Volume 2, No. 3 
July 1998

D-C Radmore

Mr. Radmore can be reached at


Happy Birthday, TJ!
Index 1997-98
  Translator Profiles
It Needn’t All Be Boring...
by Derry Cook-Radmore
Dr. William I. Bertsche
by Gabe Bokor
  Translator Education
Considerations on Teaching Translation
by Denis Sánchez Calderaro
  Translation Theory
Translation As a Communication Process
by Frédéric Houbert
  Art & Entertainment
Translator, Adapter, Screenwriter
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
 Biomedical Translation
Immunology—a Brief Overview
by Lúcia M. Singer, Ph.D.
 Business Translations
The Language of Business Entities in Brazil
by Danilo Nogueira
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XII
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’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers

Translation Journal
Translator Profile

It Needn't All Be Boring ...

by Derry Cook-Radmore (Bath, UK)

I am of that generation that after WW2 drifted into translation by chance, having done a variety of other jobs beforehand; and I cannot help feeling that that previous experience—learning a lot about a lot of different things—may have been as good as or perhaps a better preparation than today’s more structured translator training, where a language degree leads to a post-graduate translation course and then to (usually) freelancing, with little time for building up a technical expertise or two.
    French learned at school was taught by French nationals; bolstered by contact with Free French naval units stationed in Portsmouth, it gave a familiarity with the language as it occurs in everyday use that, when recruiting in later years, I have often found wanting in those with a UK modern-language degree (it seems that having, as I did, French Litt. lectures and discussion in tutorials wholly in the language is far from common). I have repeatedly found that someone who can cope admirably with technical content will fall down badly when faced with what is a quite commonplace turn of phrase in the source text.
    A second and quite unplanned period of language learning came when, after two years of art school, I was called up to the RAF, taught radar/wireless, and sent for a couple of years to occupy Austria and feed Berlin by air: a bucolic Steiermark accent took a long time to lose and still occasionally creeps back.
    At this stage I didn’t even know that translation existed as a way of making a living—foreign languages were just for meeting and getting on with people. So while demobilization led to a language degree at university, long vacations were spent as a beach photographer and winter Saturdays selling ex-War Department film stock and a cheap-and-nasty box camera, on commission, to local photo retailers. After graduation, and a few months selling and installing what were then the new-fangled TV sets, I managed one of those photo businesses, and then became a freelance photographer doing (as my first wife was a radiographer who coached me in anatomy and the basics of medicine) a fair amount of medical photography. My family saw all this as a terrible waste of a BA degree, and were relieved when chancing across a vacancy ad in the Daily Telegraph took me to the translation department of Philips NV in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and a “proper” job!
    All of which is a rather longwinded way of saying how valuable those “wasted” years doing this-and-that proved to be. The wireless-mechanic background coupled with the degree in French and German got me into Philips; and once there, I found a niche handling all the sales literature for their medical equipment division. Back in England a while later my RAF service and, after the job in Holland, real experience in stringing words together for publication landed a post as a technical author on aircraft instruments; there (adding to the elements of typography studied at art school), I learned how to lay out and mark up text and liaise with a printer. It has always puzzled me how little translators—a sizeable proportion of whose work ends up as books, brochures and manuals—seem to know, or want to know, about how the world of print works; and though the advent of computers and DTP may have changed this, the use of fonts is indeed not something for the untrained and insensitive. Yet a basic knowledge can bring dividends: I discovered, after in later years competing for a contract to translate a sailing manual (another leisure activity being put to use), that what had clinched the publisher’s choice was that I had pointed out that, as German into English expands and there were hundreds of line blocks, there would be copy-fitting problems, and had suggested a change in typeface and leading; my editor commented that they had never had a translator who could talk print before. It had made me stand out from the others.
    It was not, however, until I joined the civil service’s Central Office of Information as a translator that I began to learn what wordsmithing was really about, and progressed through the stages of being revised, then working unrevised, and finally revising others. As a person, my boss was what I suppose Americans would call a real d.o.b.; but where the task was concerned she applied mercilessly high standards for which I am forever in her debt. Besides being 100% accurate, the final text also had to read well and clearly; in later years, teaching others, I was to find myself echoing her dry comment “The poor devils in committees have piles of this stuff to wade through before their meetings—it’s up to us to at least make it easy for them to read; your job is always to help the information slide smoothly into the reader’s mind”.
