ill Grimes, translator, abstractor, and "techie," died peacefully in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA at noon on November 30, 2007.
Bill's first language was Lithuanian, which he learned from his grandmother while his divorced mother toiled at a South Boston sugar factory. Granny died when he was six as Mom started him on English, using the crosswords in the Boston Globe. Bill would later say that the only things he knew how to do in Lithuanian were to swear and pray.
This below-the-poverty-line kid had a few things going for him: he was bright, white, and had an ambitious mother. So on to Boston Latin (Boston's entrance exam school), a job as a research technician at Harvard Medical School, and eventually (after handwriting over fifty applications to funding sources) a scholarship to Harvard, from which he graduated in Slavic Studies while working nearly full-time as a freelance translator to support his mother, who was often ailing. He was mentored by senior translators who took a fatherly interest, and he in his turn mentored many others as his career progressed.
He worked for two years at the United States Patent Office, sorting German, Russian, and Czech patents, and abstracting and translating them. He had always been interested in mechanics, and had picked up a wealth of English terminology perched on a lab stool at Harvard Med where he became an avid reader of medical supply catalogs. Matching up his rich English vocabulary to the foreign-language patents at the Patent Office's library was a delight. But Washington wasn't. Homesick, he returned to his beloved Boston in 1973 (after a stint as project manager for a Baltimore translation agency) and set up in business for himself as W. J. Grimes and CompanyCustom Technical Translations. A few months later he met yours truly at the Goethe Institute in Bostonan ancillary function of the 1973 American Translators Association Convention [now called "ATA Conference"]. Bill and I had both recently quit as project managers for translation agencies and were branching out as freelancers. We started to share some office space, inter-editing, and resources, eventually formalizing the arrangement in a business partnership that lasted until Bill's retirement. We landed a translation contract with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) that lasted several years; mostly jargon-and-acronym-stuffed journal articles and reports for the Apollo-Soyuz project, but enlivened by the fun material: fan letters to the astronauts that would arrive by the crate load, which we would decipher and dictate onto tape in English. Requests for autographs, demands for information on the moon, love letters and poems accompanied by photographs, and bizarre inventions. We would sometimes rhyme and scan the poems as we translated, just for the exuberance of using language.
Around the same time we both became actively involved in the ATA, of which Bill quickly became a director, and he assisted me as I edited the ATA Chronicle in the late 1970s.
When the computer (first up: IBM DisplayWriter) arrived in 1981, Bill had found his niche. Despite my urgings he never would learn to type properly and had to dictate everything. He had the nuts and bolts of the personal computer figured out in no time and would spend hours browsing computer magazines, and chatting to kindred spirits over the phone. He was handy with a screwdriver and could replace his own BIOS chips (repair his own VW Beetle, too). He was generous with his knowledge, and shared it at ATA conferences. Then along came on-line communications when, finally, one could ask colleagues in source-language countries for the meaning of those tricky words, instead of trekking to the MIT science library.
(Per N. Dohler writes) Bill became known and loved by an international community of his peers after the advent of FLEFO in the late 1980s. FLEFO was a CompuServe forum, the first venue (except for the highly politicized and acidic sci.lang.translation Usenet group), where translators from all over the U.S. and, ultimately, most industrialized countries. When the "early adopters" among Bill's fellow translators one by one joined FLEFO in the mid-1990s, Bill had already "been there" for quite a while. He has probably done more than anyone else, in his quiet and patient way, to bring people into the foldby assisting them in getting their erratic hardware and software working and, not less importantly, by promoting a communicative style that was supportive rather than divisive. Bill's FLEFO tablesthere were many people, but actually they were hisat the ATA Conventions were legendary, and some may even still fondly remember the "Grimes Lift," a little trick that got the demo going when that stubborn modemremember modems?would refuse to work. It was so typical of Bill to hit upon the trick that gets things going!
