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Uniquely Typical or Typically Unique?


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When Gabe Bokor asked me to write a profile for the Translation Journal, I was, of course flattered and honored. At the same time, I felt pressured to do a good job—after all, I'd be writing for a community of language professionals. So the first thing I did was read a few of the profiles that had been written by colleagues before me. I was going to just read one or two to get an idea of what's expected, and then knock off a quick sketch of myself that would fit the bill. I also began jotting down ideas of what to say, about how I don't fit the usual profile of a translator/interpreter because I didn't grow up bilingual, I didn't marry someone from another culture, I didn't even study abroad in college. I was all set to write about my mundane, non-cosmopolitan background and I began collecting adjectives like vanilla, white-bread, and prosaic. But I got so caught up in reading the profiles written by colleagues I admire that I kept procrastinating the writing of my own, and the more profiles I read, the more I realized there is no typical translator or interpreter. As the protagonist shouted to the crowd of followers in Life of Brian, "You are all unique!"

My procrastination proved to be serendipitous in another way, because during that time, while working on another project, I read Jesús Baigorri-Jalón's book about the history of the interpreters at the United Nations. After regaling the reader with stories of the exotic and brilliant pioneers who founded the modern-day profession of conference interpreting, the author proceeded to describe their successors:

So the identikit picture of the UN interpreter of the last two decades corresponds to the following characteristics, even though no single interpreter fits the picture exactly, of course. The interpreter is female. She comes from a monolingual middle-class family. She starts learning foreign languages at primary and secondary school. She improves her command of the languages she is studying by spending short periods of time in the countries where the languages are spoken. She has a very good command of her mother tongue and a good command of another two languages (a better command of one than of the other of these two). She is not a perfect bilingual. She takes a degree course at an interpreting school. She works as a freelance interpreter or translator for a time. She starts work in the UN after several years experience when she is just over thirty. She reads newspapers, particularly in her own language and in English and she is up-to-date on current affairs. She is fond of reading, in several languages, of music—especially classical music—and of doing crosswords.

There is no typical translator or interpreter. “You are all unique!”
Other than the minor detail that I'm not a UN interpreter, that's me! (Also, my time spent in other countries was very short indeed, and my "command" of my third language, French, is rather feeble, but still ...) So, after having my stereotypes shattered, I am left with the notion that I'm not so unique after all. Here's my story:

I am currently a freelance translator/interpreter in the Spanish/English combination, and I teach half-time in the Graduate School of Translation & Interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. I specialize in court interpreting and legal translation. I've written a lot of books and articles, including a series of training manuals for court interpreters that I publish under the name of Acebo. That's the official story.

The reality is that I hardly ever interpret anymore, and I'm terrified of losing my hard-won skills in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting. I'm also worried about losing my credibility as a teacher of court interpreting, because I've lost touch with the day-to-day work of the interpreter in our judiciary system. And as long as I'm baring my soul, I'll also confess that I don't even think I would like being a court interpreter today. When I first started out, I was fascinated by the law, by crime and punishment, by the quirks of human nature, by the infinite variety of linguistic registers and idiolects that converge in the courtroom. In the court proceedings of a relatively small town in the 1970s, I had time to notice all these things. Recently when I've gone to court, all I've seen is an assembly line, a sausage machine. So I'm grateful that there are legions of court interpreters who haven't succumbed to cynicism, who are willing to carry on this vital work without getting discouraged. I meet them whenever I present a workshop somewhere in the country, and I'm honored by their enthusiasm and dedication.

I didn't set out to be a court interpreter. When I entered the Monterey Institute as a graduate student in 1974, I'm not sure such a job title even existed, though there were plenty of people doing that work off and on, here and there. I chose to pursue a degree in this field because 1) I loved languages, 2) I didn't want to be a professor of literature—in fact, I didn't want to teach at all—and 3) I couldn't get a job anywhere with a B.A. in sociology so graduate school seemed like the thing to do. Actually, I didn't see myself as an interpreter because I've always been shy, I don't like life in the fast lane, and I didn't think I was fluent enough in Spanish or French (I was certainly right about that). I thought I would just lead a quiet life translating the text on Corn Flakes boxes for export to Latin America.

Studying translating and interpreting (T&I) at the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, as it was known back then (good old MIFS, whose soccer team was the Mifsfits) was a rude awakening. Having gotten straight A's in all my language courses previously, I was stunned to discover that foreigners don't spend all their time engaged in dialogues about going to the library or analyzing the themes in novels; they go to the doctor and try to figure out the stereo they just bought and sue each other and build highways, just like we do. And there are words for all those things! I spent a good part of my time as a student crying in the bathroom, wondering what possessed me to sign up for this School of Torture and Inquisition.

Somehow, mostly thanks to the patience and insight of my professor and mentor Etilvia Arjona, I gradually discovered that I had an aptitude not only for translating, but also for interpreting. Except for that niggling detail of having to be fluent in more than one language, I was a natural. I turned out to be good at public speaking, synthesizing ideas, thinking on my feet and coming up with just the right term at just the right moment. All I had to do was abandon any thought of working in French and toil like a fiend to improve my Spanish.

I also didn't set out to be a famous author. My training manuals were just a compilation of exercises that had worked for me as a student and texts that I put together to help prepare people for the working world as I had found it. I got tired of receiving multiple requests for copies of my materials from former students who had lost theirs or who had been asked to teach a class, so I put them all together in a 3-ring binder that would be easy to mail out. That eventually turned into the books that are now used in classes all over the country, much to my delight and amazement. The only problem is, people look up to me and expect me to be a fount of knowledge, when I'm really not much different from that terrified student who feared every day she'd be exposed as a fraud and kicked out of school.

Some of the features of life as a T&I student in the 1970s would seem alien to those who are pursuing their careers today: translating on a typewriter, armed with plenty of white-out and extra paper for those times when you had to retype an entire page because of a single error in the first paragraph; researching terms in the 10-year-old encyclopedia set in the library and relying on the Louis Robb bilingual dictionaries, which were already 20 years old back then; practicing with speeches that had been recorded on reel-to-reel tapes and were then transferred to those new-fangled cassettes, which we played on big clunky tape players. Other aspects are still all too familiar, though: reading up on monetary policy, a topic you never had the slightest interest in, to make sense out of a translation assignment that might as well be written in Greek; being called on to interpret in class when your pen ran dry and the guy sitting next to you sneezed at a crucial point in the speech and you have no idea what the speaker's conclusion was—these are things that never change.

Similarly, life as a translator in the 21st century looks very different from the one I embarked upon after graduation. I no longer receive my translations by mail or traipse off to the public library in the hopes that there will be a book on copper mining so I can look up these unknown terms, or put in an expensive phone call to Chile to talk to the engineer in charge of the project, only to discover that the office just closed for the weekend. Now I get the source text by email, and I have the entire world at my fingertips via the Internet. But somehow, I still find myself agonizing over word choices and puzzling over an illegible scanned source text riddled with typographical errors, and finally submitting the translation on a wing and a prayer, just barely in time to meet the client's absurd deadline, hoping that there are no egregious errors that will end up in a "translation bloopers" column. Some things never change.





Published - June 2009









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