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Interview with Gabe Bokor


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Verónica Albin photo Gabe Bokor photoVA: The ATA awarded you its highest honor, the Gode Medal in 2000, but I would say that your strongest credential as a translator is having been born Hungarian. Since you could only use that extremely difficult language to talk to other Hungarians, how many other languages did you learn as a child in order to communicate with the rest of world?

GB: You're right, Vero, although I cannot take credit for where I was born. Indeed, if you travel a couple of hundred miles in any direction from Budapest, you must speak another language to make yourself understood. I learned German as a child from my mother, who was raised in Austria, so technically German is my second mother tongue. I left Hungary for the first time when I was 13; between that time and age 40 I lived in eight different countries for periods varying from one year to 15 years.

VA: Where were you living in that fateful year that was 1956?

GB: I was studying Chemical Engineering in Moscow at the Mendeleyev Institute of Chemical Technology then, so I looked at the Hungarian revolt from the other side of the fence, i.e., until I really jumped over the fence and escaped with my parents to the West.

VA: Whenever I hear that someone living behind what Churchill termed the "Iron Curtain," be it Moscow or Budapest, saying that they moved to the "West," I think of France or Britain, but your move to the West was really, really west...

GB: Like most Hungarian refugees, we crossed the border to Austria, but from there we went on to Brazil, where I was to spend the next 15 years of my life.

VA: When you arrived in Brazil, did you finish your studies in chemical engineering? How long did it take you?

GB: Although I had 1.5 years of college by then, I first had to have my high-school diploma revalidated by passing an exam in Portuguese language, Portuguese/Brazilian literature, history, and geography of Brazil. I did this and also passed the admission exam to the prestigious Escola Politécnica de São Paulo before the first anniversary of my arrival in the country. I finished the five-year chemical engineering curriculum in 1962.

VA: Did you do graduate work?

GB: I got my Master's in Business Administration from the Escola de Administração de Empresas da Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil.

VA: What other languages did you learn after you arrived in South America?

GB: While working for the Brazilian affilate of Alfa-Laval, a Swedish company, I learned Swedish. Later I headed the industrial sales department of this company's Buenos Aires office and then their office in Panama, so I speak a reasonably fluent, although somewhat "aportuguesado" Spanish.

VA: Not sufficiently "aportuguesado," according to my grading colleagues, for you are certified from English into Spanish... and you are also certified into Portuguese and from French into English. How did you learn French?

GB: My parents were taking French lessons when we lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Since I loved the sound of French, I begged them to let me study it, too, but they said no because I was starting Russian school at that time and they thought it would interfere with my learning Russian. So I secretly borrowed their French grammar book and started studying by myself. Later, in Brazil, where we had no college textbooks in Portuguese, I bought and studied from books in French, English, Spanish, and Russian.

VA: When did you leave Brazil?

GB: In 1971 I was invited to work at the corporate headquarters of Alfa-Laval in Sweden.

VA: You then found yourself back in Europe...

GB: Yes, for just a year after which Alfa-Laval sent me to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

VA: But before you left Europe again, you fell in love. And you did so in Hungarian...

GB: Yes. I met my wife-to-be, who is also Hungarian-born, in Sweden. Cathy was doing a post-doc in Scandinavian philology.

VA: You currently live in Poughkeepsie, NY. How did that happen?

GB: I was offered a position with Alfa-Laval's U.S. affiliate in 1977. We were supposed to stay in Poughkeepsie for one year, and here I am, 29 years later, a U.S. citizen (although I also kept my Brazilian citizenship) in the same city with an unspellable name.

VA: Then came a baby.

GB: Actually, two babies. Both David and Accurapid Translation Services, Inc., were born in Poughkeepsie in 1978.

VA: When did you become interested in translation?

GB: Having lived in nine different countries and worked with multinational companies, I was always involved in translation and languages. From there to making it a career was a natural step.

VA: Tell us how you started Accurapid.

GB: When my contract with Alfa-Laval expired, I was 40 years old, not a good age to start looking for a job in a foreign country. Establishing a business of our own seemed to be the best way both to gain residency in the U.S. and to make a living.

VA: About fifteen years ago, a good friend of yours moved his office next door to you. He recently retired...

