Volume 4, No. 1 
January 2000

  Peter Griffin




Happy 2000!
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2000
  Translator Profiles
Love, Languages, and Translation
by Peter Griffin
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
When Trust Is Broken
ASTM Standard for Language Translation
by Steve Lank
Translating the Web: Into the Future
by Jan Oldenburg
Science or Translation?
by Maria Karra
  Translators in the Media
Translators and the Media—Part 1
Translators and the Media—Part 2
  Business & Finance
Translating a Brazilian Balance Sheet
by Danilo Nogueira
  Translating Development
Neologisms in International Development
by Alexandra Russell-Bitting
The Arabic Language and Folk Literature
by Srpko Lestaric
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XVIII
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
WordFisher for MS Word
by Tibor Környei
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Translator Profile

Love, Languages, and Translation

by Peter Griffin
 first became curious about a foreign language when I was about eight years old and one of my sisters, four years older, was taking Spanish at school. I asked her about a few words, and looked up a few words in a dictionary, but learned virtually nothing of the language at that time. A year or two later my father was inspired to buy me the book German for Beginners, having studied that language a bit in college. A friend of mine also began learning some German at home at about the same time, because his family had a German housekeeper staying at their home, and he gave me a simpler book of German lessons after he finished with it. When I was eleven I kept borrowing a German grammar from the public library, slowly studying it, renewing it, returning it, and borrowing it again when it reappeared on the shelf. I took classes in French and German in the eighth grade, and in high school I took another year of French and three-and-a-half of German. However, I never really studied a language in earnest until I was nineteen years old, in 1972, when I was working with Mexicans at an air-conditioning plant and decided it would be interesting to learn a little Spanish. I bought an old-fashioned Hugo's Spanish in Three Months and happily began learning the grammar and the basic vocabulary. I also went through a few lessons in Italian at that time, using a book that my mother had kept from her school days. The following year I spent two months in Spain and, when I was visiting relatives in New England before returning to California, I swiftly read through a cousin's copy of a Berlitz book on Portuguese. By the time I got home that summer, I had decided that I would go to college after all, with the intention of becoming a language teacher, a translator, or both.

Knowledge of a language is complex, dynamic, and always incomplete. Passive ability is a prerequisite and is always far superior to one’s active mastery of a language.
I had become a very lazy student in high school, but now I was genuinely interested in studying something. I attended Los Angeles Harbor College for three semesters, beginning in the fall of 1973, and fulfilled the general education requirements and earned sufficient credits to be admitted as a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles. Having looked at the UCLA catalogue, I was quite excited about the great variety of foreign languages taught there, and hoped to major in Spanish and to take at least introductory courses in as many languages as possible. My last semester at Harbor College ended in early 1975, and I had applied for the fall term at UCLA before leaving to spend a couple of months in Mexico. I traveled by bus, stopping in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tehuantepec, the city of Veracruz and the capital of that state, Jalapa, before arriving in Saltillo, in the state of Coahuila, where I stayed with a local family for three weeks and attended Spanish classes at a little commercial language school, the so-called Universidad Interamericana. I had originally planned to stay in Saltillo for six weeks, but I had met a young lady in Jalapa and had quickly found myself making promises for the future, and decided to go back and see her before I returned to California. My plan at that point was to finish college and then return to Mexico to marry her, and maybe live there and teach English. She was sure I'd lose interest, though, and that I'd break my commitment in favor of some other girl that I would meet, and she begged me not to leave. I ended up saying that I had to leave, but that maybe she could leave with me, as my wife. We went to talk to her mother, my "couple of months in Mexico" ended up being extended to four months and two weeks, and I came home with a wife. My parents told me that I'd been accepted at UCLA, but I never did enroll there. I went to work instead. Our son, Carlos, was born the next year. In the fall of 1978 I decided to go back to school, attending evening classes at California State University, Domínguez Hills and still working full-time. I had taken up the study of Catalan, and at Domínguez Hills I met a professor and Catholic priest, Dr. Corominas, a native of Banyoles in the Catalan province of Girona. We conversed frequently in Catalan, and he told me about the North American Catalan Society, of which he was a member. I joined NACS and attended two of their colloquia: one at Yale and another at the University of Toronto. The Casal dels Catalans de Califòrnia was also formed, and for a few years I went to their occasional gatherings on the grounds of the historic Rancho Domínguez Seminary, where Dr. Corominas resided.

My Mexican wife divorced me in 1984 (and might as well have done so in 1981), remarried, had two more children, and divorced their father too. I haven't remarried yet, as of this writing, but I'm working on it—by being patient and letting God work on it. When she announced her decision in the spring of 1984, I was simply relieved that three years of uncertainty and suffering had ended, and when the divorce was final in September of that year, I was delighted. And, three weeks later, a charming girl began working in the customer service department at the telescope factory where I was employed, and unintentionally caught my eye. By that time I'd studied a few more languages: I'd concentrated a great deal on Irish for four years, but had also acquainted myself with Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Romanian. That year I'd begun to learn some rudiments of Vietnamese, and I was taking introductory lessons in Chinese, but when I had a little chat with this young lady at work and found out that she was born in Yugoslavia, I thought I had a great incentive to review what I'd learned and forgotten of Serbo-Croatian. A fellow who worked in the warehouse there was a California-born son of Croat immigrants, and I introduced him to her. He said something to her in his parents' native tongue, but she didn't understand: "Oh! You speak Serbian!"

"No, Croatian."

