nn: Courtney, although we've known each other for ten years this September, there are quite a few things about your background I don't know. Can you tell me how you got interested in German as a language?
Courtney: I always loved the English languagemy father tells me that I was reading at three, and I have poems I wrote before I started schoolbut I had no exposure to other languages (except for a humorous column in the Baltimore Sun about Baltimorese that I read faithfully while I was growing up). By the seventh grade I was interested in Latin, but only because an older boy in the neighborhood kept sending me love notes in Latin. My next school required French and Latin. I hated Latin translation because the stories were dull, and didn't like French either because the teacher had bad breath. When I went away to boarding school in Pennsylvania, I switched to Spanish because everyone told me that it was the easiest language to learn. I left high school for the University of Pennsylvania knowing that I was not through with foreign languages, but resolving to postpone that requirement as long as possible. I intended to major in psychology or sociology.
While at Penn, I got a job as a proofreader and layout "artist" for Author H. Thomas in Philadelphia, a distributor of laboratory equipment and supplies. My job was to design the catalogue pages (cutting and pasting with scissors and glue) and to proofread the copy. I loved that job! My boss was a frustrated former journalist who took the time to mentor me and teach me the mechanics of writing for publication. Little did I know that 20 years later I would be translating pharmaceutical patents, drawing on the terminology I had been exposed to back in Philly, and cutting and pasting with a computer.
Three semesters into college, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life and with my language requirement looming, I took off to Europe as a research assistant to my father, a novelist. I fell in love with Europe and with a German businessman in Hamburg. My father returned to the States and I stayed in Germany. I spent the next year learning German at the Goethe Institute in Hamburg. My soon-to-be father-in-law liked to tell people that I refused to speak a word of German until I could speak it without errors. He was wrong, of course, I was using my German with everyone but him! In any case, the time did come when I could speak German with confidence, and by then I was hooked on the language, the culture and the people.
back then before computers there was not a lot of quality control in the translation business
While I was at the Goethe Institute, like hundreds of other expatriates in Europe in the 1960s, I started teaching ESL. In this case it was teaching to German executives and banking apprentices using Harvard business case studies. Enter my second mentorthe director of the American School in Hamburg where I taught.
Still not seeing a future for myself in languages, as soon as I was married I went back to school at the University of Hamburg to study early childhood psychology. Upon completion of my studies, I was hired by an association of parents, educators, sociologists, and psychologists who were trying to redefine early childhood education in Germany based on the theories of Erik Ericson. I loved working in this team environment, and the work we were doing was exciting and innovative (probably also misguided), but the organization couldn't pay me enough to support myself when my marriage broke up. (Forget women's lib in Germany in the seventies. My husband was a workaholic who didn't want his wife to work!)
I had never stopped teaching ESL and translating on the side. My former boss at the American School hired me as his assistant, taught me about marketing and how to run a business, and encouraged me to go back to school to learn more about translation and interpreting. The plan was to get myself certified and start up a Translation and Interpretation division of the American School in Bremen.
Ann: Where did you go back to school? Was it somewhere in Germany?
Courtney: I went to the Hamburger Fremdsprachen Schule Dolmetscher Institut in Hamburg for a translator certificate and an interpreter certificate. Once I had my credentials (read: credibility) I commuted daily with my dog from Hamburg to Bremen and set about establishing the T&I Division of the American School. The American School was a local private language school for adults. Unlike Berlitz and the other large language schools, we taught American English only, and no other languages. When the director decided to branch out into T&I, we also decided to work only in English and German. Within six months we were breaking even, and I was called back to Hamburg to run the show there. Shortly after my stint in Bremen I decided to return to the States. I was about to turn 30, and it felt like it was time to come home. By this time, I had spent almost ten years in Germanyas a student, wife, divorcee, businesswoman.
Ann: When you returned to the U.S., how did you re-establish yourself after that long interval of almost ten years in Germany? Breaking into the T&I market must have been a daunting proposition...
