Translation Can Be Fun
Translation Can Be Funby John C. Alleman
have adapted the title for this article from one of my favorite children’s books, Grammar Can Be Fun, by Munro Leaf, who is most famous as the author of Ferdinand the Bull. He also wrote similar helpful books for children on subjects like health, safety, and manners, but unlike grammar, I found little fun in those subjects. I have come to realize that my attitude throughout my whole life has just been to have fun and not work.
I was born to parents who had opposite views on languages: my father was a physicist and a mathematics teacher. He told us many times that the hardest part about getting his PhD was passing a German exam, which took him an entire year of diligent study. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona with many friends who were Navajo Indians, and this created in her an interest in all languages, which she pursued whenever she could – especially by making friends with people who spoke Spanish, but not hesitating to sign up for classes in French, Latin, and Greek when those opportunities arose.
In this situation, I naturally developed interests in both science (especially mathematics) and languages as I grew up, and I have always tried to pursue both at the same time, not really knowing how to achieve that or what to do with such a combination, if I could manage it.
My first memory of becoming interested in languages dates back to about age 5. In those days, during World War II, my father did a lot of secret work for the Navy that he wouldn’t talk about at home. One day, he wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from work. I took advantage of the rare chance to spend time alone with him and crawled into his bed. At one point, he uncharacteristically started telling me what he knew about languages, which wasn’t much. He mentioned that the Spanish word for “book” is “libro,” which is related to our English word “library.” That hit me like a bolt of lightning. Seeing that interest, my father found his old German textbook and dictionary and showed them to me. I was fascinated by the strange-looking Gothic letters.
A few years later, I remember having a babysitter who happened to pick up my mother’s French textbook. The babysitter mentioned some word that meant the same as a two-word phrase in English, and I naïvely asked which parts of the French word corresponded to each of the two English words. I was amazed to find out that languages don’t work that way.
Sometimes, I was able to attend Spanish classes with my mother, where I learned about accents on letters. Those were days when my mother was also studying Greek in her spare time. When she wasn’t using her book, I loved to look at it. I couldn’t understand much of it, but I learned the alphabet, at least, from it. I had a small stamp collection and learned about many more writing systems and languages used in foreign countries, including the astonishing fact that in Hungarian, you can have more than one accent in the same word, even on the same letter! It took me many years to find out how that works, but the question was always in the back of my mind while curiosity led me in other directions, too, such as astronomy, music, paleontology, history, geography, etc., for brief periods at various times.
In junior high, I had my first foreign-language class, Spanish, which I loved greatly, especially those upside-down punctuation marks. Another memorable class was English. The teacher spoke with a British accent, even though he was American, having studied at Oxford. I learned from him both about the beauty of English and the incredible complexity of its grammar. Figuring out the structure of a sentence (“diagraming”) was just like solving a puzzle for me, and I was often the only one in class who could figure such problems out, though I turned out be slower than most students in reading, due to a mild form of dyslexia.
In high school, I took almost every language class they offered: Spanish, French, and German, though not Latin, which I now regret skipping. I made up for that deficit later by studying my mother’s Latin grammar. I think no one else in that school ever took three different foreign languages. My physics and chemistry teachers, however, strongly encouraged me to study science in college, which I was able to do, because Caltech was in nearby Pasadena, California. I ended up majoring in mathematics at Caltech, but I kept taking all the language classes I could, especially Russian. I also had opportunities to take classes in the sciences from outstanding teachers.
After three years of college, I was sent to Finland as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Nowadays, LDS missionaries spend months learning the language before going to the country, but I went with only a few hours of introduction to the Finnish and a little book, Teach Yourself Finnish. Many Americans find learning Finnish to be extremely difficult, but it came to me easily. In some parts of Finland, the people also speak Swedish, and when I was assigned to the city of Vaasa, we had a Swedish-speaking landlady who was happy to teach me a little of her language. I had known for a long time that Finnish was related to Hungarian and Estonian, and I bought books on those languages and studied them when I had time. When I lived for a while in the city of Lahti, the caretaker of our chapel had as Estonian wife who helped me somewhat with her language. I still believe that Estonian is the most difficult language in the world, in spite of its closeness to Finnish, whose complex grammar has an almost mathematical structure. I didn’t meet any Hungarians till a few years later.
After my mission, I returned to studying mathematics at Caltech, but I found that mathematics was getting to be less and less fascinating for me. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in math, I therefore decided to go to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City to study in the Linguistics Department. I didn’t even know what linguistics was when I applied, but that was name of the department that taught classes in Finnish and Hungarian. I quickly found out that linguistics is just the scientific study of all languages, and that was perfect more me. I eventually got two master’s degrees there, but never actually completed the PhD.
Before going to Columbia, I had married another returned Finnish missionary, who happened to be from Germany. This led to one of my first experiences in translation, which involved some huge mistakes on my part, ones that I still find translators making frequently today. This was in 1964, the time of the New York World’s Fair. Many countries had pavilions there that displayed some of their treasures. The Vatican City brought Michelangelo's statue “Pietà.” They wanted to have texts about it available in various languages, and they advertised in the newspaper for translators. I responded and was asked to translate a description of the statue into Spanish, French, and German. Having studied all those languages in high school, I felt qualified.
