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Chance Favors the Prepared Mind


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Patricia Thickstun photoLike many firsts, my first translation was unplanned. In the spring of 1969 I had just dropped out of high school to enter the University of California at San Diego as a biology major. Starting in the third quarter of the school year, no beginning classes in the science sequences were available, so I took electives. One of those classes was an introduction to German literature. This class was taught by Reinhard Lettau, a colorful professor, political activist, and member of Gruppe 47, a group of German writers that included Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. After the first few weeks of school, the university was shut down by a strike. We read several novellas in German literature class, one of which was Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka, who had died of tuberculosis at age 39. With several weeks of free time during the strike, and having taken only two years of high school German, I decided to translate this novella. After classes resumed, I asked Professor Lettau for assistance with some of the passages. This translation must have been quite amateurish; nonetheless Professor Lettau was very encouraging and appreciated my initiative. Although I did not continue with German literary translation, I had learned to carefully read a text for meaning.

After completing my undergraduate studies, I worked in several experimental pathology laboratories in California and Hawaii, where I learned to use a vast array of clinical and chemical laboratory equipment to perform research using cellular immunology and immunochemical techniques. In Hawaii, I worked in a cancer research laboratory that supported clinical trials involving Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, originally developed at Institut Pasteur-Paris in the early 20th century as a tuberculosis vaccine and subsequently used for cancer immunotherapy. In the course of my work, I had to read a scientific article written in French. So I went to the University of Hawaii bookstore, purchased the only French-English science and technology dictionary, and started translating. Not ever having taken a French class, this was challenging to say the least. But the translation was for information purposes only, and I was able to extract the necessary information.

Moving from Hawaii to France in the late 1970s, I did research in the BCG Immunophysiology Laboratory at the Institut Pasteur-Paris while enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Paris. This laboratory was one of several tuberculosis research laboratories located in the Albert Calmette building. On the top floor is displayed a bust of the building's namesake, one-half of the duo responsible for developing the Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine. The BCG Laboratory was affiliated with the Cellular Immunophysiology Unit, located in the Molecular Genetics building. I would often venture over to this building to attend a lecture, visit colleagues, or to fetch supplies. Jacob, Monod, and Lwoff, the 1965 Nobel prize winners whose work I had studied as an undergraduate biology major, all had laboratories and offices in this building. During this period, it was not unusual to encounter any one of these or several other renowned French scientists in an elevator or a hallway.

From the BCG laboratory bench I enjoyed a view of the Eiffel Tower, and my desk, tucked in a corner of the culture room, had two quotations posted on the wall at eye level. The first, Ockham's razor, is a principle with a long philosophical heritage. Aristotle's statement is usually translated as "Nature operates in the shortest way possible." According to Isaac Newton, "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." There are many Latin renditions and many English translations of this principle enunciated by the 14th century logician and Franciscan monk William of Ockham. I selected "When there are two competing theories that make the same predictions, the simpler one is the better," which I distilled to "Simpler is better."

The other quotation is from a lecture delivered by Louis Pasteur in 1854, "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés." Again, there are several translations; the one I used was "Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind," which I condensed to "Chance favors the prepared mind."

My laboratory training focused on cellular immunology and mycobacteriology. I also assisted with preparing scientific articles for publication in English-language journals for my thesis advisor, the BCG laboratory director. Although he had done a post-doctoral fellowship in the US, his written English was good but required editing. At first I edited his English-language text, but we soon transitioned to my translating the articles directly from French to English. I learned a great deal about French scholarly writing, such as the tendency to use synonyms rather than consistent terminology.

One day I received a call from an American friend, a mathematics graduate student. She had agreed to translate a short scientific article for some French cardiologists, but soon realized she would be unable to do so due to her lack of familiarity with scientific terminology. She knew that I had been translating scientific articles, so she referred the translation to me. I still had my trusty bilingual technical dictionary purchased in Hawaii, but it wasn't very helpful, and I consulted my monolingual French dictionary for nontechnical terms. I was familiar with medical terminology, and, although I didn't immediately know all the English equivalents, I asked my lab colleagues - an MD, a DVM, and a medical technologist - for assistance. By the next morning, I had completed the translation. I called the senior cardiologist, who advised me to take a taxi to Hôpital Beaujon to meet later that morning with him and the other cardiologist to review the translation. Ignoring his advice, I took the subway to the hospital to meet the two cardiologists. We reviewed the translation and agreed to some minor changes. They were quite pleased with the quality of the translation and especially the turnaround time. The senior cardiologist then asked me a question about a subject that had not even crossed my mind. He asked me if 2500 francs would be acceptable. Not knowing anything about the going rates for translation, I immediately agreed to this amount. The two cardiologists invited me to lunch with some of their colleagues and afterward insisted on driving me to the subway station, since I had declined their offer to pay for a taxi back to the laboratory. It was only after I was on the subway that I realized I had just agreed to the equivalent to $100 per handwritten page, a princely sum that has never remotely been approached in my subsequent translation career.

