling. There are no interpreting services at the Council, because every priest is expected to be fluent in
Latin. This is not a dead language for me and my classmates taking Latin IV at school. We are using it every day, interpreting for delegates or just
helping with conversation practice after serving Mass each morning.
One night as I was closing up the sauna, I got a phone call from one of our regular clients, the Auxiliary Bishop of Newburgh, New York.
“Jonathan, could you come up to my room for a while?” he asked. “I have a document that we need help with tonight.” Thanking my
lucky stars that I had finished my own homework already that evening, I took the lift up to his suite. He met me with a thick, typewritten manuscript.
“We were just given this today. I think it’s a draft Encyclical [major policy letter from the Pope]. The American delegation has a meeting
right after breakfast to prepare our national response to the proposals in it. But none of us can read it, especially something that thick in one
“I can’t type or write that fast, Father,” I said, hefting the volume in my hands.
He sat down at his coffee table, and pulled a large yellow pad of paper towards himself.
“I was wondering if you could read it to mein English. I will take notes. I am hoping that will give us enough information to put something
together in the morning.”
Sight translation from Latin? Why not? I opened the manuscript and began to interpret “Pacem in Terris…”
1972. Gaeta, Italy.
Most mornings when the US Sixth Fleet flagship is in homeport, I coast down the steep hill from our apartment building, stopping my bicycle at the kiosk
for the daily papers from Naples, Milan, Paris and Rome. Then I ride to the ship. The first thing I do in my office is to read the papers and type up a
short précis about what the press in Italy and France has to say today. I send copies to the Chief of Staff and to the Intelligence Officer (N-2).
One afternoon, the N-2 stopped by my office with a wry smile on his face.
“London called on the secure phone this morning,” he said. “London” meant CINCUSNAVEUR, the Commander, Naval Forces Europe.
“Washington wants to know why we keep reporting so much activity in Libya when we don’t have any people on the ground.” It had been a
while since Col. Kaddafi had evicted all Americans from the country. Obviously N-2 was forwarding my little reports up the chain of command.
“Is it something in my daily summaries?”
“I explained what you do. They were just surprised that we had such high-quality information before the regular intelligence agencies.”
“But Libya is local news in Naples,” I said. “There are thousands of Italian engineers working there, not to mention the Italian
reporters who follow what is happening around them.”
The N-2 smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Just keep the translations coming.”
1986. London, England.
It is time for the US/Italian Joint Forces Agreement to be re-negotiated, and part of the process is for the military delegations of the two countries to
meet in a third country (the UK) to work on details. I am there as the NATO Observer to the talks, because I am on the staff of the Commander, Allied
Forces Southern Europe, in Naples.
After the first joint session, the two national delegations separate to go into private discussion groups. Naturally, I trail along with the Italian
delegation, because there are plenty of English-speaking officers to observe the Americans. Just as the group is about to start, the general presiding over
the meeting glares at me sitting against the wall and asks in a loud voice (in Italian, of course) to no one in particular,
“What is an American officer doing here?”
One of the Italian colonels from Naples looks at me, then at the general, and shrugs, “But he is not American, sir. He’s
1972-1974, Mediterranean Sea. From the CHOP [Change of Operational Command] message that Vice-Admiral Jerry Miller used to send to the new ships reporting for duty in the Sixth Fleet,
a piece of advice that I have applied to my life as a translator, interpreter and as a person:
“If you are not having fun, you are not doing it right!”