GB: When I met him for the first time, Henry Fischbach, one of the ATA's founders, had his business, The Language Service, in Hastings-on-Hudson. It had been established in 1950 in New York City. He moved his office to Poughkeepsie into the building also occupied by Accurapid in 1990. Between that date and last year we managed our businesses separately, but in close cooperation. When Henry decided to retire in 2005, Accurapid took over the assets of his business and was renamed Accurapid - The Language Service. Henry is still lending us an occasional hand as a consultant, translator, and editor.

VA: Has the merger brought changes to your company?

GB: We inherited, in addition to a huge reference library collected over a period of more than 50 years, a foot in the door of medical translation, which is Henry's specialty, and from which we had kept away as a courtesy to him. We have since successfully serviced many of his former clients and have established or reinforced relations with his team of translators.

VA: How did you find out about the ATA?

GB: When we decided to enter the translation business, I looked up ATA in the phone book and applied for membership. I missed the annual Conference (then called Convention) held in New York City that year because we had our hands full with the newborn baby and the newborn company, but I did attend the following year's conference in Kansas City, and, since then, I've only missed a couple during the years of my mother's terminal illness.

VA: You are currently a Life Member of the ATA. What was the first position you held in the ATA?

GB: I joined ATA in 1978 and got my first accreditation (English to Portuguese) one year later. I was the first administrator of the first ATA division (the Science & Technology Division) from 1983 to 1984. I served two terms on the Board between 1986 and 1992, having been re-elected for my second term with the largest number of votes in a field of nine. I have also served as Ethics Chair, member of countless committees, and as Desktop Publisher of the Sci-Tech Division's Newsletter which, as its editor-in-chief, I later upgraded to Sci-Tech Translation Journal. I have been an English-to-Portuguese grader since 1981, and I chaired the task force to computerize the ATA's Certification program.

VA: When you were Chair of the Ethics Committee, you brought ethics into the forefront by writing a monthly column for the Chronicle. I don't remember any other time in my twenty-five years of membership in the Association where Ethics had a stronger presence. What were the most important issues during your tenure?

GB: I've always tried to avoid the term "ethics." I saw the role of the Ethics Committee then, as I see it now, as a mediator in the business dealings between translation providers and translation buyers and as an educator of both in proper business practices. Note that by "providers" I mean translators and translation companies, and by "buyers" I mean both direct clients and, again, translation companies. A translation company selling to a direct client is in a business situation that is similar to that of a freelancer, and its relationship with its client often drives its relationship with the freelance translator. Very often translators, and sometimes translation company owners, are inexperienced businesspeople and this may give rise to misunderstandings in the buyer-vendor relationship. There are also some unscrupulous buyers and dishonest vendors, but they are the exception. Most buyer-vendor conflicts can be resolved by education, persuasion, and mediation/arbitration. During my term as Ethics Chair we successfully mediated in a number of cases of non-payment or late payment by clients, and I see no reason why we cannot do this in the future. I'm a member of an ATA forum chaired by Dorothee Racette and Nick Hartmann that deals with business practices, and I intend to work with them and the other members of the Board to provide the ATA with more effective tools for resolving business issues between members. I will also moderate a panel discussion on business practices at the New Orleans Conference.

VA: During your tenure you produced an interesting document related to professional conduct.

GB: The Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices (also known as "Ethics Code"), which was adopted during my term as Ethics Chair and at my initiative, is now being updated by a committee headed by Courtney Searls-Ridge. I trust that not only will this code retain all the current safeguards for individual translators, but that the ATA will assume a more active role in making sure that those provisions are complied with.

VA: What, in your view, are currently the most important ethical issues for the ATA?

GB: In addition to the old issues-slow payment or non-payment by buyers, misrepresentation of qualifications by vendors, exploitation of the weakest link in the translation chain, the individual translator- we have new issues brought about by technology and globalization. Should translators pass on the savings achieved by using technology (which they have paid for) to their customers? Who owns the translation memory that a translation company provides and to which the translator contributes? How to deal with the challenges of globalization? Again, these are not abstract ethical issues, but practical problems our industry is facing today and will increasingly face tomorrow.

VA: In addition to being a grader for over twenty years, you have also served on the Certification Committee. What are the most pressing current certification issues?

