grew up in New York City and in London, and went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island and then on to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, ultimately earning a doctorate in Classical Archaeology-the study of ancient Mediterranean civilization using physical evidence rather than written sources. My focus within this field quickly turned away from artifact categorization and toward ancient materials and technologies. I wrote my master's thesis on the tin trade in the Aegean in the 2nd millennium B.C., having also spent two summers at a Bronze Age archaeological site in southern Italy. At Penn I was awarded a fellowship that involved working as a technician in the University's radiocarbon dating laboratory, and from there I transferred to the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, where along with photographing artifacts and field sites (in Libya and Jordan) I did some small research projects on stone tool microwear and the porosity of Minoan ceramics. My doctoral thesis dealt with the extraction and use of iron in pre-Etruscan Italy.
By the time I had begun my dissertation, I had already decided that academia was not where I wanted to spend my working life. In the classified section of the Philadelphia morning paper I soon encountered an ad seeking freelance translators into English, and was hired by a small translation agency in Philadelphia to translate from French, which I had begun learning in the fourth grade and never forgotten, and Italian, which I had picked up while excavating in Italy and used regularly all through graduate school. (The fundamentals of German had been immovably implanted during my two years of public school in London in the 1960s, but I had had little occasion to use the language since then.) The technical and scientific source texts sent to me included lots of metallurgy, the very field I had explored in some depth for my dissertation. Far from requiring me to submit a clean typescript, this lovely company employed a clairvoyant editor who was capable of turning almost anything on paper into a finished product for the customer. Most amazingly, once the editor had marked up my submissions to be turned into final copy, he sent them back to me. So in 1981 I was spending my evenings happily banging away at an ancient IBM electric typewriter, translating scientific journal articles into English from two languages I knew well, unconcerned with formatting or proofreading, getting paid to learn the specialized terminology of some subject areas that interested me, and entirely unaware that this was not how every freelance translator got started.
we are all human beings first and translators second, and it is only by being human that we can translate at all.
This line of work seemed worth pursuing. A fellow graduate student told me that a local company-the Institute for Scientific Information, which still publishes citation indices, contents lists, and a lot of other information about information-had full-time job openings for people with foreign-language ability. The position for which I was accepted shortly after completing my PhD was in the Arts and Humanities section, and involved paging through an issue of a journal or magazine and marking up the footnotes with colored felt-tip pens to prepare them for data entry. The more languages you could read and the more subject areas you were interested in, the wider the selection of stuff you ended up working on. My fellow A&H indexers proved to be an eclectic and talented group, deliberately selected for intelligence and versatility, and all at least slightly unconventional: very good preparation for my future career.
By 1984 I had been promoted to indexer supervisor, which meant I was given a bigger cubicle and a modest raise, and had to spend more time on administration. I got married in October; by then I had begun to get regular freelance work from a second translation bureau, and had acquired one of the very first Apple Macintosh computers so I could generate clean printed output. I had also discovered and joined the American Translators Association, passed the Italian-English and French-English accreditation tests, and attended my first conference (at the Penta Hotel in Manhattan) where I met the gracious and tireless Gabe Bokor. Finding him and so many other translators in one place, and finding also that they were as appealing and capable and inquisitive as my oddball colleagues in the big indexing room-but seemed to be making a better living and spoke with much more interesting accents-convinced me that I had found a home.
So just after Christmas of 1984, weary of spending evenings and weekends on freelance work in addition to my day job, I resigned my position at ISI and put all my metaphorical chips on a career as an independent technical and scientific translator.
I have continued to grow into the profession: finding more work, expanding the skills necessary to do it well, and learning to manage all the practical aspects of running a business. After some serious effort at resuscitating my German, I gained ATA accreditation in German-English in 1985. Since 1988 I have served ATA as a director, secretary, and committee chair. Most of my clients are now American and German corporations and patent attorneys rather than local translation agencies, my concentration has shifted from French and Italian scientific articles to German patents and industrial marketing texts, and I have worked in half a dozen offices in three different states, but I have never regretted the choices I made.
But what allowed me to make those choices? How did I come to spend the last twenty years in this field for which I have, by some countries' criteria, no proper government-authorized training? What must a person possess or understand or desire in order to be happy and successful in this curious profession?
