1, Volume 1
No, this picture is not of the author, but of her fellow scientist Marie Sklodowska Curie. Since Dr. Flick refused to let her simile appear in the TJ, we had to settle for second best...|
Dr. Flick can be reached at
John Woolman Enterprises,
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
By press time, we were unable to obtain Madame Curies e-mail address.
Saga of a Scientific Translator by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Who Am I and What Do I Do?
I taught physics at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana USA for several
years before resigning in 1979 to pursue free-lance scientific
translation full-time. My interdisciplinary background (B.S. Chemistry,
M.A. Physics, Ph.D. Chemical Physics) has allowed me to translate
articles, books, and reports from Russian, German, French, Spanish, and
Italian into English in most areas of physics and chemistry and related
areas of biology and geology.
Earlham made me an Affiliated Independent Scholar in 1990. It was either
that or declare me a living display in the Science Library as I stood
hunched over the dusty Chemical Abstracts.
The Early Years: Nuclear Physics and Quinto Lingo
My interest in languages is almost as old as my interest in science, so
its not too surprising that I ended up as a free-lance scientific
translator chained to my computer at the wrist. At age 7, inspired by The
Golden Book of Astronomy, I wanted to be an astronomer. The next rocket
scientist phase was short-lived, since my mother wouldnt let me
experiment. Finally by age 10, a typical interchange with curious adults
was the following:
ADULT: And what do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?
ME (mumbling, hoping the stupid adult would go away): Im interested in
ADULT: Oh, you want to be a nurse!
ME (loudly): No, I want to be a nuclear physicist!
ADULT: (dead silence)
I became fascinated by other languages around the age of 9 or 10 despite
a monolingual upbringing. In grade school, I had some tutoring in German,
listened diligently to Berlitz Spanish records, and amused myself during
the Catholic Mass trying to match the Latin side with the English side in
the old missals. (I think I started to lose interest in my mothers
church when they dumped Latin!) In high school, I formally took French
and Latin and informally tried to learn Russian from a phrase book
borrowed from the library. At one point I was labeling everything in my
room with Russian name tags. I even made up one for the cat, but he just
wouldnt cooperate. I also subscribed to Quinto Lingo. Does anybody else
remember Quinto Lingo? It had articles in different languages in columns
side by side, and also regularly featured various unusual languages.
My mother could understand my passion for languages (she still kept up
her high school French through reading and study groups and also dabbled
in Spanish). But she was downright embarrassed by the maps of the moon
and the ocean floors plus the Periodic Table of the Elements on my walls,
the tungsten filament from a broken light bulb on display, the rock
collection, the chemistry set, the microscope, the electronics kit, the
fascination with slide rules, etc. This just wasnt what she expected
from a daughter. Then a cousin sent me a postcard with a picture of
Albert Einstein with his hair wildly flying in all directions. My mother
looked at it in horror and said, Youre not going to marry someone like
THAT, are you? I reassured her by saying, Oh, no, Ma Im going to BE someone like that!
The College Years: Science or Languages? Decisions, Decisions...
I decided to pursue science in college rather than languages for two
reasons: 1) I needed hands on experience and other guidance in the
sciences, because there were limits to what self-study would bring me;
and 2) I had to make a living (I still had no clue that scientific
On the language front, in college I took Russian from a very patient
Ukrainian scholar and later studied a little Hebrew at a local temple
(the rabbi, who taught one of my classes, set up the lessons for some of
us after I asked where I could get a copy of his bilingual bible). The
instructor was an Israeli working his way through grad school. At one
point he stopped short while I was repeating something in Hebrew and said
to me, Where did you get that Russian accent? He said it was all right,
because one third of Israel has a Russian accent!
On the science front, I majored in chemistry rather than physics because
my college (just up the street from us, where my mother worked) didnt
have a physics major. But I did take a short course in nuclear physics
and chemistry from traveling Oak Ridge folk and spent a semester at
Argonne National Laboratory in the Solid State Science Division, doing
wide-line NMR on ferroelectrics. They assigned me to find the peaks in
the spectra because I had a good imagination.
At Argonne, I decided to try for grad school programs in physics after
all, despite being physics-deprived in college. Physics was so much phun!
Magnetic resonance was especially phun, so I looked for schools doing
research in that area. It was hard explaining exactly why I had majored
in chemistry until I stumbled into the Chemical Physics program at Kent
State University (Kent, Ohio), run jointly by both the chemistry and
physics departments. I eventually started working regularly with the
electron paramagnetic resonance group in the physics department.
Grad School and Beyond
The intertwining of my scientific and linguistic destinies continued in
grad school. For my Ph.D. candidacy requirements, I needed to demonstrate
reasonable reading proficiency in a foreign language. I took the French
exam given by the chemistry department, providing a translation of a
passage on organic chemistry and another in basic quantum mechanics. I
began to wonder when the third chemistry professor stopped me in the hall
the next day to congratulate me for passing the exam with flying colors.
It turned out that typically Americans would have to take the exam
several times (the other fellow taking the French exam with me was on his
seventh try). This was certainly a triumph for my high school French
teacher. Later I did some informal translations of scientific articles
for other researchers in the physics department, but still had no idea
that anybody actually made a living that way. I even brashly attempted to
translate a Romanian article for our group, using only a second-year
grammar book and an all-Romanian dictionary in the library. If I had only
had a FIRST-year grammar and at least one Romanian-to-English dictionary!
It was the prepositions that were throwing me....