So now my translation career was officially launched. The lessons learned that day have served me well over the years, particularly later when I became involved in managing translation and interpreting services . I learned that a translator has valuable skills that merit fair remuneration. A talented and skilful translator is a valuable resource to treated with admiration and respect. A good translation delivered on time has great value to the person who needs it. And last but not least, a rush translation merits recognition and additional remuneration.

I continued to dabble in translation during the rest of graduate school while keeping the focus on finishing my thesis and finding a job. After completing my doctoral studies, I moved to Texas 1981, where I worked as an independent contractor at a local translation agency for several years while I worked at different "day jobs." These included laboratory researcher in the biotech industry, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and community college instructor of math and science. During a period of several years, the only constant was that I worked as an independent contractor at an agency where I was able to go to consult their dictionaries and confer with other translators and editors. Although the rates were fairly low, the work was fairly steady, and I was given many opportunities to work on a variety of translations - scientific articles, patents, medical device documentation, and cosmetic and pharmaceutical product information. I learned a great deal by reviewing my corrected translations. My editors and colleagues helped me to learn the subtleties and conventions of patent language, for which I am eternally grateful. Keep in mind that before electronic dictionaries, on-line terminology databases, and Google searches, translators had to use dictionaries and reference books. During this period I developed a methodical approach to translation. I read the document first while making an alphabetical list of terms I needed to look up in a dictionary or reference book. Then I completed this glossary to the best of my ability at home before looking for the remaining terms in the resources at the agency and the library. Once this preliminary work was done, I then started translating, writing the text in long-hand. Later on, I starting dictating my translations after observing my colleagues dictating their work into handheld tape recorders. I paid a transcriptionist to type the text, and I was truly amazed at the increase in productivity and income.

In the mid-1980s I became involved with the fledgling Austin and Area Translators and Interpreters Association (AAITA). They provided ATA accreditation (now certification) test sittings, and I took and passed the test in 1985 on the first try. Taking the test was just like another day at work because I used the same strategy I had developed while working at the translation agency, except that I had to go back to long-hand for the day of the test. Some translators ask, "Why take the certification test?" My answer is "Why not?" I can't count the number of times I have had to produce a translation under extreme time pressure. Thankfully, during the certification test, we aren't interrupted by telephone calls and e-mails from anxious clients asking when the translation will be finished!

At my first ATA conference in 1987 I attended a terminology workshop provided by staff of the Office québécois de la langue française. While this opened up the vast realm of terminology research and glossary development, I had no inkling that I would be putting this training into practice within a few years. Many years later, after attending several ATA conference presentations and being inspired many terminology experts, including Sue Ellen Wright, in 2000 I attended her Terminology Workshop at the Institute for Applied Linguistics of Kent State University.

While the key to success in real estate is location, location, location, for linguists it is network, network, network. I have earned such a reputation for saying "Network until it hurts" that Mike Conner, longtime editor of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association (AATIA) newsletter, suggested that phrase for my epitaph. Remember - life is all about relationships, not about money. So if you approach networking only for the sake of money, it will not be nearly as enjoyable as if your goal is to develop relationships. A successful relationship that results from networking is a two-way proposition. Just as you would like to receive referrals from you colleagues, your colleagues will appreciate your providing a referral when the opportunity arises. When I am unable to take on a translation project, I ask if I can assist in finding another translator. My networking started with linguists in AATIA, my local professional organization, and was expanded to my circle of contacts with ATA colleagues. Volunteering is a great way to meet others in your profession, share experience and knowledge, and raise your visibility. Esther Diaz, a force of nature in the translation and interpreting world, has encouraged, cajoled, and gently pressured me to volunteer over the past 25 years. She has motivated my participation, first in AATIA, then in the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care and the Medical Division of ATA. I served AATIA first as Vice President for Communications, then as President. In the ATA Medical Division, I served as Assistant Administrator when Esther was Administrator, and was elected Administrator last year. Other forms of volunteering are giving presentations and contributing to newsletters for your local and national organizations. In my case, several requests for articles have followed presentations at ATA conferences. In the interest of full disclosure, Gabe Bokor first contacted me with a request to reprint an article I had written for the AATIA newsletter, and I have done a few translations for his company.

It was through networking with colleagues at AATIA and ATA that I met Paul Makinen, a Slavic linguist. He provided a referral to a publisher who was looking for a person to translate a French graduate level textbook on high-energy physics. I was asked to provide a sample translation and, not knowing any better, also included my list of terms and equivalents with questions for the authors. I later learned that, although my competition included translators with doctorates in physics, the authors selected me because I had asked questions! Once I was selected, I had a new challenge - negotiating a book contract. The publisher's initial offer was quite low. Their argument was that the one of the authors was a leading contender for a Nobel prize, but that didn't dissuade me from requesting and ultimately receiving a better rate. At that time I taught math and chemistry classes in the early morning and late afternoon. This 600-page book translation took more than a year to complete, written in long-hand during breaks between classes and then inputted via word processor. Even in the early 1990s, few word processing programs were capable of handling complex formulae and diagrams, so the word-processed formulae had to be modified with pen and ink. The next two books I translated were not for a publisher, but for an agency headed by the late Henry Fishbach. Coincidentally, the physics book was written by the brother of the lead author of the high-energy physics textbook.

