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Heidi Holzer photoIt may not be the most auspicious way to start a translation career, but mine began with two serious misconceptions: I thought I was going to make a living as a literary translator. And I believed that interpreting was a glamorous job.

The second of these misconceptions faded as soon as I learned how frustrating interpreting can be for a pedant like me. There is nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect word, one that truly expresses the nuances of meaning in the source text. Unfortunately, speakers and their audiences underappreciate long silences as the interpreter searches for the spot-on linguistic equivalent.

I dealt with the first erroneous belief by translating part of a novel for my Masters Thesis in the Translation and Interpretation program of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The book was Schatten Gottes auf Erden (God’s Shadow on Earth) by the East German novelist, Elisabeth Hering. I thought that would be my only opportunity to do a literary translation. Not quite, as it turned out.

There is nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect word, one that truly expresses the nuances of meaning in the source text.

Translation wasn’t my first choice of career. As a child, I was going to grow up to write novels like C.S. Lewis and his Narnia books or Kenneth Grahame, who wrote The Wind in the Willows. But later, practicality set in and I realized I’d need a way to pay the bills. Learning new languages had always fascinated me, and it was a good excuse to travel to new countries and learn new ways of living and thinking. A quick tour of world’s museums and cultural sights was never enough for me; I like to unpack my bags and stay for a while.

My first translation job took me to Stuttgart, Germany, where I arrived with degree in hand and confidence that I could handle any translation problem that crossed my path. After all, I’d just spent two years in intensive study in Monterey with hands-on practice, translating everything from abstract political texts to medical reports.

In Stuttgart, the first assignment to cross my desk was a data sheet for an industrial controller, and it might as well have been written in Korean for all the sense I could make of it. I rolled up my sleeves and did my best then handed the translation over to a colleague for editing.

The piece came back drenched in red ink.

"Excellent job," my colleague said and sounded like she meant it. I must have gotten the articles and prepositions right, because everything else was apparently wrong.

That was my introduction to technical translation and now, twenty years later, it is the type of work I do most of the time. I often hear it said that a technical translator should begin with a solid background in science or technology. That is certainly good advice, and such a foundation would have made my journey smoother. I started with an education in humanities—history, languages, and literature. Honing my research skills helped fill in the gaps.

One of the biggest challenges for new translators is identifying precisely what they don’t know. It’s easy to insert a mistake in a translation without realizing it. I was lucky to start out in a company where I had a built-in set of mentors: seasoned colleagues who checked my translations, walked me through the mistakes, and taught me how to improve my work.

Many people starting out in the profession don’t have that luxury and must soldier on by themselves. Fortunately with the world so connected today, there are lots of opportunities to network—joining the American Translators Association (ATA) and attending its annual conference, seeking out local translators groups, getting involved in social networking and listserves that discuss all aspects of the job, from business practices to terminology research. Experienced translators who are willing to help a colleague gain a firm foothold can be found almost everywhere.

Curiosity is an essential quality for any translator, but especially for a technical translator without an engineering background. Research is my friend, and if it weren’t for those looming deadlines, I could get happily lost in tracking down an elusive concept or term for half a day. Learning new things is certainly one of the great perks of a translator’s job.

A good translator must also have strong writing skills and knowledge of the conventions, grammar, and style of the target language. For someone like me, who translates a variety of text types—from patents and websites to literary works—this means frequently switching mind-sets. Recently, after finishing a string of automotive patents, I tackled a short story by the German crime writer, Nina George. Patents require a strictly literal approach, and style comes into play only in the interest of readability. But Ms. George’s story was written in a strong voice, which also set the tone for the piece, and failing to convey that distinctive style would have ruined the story in English. After initial fears that I couldn’t make the transition, I practically felt my mind switching gears, retooling itself for an entirely different way of looking at the text.

The translation field has changed a great deal in the twenty years since I began my career. Professionalism is more widely recognized and appreciated, and the Internet has made the global translation community more connected. It is an exciting time to become a translator.

Published - June 2011


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