"Oh. Well, I don't speak either. I speak Romanian."
At that point I decided to forget about Chinese, and to learn a prodigious amount of Romanian in an incredibly short time. And so I did. And no, I didn't get her; she went back to Ohio in 1986 and got married in 1989. But that was just the beginning; would you like to hear a long story? Well, Gabe gave me two months to write this article, but it was due yesterday, and I've been up all night and I have to do a translation from Serbian that's due at noon, and one from Spanish that's due later today, so I guess I'd better abridge the story somewhat. But there's a church or two involved: a congregation with services in Romanian, where I was baptized in 1988, and one with services in Serbian, where I was a member for almost two years, before moving back to the Romanian congregation in December of 1994, and a smaller, more conservative (uncorrupted) Serbian one which some of us have joined since we left the Romanian one a couple of months ago, and a new Romanian congregation that we hope to establish early in 2000. There was another young lady who did inspire me to get serious about learning Serbian, starting ten years ago. I didn't get her either; she got married in 1993, freeing me to focus my attention on the right one, on whom it has remained focused ever since—and this time it appears to be mutual. This one speaks Romanian and Serbian.

My son Carlos is 23 now, and recently returned from Japan, where he had spent most of his time since the summer of 1996, teaching English. He'd visited Japan twice before, beginning when he was 16, and had studied Japanese on his own and in community college courses here. Apparently he now has a very good command of the language—and he married one of his students, Haruko, in Tokyo in September. They'll be living here in California at least for the first year, working and studying, and we'll see whether they stay here afterwards or go back to live in Japan, or move back and forth, or what.

Knowledge of a language is complex, dynamic, and always incomplete. Passive ability is a prerequisite and is always far superior to one's active mastery of a language. Not everyone who learns well can teach well, nor is every good reader a good writer, and levels of language ability can fluctuate very greatly, depending on study and practice. I've recently read other translators' comments, with which I quite agree, regarding the great difference between a translator's skill and a talent for original writing. It has been said that translation is an art and that a good literary translation is worthy of appreciation as a literary work in itself. The quality of a translation is indeed as important, for those who read it, as the quality and precision of the source text; but, whereas the original writing is very much an active creation, the translation is only a rendering thereof. The translator's passive knowledge of the source language and his mastery of the target language must be sufficiently thorough so that a proper semantic and stylistic understanding of every word and sentence of the original is reflected in his version, but he has the advantage that the bulk of the creative work has already been done. Still, translating a text from a foreign language certainly requires more time and labor than merely reading it and understanding it, and likewise a person's ability to speak a particular foreign language may lag rather far behind his ability to understand it when others speak (provided he is accustomed to their rate of speech and to the phonetic realities of the language).

People often ask me how many languages I speak, how many I know, how many I'm fairly fluent in, and the like. I usually begin my answer by telling them that people are always asking me that, and that I can never give them a simple, precise answer. Sometimes I tell them that I'm going to have to start carrying my résumé around with me so I can just display the whole list, much of which is presented in the form of a table that I update after each translation job, showing the number of jobs that I've done in each language pair and the sum of all my target-text word counts in each combination.

I started my business a little over four years ago by mailing a résumé to all the potential clients listed in Glenn's Guide to Translation Agencies, along with a modest cover letter and sample source-texts and translations from Romanian and Serbian to English. I got a couple of small jobs within a few days after that first mailing: a Romanian birth certificate and an urgent Spanish-English medical translation. The next document was a Macedonian birth certificate, which, although I had not studied Bulgarian or Macedonian and was only superficially acquainted with them, posed no difficulty as my knowledge of Serbo-Croat made that little bit of text fully intelligible. For the first four months the orders were not numerous, but it was a beginning. I continued to work as an inspector in a machine shop while I gradually progressed in building a clientele for translations.

In February of 1996 there was a sharp increase in the frequency of inquiries and orders, and in March of that year I had the thrill of getting my first "great big" job: a little over 18,000 words from Serbian to English. The following month I did a related job of about 7,700 words for the same client and from the same language: Bosnian. Both consisted of text in Serbo-Croat, in Roman characters, and pertained to Bosnian finances, but one can refer to the language more specifically as Serbian in one case—because it is in the eastern Serbian ekavski variant (vrednost = "value," namena = "purpose, allocation")—and Bosnian in the other, because the dialect is central ijekavski (vrijednost; namjena) and the latter documents were issued in Sarajevo after the war in Bosnia and the officials who wrote them and signed them had Muslim names.

Business slowed down somewhat in the latter part of that spring, and in July I got nothing but one minimum-charge job. I still had the machine-shop job, where two old friends allowed me to work for them full-time when I was available to do so and to work part-time or even take a week off when I was busy with translations. I sent out a revised résumé to all the agencies, and it must have impressed some of them considerably more than the initial one. Finally, in early August, about ten months after I had begun my translation business, the calls and orders from various agencies began coming in rapid succession; I took my leave of machine-shop work once and for all, and I was kept extremely busy for the rest of that month and through September. The last quarter of 1996 was somewhat calmer, but not bad. There will always be some fluctuation in such a business, but as one gains more and more experience and develops a sufficient clientele, the amount of work and the earnings can become adequate. My annual income is still modest, and there are various steps that many other translators would probably advise me to take in order to earn more. For example, some of my colleagues avoid agencies and work only for direct clients, and are thus able to charge higher rates. So far, though, I'm content to let the agencies find the work for me and send me the checks. That's the way I am, I guess; for many years I was "content" to study languages as a hobby while I earned my living by operating machines or inspecting parts, and merely dreamed of becoming a professional translator someday.