My accidental acquisition of a B.S. in chemistry turned out to be very
lucky both in my scientific work and in my later work as a translator.
This made it possible to do various projects with people in the Liquid
Crystal Institute and the Chemistry Department at Kent State:
differential thermal analysis with one group, work on spin crossover
compounds with another, and finally my dissertation work using lipid
bilayers as simple models for biological membranes in studying the effect
of membrane-specific fungicides. And since I ran back and forth between
the chemistry and physics buildings in grad school, I gained some
experience as an interpreter (English to English), interpreting physics
for the chemists and chemistry for the physicists. They definitely spoke
two different languages.
My dissertation advisor decided I was electronics-deficient and so
assigned me to teach (and develop) the electronics lab that went along
with his lecture course. Later I was hired by Earlham College to teach in
the physics department because they wanted someone interdisciplinary
who could also teach electronics while the regular electronics teacher
was on sabbatical. Lucky me! I finally got the equivalent of a B.S. in
physics by teaching the whole undergraduate physics curriculum.
The Translation Years (Finally!!): From Manual Typewriter to the Internet
How did I finally figure out that scientific translation was an option?
While avoiding grading a stack of papers, I was looking through a science
magazine and saw an ad from a translation agency, asking for scientists
to do translation work. So it finally dawned on me that those
cover-to-cover translations of the Soviet Doklady in the Kent science
library didnt spontaneously appear on the shelves, that someone who knew
both the source language and the science had to help. I was getting
really tired of grading stacks of papers, and so started looking into
this new idea of scientific translation. Nowadays a simple Web search
would come up with plenty of evidence that scientific translators exist
and pay their bills with money they earn. But back then in the Computer
Dark Ages (the late 1970s), it was harder to find out. My first clear
clue was an article in the Journal of Chemical Education by a chemist who
did translations on the side (in longhand!). Then the American Physical
Society pointed me to the Russian journal translation program of
Consultants Bureau (Plenum Publishing Corp.).
Once I knew it was possible to make a living as a scientific translator,
I tried to beg out of my contract with Earlham College in order to pursue
free-lance scientific translation full-time. Fortunately they were able
to find a replacement for me for the second year of my latest contract.
So I was nearly off and running. Thanks to the good advice of Pat Newman
(who had kindly responded to a letter I sent her after reading something
she wrote about scientific translation), I attended an ATA Convention the
first year I was free-lance full-time. This was very helpful in orienting
me to my new profession, and I continue to advise new translators to do
For the next few years, I translated many Russian articles for CBs
journal program (also one book on organic chemistry) as well as articles
from French, Russian, and German for other clients. Starting in late
1983, however, I reduced my translation work so I could use my writing
and analytical skills on local, statewide, regional, and national
projects involving information pushing on various peace issues
(especially on Central American wars and the rather suicidal nuclear arms
race). I started introducing myself as a half-time free-lance scientific
translator and half-time free-lance peace activist and also took on the
name John Woolman Enterprises to describe all my activities. (John
Woolman was an 18th Century American Quaker whose stories resonated with
me; check out his link at www.cis.upenn.edu/~krice/friends.html for
details if youre curious.) There is lots of money in war but no money in
peace, of course. So by about 1994 financial pressures drove me back to
full-time translating, although I still do some work on nonviolent
conflict resolution. By 1994, the information pushing I did in the
previous decade using the telephone and the US Postal Service was being
done much more efficiently over the Internet, so the timing for my return
to full-time translation was good.
Now the Internet is also an important resource for my translation work. I
had always spent considerable time tracking down terminology and
spellings of non-Russian names in the Earlham College Science Library. My
training in physics and chemistry only gives me the starting point for
intelligently reading the scientific literature in a wide variety of
areas. It is relatively rare that I do an assignment in such familiar
territory that just a little dictionary work is necessary. I typically
need to do at least some background reading to decide on terminology and
phrasing, since dictionaries are ambiguous and limited. Both as a
scientist and as a translator, I feel a responsibility to the original
authors to make their work easily accessible and to avoid making them
look foolish. Proper terminology is especially important in these days of
computerized keyword searching, since improper choices of terms can make
the work invisible to interested parties.
Fortunately, the nearby Science Library has a good collection of
reference material: journals, specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias,
cdrom collections. I probably spent the equivalent of two days a week in
the library in pre-modem days. But the Science Library began dropping its
hardcopy subscriptions to key resources such as Chemical Abstracts and
even cdrom subscriptions in favor of online searching via DIALOG. Alas,
their DIALOG arrangement does not include non-classroom related
searchers like me. So when I saw an article by Alicia Gordon in the STTJ
extolling the Knowledge Index on CompuServe, I signed up right away.
After many months of honing my searching skills in the Knowledge Index, I
finally signed up for an Internet account that gave me full access to the
net with a graphical web browser. The explosion of information available
on the Web made my forays into the Knowledge Index more rare and my trips
to the library rarer still. Now I dont know how we translators ever
survived without the net!
Famous Last Words
Needless to say, I enjoy my work and can see myself doing it until the
day I die, slumped over the keyboard in the middle of a net search for an
obscure drug name. I actually feel more like a scientist as a translator
than when teaching. Im continually learning new things, which is what
attracted me to science in the first place. None of my classmates can say
that they are still wearing out all their textbooks more than two decades
after passing the courses! My only regret is that it took me so long to
find out about this professional option. But maybe thats just as well
I needed to become a scientist first before I could really become a good
© Copyright 1997 Gabe Bokor
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