I showed my German translation to my wife, who made some changes, but I had no Spanish- or French-speaking people at hand to show those translations to, though I could have found some easily. To my great surprise, I was informed that the pavilion organizers liked my German, but they said they couldn’t use my Spanish or French, and they even threatened to sue me. We eventually agreed that they would pay me for the German and not sue me over the others.
At the World’s Fair, IBM had an exhibit on machine translation close to the Vatican Pavilion. It became my favorite place to visit. They had a computer that could translation from and to Russian, though not very fast and not very well. I thought maybe that’s what I should do for a career. Things turned out somewhat differently for me, but I always stayed as close to developments in machine translation as I could.
After about four years at Columbia, I won a fellowship to study in Hungary, where I spent almost a year at the Kossuth Lajos University in Debrecen, where I was able to learn about all the languages related to Finnish and Hungarian. They had a tiny computer there, far too small to handle any language processing, but I enjoyed learning to program it at the lowest possible machine-language level, coding individually every action the computer should perform. That was like learning a new language for me, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
The university I was studying at is located next door to a medical school. That turned out to be the best part of my experience in Hungary. Some of the doctors teaching there had written articles that they wanted to publish in English, and they invited me to translate them from Hungarian into English. From that, I learned not only a lot about translation, but also about medicine. I found that in addition to the joy of solving the language problems involved, there was also a great feeling of satisfaction in knowing that some of the results of my efforts at translating would eventually be of benefit to people suffering from various medical problems and the doctors treating them.
I returned to Columbia to work on a PhD degree. At the same time, I worked in a few language-related jobs: editing Roget’s Thesaurus, teaching linguistics at Adelphi University, and teaching Hungarian at Columbia. One of my Hungarian students was the son of my first Hungarian teacher (!).
While I was working on Roget’s Thesaurus, we encountered a difficulty in that our printer couldn’t handle all the foreign accents we needed. I found out that characters could be designed in any way we needed, bit by bit, using a digital matrix. This also became a fascinating theme for me in my future in languages.
The main thing I learned from my teaching experiences was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I found very few students who shared my passion for languages. Their standard response to many of the things I wanted them to learn was “Do we have to do this?” That was a phrase I had used myself in junior high when I was bored, and I just couldn’t find a way around it to get the students to be as enthusiastic about languages as I was.
In Hungary, I also had with me a four-year old daughter, in addition to my wife. We had a wonderful time there, but when we got back, our daughter was ready for school. That was not such a good experience, and eventually, my wife took our daughter to Salt Lake City, where her parents were living, leaving me to finish my dissertation. To my great surprise, my wife found out that there was a job opening in the Translation Department of the LDS Church. I immediately left New York to pursue that opportunity, never looking back.
I spent over 18 years working there, and they turned out to be probably the best years of my life. I worked in various positions assisting and managing translators and their equipment, both in Salt Lake City and in many foreign countries, even though I’d actually only done a little translation work in my life.
The main work done by LDS Translation is in the direction from English into various languages, which I had long known I was not suited for, but there were occasional opportunities for me to translate correspondence from other languages into English.
Beginning in 1983, I was sent to conventions of the ATA, where I was able to learn a great deal about how to translate, and I also made contact with several translation agencies for which I was able to do translation work on a part-time basis. Many of these experiences turned out to very extremely useful in my later work as a translator.
All my translation work in the 1960s to the 1980s was done only on typewriters, not computers. But this was an exciting time in the development of computers, and I was fortunate to be involved in the introduction of computers into practical translation work in two different ways: in the work of the Translation Department, we needed machines that could receive, store, and print out texts in many languages, and at the same time, attempts were being made to program computers to do translations. I was able to participate in both of these efforts.
The first computers we obtained that could store and print out a translation had no screens. The translation was typed onto paper, but also stored on a cassette tape that could be played back. These machines were not used by translators themselves, but translations were done on typewriters and even in handwriting, then typed into the machines by secretaries. We achieved outputs in a great number of languages by using special “golf-ball” elements for IBM typewriters. We were able to obtain such elements for European languages that used only a few accents on letters fairly easily, but as time went on, we were even able to handle languages as difficult as Greek and Vietnamese in this way. The typists were amazingly able to learn to do this on keyboards that still had only standard letters, onto which we would just paste the characters actually being used. The first systems we obtained that could display foreign accents on a screen were for Spanish, French, and German, only. A separate system soon came that could handle Russian, but it wasn’t good for anything else. Commercial companies weren’t interested in developing equipment for languages that were spoken by only small numbers of people, though. A breakthrough for us came when we were able to get screens and laser printers that used digital character sets based on individual dots (“pixels”) like I had seen when working on Roget’s Thesaurus. The computers we were using were so simple that we could make a printout (“dump”) of the entire program in machine language. It was then possible to figure out where the various character sets were stored and change (“reverse-engineer”) them any way we wanted. There was basically no limit to the number of languages we could handle in this way, as long as they read from left to right and didn’t have too many characters. Only right-to-left languages (Hebrew, Arabic), and Chinese and Japanese required separate equipment. By the early 1990s, we could modify characters sets to handle (almost) any language desired, well over 100 in all.