Above all, one must love the work. What I appear to do every day is sit in front of a computer keyboard, looking back and forth between a piece of paper with German on it and a screen on which I write English; but there is much more to it. Although seventeen years of humanities education culminating in a doctorate might seem a poor background for translating German microscope patents, technical translation keeps me engaged and intellectually supple precisely because it calls on almost everything I was before I ever considered becoming a translator.
My education taught me first of all to love the idea and process of learning, and the most valuable thing I learned was how to learn: how to find relevant and authoritative information as efficiently as possible, as I still do every day.
I also grew up loving language itself. I cannot remember not knowing how to read-my mother says I taught myself, partly by reading Pogo comic strips-and words still fascinate me. Language remains the essential tool I use to make my living, and it does not stay behind in the office when I leave: I believe the only piece of the Sunday paper worth saving is the crossword puzzle page, and I take malicious pleasure in pointing out grammatical errors by radio announcers.
That early fascination with my own language soon led me to explore others as well. Quite apart from the capabilities that allow me to work effectively as a technical translator into English, the fact that I can also speak and understand other languages means I can widen my experience of the world in general. The ability to read a German newspaper, to understand window displays and street signs while walking through a foreign city, or to sit with friends who do not speak English and still be able to engage in the communication on which friendship is founded, has taken me on an experiential roller-coaster ride that has greatly enriched my life. And every time I do a piece of technical translation, no matter how apparently dry and unemotional the subject, I get a little bit of that same thrill.
Translation is also where I have found truth. Any good translator obviously must be true to the source text, but as my practice has developed I have found myself attracted to another kind of truth. In my archaeological studies, I gravitated toward material analysis because I hoped to find in those ancient fragments some evidence of how real people made use of what was around them: cutting wood, forging iron, firing pots. As a translator, the subject matter I find most attractive is once again the real world-technology and the physical and descriptive sciences. There is an element of laziness in this philosophical preference: technical translation is actually easier and more straightforward because scientists and engineers all over the world are already working and thinking in fundamentally the same language no matter what their mother tongue. Physical laws and chemical reactions are the same everywhere, so the translator can assume a level of understanding between source-text author and target-language reader that is absent in the context of, say, insurance contracts or poetry.
The central precondition for being a successful freelance translator, however, is a life before and beyond translation: a prehistory. My time in graduate school and as an ISI indexer was by no means wasted: I learned to locate and extract information efficiently, often working from publications in languages other than English; and my experience scrubbing glassware in laboratories introduced me to the attitudes and expectations of scientists, so that I can now write translations of journal articles that are appropriate for a scientific audience. My earlier and more general education established an even broader foundation. Without an understanding of my own culture, without an awareness of American technological development gained by growing up and paying attention over the last forty-some years, I would be unable to write in an English style appropriate for that culture and technology.
Family and environment are the ultimate prehistory, and certainly if my own background had been different I would not have ended up working the way I do. Freelancing runs in my family: both my grandfathers were independent businessmen, and my father spent his entire working life as a freelance photojournalist. The model presented to me for becoming a responsible and self-sufficient adult was therefore not "getting a good job," but "finding your work."
Despite all these persuasive paradigms, I have also learned that prehistory need not be destiny, that established procedures and habits must sometimes yield to change. Fourteen years ago my wife brought us to the Midwest from Philadelphia, revealing to me a new world beyond the Appalachians. And after years of working at home, our latest change of city became the occasion for a basic shift in my business habits: I am writing this in a large high-ceilinged room on the top floor of an 1885 neo-Romanesque office building in downtown Milwaukee, filled with light and plants and pictures, equipped with all my accumulated dictionaries and reference books and a growing shelf of CDs. Every evening I can now leave this peaceful and productive niche and do something I never before realized I had been missing: go home, to the place where my wife, the piano, the kitchen, and my negatives await me, and where the rest of my life now has time and space to happen.
So the ultimate requirement turns out to have another name: balance. All work and no play makes Jack not only dull but in fact incompetent; we are all human beings first and translators second, and it is only by being human that we can translate at all. And only by being as entirely human as possible can we translate well, drawing not only from dictionaries and reference books, but also from our memories and experiences, the words that convey real meaning.
Thanks to Mike Johnston for the picture.