    Those years set forever my approach: that my duty is primarily to the reader, for whose sake I have to transmit the content of the original as clearly and digestibly as possible. Not infrequently this means a degree of editing, of restructuring or pruning, and it places a substantial demand on the translator’s judgment and on gaining the customer’s trust in that judgment. I know this is an area where opinions differ; and I know there are many texts—legal agreements and patent specifications are two obvious examples—where this will be out of place and strict adherence to the original is essential. Fortunately, I have been able largely to avoid the kind of job where a woolly, or awkward or deadly boring original has to be rendered warts and all as a woolly, or awkward or deadly boring translation.
    I have always thought that there are those in our trade who are by their nature born freelances and others meant by their genes to be staffers, and that often there are square pegs chafing in round holes. After several years as a civil servant, signing the attendance book every day at 9 o’clock and 5 o’clock and hoping for someone to retire or be prematurely carried off so that we could all could move up one and wait patiently for pensionable age to arrive, I was finding it desperately claustrophobic. I judged I had by then learned my craft well enough to be trusted with customers on my own; so having saved up 18 months’ income as a safety net, I cut myself off from a monthly paycheck and went freelance. And started on twenty years of an exciting and very varied life.
    Talking to students about what being a freelance is like, I have tried to reassure them that, once one is established, the life can be rewarding in both income and job-satisfaction. I decided from the outset to deal mostly with work for publication and virtually always for direct customers, and to look for these in niche markets where a highly discriminating demand was likely to be having difficulty finding a satisfactory supply, and was willing to pay well to get what it wanted; and to work in a very few fields that I knew well enough to be able to converse with customers at a level that would win their confidence. (Readers who regularly visit FLEFO will surely hear echoes of Chris Durban, who preaches the same gospel).
    At the same time as I went freelance in 1960, I was drawn by its Secretary into the activities of the UK Translators Guild, which was working to bring some structure into a burgeoning but still largely unorganized profession. Over the next two decades I served twice as its Chair, met a lot of people, made a lot of friends, and learned a lot about the world of translation at home and (through the Council of FIT) abroad. My work pattern, too, was becoming more and more international; some years, close on six months in total were spent working out of England. It all began when the phone rang one Sunday morning, and a conference organizer said “We’re desperate, and a friend of a friend thinks you may be able to help: we’ve a 2000-delegate 4-day conference in London, and though the interpreting’s all arranged, they’ve just decided they want overnight translation of each day’s minutes into French, German, Italian and Dutch. Could you arrange the translating and foreign-language typing? When? Four weeks from tomorrow.” I gulped, tried to sound confident, and promised to ring back the next day; and then spent an unbroken twelve hours on the telephone, making calls all over Europe and being thankful for my thick address-book. A new and unexpected niche market had opened up, and for most of the ’70s Edna and I were organizing language services for conferences in places as far apart as Ankara and Colonial Williamsburg (we got to know a lot of airport departure lounges). In parallel with this, a new clientele was also appearing in the international organizations, with several of whom I spent a month at a time in Brussels, Paris or Strasbourg, as translator or reviser on special projects or replacing staff on sick-leave.
    The stereotyped image of the freelance translator is of a lonely soul tied to a computer keyboard in what used to be the spare bedroom, waiting for agencies to ring offering jobs with a ridiculously short deadline, and enjoying little or no social life. This is often what does happen; but my experience has shown it can be different given (and this is an important proviso) the right temperament. Present economic trends have forced a lot of square pegs into those uncongenial round holes, as people meant by their nature to work inside a structured organization start in freelancing because the big firms have scaled down their in-house translation teams. The interesting opportunities come through knocking on doors: and not everyone enjoys knocking on doors.
    One of the international organization doors I knocked on (literally—I was passing their office in Paris, and walked in and asked to speak to the head of translation) was the European Space Research Organization, later to become ESA, the European Space Agency; for each of the next 12 years I spent 6 to 8 weeks working in their offices in Paris or near The Hague. After twenty years of independence, I had sworn I would never, ever, go back on a payroll; but everyone has their price, and when a reviser retired and ESA offered me the post I started on 13 years living in Paris that took me up to retirement and proved the happiest of all my working life. It was an office that still took in tyros and trained them by the old, labour-intensive “sitting alongside” method, and as chief reviser in the English Section (and for the last six years Head of Translation Division) I was able to recruit and train a series of young translators in much the same way as I had learned the job 40 years before: a satisfying way of handing skills and attitudes on to a new generation.
    Now, at 70, I am back freelancing again, as one of a fairly small band who handle 15th-17th century Dutch art history. Seeing my words in print as each volume appears, and knowing I’m helping to pass on knowledge, gives me just the same buzz it did when I produced my first brochure at Philips.
    It’s been always challenging, often taxing, sometimes exasperating. But it’s never been boring.

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