t all began on the boat to Germany, when I was 10 and learned to say the alphabet in German. No, it began on my father's boat to Germany, six months earlier, when my father met Lawrence Ecker.
Larry knew ALL the modern languages of Europe (except maybe Basque), along with Latin and ancient Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Hawaiian, and a South American Indian language for which he'd written a dictionary. His PhD in philology was from Basel in 1933, and that year he went to Moscow as part of the first US mission after diplomatic relations with the USSR were established.
Although I never remotely approached the breadth of Larry's language interests and accomplishments, he inspired me enormously.
When I first knew him, Larry was trying to crack Cretan Linear A (Linear B, a slightly later ancient Cretan script, had just been deciphered by Ventris and Chadwick). Larry's theory at the time was that the language written in Linear A, as with Linear B, was Mycenaean Greek, which proved not to be so (Linear A is still undeciphered; enough is known only to say that its language cannot be Greek, but an unknown tongue that scholars call "Minoan" or "Eteocretan"), but the intensity of Larry's work and his gathering of clues from all directions intrigued me.
Over forty years later, in 1999, I finally reached Crete myself and brought back a replica of the Phaistos disk (the only known example of yet another set of characters and hence most likely undecipherable; Larry worked on it too for a time). I keep it on my desk as a reminder that some things remain a mystery.
In his late 70s, Larry translated Albanian for the CIA. He traveled widely but never visited a country until he could read its newspapers, so in his 90s, when he hoped to visit China, he studied Chinese in depth. My father and Larry stayed friends from 1952 until their deaths a few weeks apart in 1998.
Before my mother and brothers and I left for Germany, my father had sent me a German textbook. Was that Larry's idea? From it, on the boat, I learned not only the German alphabet, but how to pronounce German, read Fraktur, and write a bit of the old Sütterlin cursive.
I never stopped being fascinated by languages, especially German. I took all the German the American school in Heidelberg offered, and more when I began college in Munich. My parents had to urge me to take French in high school as well (German was then my only love). How wise they were: Knowing both French and German helped get me my first job as an in-house patent translator.
It was my good fortune to live in Germany for 71/2 years, until I was 18, and again for three years in my twenties. In between, in the States, I took upper-division German classes in college, but found them dry and book-bound. The other students hadn't been able to live in Germany and use the language daily as I had, so to my mind the classes progressed quite slowly.
Ironically, one college assignment I never forgotbecause it was so tediouswas to translate a newspaper article. After all, I already knew what it said! (Now, of course, I know that translators dig deeper than mere readers have to.)
Fifteen years later, after a year immersed in German for a master's, I slipped into patent translation and found it eminently doable. I've stayed in the field ever since.
What had happened between college and my first job to change my outlook?
The fact that I got paid to translate helped. (If kids earned money for homework, would they do it more readily?)
Also, after my immersion in graduate school, the notoriously complex German language was no problem at all.
And I had become fluent, but only in my tenth year in Germany, when I sang in a German church choir whose singers were even more shy about their English than I was about my German. Until then, all the Germans I'd known spoke better English than I did German, and I was always afraid to make mistakes (and that's a mistake in itself). Halfway through that year, driving to a concert with close friends, I switched over; suddenly, we could say more to each other in German than in English.
That same year, I subscribed to the local newspaper. A friend who was learning Russian advised me just to start reading and not get stuck in the dictionary. Good advice, no doubt, but I compromised; after looking up about 300 words, I could read the newspaper with enjoyment.
When I moved on to novels, my first, on the recommendation of a bookstore owner, was Günter Grass's Tin Drum! Even now, I find Grass difficult (his near-contemporary Heinrich Böll is much more congenial), but I finished that novel and kept going.
While I was earning my master's degree, I asked the professors and myself how I was going to earn money from German. Could two semesters of Old High German, independent study of Middle High German, a semester of Goethe, a semester of Schiller, and several semesters of modern fiction and drama translate into a 20th-century job? They could: The credential got me in the door, and as arcane as all that literature had seemed, the grounding it gave me in German history, politics, education, science and technology has been useful ever since.
Mentors are indispensable, and I had one in patent translation: Guido Moeller, a German-born nuclear physicist from MIT, who had fallen into patents by accident too and had become a patent agent. He taught me what we called things in the firm where we worked, explained scientific and legal concepts, and urged me to go out on my own (but keep our boss as a client)then when he had a great job offer from G.E. and moved to New York, he left me his clients. Generous indeed!
Olaf Bexhoeft, also German-born, is also indispensable. We met through patent translation and have worked together harmoniously and synergistically for many years now. Dictionaries are fine (and we have lots of them); the Internet can (occasionally) be the perfect place to find a new term; but there is no substitute for asking each other what we think about this or that word or phrase or sentence. (Usually we agree that the writer had no clue, or lost his place, or just plain should have written it better.) My son David Clayberg and his wife Robin Holding are now excellent patent translators as well (German and French, respectively). We consult each other just as Olaf and I do.
The American Translators Association, through chapter meetings, annual conferences, certification tests, and the ATA Chronicle, gave me confidence in my skills. My fellow members, by their own example, set the high standards we all strive to meet. To name only one, Ed Berger first led a delightful session on humor in translation, followed by two decades of wonderful, remarkably useful annual sessions on the terminology of polymer chemistry.
As you see, this supposed profile of myself can only be a heartfelt and well-deserved tribute to those who have brought me here.
Actually, it all began when my parents in California applied for jobs with the Army overseas, and one in Germany came through.
And it began earlier, when my mother and father bought their 6-year-old firstborn a Encyclopaedia Britannica Junior, which I read avidlyand still earlier, when my parents met and worked together on their college newspaper (my father succeeded my mother as editor-in-chief).
Printers' ink runs in our family's veins; words and books and language have mattered to us all our lives, and translation fits in quite nicely.