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Another Accidental Translator

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Denzel Dyer photoI  grew up on a dry farm during the Depression, drought, and grasshopper plagues, all of which helped convince me that I was not going to be a farmer. But after some pre-school home learning (my mother had been a school teacher), a year in a one-room country school, then through the remaining grades in a small town school, with mostly very good teachers, I graduated from high school in 1946. Having become fascinated by chemistry, I entered a nearby small college as a chemistry major, and started taking chemistry courses. In the absence of counseling, I realized that a chemist really needed some knowledge of German, and took the two years’ course then available.

Several things happened in the 1947-48 school year. All the undergraduate chemistry laboratory assistants had graduated the previous spring, and I was picked as one of the replacements. That was also the year when Congress initiated a new draft, with the provision that members of active reserve units would not be subject to the draft. With quite a number of other students at the college, I enlisted in the local company of the Nebraska National Guard, which I mention here because that had consequences for translation a dozen years later.

In sci-tech translation you must be well acquainted with science and technology in general, and knowledge of one or more specialties is nearly essential..
On to graduate school at the University of Nebraska, and research in biochemistry. Some of the other chemistry graduate students were encountering the need to know what German chemists had published, and it turned out that my two years of college German, while not at all adequate for translation, prompted one of the people to ask about those publications.

In the beginning class of my undergraduate course I had met a pretty girl who was forced to take chemistry because she was going to be a nurse. She got some extra coaching, and she graduated from nursing school (and could support me) in 1952. I met her parents the day before the graduation ceremony, and we were married the day after. My chemistry coaching eventually paid off in the form of three sons and two granddaughters.

Meanwhile, award of the doctorate required passing examinations in two foreign languages. German was not a serious problem, and the school had a one-semester course in French, aimed successfully at getting candidates past that exam. I finally got the degree in June, 1955, and went off to work for the Dow Chemical Company, the one that offered me a job.

No actual translation at Dow, but a 1956 assignment to a problem for the people marketing Dow’s phenolic germicides: why does soap make those germicides less active? It turned out that the answer had been published in Germany in 1943 and England in 1944, but bacteriologists and marketers did not read the physical chemistry journals, and especially not in German.

In 1959 I found an aerospace job near Denver, doing research and development on long-term life support in space. That 1948 enlistment in the Nebraska National Guard resulted in assignment to an Army Reserve R&D unit in Denver. Most of the men in the unit were working in a study of avalanches, but I decided that a translation project would be warmer and drier, and did some translations for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. For some governmental reason, I was assigned papers on teeth and dentistry, and managed to turn out "translations" with two dictionaries and a rented portable typewriter. The less said about those the better.

When that aerospace group was terminated, I followed the director to another aerospace company in Southern California. When that group was terminated. I went into business for myself--consulting, and a small laboratory specializing in optical microscopic testing. I realized that it would take a while to develop business--but that long?? My wife went back to work; and I happened on an advertisement for technical translators. I thought "I can do that!" and responded. Actually, I couldn’t do it, but got paid while learning. Some readers may remember Scitran, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Peter Feitis in Santa Barbara, California. I did a lot of work for them, in fields ranging through anatomy, lasers, and military operations, with even a little chemistry. Scitran, a low bidder on government contracts, didn’t pay a lot, but I wasn’t worth much, and the process was very educational. Things were different then, with documents traveling by mail and UPS, passing through an Adler electric typewriter in between.

Finances improved, partly through working with another laboratory, and partly because of the asbestos scare, with microscopy being the analytical method of choice. But I was still doing translations, though the price was higher by then. I bought my first computer and learned about the American Translators Association, CompuServe and its very helpful Foreign Language Education Forum, FLEFO.

By late 1990, the required asbestos testing had been completed, and numerous competitors (the number in the state had increased ten-fold) were offering rush work for what I considered less than the cost of doing the work. I realized that I could work hard and lose money, or not work and not lose money. At that point I closed the lab business and became a real Translator. Work at home! Make money! No laboratory rent! No expensive equipment! I should have made that move years earlier. It helped considerably that I had several good clients by then.

By this time I had managed to work almost entirely with chemical documents or with pharmaceutical documents that were heavily chemical. The original two dictionaries had expanded to three bookcases of references. Thanks to a high-school typing class and a lot of experience, I could type pretty well. Thanks to all the industrial work, I could translate much of the material about as fast as I could type--with an occasional long pause trying to find the meaning of a particularly obscure word or phrase, often with help through the ATA German Language Division (my special thanks to everyone there!). So after I finally got to be a real translator, things went quite smoothly. Not much problem with non-payers and slow payers, and never twice with the same one. Ted’s Payment Practices and Laura’s Translator Client Review helped significantly.

And now? In September of 2010, I decided it was time to retire at not quite 81. Yes, Parkinson’s Law is still valid.

Words of wisdom for new translators?

Unless you are an employee, you are in business for yourself and must maintain good relations with the city, county, state and federal fee and tax people. If you pay yourself a salary, you will have to deduct income tax payments. Remember that the tax people consider that money theirs at the moment you make the deduction, and are very narrow-minded about your holding it for a while.

I had incorporated the laboratory business and continued the corporation for translating until 2009--not a good decision, considering corporate minimum tax and the minimal legal protection from a corporation. With politicians getting hungrier, taxes and fees will become worse problems, especially for those evil corporations.

Marketing is essential, of course. It is not one of my strong points. In the aerospace companies, I had the distinction that no proposal I ever touched got us a contract. But numerous letters slowly paid off, and I was able to get enough good long-term clients that, except for responding to inquiries, I haven’t done any marketing for years. Besides, successful marketing would have meant having to work harder.

Actual translation wisdom? Not a lot, and all dealing strictly with sci-tech German into English. First, of course, when you are writing in English, you really must be good at English: spelling, grammar, and (probably the most difficult part) the current usage in the country and technical field in which you are working. (Do you remember when "condenser" became "capacitor" in electrical/electronic work, but stayed "condenser" in optics and chemistry?) How literal to be? That depends on the material and the client, but, except for patents and patent litigation, I favor translating ideas rather than words. As for patents, patent drafters have their own problems in distinguishing precisely between what is old and what is new (or, as they say in patentese, "novel") and patentable, and in specifying exactly what is covered. I find it necessary to be painfully literal in most patent work. Don’t worry greatly about making a patent read well; most do not. Patents often have long sections in the description and claims that are, at least nearly, identical. That’s nice if you get to count the words both times, but don’t trust the writers to make those sections actually identical. I have seen them leave out one chemical name in a four-page list. Check! The computerized systems (I haven’t used them) won’t let you count the words in those sections, but should do some of the checking. Don’t trust them too far. And definitely don’t trust spell-checkers in technical text, or computer grammar checkers at all.

Still thinking of sci-tech translation, you must be well acquainted with science and technology in general, and knowledge of one or more specialties is nearly essential. They each have their own substantial languages. but, for instance, much pharmaceutical and microbiological literature is largely chemistry. Don’t let chemical nomenclature frighten you away. It is almost identical in German and English, with the similarity increasing in the newer and more complex names. It does require careful attention, not to p’s and q’s, but to i’s and e’s, c’s and k’s.

Knowledge of the source language? Of course, but I got by with those two years of college German, limited reading knowledge (absolutely no literature or philosophy!) and essentially no spoken German. Fortunately for me, most people doing German sci-tech writing are trying to convey information clearly, and most of them succeed. For those who don’t, gldlist and Google have been great helps.

Published - June 2011


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