No. 1, Volume 1 
July 1997


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, or
 By press time, we were unable to obtain Madame Curie’s e-mail address.

From the Editor/Webmaster
What Is the Translation Journal
by Gabe Bokor
Translator Profiles
Saga of a Scientific Translator
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Feature Article
Facets of Software Localization
by Per N. Dohler
Science & Technology
A Translator's Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
  Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Tools
Electronic File Transfer and Conversion
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal


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 it’s 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 wouldn’t 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): “I’m interested in science.”
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 mother’s 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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, “You’re not going to marry someone like THAT, are you?” I reassured her by saying, “Oh, no, Ma — I’m 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 translators existed).
   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) didn’t 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 didn’t 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 1970’s), 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 this also.
   For the next few years, I translated many Russian articles for CB’s 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 for details if you’re 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 don’t 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. I’m 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 that’s just as well — I needed to become a scientist first before I could really become a good scientific translator.

  © Copyright 1997 Gabe Bokor
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Updated 07/08/97