On Becoming a Translator
When Gabe Bokor asked me to write a translator profile because I could serve as a model for young colleagues, I felt flattered, confused, and a little bit offended for, even at 47, I count myself among the "young colleagues" who could use a little bit of advice from more experienced practitioners. I felt confused because I usually shun the spotlight: the only time a newspaper published a picture of me on the front page, a Nobel laureate was signing one of his books. The caption, alas, did not mention my name.
Like many of our colleagues, I did not dream about becoming a translator when I was a child. As any self-respecting kid of my age and times, I dreamed about becoming an astronaut or a firefighter. Later the forces we name collectively as "life" took me to several fields, every step taking me farther away from space suits and bright red fire engines. I became electrician, darkroom operator, chemical engineer, computer programmer, mass spectroscopist, book reviewer, semantics teacher, and high-speed video specialist. Many excellent men and women in these and many other fields shared their knowledge with me. In long or short conversations, sometimes over coffee, beer, or wine, sometimes while waiting for the elution of an analyte from the HPLC column, the linking of a set of compiled files, or the arrival of a spare part, they explained to me the performing of a step, the inner workings of a device, the building of a structure, the behavior of a compound, or the implications of an awkward theory.
Now I am a translator (I'll spare you, dear reader, the boring details) and I am also indebted to other colleagues who patiently explained (and still do) obscure conjugations, the subtle differences between two mostly synonymic words, clarified some cultural reference visible only to erudite scholars, or recommended reference works to me and said: "Read this stuff and you'll learn something."
The fun and mystifying thing is that my thankfulness to both groups melds: rarely a day goes by when I do not apply what I learned from mechanics, photographers, electricians, journalists, chemists, and carpenters, as well as all the stuff that translators, lexicographers, philosophers, linguists, publishers, and grammarians have taught me.
I feel a chill run down my spine when I hear the tales of those self-made men and women who claim they built themselves from scratch and do not owe anything to anyone, and that they never took anything from others. That is not my case. I would not be the man that I am without the support of countless persons that helped me through the disparate stages of my career.
Of course, in both my life BT and AT (before and after translation) there have been wrong decisions made and gross errors committed. Many of them due to ignorance (or its inseparable companion, arrogance); some were honest attempts to do what turned out to be impossible or impractical tasks, and some have been the result of good old-fashioned misdirected goodwill and even garden-variety absentmindedness. I have done a lot of foolish things in my life, so foolish that you are not going to get the details, not in a million years.
I mentioned earlier that I'm a translator. While this is true in the sense that I get paid for translating and I have a business card stating that I am a translator, I'm still in the process of becoming one. I keep on learning every day about languages, the fields I specialize in, and the world at large.
In the course of my conversations with fellow translators and project managers (many of whom I don't hesitate to call "friends") we have talked about some desirable traits and behaviors for translators to have. I have compiled a short list that I want to share with you by drawing a profile, not of the translator that I currently am, but of the translator I am asymptotically getting closer to.
A translator looks for language books and reads them for pleasure.
A translator should be able to face a nitpicking editor (or become one, if need be), and be able to justify o refute a suggested change. The retort "It doesn't sound right" is about as valid as "there are voices in my head that tell me to do so." It's imperative to be thoroughly familiar with reference books. Being in possession of the facts that back up the decisions made makes it possible to deal professionally and efficiently with that obnoxious text basher next time around.
A translator belongs to a professional association.
There are upstanding colleagues who have never belonged to an association or have dropped their memberships, for sure. But belonging to a truly professional association, one that is not just a social club, but rather has a responsible membership that keeps its Board in check so that it does not dance to the tune of a given president's philias and phobias, is a tremendous asset for a translator's professional development and growth. Associations can be great places to meet people, discuss trends, and learn about the new tricks of the trade. They also help the overall enhancement and visibility of the profession.
A translator attends conferences and meetings, initially as a regular attendee, and then as a speaker.
Not all conferences are good. Some are not worth going to even if one lives in the same city; yet some even deserve the inconvenience, expense, and cramped seat of a long flight. Granted, after some time in the business, there are few surprises left, but take it from me: every now and then you'll learn something that will make the whole universe (or at large part of if) twist and fold over and rearrange itself so the disjointed pieces fit precisely together and the whole thing is better. That makes the trip worthwhile. That epiphany could happen when you are attending a presentation, chatting in the hallways, or over dinner with someone you just met. But none of that will happen if the translator stays home.
As you make your way into the translation world, soon enough you'll be in sufficient command of your material and will be able to share your knowledge, and get your name known, by presenting at a conference.
Conferences are great places to meet people and form lasting friendships. You'll get the chance to meet in real-life your e-mail mates, partners, and clients. You may even meet someone who will change your life forever. That's what happened to me; I met my wife at a translation conference.
A translator reads about other subjects.
Unless you work in-house for a company, one of the nicest things about the profession is that one never knows what the next job will be about. You are forced to learn, sometimes in overdrive, about subjects you knew almost nothing about when you went to sleep the previous night. It is best to be prepared: it is a basic tenet that the more you know, the more you can learn. A corollary of it is that the more you learn, the easier it becomes to connect pieces of knowledge from fields far apart and apply them to new areas.
A translator reads a lot in the target language.
A wordsmith and longtime friend who worked as a radio presenter told me long ago that "we talk as we listen, but we write as we read." Truer words were never spoken. Be highly selective in your readings. Choose good writing and pay attention to structures and vocabulary and commit them to memory so you'll have them handy for when the need arises. If your reading diet consists of only a small sample of texts, you run the risk of having your anemic translations mimic those kinds of texts. If, even worse, you read nothing at all, your translations might ape the originals and read as translations, not as texts crafted in the target language.
I have talked extensively about our profession with many colleagues. Most of them say, and I agree, that a translator ought to have a deep love for his languages, and as any good craftsman, he should patiently hone his tools. Without this love and skill, a translator is doomed to failure.
A translator enjoys life.
There are other things in life besides the ineffable pleasure of a page well rendered in a target language: family, friends, music (and the arts in general), teaching... the list could go on an on, but it is mainly a personal matter. A good translator finds time for enjoying them.
A translator shoots at a moving target.
Finally, I have only a limited store of principles; in a true Cartesian way, most of what I think is being constantly and critically reassessed. I could not guarantee that my current goal as a translator will hold tomorrow (thus I have carefully avoided the use of the word "ideal" that conjures a crystallized, immutable state). But what I strive for will probably be more or less the same, and I am getting closer every day.
When rereading this, I cannot help notice that I have not written specifically about me. I have not mentioned the degrees I have been awarded, or the books I have translated, or my saxophones. But in telling you about the kind of translator I want to become, I have pretty much spelled out who I am.
Published - October 2008
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