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The Shift. An extract from the book "The Shift" about work of translators in the field (based on a true story).

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Vladimir Belousov photoStrong blast of biting blizzard struck me in the face just when I got out of the car. After a month spent here I still was not used to strange weather of the polar region – strong wind with snow at 40 degrees centigrade below zero. I had to pull my jacket hood up, and, having ducked my head, nearly running, reached the airport building resisting the wind blasts.

The airport building was very small, but warm, and that significantly cheered me up. Nobody was inside which meant that I was the first to arrive. But after a few minutes the entrance door opened and a man in blue uniform came into the lounge. OK. The pilot. He went straight to the office door but did not open it because a girl – dispatcher came out of the office through it.

- Hi, Tanyukha! How are you here?

- Hi. Well, you see what’s happening with the weather… What do you figure? Cancel the flight or what? Can you take off?

- Well… Let’s give it a try! People have to go home anyway.

- Well, OK.

Both of them disappeared behind the office door. To be honest, his “Let’s give it a try” made me feel a shiver and cold inside. What does it mean “Let’s give it a try”? And if you cannot do that, then what - “Sorry, not this time”? Or dear… I was always afraid to travel by plane, moreover, I had never thought that a permit to a flight could be received so easily.

Meanwhile, the airport lounge began filling with rotation workers. They entered in groups loudly talking, joking and laughing. All of them were in good mood. Their rotation was finished and they were going home. Then that noisy crowd ran through the blizzard to the plane and boarded not stopping their jokes even for a second. A stock phrase from the stewardess “Fasten your belts”, a stock joke from somebody on the back rows: “Rotation guys, jacket your horns!”, and the plane is on takeoff strip. It gains pace, takes off, and a strong wind blast immediately badly heels it over. I see how its wing passes just within half a meter from the ground. General “Oh” from rotation workers, but the pilot rides out. That’s it. Taking off. Going home!

Different thoughts were lingering in my mind. Reminiscences about my first shift, people whom I met, successes and failures, but the most important: “Why did I come here at all? Actually it is not for me… Though anyway. The rotation is over, I earned good money, but I will never return here… never…”.

Well, if only I could know then that I would return, and not only return, but stay for a long time. That the North with its severe but unique nature would etch into my soul forever and would never let me go. That never again and nowhere in my life I would meet such real people, somewhat blunt, but surprisingly human and right, and that the period of ten years which I spent in the field was my real life. All that will be later. And so far I was going home.

Chapter 1. The first shift

However, seems like I have run ahead… Let me start from the very beginning, and in succession.

I very well remember the day when I came to the field for the first time. October 22, 1991. On that day it was +80С in Archangelsk. Therefore I was wearing relevant clothes – light shoes, suit with a tie, jacket, cap, gloves. And a case in my hand. As they say, just a businessman. In general, the purpose of my trip to Usinsk was just to find an oil and gas company and have negotiations about employment. I could not predict that I would have to start working immediately.

When the plane was approaching Usinsk, the stewardess informed passengers that air temperature in the town was 420С below zero. Cold. I’ll be damned! The distance is only about 400 kilometers, and such a difference of temperature. In the airport I find out how to get to the center. Board a bus. Go to the hotel, get accommodated. OK, now let’s get down to business. I talk to the hotel employees and find out where offices of oil and gas companies are located. The town is small and everybody knows about them. There are several such companies here, but I need to go to the Canadians.

I managed to find them rather quickly, but it scantly looked like an office – just a few construction shacks combined together. No security. They immediately led me to a Canadian whose name was Drew. He was responsible for hiring interpreters.

- Yes, we do need translators here, but I do not know the current situation in the field. You know what? I got your contacts, you go home now, and I will call you when we have a vacancy, OK?

Well now, it is time to go back to the hotel and get ready for a trip home, seems like my mission is complete. However an hour after my return to the hotel, Drew called me: “Hi, Vlad, we have a vacancy for you in the field, and a car is going there right now and can give you a ride. You got about fifteen minutes to pick you things up, OK?”

Actually the car arrived in five minutes and began furiously beeping, therefore, not having collected even half of my things, soon I was sitting in a Ford truck between two rather big Canadians, all the way talking to each other. These guys were very different from Drew. They were field workers rather than office employees, like Drew, and that is why were talking in somewhat different English, which mainly contained of swear words and oil and gas technical terms. As long as at the Institute I had not learnt all of that, I could understand only individual words, conjunctions and interjections. Horror began to creep into my brain just after several minutes of their conversation: “How am I going to interpret that?” At that moment I did not understand yet how lucky I was to work with Canadians, who are much easier to understand compared to the Northern British (particularly the Scottish) and natives of several Texas areas, who came later.

By the way, after ten years of work in the field I could with good reason state that if somebody thinks the Russians to be the best in swearing, he is completely not right. At least those guys with whom I used to work, were able to make such swearing compilations that on their basis it could be possible to develop a separate training course for poor interpreters.

In the beginning of 1990-s there was a catastrophic deficit on interpreters and translators. Before that time Russia for many years had been a closed country, foreign languages were not required and, were studied only within limits of secondary school or institute program with the only purpose to receive a good mark. Not many people were real fans of foreign languages. And when a flow of foreign companies broke into Russia, they found that practically there are no interpreters capable to provide services at high quality level. Therefore they looked for interpreters in all possible places.

For example, one of my colleagues – interpreters knew the English language only at the level of the necessity to sell “Babushka dolls” to foreigners in Arbat Street in Moscow, however it was sufficient to employ him because it was difficult to find interpreters. Nobody of us knew oil and gas terminology – we learned it in-situ – at wells and drilling sites.