For some peoplelike the writer of these lines, a translator and one of the first FLEFOlks outside the U.S. in 1992the FLEFO table and the companionship it offered were more important than the rest of the entire conference. Bill's patience with newbies was legendary. Even his private home was wide open to folks he met in cyberspace, and he was enthusiastically received by his cyberfriends when he traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Britain, France and other countries for an encounter IRL (In Real Life).
Bill Grimes demonstrating CompuServe's Foreign Language Forum (FLEFO)
Other, "noisier" people have received medals for promoting peace and friendship in the world. It would have never occurred to Bill to expect this type of recognition, but he would certainly have deserved it!
(Ben Teague writes) One of Bill's most important contributions was as a scout: Many of us took
to heart the success he had as an early personal computer user. Recent
graduates won't credit this, but when Bill took up our profession a
considerable number of people were stuck making their drafts on legal pads
and having foul and fair copies prepared by typists. Even advanced
practitioners still scorned the clunky "word processors" that came along in
the 1970s, continuing to use electric and even manual typewriters. It was
Bill's example, which he always stood ready to expound at conferences and
by telephone, that marked the path many of his colleagues would follow into
the PC world. Yes, we are a couple of generations past that now, but
between 1975 and 1985 or so we relied on Bill Grimes to show the way.
Speaking of showing the way, Bill also distinguished himself as a tour
guide for visitors to Boston. With him at the wheel, you might see places
the Grey Line missed, including Bill's South Boston homeground, scenes of
industrial disasters, and early New England stone fences just minutes from
Copley Square. And the quality of the commentary surpassed the best
professional guides, too.
(Isabel continues)) Bill was a founding member of the New England Translators Association (NETA) and organized its first meeting at the Harvard Club in Boston in the mid-1970s. He was one of the core group that ram our various projects: a dictionary pool on a card file, lectures, and presentations. Given his penchant for new technologies, he became an early adopter of voice-activated softwarejust another input device!and he gave an early demonstration of DragonDictate at a NETA meeting, back when it still required discrete enunciation of words. He also organized translation roundtables, a practice that continues in the NETA to this day.
(Gabe Bokor adds) We cooperated for many years, with Bill editing (and writing a good part of) the Sci-Tech Newsletter (later Sci-Tech Translation Journal), and "modeming" me the text for formatting with the then novel DTP, even before the term was invented. We also promoted FLEFO at ATA conferences and worked for the same Swiss translation company. Despite this, I never regarded Bill as a competitor, but rather as a colleague, and I think he felt the same way with respect to me. We also worked well together when each of us did a stint as Administrator of the Sci-Tech division. I learned a lot from him technically, as he was a PC user while I had a Mac, and he was always generous in sharing his know-how.
(Isabel continues) The 1980s were his most creative period. Working for agencies and direct clients in Europe, he translated guides for museums and hotels. That sometimes involved trips to Europe to consult with clients and take a good look at what he was translating about. Then he would ride his beloved trains up and down the Swiss Alps. Non-translation activities were volunteer teaching of ESL, and leading a citizens action group that was instrumental in restoring rail service to Boston's South Shore. The train actually ran one month before his death; it was as if he was hanging on until it got here.
In 1988 he suffered what appeared to be an extremely minor stroke; in retrospect I believe this event creamed off the top, creative layer of his brain. From then on, it was patents, patents, patents. And patents, patents, patents. Too many patents finally. Sometimes two or three a day. Never enough time to relax, exercise, or eat properly. It was as if the Harvard layer of his brain had been snatched by the stroke, exposing the South Boston child who could never be fully financially secure. He suffered a second stroke in 2000, and another six months later, after which his contributions to translatordom were confined to attending NETA meetings and the collegial gatherings where we would get out the mailings for our annual conference (Bill stuck on the stamps, slowly).
I like to think that if there is an afterlife and Bill's spirit is looking back at his translation colleagues he would continue to teach us, but the message would be a different one: work less, play more, and smell the roses!
(Thanks to Per Dohler, Ken Kronenberg, Gabe Bokor, and Nick Hartmann who provided some material, editing, and photos)