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Translation Of Personal Documents - A Window Into Our Strange World

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"Think of your fellow man
Lend him a helping hand
Put a little love in your heart!
I know, when you decide
Kindness will be your guide
Put a little love in your heart!"

[From a nearly forgotten song from the sixties by Jackie De Shannon]

(This article was originally published in Translorial, a quarterly journal published by the Northern California Translators Association (, a chapter of the American Translators Association (

This article is about translation of personal documents. Birth certificates, college transcripts, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, death certificates. They are called personal documents because they often have all kinds of personal things in them. Your birth certificate, for instance, has your (original) gender in it, it tells the whole world your age, the name, address, status and occupation of your parents, and depending on your country of birth even what kind of child you were and whether you had an identifying mark. Czech birth certificates also have an entry that says "remark", which is always empty. I keep waiting for some interesting descriptive remark, such as "has two heads", or "born in the form of three Siamese twins". No luck so far. But I often find a lot interesting things in boring old certificates. For instance, the old Czech term for an "out of wedlock" child would translate as "not [produced] in the spousal bed". Pretty graphic, you could say, but perhaps more accurate than "illegitimate". How can a child be illegitimate? Aren't all children legitimate, possibly unlike some of the actions of their parents?

Personal documents of people that I never met from Czech and Slovak Republic, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan, Russia, Algeria and other countries have been chasing me on a mad chase around the world for the last twenty five years. They always seem to find me everywhere I go. Some are already translated, for instance birth certificates from Ukraine used to be and maybe still are in Ukrainian and Russian, and from Algeria in Arabic and French. A translation agency in Tokyo called me once about a Czech birth certificate when I was traveling in Hokkaido, checking out the hot springs and fish markets of this exotic island for a couple of weeks. I'm sorry I missed that one, and I wonder who translated it.

Every now and then, my fax machine, e-mail or snail mail spits out a birth, marriage, divorce, or death certificate from a town in Bohemia that I will suddenly recall from some long forgotten episode in my carefree childhood or careless youth. It often ruins my concentration and I have to go for a cup of coffee to Cafe Aroma on Railroad Square or for a long walk through downtown Santa Rosa. (But I usually take my cell phone with me in case some other personal documents require my personal attention).

The death certificates are often more memorable than the other ones. Don't be shy to ask for more money for death certificates, even simple ones, because people usually need a translation when money is involved. I remember how once I asked for a hundred dollars for a very simple German death certificate, just a few words, really. I was very busy, translating a stack of Japanese patents and kind of hoping that the lady who called would go somewhere else. They often do when you ask for more than $90, which is what I ask for when I need some walk around money, which is to say most of the time. But she said O.K., so I did it. I will do just about anything for a hundred dollars. The young lady in question, who in fact seemed to be at least 30 years younger than her recently deceased German husband, forgot her checkbook in my office after she paid me with a check, possibly because she was still in shock. So naturally, I had to take a look at the checkbook to find her phone number, not that I am a nosy person, not in the least. But I could not help noticing that the balance in her checking account was fifty thousand dollars. That would pay the rent on my office and a lot of groceries too. Next time I must ask for a hundred and fifty, I thought. That is not all I thought, but let's leave it at that.

Often, the people who need a translation are recent immigrants as I was a quarter century ago. Some of them speak broken English, some are rude, and some are very pleasant, polite and obviously intelligent. Sometime I end up talking to them and we share our insights on life in America and other countries. There was a young German woman in the Bay Area who was thinking of immigrating to Australia because neither she nor her husband could obtain a green card in this country. I was trying to talk her out of it. I was thinking of emigrating to Australia at one point, and I am glad I went to California instead. It's just too far and too different over there. A young German furniture maker who lives in a small town not far from Santa Rosa was audited by the Internal Revenue Service because he showed no profit on his tax return during his first year in this country (his father gave him nine thousand dollars to live on until he establishes himself). He has a new accountant now. An Austrian woman died recently (of mitral valve failure) in a little town in Southern Bohemia where my sister used to live. This Austrian woman had a Croatian first name and a Hungarian last name, and she was visiting Bohemia when she died. She was cremated in the town of Budejovice, (called Budweis in German, unbeknownst to most Americans, home of the original Budweiser beer). She was one year younger than me when she died. The town where she died is on a pretty lake where I used to go swimming in summer, taking in the sun rays and trying to memorize a couple of thousand Japanese characters that I used to scribble on pieces of paper and stuff in the pocket of my jeans. Those were the good times. I wonder in what kind of place will my last failure find me and which valve will it be.