Courtney: When I returned to the US, I assumed that the only place an interpreter/translator would find work in the States would be in Washington, D.C. or New York City. Many of my boarding school and college friends had settled in New York, and I had some contacts in the publishing world, so I decided that Manhattan was the place to be. The re-entry shock was considerable! It was the mid-seventies. Old friends accused me of "putting on an accent." My women friends were insulted if they were referred to as "girls." I met men who were Vassar grads. Things had changed in the years I had been away! And then there were the hurdles of getting my first credit card, using a checking account for the first time in ten years, and finding an apartment as a 30-year old woman with no credit record and no job.
As for breaking into the T&I market, I loved being around people, and I really wanted to interpret more than translate. I had passed my exams, and my instructors had encouraged me to pursue this. The UN was looking for interpreters, but German wasn't an official UN language. I sent my resume to local agencies and got no reply.
OK. So maybe I was going to be a translator after all. I contracted near-terminal writer's block when I returned to the States, but the good thing about translation was that I didn't have to write it, I just had to re-write it.
It was time to hit the publishers. On my Olivetti portable typewriter, I pounded out personalized cover letters to all of my father's publishing contacts and his literary agent. No one was interested in my services as a translator, but they would keep my resume on file for "reader's reports." Hmmm... I revised my cover letter, and pounded the sidewalks. I delivered my resume in person to almost every New York publisher in Literary Marketplace. I marketed myself as a readerto read German books and write reviews in English for publishers who were considering buying the English language rights to the books.
A chance meeting with my favorite English teacher from boarding school (another important mentor earlier on) led me to The Language Lab, a language school with offices in Greenwich Village and on Madison Avenue that was just beginning to get into translation and interpreting. This would prove to be my first real break. The owner loved the teaching part of her business, but wasn't so crazy about the T&I part. I didn't have to think hard about accepting a job as manager of T&I Services there.
Although the Language Lab did not at the time belong to any professional organizations, it was while working there that I found out about a group of fifteen or so translators who met regularly to talk about translating. New York was not a particularly friendly place in those days, but in time, some of us came to trust each other, and we would sit around telling horror stories about clients and projects late into the night after the official dinner meetings. Who do I remember most from those early days in New York? Jonathon Slater, Bernie Bierman, Tom Snow, Eva Berry, Charles Stern. There were many more, of course, who came to those dinners, but New York was cliquish, I was still an outsider, and these are the ones I remember as willing to share their experiences and collaborate. Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the larger group became the New York Circle of Translators.
I loved my job at the Language Lab, but back then before computers there was not a lot of quality control in the translation business. It was not common practice for translation bureaus to edit translations before they were delivered to the client. Quality depended upon an agency's ability to find trustworthy translators. Eventually, the stress of delivering unedited translations in languages I couldn't check got to me, and I left the Language Lab to pursue my dream of being a freelance translator and interpreter. By the time I left the Language Lab, I had a far better idea of how to go about this. New York was home by now, and I had joined the ATA.
Ann: What year was that, and when did you join the ATA? Did you go to any conferences back then?
Courtney: I started freelancing in 1978. By that time some of my earlier legwork with publishers had begun to pay off, and I was doing reader's reports for Reader's Digest Condensed Books, Times Books, and Bertelsmann. Bertelsmann had a two-person office in Rockefeller Center and when both of their reps were away, I would office-sit for them. Some of my publisher clients knew other people in the German business community who needed translations into English. Two of thesea patent lawyer and a consultant for companies importing pharmaceutical products to the USbecame steady clients. I upgraded my equipment to an IBM electric typewriter!
I was also getting occasional interpreting assignments, but not enough to maintain my interpreting skills. Sometime in the mid-eighties, I stopped interpreting entirely.
I joined the ATA in 1979, and my original certificate of ATA membership was signed by Josephine Thornton. I honestly don't remember much about the organization as it was when I first joined. The Chronicle was still a photocopied newsletter, but even then I found it a valuable connection to what other translators were doing and thinking. I attended my first conference in New York in 1978. I remember feeling very much the outsider, and I didn't attend another conference until 1984 in New York again. For several years after that, I attended every second conference. Eventually, I decided I couldn't afford to miss them, and I haven't missed a conference since 1988.