GB: The certification program has made tremendous progress since the time I got involved in it. We now certify in 27 language combinations. More objective criteria have been established for passage selection and grading; grader training has been improved. One of the remaining major challenges is the computerized certification exam and the related changes in passage selection and creation of passage-specific guidelines. Certification of non-ATA members, one of the recommendations of the Hamm Report (http://www.atanet.org/bin/view.pl/24113.html), and exam sittings abroad are issues to be discussed with careful weighing of the pros and cons of each option.

One important and divisive issue is Continuing Education as a precondition to maintain one's certification. I support CE in principle because it makes the ATA certification more credible and brings it in line with the certification policies of other professional organizations. If we do not require CE, other certifying organizations will (as one translation company already does), and our credential will lose value by comparison. The current CE system is largely fair and accommodating, but too complicated. The CE requirements of most other professional organizations can be resumed in two paragraphs; ours is described in five pages on the ATA's website. The system should be simplified with the active participation of those directly affected by it: the working, ATA-certified translators.

VA: As you mentioned earlier in our conversation, you edited the Sci-Tech Translation Journal for many years. With the advent of technology, you launched a second publication that is now in its tenth year....

GB: I started publishing the Translation Journal nine years ago, and it has since evolved into a prestigious international publication. It carries 10 to 15 feature articles in each issue and receives 20-25,000 visitors every week. It contains articles on different aspects of translation from business advice by Fire Ant and Worker Bee (Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel) to Translators' Tools, Literary, Legal, Technical, Medical, and other areas of Translation, "Nuts & Bolts" of Translation, Glossaries, a huge selection of Links, Translators' Best Web Sites, Interactive Blog, and a Translator Profile featuring an experienced and respected translator in each issue.

VA: An ATA committee is currently working on establishing translation standards to be incorporated in the international ASTM, CEN, and ISO standards. How will this affect our work as translators?

GB: This is a very important issue, since it will affect the way large buyers will evaluate translation providers and purchase translations. In Europe, many buyers are already demanding that translation providers be ISO 9000 certified. Now, getting such a certification costing tens of thousands of dollars is beyond the reach of most individual translators and small translation companies. What many people, including translation buyers, don't know is that what is being certified is not translation quality, but only the process by which translation is processed. The ATA should not permit that these standards be hijacked by the large multinational companies, who can afford to go through expensive certification processes and who are grabbing an ever increasing share of the translation market.

VA: You have served on the ATA Board twice in your many years of membership and service to the ATA. At least ten long-time ATA members put your name forth again to run for office in the upcoming elections in New Orleans. The ATA Nominating Committee approved your name and you are now on the slate for a position on the Board. What prompted you to run again for office?

GB: Our industry has changed tremendously since my previous years of service on the Board, and this change seems to be accelerating. In addition to the new technologies-the Internet, computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, and machine translation-we're facing competition from all over the world and suffer pressures from powerful players against whom the individual translator is almost powerless. The ATA has done a lot to equip us to face the global competition, but more can and should be done. We should continue to use technology to our competitive advantage and counter the efforts of large multinationals to control the translation market. These are exciting times, and what we in the ATA accomplish in the next few years will define the course of our industry for many decades. I believe I have the vision, experience, and dedication to help steer the ATA in the right direction as a member of its Board of Directors.

VA: Some people have called you a "troublemaker." How do you respond to that?

GB: If "troublemaking" means standing up for what you believe to be a worthwhile cause, I'm a "troublemaker," and I'm proud of it. In almost three decades of involvement in ATA's affairs, I often took positions on issues and, naturally, had disagreements with some people. However, those who worked with me on any of the committees and work groups I've served on can tell you that my natural tendency is to seek cooperation and consensus, not confrontation. And if I disagree with somebody, I do it openly, and try to convince the other party with rational arguments. It's part of the democratic process to have disagreements, and only those who have no ideas of their own or are unwilling to defend them agree with others all the time. Those who want to have a yes-man on the Board shouldn't vote for me.

VA: Thank you, Gabe, for your candid answers. I am extremely happy that you are running for office once again and I wish you the very best.

GB: Thank you, Vero.


Update

In the elections held at the New Orleans Conference of the American Translators Association on November 2, 2006, Gabe was elected with the largest number of votes of the six candidates who ran.

Thank you, ATA members. I promise I won't disappoint you.
Gabe













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