The people who call usually want to know whether my translations are legally valid. They often don't know how to say it in English and ask me whether I can "legalize" their marriage or divorce and other hilarious things. Usually, the thicker their accent, the more worried they are about my capability to make their documents official enough to be acceptable to U.S. government agencies, mortgage lenders, etc. If I don't like the way they sound, I just tell them that unfortunately, no official power has been vested in me (which is true) and wait for them to hang up. But in fact, they need not worry. I can make my translations look very official. They are printed on my stationary, which has some Japanese characters on it. Japanese or Chinese characters always make every document look very official, especially if you cannot read them. And I provide my expert translations with a short certifying statement in which I slyly promise accuracy (but only to the best of my ability, which is admittedly limited), and stamp them with a round embossing stamp which says OFFICIAL TRANSLATION on it in large letters. Office Depot will make a stamp like that for you for $25. If you staple several pages together, put an embossing, official sounding stamp on every page and add a solemn statement at the end, the result is usually more official looking than the original document (except for German affidavits, of course, because nothing is more official looking than German affidavits). Since I never got a single call from the Immigration and Naturalization Service or other institutions that devour personal documents on a daily basis in the twenty some years that I have been providing my expert services to the general public, this leads me to believe that the mistakes that I make when I "legalize" other people's marriages, divorces, diplomas, births and deaths are relatively infrequent and/or minor, unlike the mistakes that these people do on their own.

Sometime these personal documents come through a law firm or an agency, usually as a part of a legal case or an insurance investigation. Once I translated a handwritten report of a Japanese private investigator about a young American man who went to Tokyo to study Japanese, took out a very high life insurance policy on his life, and then suddenly died in his early thirties - of AIDS. The report included photographs of his apartment and interviews with his neighbors. Or there was a series of reports, handwritten again, from a Japanese headhunter who was evaluating (from an interestingly Japanese viewpoint) Russian researchers at an institute in Moscow where a Japanese company was hiring top research talent for rock bottom prices. Or a few gay love letters which a jealous American man just had to have translated because he could not read them. Or a series of letters and cards covering several decades from a Czech couple that emigrated to America about 170 years ago to their relatives in Austria-Hungary. The language was not very different from modern Czech, but the writing of these handwritten letters was very hard to read because back then they were using a special German writing style similar to Schwabach (also known as Blackletter, a script used in Western Europe approximately from 1150 to 1500, but well into the twentieth century in German speaking countries).

But usually, personal documents come through my small add in the Yellow Pages, and most of the time they are very short. Unless I have nothing else to do, I usually ask for a hundred dollars, not matter how short the document, One customer paid a hundred dollars for something scribbled in French on the back of a postcard that was given to her by a Buddhist monk. He died and she wanted to know what was it that he was trying to say to her. So I delivered a message from the deceased monk. Another customer paid a hundred dollars for a translation of three sentences into French. It was for her son who was trying to make sure that the French girl who he wanted to propose to in French would say oui to him. I wonder if he was kneeling when he was giving her his ring. I bet he was. He was so comme il faut (which is called chanto in Japanese  there is really no proper translation for this kind of thing in American English, possibly because so few people bother to speak American English properly). I wondered if she married him and they are still together. 

Most people think that they don't really need translators. And they don't. Except when somebody is born, or gets married, goes to school, dies .... and then, all of a sudden they do need us, just like they need doctors or midwives, caterers, teachers, and undertakers. I am glad I picked this particular profession of mine of all the other ones that I probably could have chosen when I was young. Where else would they pay me for sticking my nose into other people's business? As my trainer in the gym where I go on my lunch hour told me, "Where else would I get paid for torturing people?" (Which prompted me to suggest to her that she could be a dominatrix). Maybe she could be a dominatrix, but what else could I do for a living and make enough to keep the wolves away, I wonder. Let's face it, I don't really know anything about anything, except for a few languages which I can fake well enough to get paid for it. So, by default, I became a translator. It's better than being a toll taker on Golden Gate Bridge, the only other profession that I can think of as being fully qualified for.

My translations may not always be perfect. Few things in life, if any, are perfect. But just like the trainers in my gym, I am a fanatic about my work, and I believe in my job's importance every bit as much as they believe in the importance of their job. Because if you are not a fanatic about what you do for a living, you are probably not doing a very good job, and you should probably do something else. The job of the trainers in my gym is to save the lives of their clients - by reversing the aging process. And thanks to their somewhat foolish American optimism, so obviously visible to the eyes of a foreigner such as myself, they just might be able to do that. For a while, anyway. But just in case they fail, and ultimately, they can hardly win, it is my job to make sure that the name of the town in Germany, France, Japan, Poland, Russia or Bohemia where their client was born is spelled correctly in his obituary. If that is not an important job, I don't know what is.

You would not want to have the name of your hometown spelled incorrectly in your obituary either, would you?

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