Volume 17, No. 3 
July 2013


Bruni can be reached at brunijohnson@sbcglobal.net.

Front Page

Select one of the previous 64 issues.


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
My Career in Translation and Interpreting
by Bruni Johnson

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Rosetta Stone and Translation Rates
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Maggie H. Rowe
by Walter Bacak, CAE
In Memoriam: Prof. Yuanxi Ma
by Di Wu

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
Naive Translation Equivalent
by Midhat Ridjanović, PhD

Translation and Politics
Unduly Free Translation and Its Consequences
by Izak Morin

Literary Translation
Two New Chinese Translations of Hamlet Introduced and Compared
by Xiaonong Wang
Translation and Symbolism in Drama: Four Case Studies of W.B. Yeats’s Plays
by Mehdi Ghobadi

Financial Translation
Los efectos de la crisis en el sistema financiero europeo: repercusiones en el mercado de la traducción financiera
Elena Alcalde Peñalver

Translator Education
New Trends and Challenges in the Translation Profession: Coaching for Translators
by Dra. Concepción Mira Rueda
Information Management in the Translation Process
by Luis D. González León

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal
Translator Profile

My Career in Translation and Interpreting

by Bruni Johnson

y story is very similar to those of others who were born during a time of war in Germany with all the resulting losses, injuries, anxieties, fears, and memories. Yet, as a child I was fairly content. The bad memories came much later.

I was born and raised in Berlin. The schools in our part of the city were destroyed, and school started for me, in a factory building, when I was 8 years of age. And yet, we had very compassionate and competent teachers. Slowly, life improved, even as we lived through the Berlin Blockade.

Travel, meet various people, attend cultural and other events. Take different educational courses and read everything.
After my shortened grammar school education I was one of the few students selected to attend the by-now-free high school, although a few years later than would have been required under normal circumstances. Finally I was able to catch up on my very welcome education. We were a group of hard-working students starved for education. School books were non-existent, so we had to pay very close attention, take notes, and retain what we were taught as best as we could. I firmly believe that helped me to be extremely perceptive. Unwittingly, I was receiving my first preparation as interpreter. A damaged wrist prevented me from using my hand fully for some time in high school, and I took most of my exams orally. After my Abitur I decided to study German, French and English literature and theater. My studies took me to England for one year, where I received the Cambridge Proficiency in English, and to France for two years, where I received the degree Supérieure de la Langue Française. When I returned to my University studies in Berlin, which by now were also free, I discovered that my language education prepared me only for the teaching profession, something that did not exactly appeal to me. Hence, I decided to obtain a degree in translation/interpreting at a language college in Berlin. There I received the best education possible, although by far not as elaborate as the teaching of that profession eventually became. As chance would have it, one of my female teachers was one of the interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials. I would meet yet another one much later in my life in the United States.

Start and development of my career

After graduation, I worked as a translator and interpreter at the Berliner Bank, as technical translator at DEMAG and, eventually, at the BB Command (Berlin Brigade), where I worked for a U.S. General, for I wanted to be prepared for my life in the U.S. since I had married an American member of the U.S. Army Band. We got married on the day the Wall went up in Berlin.

I came to Chicago in 1962. The profession of translator and interpreter at that time was relatively novel, and few bilingual jobs were available. I accepted a position at a major law firm in Chicago as Secretary and Translator for a French attorney. I still do G-E-G translations for this law firm, which is now one of the largest in the world. Then I had my children. Part-time work was really not an option in those days, but I was lucky that one of the first translation companies in Chicago asked me to translate and interpret for them. Sitting at my old and clunky typewriter, constantly fighting with ribbons and copy papers, while pushing the cradle with one foot, I found myself once again working in my destined profession. Eventually I accepted a part-time job at another law firm, which at that time consisted of four attorneys. I worked with them for over 18 years, starting as a secretary and eventually morphing into the position of para-legal. It was this job that prepared me most for my future and very lucrative career as translator and interpreter. The firm had by then grown to over 250 attorneys. I loved my job and was eventually given the task of preparing legal papers and filing uncontested motions in court among other duties, which included occasional translations. Through my work with filing immigration papers, I developed many contacts with a Law School in Chicago and even attended classes sitting in for a foreign attorney for whom I worked whenever he was out of town. This led to an offer to study law. Although I passed the law-school entrance exam and was offered a grant, I decided instead to attend a local college near my home, since I could not afford the travel cost and time away from my young children.

My first big break came when a German attorney in another major [patent] law firm asked me to translate a patent. Impressed with my translation and understanding of German, the attorney referred me to other attorneys in town, which led to more translation work on the side, until I had established quite a client list.