As for machine translation, I had the opportunity to work with some brilliant linguists and computer programmers at Brigham Young University (especially Alan Melby, who later became a leader in the ATA) who did pioneering work in enabling a computer to translate from English into French, German, Spanish, and a few other languages. We learned a lot about how human language works in that process, and it turned out that our computers at that time (1980s) were too small and too slow to solve the problem completely. Now, some 30 years later, computers are bigger and better, so they’re of some use in automating the translation process, but humans are still needed, because our knowledge of human language is (and always will be) deficient. The world is just too complex to be captured in that way.
In the early 1990s, events in my personal life occurred that led to me losing my job at LDS Translation. This crisis naturally caused me to look around for other work, but at my age (over 50), there were hardly any suitable positions available. I gradually came to realize that the best thing for me was to become a full-time translator, not just work at helping translators.
It was a difficult time for me financially for a while, of course, but making the transition turned out quite well in the end. I put an advertisement in an issue of the ATA Chronicle (only once!) and was also able to get more work from the translation agencies I had done small amounts of work for previously.
Initially, the work was done on a specially modified typewriter, which was adequate for working in English, foreign accents being needed only occasionally. By incredible good timing for me, after only a couple of years, I was able to obtain a personal computer that enabled me to do word processing (especially in WordPerfect 5.2). Submitting the work was still difficult, though. Initially, I would send typed output or a floppy disk by mail. Later, work could be sent through a slow bulletin-board service, and finally, the Internet arrived, which solved the transmission problem. The Internet has also made the work of translation faster and easier by solving all kinds of problems that previously had required trips to the library of the University of Utah, which took at least an hour every time.
I’ve never stopped learning about other languages. Whenever I could, I joined choruses that sing in non-English languages (especially the Utah Opera Company). I learned most of the Latin and Italian I know in that way.
I have now been a full-time freelance translator for over 20 years, working into English from Finnish, Hungarian, German, Spanish, French, Swedish, Italian, and Estonian. I’m often asked to do other languages, and I’ve translated from Danish, Dutch, Greek, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, etc., into English, but that kind of work goes so slow that it’s not a profitable use of my time. I do mainly technical translation (including medical), but through the years, I’ve had opportunities to do translations on almost every subject imaginable. As much as possible, however, I avoid legal and literary translation projects, which are less suited to my background and preferences.
Translation continues to be extremely fascinating and fun work for me, making use of the many experiences I’ve had and the books I’ve acquired. I try to make myself available to help prospective and beginning translator by participating in our local organization, the UTIA (Utah Translators and Interpreters Association), where I’m a former president and current vice president.
The work seems to go easier and faster for me every year, especially with better computers and the Internet becoming available. Financially, however, being a translator is becoming less and less rewarding. The amount that’s being paid for translation hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living, though the other rewards are still there, even increasing.
People ask me all the time, “How can I become a translator?” I’d like to tell them, “Do what I did,” but I’m sure that’s quite impossible. I’ve been lucky enough to learn how to do what I do from situations that have sometimes been difficult, and I wouldn’t wish them on anybody. Yet I believe that there are a few people for whom being a translator will turn out to be an ideal career. Here a few principles I’ve learned that might help someone make this decision.
1.Find excitement and joy in studying languages, whether or not you’re getting paid for it.
2.Know another language very well, preferably more than one.
3.Know your native language extremely well.
4.Plan to translate only into your native language, not from it into other languages.
5.Learn about some other field than languages that you can work in.
6.Look for full-time work in a company where your language knowledge will be useful.
7.Translate part-time for pleasure and additional income, but live on your other employment.
8.Try to learn new things all the time, not only from your translations, but from all kinds of experiences in life.
9.Acquire a good computer and learn to use it very well.
10.Attend translation conventions and other training opportunities.
11.Associate with other translators and exchange ideas, techniques, and contacts with them.
At his point, I think I should also mention a difficulty that’s turned out to be significant for me: depression. Freelance work is necessarily irregular, and the income from it is likewise undependable. Sometimes there’s too much work, sometimes too little, both of which can be depressing.
Either way, you must work hard to maintain a good attitude, avoiding both the thrill of sometimes having more money than expected and the fear that you’ll never get any more work.
I haven’t been able to solve this problem completely, myself, and I’d be happy to hear suggestions on this from others who have faced it.
I’d like to close by referring to two books. The first is The Game of Work by Chuck Coonradt, who came to talk to us when I was working for the LDS Church. The other was found recently by one of my daughters: Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow – Discovering Your True Livelihood, by Marsha Sinetar. I was amazed to find that both these titles summarize my whole life, and I hope that some of you who read this will find that the concepts apply as well to you in translation work as they have for me.