Ann: Freelancing was working out, but when did you decide that it was time to start German Language Services? Were there specific assignments that nudged you in that direction, or just the general volume of business?
Courtney: I had always billed myself with my own name and the tagline "German Language Services," but I consider 1979 the true beginning of GLS. We celebrated our 20th anniversary in 1999. I had begun to work with other translators when I started to get requests for translations into German. Eventually, even the volume of pharmaceutical material into English got so large that I could not handle the workload by myself. By 1980, I had developed a team approach to translating and was actively marketing GLS as an agency specializing in one language pair providing translations produced by a team of translators and editors. Clients liked this quality control and the business grew. This made it possible for me to support myself while continuing to work in the publishing world. I accepted my first book translation for Times Booksat $.03/wordand translated it on the side while I was editing the technical translations of independent contractors fulltime. In those pre-PC days, editing usually meant retyping the entire page if you found an error, so this was a labor-intensive proposition.
I ran GLS out of a studio apartment on West 57th Street, but most people didn't know that I also lived there. At that time, in New York at least, a home business would not have been credible, so I had a home address that sounded like an office address, and an apartment that looked like a very cozy office. There wasn't much equipmenteventually an IBM electronic typewriter with a seven-page memory, the old IBM Selectric, and the original Olivetti manual for emergencies. I often had two or three freelance translators working on my equipment. I remember a rush job one April evening with two translators in my living room/office and my accountant in the bathroom with papers spread out on a board thrown across the bathtub.
Ann: So there you were, with papers all over the bathtub, and making a go of it! Wonderful! When did you get involved in teaching T&I?
Courtney: Sometime in the mid-eighties I was invited to teach the German to English Translation of Life Sciences course in the New York University Translation Studies Program. I was handed some vague guidelines for grading and told to "teach them all you know about translating sci-tech documents." Most of what I knew about sci-tech, I had learned from my bilingual patent lawyer who was relentless with his feedback to GLS. So armed with material straight from my office (with permission, of course, from my mentor-client), I tried to teach the NYU students all I knew. Before long, I was also teaching the Introduction to Translation and German to English Commercial Translation, and I was hooked on teaching. Not only did I have the satisfaction of seeing many of my students go on to be successful translators, my teaching also gave me easy access to talented, well trained (ahem!) translators with whom I would have long-term professional relationships and deep friendships. Teaching was addictive.
Ann: Was it at the end of that decade that you moved to Seattle? Seems like quite a big jump to me, from New York to the northwest end of the continental U.S. And not an easy thing, to leave a thriving business and a satisfying work environment. What led you to make such a big switch?
Courtney: I had re-married in 1983. Now I had a soul mate and two wonderful stepchildren. My husband, an Episcopal priest, was living in New Jersey when we met, but is originally from the Pacific Northwest. It took only one visit to Seattle for me to know that this was where I wanted to live. I felt so drawn to the area that I would have been willing to give up almost anything to live there. But, by the time we moved to Seattle in 1990, affordable fax technology had replaced the TELEX, we were using a PC, and we were on the verge of using modems and electronic bulletin boards. The timing was right, so GLS didn't lose even one client. In fact, much to my surprise, we picked up so many new clients in the Seattle area that GLS really took off and I hired our first employee.
Ann: It seems as if the move from New York to Seattle worked out well, from both a personal and a professional viewpoint. But how about teaching?
Courtney: Also serendipitous... The University of Washington was considering starting a certificate program in translation. They were looking for consultants and someone to teach an introductory course through the UW Extension. Eventually the university abandoned the idea of a certificate program, but I taught the "Introduction to Translation" course for several years. And that's where I met you!