After two hours we arrived to the field camp. It was a very warm building, but I had no time to see all its advantages and conveniences, because just at the entrance I was told that I should go to work at night shift, and that the crew bus (truck-mounted bus delivering workers to well locations) leaves in 15 minutes (15 minutes again?). Having dropped my bag in the room allocated for me, after several minutes I was already sitting in the crew bus, in the same clothes (light shoes, suit, tie) going to a well location with the well workover crew.

Tool-pusher’s shack and crew’s dog-house where crew change took place were located at the work site. Having seen my clothes the crew met me with common laughter. I also understood how stupid I looked in such clothes, but there was no choice. The laughter stopped, the guys calmed down and looked concerned.

- Listen, you really will not make it till the morning. Let us collect something for him.

- Well, let him take my warm boots, I will not work tomorrow anyway as I have to go to the town.

- OK, and I will give him my mitts and coveralls.

Briefly speaking the guys gave me clothes to keep me warm. A chilblain was waiting for me later, but not that time. It was unusually cold, so I put the coveralls directly on my down jacket and immediately received a nickname from cheerful Canadians: “You know, buddy, in such clothes you look like a Batman. Don’t get offended, get used to it. We always tease each other, it helps us to survive here”. Well, I don’t care a damn, the most important is to be warm and make it till the morning.

Well workover personnel included Canadian tool-pusher, Russian engineer and the very crew of four Canadians and three Russians who were trainees of the Canadians though had much longer experience of work. The Canadian driller’s name was Barry, and he was a real American Indian. Barry took me for an excursion around the site. It seemed that I was in some surreal picture: it was night time and all equipment, including well workover rig with a derrick, shacks, boiler house and pump house were illuminated with multiple lamps and floodlights, snow was scrunching under our feet, cold was getting under my clothes, multiple stars were glistening in the clear sky, and infinite cold desert was extending beyond the work site boundaries, and also for want of habit I was sleepy.

In his story about equipment Barry was laconic. I understood that the equipment was old, and he did not like it at all. He kept on saying: “This is another piece of sh...t”, and seems like that was all that I learnt from my first lesson of terminology.

Well workover rig equipment included the very unit consisting of a truck and mounted telescopic mast with 25 m height, drawworks and rig floor installed above the well. Crown block and monkey board for work of the derrickman were located on the derrick, and drill line passed across the crown block. In addition, mobile buildings of pump station for injection of fluid into the well, boiler house for steaming equipment in winter time, accumulator room for control of blowout preventer and tool-room for storage of tools were installed at the work site. In general, quite sufficient for the first familiarization.

This way or another, but the first night at the well was rather interesting and quite. As a rule, serious operations at night time are not planned and not executed for safety reason, and the crew mainly performs routine operations and equipment maintenance. Therefore we had frequent breaks and time for acquaintance. There was practically no need of technical interpretation, and I mainly interpreted conversations of crew members at coffee breaks. And day shift came in the morning to relieve us.

On the way back to the camp half of the crew was already sleeping, until… until one of crew bus front wheels broke off. Yes, it did break off and rolled on the road in front of the bus. Rotation workers are amazing people. No, nobody was afraid, on the contrary, those who were not sleeping, began laughing and woke up the sleeping guys who joined the laughing. At first it looked to me as group madness, but suddenly I realized how daring those guys were, I even wanted to join them and shout something like “Banzai!”. Of course, the vehicle was stopped, they picked the wheel up and installed it back, and returned to the camp without other adventures.

Back in the camp for the first time I saw how well it was built. It was an assembled structure, but very warm and spacious inside, two persons were accommodated in each room, huge canteen could receive up to a hundred persons, also there were recreation rooms – TV room, sauna with Jacuzzi, billiard room and a gym. In general it was great. However I decided not to inspect all that in detail, I had to go to breakfast (or dinner in our case?) and sleep till the next night.

Here, in principle it is worth to briefly describe how each rotation in the field passes in general in terms of its perception, and also specifics of work at night. Of course, when you work at night and sleep during daytime, all your biorhythms change, including sleeping and eating. After a week you start to lose orientation in time and space: you get up – it is dark, you go to bed – it is also dark. That is why normally we worked half of rotation at night and then changed to day shift. And in general four weeks of rotation are perceived as life in a submarine – the same faces, events and order of actions. Mental changes also take place every week. The first week passes rather interestingly and quickly – meetings with friends and colleagues, entering the work which, in principle, you missed, stories about what you did at home. The second and the third week – you gradually turn into a robot, do everything automatically, and during the last week you start to count hours, miss your home. Similar situation is on days off: during the first week you are happy to return home, but coming to consciousness, the second and the third week – you live your normal life, and at the last week you are in low spirits – just a few free days are left and time is coming to go to work. But on the other side you want to see your friends and colleagues. Very similar to seaman’s life: you continuously miss something – either the sea or your home.

At breakfast I was sitting not far away from the Canadian tool-pusher and unintentionally heard his conversation with the supervisor. Are they talking about me? Damn it, definitely they do!

- And also we have a problem with the translator. Probably we’ll have to replace him.

- Why?

- Well, he knows f…kall about oil and gas! And you listen to him as if you read a book. He’s bookish.

- You replace him and they will bring another one like him, no difference. You got him now, you train him. Let’s see in a week.

- OK.

Well, a rotten luck. Probably I will be fired tomorrow. And maybe in a week. OK, this way or another, seems like I have a week, and I need to change something and stay here. And so far let us sleep, in the dark of the future.

(To be continued in the next magazine issue)

Published - September 2021.

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