Because I felt the need to upgrade my knowledge and skills, I inquired at the Goethe Institute about relevant courses. I didn't yet know about ATA. They had no courses available, but the then Director of the Institute, Dr. Breuer, asked me to start a translators group. With his help, I initiated the German Translators Forum, an informal group that grew rapidly. One of our very first and most supportive members, who would become my best friend, was none other than Peter Less, the other interpreter from the Nuremberg Trials who shaped my life. Initially we invited personal contacts, lawyers, interns from the German Chamber of Commerce and others to hold workshops for us. We had speakers on technical, legal, and literary subjects, and visited companies such as Siemens. In those days the Goethe Institute could still help us financially and we started to organize the first E-G seminars and workshops. Our aptly named newsletter "Jeronimo" was literally cut-and-paste. By now, I had found and joined ATA, and met Frau Schreiber, who was then Director of the Erlangen Institute of Foreign Languages, at one of its conferences. The Goethe Institute helped us organize our first workshop with Frau Schreiber (economics and finances), Prof. Dr. Peter A. Schmitt (Schmitt@uni-leipzig.de) (technical) and Dr. Kohn (general linguistics) from Germersheim. For a minimal fee, we enjoyed two days of intensive education. These seminar/workshops became an annual event, albeit eventually I had to finance them with only the fees we charged. It was at times a bit scary, and I often had to subsidize the seminars with my own money. These events included a Judge from Erlangen, as well as Peter Schmidt and Frau Schreiber, who both later accepted our invitation without receiving a fee. Later we had American speakers such as Harry Obst and Ed Berger, Tom West and Ben Teague. These events taught me so incredibly and indescribably much and gave many of us a good foundation as translators. But why not have a workshop in Germany? And so Dr. Peter Schmidt organized our first German seminar in Germersheim. Frau Schreiber also offered a seminar/workshop in Erlangen and I visited the Institute to participate in their classes for one week. An offer to help with the organization of the Erlangen workshop led to a new position as organizer. We still attend these seminars every other year.

Meanwhile, as is the case with many a volunteer organization, after over 15 years my ever increasing volume of work became burdensome. The group eventually included members outside the Chicago area and ATA was asked to absorb the group at a time when many other German translators were proposing the formation of a German Division.

Along the way, my next big break came when McDonalds approached me to interpret for them. I was the first German simultaneous interpreter they hired for their German training sessions. This was a time when the interpreter was expected to work alone in the U.S. For two weeks straight, we would work for 7 to 8 hours, had an hour break for lunch or dinner, and then continued to interpret consecutively into the night in an equipment lab. The same was true for their big conventions every other year. I finally refused to work alone. It was only just recently that I started working for them again. But, oh boy, have things changed; there is training for the interpreters, topic material, and two interpreters at each event. It is heaven. This was the new beginning of my interpreting career and things fell into place.

I was now in a position to work on my own and no longer needed to balance two jobs. I left my law firm, had a stint with Deutsche Bank, added some more client contacts and became totally independent. I bought my first computer, a Kay Pro, actually a glorified memory typewriter. Things developed fast thereafter. I was a firm member of ATA, Internet was introduced into our profession, an on-line translation group was started, I bought a better computer, and life was wonderful. The rest is history.

The Moral of the Story

As Organizer of The German Translators Forum in Chicago, I was oftentimes approached by linguists who inquired about how to get started or obtain the proper education. Some of the fledgling translators/interpreters did not always warm up to my advice, which is to go step-by-step or to do it my way of gaining a more practical background.

My advice—which is purely my opinion and my path to success—is:

Don't rush it. A translator friend signs her email with a quote from George Bernhard Shaw, which I believe says it all:

The trouble with this world is that
the ignorant are certain,
and the intelligent are full of doubt.

My suggestion: Study a language or several languages, but concentrate on one foreign language in addition to your mother tongue, until the second language becomes almost a native language, as English is for me. Get as broad an education as possible. In my case, I started out with literature and languages after my very broad and tough German education in high school. I delved into English in England and French in France. I worked for several different companies in different fields, and not necessarily as a translator/interpreter (e.g., in the legal field, for banks and technical companies, as Editor and Translator for a literary publishing firm). I studied acting, history, and chemistry, although I don't remember much of the latter. My career as a legal secretary was one of the most beneficial experiences for my later career. Not only was I instructed and corrected by extremely high-caliber attorneys, but I learned how to research without the help of the Internet. I continued interpreting for a multitude of industries, including for the German Consulate as political and diplomatic interpreter. Ultimately, I supplemented my knowledge first through the self-organized German Translators Forum, later by attending many of the marvelous sessions at ATA, and, finally above all, through our seminars in Germany.

My mantra: read as much as possible a variety of subjects and books and learn from every aspect of life. Although my passive knowledge is vast, I still feel I don't know enough. Equally or even more importantly, think logically. Don't rely only on Internet searches, Google, or Wikipedia or only on dictionaries. Real life has quite a few different options available too, particularly when reaching into the past. Oh yes, and old dictionaries are also a bonus, don't toss them yet.

Travel, meet various people, attend cultural and other events. Take different educational courses and read everything. Before the Internet, I would read entire books on a subject I was preparing to translate or interpret.

And for those afraid of modern technology, I am sure you can master it. I opted not to work with any of the translation software tools and did and still do very well. But I am sure it will further your careers and if you are a bit younger than I am, you will learn to master some if not all of them.

I loved my various careers, first as translator and interpreter in Germany, then in the U.S. at the law firm, and finally as a freelance translator and interpreter. I am proud to say, I am still at it. However, I have eliminated several areas of specialty, for I find it too hard to keep up with some of the subjects. Instead, I travel and learn more about life in other cultures and keep physically fit.