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Gerhard Preisser, Translator

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Gerhard Preisser photoDoes anyone ever set out to be a professional translator? I doubt it. Does any promising linguist-to-be in her sophomore year seriously dream of one day spending hour after backbreaking hour in a small office, surrounded by expensive electronics, staring at an oversized monitor, digging deep to find some appreciation for the verbal finesse manifesting itself in the 116th claim of some patent? Not likely.

What’s the big appeal of solitary work without a decent amount of human contact? (No, e-mail doesn’t count!) What’s so compelling about translating yet another software manual, sending it off to a client and only ever hearing back from him if some typo made it through the editing and proofing stages? Why put up with crazy schedules and silly deadlines that threaten the quality of your work just as much as your family life?

These are valid questions, but I don't ask them anymore. My chosen career—and, yes, it is a career—allows me to work from home and to be there for my wife and my daughter when they need me or I want to be. Because I don't commute to work, the horrendous rush hour traffic here in Northern Virginia doesn't bother me. And because I can afford to take half an hour off in the middle of the day, my dog gets her exercise, and I enjoy her limitless affection. Would I rather do something else? Honestly, I don't know what that would be.

I used to teach for a living, at universities mostly, with a fair amount of success. By and far, my students liked me, and I quite enjoyed the classroom experience. Teaching German, I could draw upon my language skills and my college education. The problem? We moved around a lot on account of my wife's career, and teaching jobs turned out to be not very portable. A series of gigs, yes. A profession, no.

Then there was the time I worked in an actual office with actual coworkers and actual human contact. And I was actually translating—engineering specifications for German architects that needed to be understood by American contractors. Nothing else. Electrical installations, building codes, sprinkler systems; sprinkler systems, building codes, electrical installations. I lasted less than a year.

Like so many of my colleagues, I fell into the freelance life. When I was unable to find a “real” job after yet another move, I reconnected with some old contacts from my life as a language teacher at private schools, places like Berlitz. Years earlier I had made some extra money by translating the odd birth certificate between classes, and I was wondering if they would consider outsourcing that kind of thing to ... me? Much to my surprise, they said yes. And so it began.

Today, I’m in my sixteenth year as a full-time, independent, professional English-to-German translator. Not a gig, but a profession. I work in a small, but nicely appointed office, surrounded by expensive electronics (with a heck of a sound system to keep me going even on page 218 of a software manual), and I do accept deadlines just a shade below silly. I don’t have a boss—only people who are usually nice to me because, well, they want something from me. I consider myself a generalist rather than a specialist—an important distinction to me because it emphasizes my competence as a linguist, not as a technical or legal or medical expert, and because it ensures variety in my daily work life.

Perhaps there is indeed a better career for me out there, but I haven’t found it yet—nor am I looking. One might say that I'm content being a translator, even though I never aspired to be one. In fact, I'm really more of a linguist; I practice the art of language. This I am proud of.

Published - April 2009

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