Networking is not only a way to develop relationships with contacts who can connect you with clients, it is also a way to learn of other opportunities. I met Sergio Viaggio, a UN interpreter, at my very first ATA conference in Albuquerque in 1987. A few years later at the 1989 ATA conference in Arlington, he suggested that, since I was dictating my translations, I should try interpreting. Before this conversation, it had never occurred to me that I could be an interpreter. He suggested some exercises to practice, such as shadowing radio newscasts in English and then doing simultaneous interpreting, first for a few seconds at a time, then for longer periods. I practiced shadowing and liked it, so I practiced simultaneous interpreting and liked that, too. Although I didn't actively seek work as an interpreter, by the time I was offered my first interpreting job several years later, I had already been practicing for several years. Once I started interpreting, it became apparent that training would be useful, and in 1999 I took Bridging the Gap training. One of the trainers was Esther Diaz! This curriculum provides a theoretical framework that prepares interpreters to respond to real-life situations encountered in medical and community interpreting. I was able to use these lessons not only in interpreting work, but also as the Director of the Office of Language Services at the Texas Department of Health.

Long ago when I read Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, I could not have envisioned that my love of science and language would lead to so many career opportunities. Over the years I discovered that, although I like being a scientist and a linguist, my real love is editing. Developed through years of applying "Chance favors the prepared mind" and "Simpler is better" to my translation work and science writing, honing my editing skills has served me well. My particular talent is to "make it fit." This involves condensing text to conform to space limitations as well as shaping the writing and thoughts of others into coherent documents to achieve a desired outcome. For the past decade, that has taken the form of writing grants as well as planning and managing public health-oriented research projects. Although I do not currently devote much time to freelance linguist activities, I am involved in obtaining funds and planning for purchasing language services. These services include translation of documents including health education materials, surveys, and consent forms as well as interpreting during patient encounters. I am truly thankful for the many colleagues and project managers who encouraged and assisted me when I was the one being paid to provide language services. As a result of my experiences, I endeavor to treat every linguist with the kindness, respect, and consideration shown to me so many years ago on the occasion of my first paid translation.

Selected publications:

Book Translations

Atom-Photon Interactions: Basic Processes and Applications, C. Cohen-Tannoudji, et al. John Wiley & Sons (1992)

Universal Constants in Physics, G. Cohen-Tannoudji, Horizons of Science, McGraw-Hill (1992)

Water, Horizons of Science, P. Caro, McGraw-Hill (1993)

Translation and Terminology:

Thickstun, P. Biotech Glossary for Patent Translators. In Caroll, A, et al (Eds.), The Patent Translator's Handbook, Alexandria, VA: American Translators Association; 2007.

Thickstun, P Intellectual Property and Biotech Patents. In Caroll, A et al (Eds.), The Patent Translator's Handbook, Alexandria, VA: American Translators Association; 2007.

Thickstun, P. Role of Medical Linguists in Disease Preparedness, Outbreaks, and Epidemics: Avian Influenza Glossary, In: Stejskal, J, Compiler. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association; New Orleans, LA; Alexandria, VA: American Translators Association; 2006.

Medical Translation and Interpreting:

Thickstun, P. (October 2010). Book review of Healthcare Interpreting in Small Bites by Cynthia E. Roat. In: ATA Chronicle, October 2020. http://www.atanet.org/chronicle/recent_articles_october2010.php.

Diaz, ME, Thickstun, P. (October 2006). Effective continuing education design for medical linguists: Linking objectives to evaluation. In: ATA Chronicle, October 2006. http://www.atanet.org/chronicle/recent_articles_october2006.php.

Thickstun, P. Role of Medical Linguists in Disease Preparedness, Outbreaks, and Epidemics: H1NI Swine Influenza.In ATA Chronicle, November-December 2009: https://www.atanet.org/chronicle/feature_article_nov_dec2009.php

Conference presentations:

Thickstun, P. Conference Presentation, "Role of Medical Linguists in Disease Preparedness, Outbreaks, and Epidemics: H1NI Swine Influenza" July 2009, American Translators Association Medical/Interpreter Divisions Joint Mid Year Conference, Washington, DC

Thickstun, P and Guedenet, M. Conference Presentation, "HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Coinfection and Disease: Terminology Research and Glossary Development." November 2007, 48th American Translators Association Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA





Published - January 2011

 













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