This note was written assuming that at least some aspects of my career as a free-lance translator will be of interest to some of the Translation Journal readers. I have a chemical background with broad experience in applied chemistry which over the years helped me greatly in my translation work.
Although there is no general agreement on what I am about to say, I think that a good way to start writing a translators profile is to begin at the beginning: ab initio. You may or may not be interested in learning that I was born in the kingdom of Yugoslavia, that is to say in pre-ethnic-cleansing Yugoslavia, in the part that now is the Republic of Croatia. In the culture of that part of East Central Europe, great importance was, and I suspect still is, attached to the knowledge of foreign languages. My family spoke Serbo-Croatian, German and Hungarian. My cousins and I never learned Hungarian, because the older generations saved that language for communications that were not for the ears of us kids. French, German and Latin were taught in high school. In addition, I received private French lessons for a number of years. During WW II, I spent several years in Italy where after a few years at the University of Palermo, Sicily, I earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Rome. This accounts for my knowledge of Italian. My English is self-taught if you disregard a short basic course offered by the British Council in Zagreb shortly before the German occupation in 1941.
Correct linguistic expression and elegance of style have always fascinated me. I still look askance at those who say: This data is... (regardless of what is stated in Websters dictionary or what other linguistic luminaries think is correct). The mauling of the English language to which we are exposed by the media every day is really appalling (the media is is another irritating example of non-elegance in our everyday English). I strongly believe that we translators produce much better prose than other professional writers, mainly because in my humble opinion the caliber of our editors, clients etc. is generally so much higher than that of the average contributors to media publications.
What I finally brought to the translation table was a broad chemical background, complemented by a subsequently acquired biomedical background, combined with an interest in good technical writing and topped off by reasonable self-discipline and patience. (The German term Sitzfleisch also describes one of my talents.)
You may be interested in the story of my first professional translationmy debut, so to speak. This major event happened in Palermo, then under Allied military occupation. The Allied Military Government needed translators for a large volume of legal documents, namely depositions made by political prisoners previously held by Mussolinis regime on Lipari, Italys Devils Island. These depositions had to be translated from English into Italian. At that time, I was a poor chemistry student in extraordinary need of money (everybody has to eat sometime), looking for a summer job. Here was an opportunity, but I had a problem: my proficiency in the two languages was very low (lousy may be a better term to use here). I took the job anyway. Guess what! With the help of a good dictionary and a secret weapon I turned out acceptable work. Secret weapon: my next-door neighbor, Prof. M., a friendly Italian psychiatrist. I brought work home every night (even then I did not mind burning the proverbial midnight oil) and asked Prof. M. to correct my mistakes. He did this gladly, because he seemed to like me. Moral of the story: If you are hungry, resourceful, have a psychiatrist for a friend and a reasonably good dictionary, you can translate almost anything without knowing either the source language or the target language!
In 1946, we moved to Rome. At the Department of Organic Chemistry, in the eyes of some of my professors, I was one of the most useful students, because I could translate for them the all-important Chemisches Zentralblatt (now defunct), a German publication similar to our Chemical Abstracts, and Beilsteins Handbook of Organic Chemistry, a monumental German compilation of monographs on all major organic chemicals known.
After obtaining my degree and before coming to the United States in 1949, I first worked in Rome as a voluntary assistant to my professor of organic chemistry. Later, I worked as a medical detail man and as a translator and announcer for the Italian short-wave radio programs beamed to Marshall Titos Yugoslavia (alas, no longer a kingdom). The medical detail activity brought me in close contact with physicians and the medical environment in general. I learned a few things that were later quite useful when the time came to do biomedical translations in the United States. Working as a translator-announcer for the Italian radio system was easy. By that time I had learned Italian well, and my knowledge of Serbo-Croatian was very good, so translating and then reading Italian news in Serbo-Croatian was a piece of cake [un pezzo di pizza, you might say).
In retrospect, these relatively minor translation activities served a good purpose: they kept up my linguistic abilities.
Free-Lancer in the United States
My first job as a chemist upon my arrival in the United States was at the Department of Legal Medicine, Harvard Medical School, in Boston. Here I spent two years working on toxicological and analytical problems concerning the detection and quantitation of stimulants in the physiological fluids of racehorses (at Harvard?!). My salary was paid by the Massachusetts State Racing Commission through my boss, Dr. W., who was the director of the chemistry laboratory of the Massachusetts State Police and at the same time held a position as Associate Professor of Toxicology at Harvard. The physicians on the staff of the Department of Legal Medicine were coroners (medical examiners). Every day, most of these coroners and other personnel congregated in the library to eat lunch. I am not against lunch, but having to eat it while listening to the (literally!) gory details of autopsies (sometimes looking at incredibly nauseating pictures that were circulated around the table) and hearing about other messy situations these coroners had to handle every day was a little rich. On the positive side, I learned a lot about new trends in analytical and toxicological chemistry and a few juicy details of anatomy.
