Take care of the senseby Paul Danaher
and the pounds will take care of themselves
Paul Danaher, born 1946 in the UK. Freelance translator (and interpreter and narrator for recordings) for almost 20 years, currently living in Germany and working in cyberspace.Since Gabe Bokors temporarilyexhausted the list of distinguished and prominent translators who otherwiseappear in this slot, hes asked me to write a self-portrait, offering whateverinsights I might have for present and potential colleagues. Hugely flattered,Ive agreed to stand in while he refurbishes his database. (Editors Note: Come on, Paul, dont be so modest!)
I dont think theres anythingin my education which is of interest or relevant to my fellows in translationand interpreting, apart perhaps from the comment of a schoolmaster thatI had no talent whatsoever for foreign languages. There are two morals tothis: the first is that hardly anybody (especially schoolmasters and potentialmothers-in-law) has any idea what a translator is or does (How manylanguages do you speak?), and the second is that the most useful thingfor a translator is an easy facility in the tongue of primary use (whatwe used to call the mother tongue in less enlightened and circumlocutorydays). In fact, as far as translation goes the most important thing I learnedduring my schooling was to type, which I did outside the school system.
My pre-translator professionaldevelopment can best be described as disjointed, with four key experiences.The first was working in a circulation analysis department of a publishingempire made up of recently-merged and warring trade magazines. As nobodywould give us any information, the staff spent its time solving and composingcrosswords in the daily London newspapers, including The Times. (Englishcrossword clues are exercises in riddlingone of my favourites wasgolden parent in three letters, answer mum.) Thisearly practice in puzzling out meaning from deliberately cryptic phraseshas been invaluable over the years when intuiting the meaning of badly-writtensource texts.
Later, I wrote reports onthe economies of the less important industrialised nations (which taughtme jargon) and offers for market research studies based on econometric techniquesexploiting the new electronic calculators (which taught me to write brieflyand to the point).
Finally, I worked as a singerin a radio choir, which gave me practice with simultaneous inputs (readingnew music at sight while watching the conductor and listening to the orchestralaccompaniment on earphones). The singing, of course, was very useful trainingfor interpreting, and also accustomed me to anti-social working hours.
I got my first job in translationon the strength of a test piece on French monetary policy. The agency managerwho took me on was mainly impressed by the fact that my translation hadvirtually nothing in common with his own: he had followed the conventionalstrategy of dictating the English translation based on the French sentences,while I had merely read the French and typed what an English economist wouldhave written on the same subject. Perhaps significantly, he hired me toreview the German translations, commenting that if I was destined to bea translator the work would find its way to me. (It did.)
The next career move was typically passive and improbable: I was asked to go to Frankfurt and doa television version of a modern childrens opera. After three weeks ofrehearsal and recording, I found myself in Germany with no particular tiesor goals. I decided to stay and look around, which Ive been doing now forover fifteen years. Like most vagrant foreigners, I started by teachingcommercial English and translation at a privately-owned language school.After a couple of years, I had too much translation work to have time forteaching, and I had also decided that I did not have the personality typeneeded to be an inspiring teacher.
Around this time I bought my first dedicated word processor, a punched tape machine which producedvery stylish printouts (for its day) and made revision a lot easier. Twoyears later came another dedicated word processor with a full-page screenand electronic data medium storage (8" floppy disks). This introducedme to the ability to revise and correct on the fly, and also opened up themagic world of copying and supercopying (copying from one document to another).The increase in productivity from the new technology boosted my translationincome to six figures (translated into dollars), where it has stayed since.
I also started to feel that I had to be doing something right as a translator, and began making myselfunpopular with colleagues by arguing that a translator with good keyboardingskills working in a familiar area should be able to produce three, fouror more pages an hour, essentially by combining the output of an interpreterwith the ability to revise and correct on screen. On the whole, I get theimpression that people think Im lying. In return, I think theyre lazya facile opinion, given that I find translation far too enjoyablean activity to rate as work.
In return for spending 8-12hours a day in front of my 20" monitor (I finally got glasses, butIm used to a big screen now), I get to stay at home with my family, workas a freelance without having to answer to anybody (except my family) anddo something I enjoy more than any of the other careers Ive toyed with(or vice versa).
All this sounds too goodto be true, and of course it is. One of the problems with enjoying workso much is that I feel Im featherbedding my way through life without facingthe real challenges. Another problem is that I can bury myself in work andignore other aspects of being self-employed that need attentionlikebook-keeping, tracking expenses and taking care of tax returns. Given howeasy it is to earn money, I qualify financially as an airline pilotas my local bank manager tersely characterises the modern Micawber.Finally, Ive lost a number of clients (and a couple of friends) over theyears by losing touch with reality over deadlines.
At present, my concerns (outside my family) are to improve the quality I provide. This involves a number of efforts:
For people considering translationas a living, my first question would be, do you enjoy writing (preferablyediting, rather than direct authorship)? The second, do you like workingwith words and ideas rather than people? If the answers are yes, then carryon. Ultimately, the market will tell you if youre in the right place.
- an ongoing searchfor the Holy Grail that will keep me aware of the amount of work outstandingand warn me of impending conflicts (software, Filofax-type organisers, cardsin slots, real and virtual sticky notelets, customers banging on the frontdoor etc)
- periodic peer reviewof my work by good revisers
- staying abreastof developments in the language of my primary field (financial and economicjournalism)
- trying to keepin touch with advances in Internet and WWW resources and search technologies
- thinking aboutthe problems of describing quality in translation
- dragging myselfaway from the Web to exercise, on the assumption that better physical conditionwill help combat fatigue
- being forthrightabout what I do, where I think I succeed and where I fail, in the hope thatother translators can learn from me and Ill be able to learn from them.