Ann: Yes, I remember that course very well. It was so thrilling that I would stay up until 2 a.m. every Tuesday reading the ATA Chronicle and thinking about what you had presented that eveningtranslation really came alive for me as a career option. When did you decide to branch out from the University and create an Institute?
Courtney: The University of Washington dropped the idea of a certificate program, and Susana Stettri Sawreya local court interpreter and trainerand I decided to develop a program of our own. The Washington Academy of Languages, a founding member of NOTIS, expressed interest in this project, and was willing to partner with us to get the Translation & Interpretation Institute off the ground. We applied to Washington State to be able to offer our program for undergraduate credit at Bellevue Community College. Once we had state approval, we moved the Institute there (http://www.conted.bcc.ctc.edu/transinterp.htm). We held our first graduation ceremony at the ATA annual conference in Colorado Springs. The certificate program continues to thrive, and the Institute is involved in a number of other very interesting projects. I'm particularly excited about the Student Translation Services grant at a local school district (http://www.svpseattle.org/investee_portfolio/k12_education.htm#Highline%20School%20District).
Ann: I think you were involved with the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society all through this period, weren't you? When did you become President?
Courtney: NOTIS was a fledgling organization when I arrived in Seattle, and I became active right away. Judy Langley was the first president, and she talked me into giving a presentation on the team translation of the bogus Hitler diaries for Newsweek. This was the first time that I had faced an audience outside of the classroom, and I was terrified. But I got through it, became program chair, and eventually served as president from 1993 to 1995. While I enjoyed being on the NOTIS board, I was always more at ease as program chair than as president. I still freeze when I have to give a speech, although I enjoy teaching and giving interactive workshops.
Ann: I have a vivid memory, Courtney, of several years in which you were considering running for the ATA board. What finally made you decide to throw your hat into that particular ring?
Courtney: That's right, I was asked by two or three nominating committees before I actually decided to run. The ATA was very important to me, and I really did want to contribute to the leadership of the organization. But I found that I was able to get things done without being on the board of directors. I organized the first High School Outreach Program, for instance, before I ran for office. I was hesitant to accept a nomination to run because for several years, there was a lot of contention and backbiting on the board. I had no interest in getting enmeshed in this. I finally agreed to run when Peter Krawutschke was president. The timing was right, I liked the configuration of the board, and I felt that I was in a position to contribute some new ideas and energy. I'm glad that I waited. I was elected in Colorado Springs, and have been re-elected twice as Secretary. Next year will be my last year on the board. It has been a wonderful experience, and I've learned somethingabout group dynamics, leadership, budgets, parliamentary procedure, mentoringfrom everyone I have had the pleasure to serve with. It was during your presidency that our roles reversed, and you became my mentor.
Ann: Well, that's a comment to make one think! Thank you, Courtney. We have certainly enjoyed flexibility in our relationship, and that's one of the things I like about the mentoring program that you've spearheaded. It's very different from the classic model of "established mentor with all the knowledge" and "fledgling who needs to be instructed." By giving the mentee the responsibility of taking the initiative, and determining what needs are going to be addressed, you've turned things on their head. The whole thing has a dynamism that I find very attractive.
Courtney: Thanks, Ann. The mentoring program really is taking off! In spite of the Internet, electronic special interest groups, and a general willingness to help each other in these difficult economic times, newcomers participating in the mentee training sessions tell me that they still don't know where to turn for advice about how to get started, that they feel isolated, and that they are excited about the possibility of being matched with someone who knows the ropes. My next task is to recruit enough mentors!
Ann: I appreciate your taking the time, Courtney, to fill me in on the twists and turns your career has taken. I've really enjoyed learning about your experiences in school, in Germany, and in New York before we knew each other. I'll close here with one observation. I've noticed that at every ATA conference, you always make a point of connecting with people you've never met before. I see you sitting with newcomers, answering the questions of first-timers, and enjoying "the company of strangers." Thank you for your energy, your creative ideas, and your welcoming grace, that has made so many of us feel at home.
Courtney: Thank you, Ann, for interviewing me. It would have been difficult for me to share all of this without your questions.