Friday, 14 October 2011

Here’s my story: Why I became a translator

By the time I turned twenty I had already been to very many funerals. As a teenager I supplemented my pocket money by working as a church organist, mainly for funerals because they fitted in perfectly with school days. However I never considered music for a minute as something that I would want to pursue as a career.

The chapel in the Bad Windsheim cemetery where I worked as an organist

This is because I enjoy quiet activities. I therefore ruled out both music and teaching as career options, which obviously are not quiet activities. Translation, by contrast, is carried out unobserved, in the background. It gives me ample room to think a thought through to the end, and the time for tweaking and polishing the text. Only at the end of it all do I present the final product. This is what appeals to me about translation.

Can you remember your reply to the question of what you wanted to be as an adult? Susan Cain, formerly a Wall Street lawyer, now a negotiations consultant and author of “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, makes the excellent observation that as children we could probably judge much better what type of career would suit us than later in life as adults. Susan’s blog article, which includes more illuminating insights, can be found here. I remember that at primary school I aspired to become an author of children’s books. It is clear that that type of work is close to what has become my bread-earning career. Translation is after all a writing activity.

I also remember an incident later at grammar schooI which with hindsight shows that the course for my becoming a translator was set. I didn’t mind Maths too much, but I never was overly excited about it − except on one occasion: I asked my Italian pen-friend to send me her calculus exercises so that I could compare the Italian in them side by side with the German in my own calculus homework. It may seem weird to become excited about such a thing, but it is exactly what fascinates linguists.

The idea of working with languages in some way or another had always appealed to me. A huge number of jobs nowadays involves an exposure to foreign languages to a greater or lesser degree. If, however, you are striving for full immersion in a foreign language, there are, strictly speaking, only 3 career options to choose from: teaching, interpreting, and translation.

You might think it’s obvious that because I have two translation degrees I always knew I wanted to be a translator, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. My two translation degree courses had not taught me much about the practical aspects of working as a translator. After completing my studies, I was not sure whether translation really was for me. I also found it hard to break through the catch-22 situation of “no experience no work”, which naturally affects many newcomers to the profession. What in the end − almost miraculously − helped my business get off the ground was the PSG, the business skills course for translators run by the ITI. I could suddenly see very clearly where I was heading! May I take the opportunity to say another big thank you to my mentors on the PSG 2007 for their advice and tremendous support.