After about two years at Harvard Medical School, we moved to Buffalo, NY, where I had accepted a position as a research chemist for a major chemical corporation. In the late 1950s, after a short stint as a foreign-language abstractor for Chemical Abstracts, I started doing translations on a part-time basis working mainly for translation bureaus. Looking back at those years, I realize how much I learned from these bureaus. I still appreciate the valuable feedback I received from knowledgeable editors. It is therefore difficult for me to understand some of my fellow free-lancers when they vehemently attack translation agencies and bureaus, usually on economic grounds. The experienced bureau editors were my best teachers while I was learning the free-lance translation business in the United States.
During those formative years, my major concern was, and after so many years still is, the quality of my English. I remember that years ago I used to spend as much time worrying about the acceptability of my English rendition as I did about solving technical terminology problems. (One bureau had me sign a contract with the provision that my English had to be facile and flawless!!). Fortunately, in my primary job, in which in the meantime I had advanced to a supervisory position, I was responsible for the content and form of all technical reports written by my scientists. This meant a lot of editing and lively discussions, for example about why you cannot write: this gave I and my coworkers a big headache. It is surprising how many of these scientists, including Ph.D.s, wrote: This spectra is...... All this is not to say that language was my only preoccupation. I also spent long hours in libraries making sure that my translations were technically correct. This was an enjoyable activity: it meant problem-solving and confidence-building, and as a research person I liked that.
I was also involved in many different fields of science and technology. In the beginning, I worked on organic synthesis problems. This, because of company policy, meant that I also had to plan and supervise pilot-plant experimentation and full-scale production (for process demonstration purposes) of the chemicals my group or I developed. It also meant hands-on experience in the practical world of industrial chemistry and chemical engineering. (Incidentally, do you know the definition of a chemical engineer? A person who knows neither chemistry nor engineering.)
My job was to find uses for the chemicals my company developed. Making chemicals is relatively easy compared to finding uses for them. While we tested and evaluated our products in the laboratory in a great many applications over the years, it was necessary for me as the head of the group to go into the field for many technical reasons (customer contacts, trouble shooting, presenting technical seminars, attending technical conferences etc.). Over the years, I thus acquired a wealth of diversified technical knowledge which was always very useful in my translation work.
During the many years I worked in the chemical field, I also acquired a translation proficiency in the biomedical field. I like to do medical and related translations, because they are always interesting and instructive. After having invested heavily in dictionaries (in the old days there was no Internet) and having paid close attention to the editors feedback, I made significant progress in this field. Over the years, I translated close to 1000 biomedical documents.
The Mature Years
In 1987, I retired from my primary job and took up translating as a full-time activity. Over the years, I had carefully prepared for this transition by investing in the tools of our trade: dictionaries (about 500), several computers, laser printer, fax, modem, CD-ROM etc. It is not easy for a very busy translator to keep abreast of this rapidly expanding technology, but I am trying.
Although most of my work is now for direct clients, occasionally I still translate for translation bureaus. I enjoy the challenge of preparing a good translation, the excitement of library research and Internet browsing to crack a tough terminological problem. I am proud of my fine relationship with all my clients and fellow translators.
Over the years, I tried to make at least some contributions to our profession by presenting technically and terminologically oriented papers at the annual conferences of the American Translators Association. In fact, every year for the last 16 years I made at least one presentation and sometimes more. Some years ago, I was the co-founder and first chairman of Translators of Western New York, a group of colleagues from the Buffalo and Rochester, NY, area. Unfortunately, after about a decade of satisfying activity, this group disbanded.
After so many years of translation activity, have I learned anything that may be worthwhile mentioning for the benefit of our younger colleagues who are in the process of finding their niche in our business? As I think about this, I come to the conclusion that I am not really a good source of advice, because I have never depended on translation as my only source of income. My outlook is slanted toward quality rather than quantity and profit. (But I still remember that when I was hungry, I felt differently). I believe that the most valued possession of a translator is his/her intellectual honesty. Do not try to fool yourself or your client. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Make sure your translation is as accurate as you can make it, even if this means a sacrifice in time and effort. Keep abreast of new developments affecting your business. Aim to produce translations written in facile and flawless language. Do not be greedy: building a client base is more important than making an instant killing and then biting your nails while waiting for business to come in. Choose your clients very carefully, as some of them will be easier to work for than others. Some provide background information, feedback, reasonable deadlines and prompt remuneration, some do not. Good luck!