f you ask ten people what made them become translators you will probably get 10 different answers. If you ask additional questions or analyze these answers most likely you will find that the circumstances are to be "blamed." That was not the case with little Jancsi (nickname for János) who lived in Hódmezővásárhely, in Southeast Hungary. I think he shaped the circumstances a little bit to become a translator. Or you may call this shaping as "having a dream and keep working on it."
The first symptoms of the "linguistic malady" attacked him in 1952, when he was 8 years old. Doing his chores in an old woodshed he found an old, pocket-size book under the stacked-up woodpile. The book was dusty, worn, but still in good shape. When Jancsi opened it up, some strange letters were jumping at him from the time-tarnished yellow pages. The book was a handy little German Grammar written for Hungarian students. But for the German words the book still used both the Fraktur and the Kurrent scripts. They really looked neat for Jancsi. He found the book so exciting that he considered it as a treasure and spent the whole afternoon reading and studying it. On his own. By suppertime he presented a poem to his parents written in Kurrent script. No, it was not a translation; it was just the transliteration of a Hungarian poem that he had recently learned in second grade. He already had his first linguistic challenge tooin Faktur there are no letters for the Hungarian vowels ö, ü, ő and ű. The ö was easy, because he simply used an o with two dots over it, but the ü and ű were more troublesome, because the lower case u in Faktur already looks like this: ŭ. Then with his childish, but still logical decision he got rid of the strange, "non-Hungarian" diacritical mark over the ŭ and replaced it with the proper Hungarian diacritics, just like he did in case of the long í. He enjoyed the admiration of his parents, and the neighbors to whom they showed off his "creation." When the weather was inclement for playing outside, he practiced the German Kurrent writing regularly and started to learn the words, too. So next year his parents, who were very poor, allowed him to go the afternoon German class somehow finding those few forints that they had to pay as a special-class fee.
János Samu with Bhutanese women
After this beginning, the practical aspects of love for languages became more and more apparent. Jancsi had his first pen pal, Gudrun Dietrich, from Cottbus, GDR at age 9. With his persistence driven by his love-for-languages-induced excitement, he successfully tackled the German grammar and was probably the first kid on the block to regularly receive letters from a foreign country, which by itself must have been suspicious for the then very paranoid Communist government. In December 1953 he received a book and a postcard with the view of Moscow from a Hungarian radio personality as a thank you for his writing to the children's program hostMiska bácsi. This was another incendiary device in Jancsi's mindset. He decided he would want to travel to other countries when he could afford it.
At age 11 he started to learn Russian, which was mandatory for all students from fifth grade on. Hungarians hated the Russians, because they occupied their country, even if they stated and always stressed that they were only bringing democracy to the country. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) At age 11 Jancsi did not know or care about politics. He simply enjoyed the new language and he thrived in the language class throughout his school years.
At age 13 he became a volunteer in the City's Public Library and he discovered a nice collection of dictionaries in the reference section that prompted him to start two other languages on his own: Korean and English. Korean did not work out, because there was only a Hungarian-Korean dictionary there and no grammar. But he had no problems with English, except the pronunciation. By now he was accustomed to languages with logical phonetics, and English was not one of them. He could not believe his eyes when he learned that the pronunciation of "hands up" is not "hundsh oop" as he always pronounced it when playing Winnetou with his friends. Well, that's how every normal Hungarian would say it after reading the Hungarian translation of the Old Shatterhand and Winnetou books. After making good progress with the English language, new doors opened to him around the world. Now he could correspond with pen pals in four different languages and that helped him find pen friends in 33 different countries at age 14. He had to answer at least one letter a day. Picture that motivation for practicing the languages! The triggering effect was to make the next resolution: to visit all populated continents of the world. Very daring in a country where foreign travel was highly restricted.
In high school he was allowed to take all three foreign languages, Russian, German, English, and he became the best in them, not because he was more diligent than the average teenager of his time, but because he just loved languages. At age 17 he won third prize in the National High School Competition for Russian Composition.
After finishing high school, Jancsi's attempt to enter the University of Economics, Foreign Trade Faculty, failedhis history score was too low. So he decided to learn a different skill: hotel management. In Hungary this career was quite prestigious, because people working in hotels in Budapest were exposed to foreigners. That turned out to be an excellent choice, because Jancsi could practice his foreign language skills live, with guests, native speakers of the languages he knew. He spent most of his time at the front desk two days a week. He realized that his weakness was his insufficient vocabulary, so he invented a new method of learning. He bought a foreign-language book, a German spy story, and started to read it with the help of a dictionary. Whenever he came across a word that he did not know, he looked it up in the dictionary, but did not write it down. When he found the same word or phrase later, he did exactly the same thing, and if he had to look it the third time, the word or phrase was already his. The first pages were the most difficult, but by the time he got to page 27, he realized that the words he learned were reoccurring and less and less he had to rely on the dictionary.
After the hotel school he got his first full-time job at Hotel Ifjúság in Budapest. It was a good training ground for the four languages he spoke. Here, besides being a lover of languages he became the lover of girls too, or at least one of them particularly. Her name was Margit and she worked as a cook's helper in the kitchen of the hotel. In 1965 when the government restrictions on foreign travel were eased a bit, Jancsi took his first trip to the West, going by train from Hungary through Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union to Finland and returning through Sweden, Denmark, East-Germany, West-Germany, and Austria. It was a smart itinerary, because he was able to compare the East with the West. What a culture shock! But he came back for Margit. Later that year with her he decided to take their well-earned vacation and go to Denmark. Permission for exit visas was denied. No reasons given. Ok, we wanted to go for vacation only, and if they don't allow us, we will leave for goodJancsi said. Not having an exit visa, the only way was to forge passports. He could do it, by his own hand, but there was a slight miscalculation: one of the passports he "borrowed" from the front desk drawer belonged to the wife of the Argentinean Communist Youth organization's Secretary who was visiting Hungary with her husband as the guest of the Hungarian Communist Party. When the authorities discovered the disappearance of the passport, they were looking for it at every checkpoint of the Communist block. The fleeing lovers were caught in Czechoslovakia, and Jancsi was sentenced to one-year imprisonment for the political crime he had committed. Yes, indeed, the attempt to leave the country was a political crime. Jancsi and Margit got married in the military prison, and Jancsi was put to work in the translation office of the political prison. Yes, as a translator along with other political prisoners, who were priests, teachers and journaliststhe most dangerous elements in a dictatorship. By now, you probably figured out who Jancsi, the Hungarian boy was: János Samu.
The first publication I ever translated was a 16-page propaganda booklet about correctional kindergartens, or rather re-educational kindergartens in the German Democratic Republic. When my editor, Dr. Péter Vass, a Catholic priest who was serving his sentence of three years for making political comments, returned my translation I started to cry. Yes, I cried at age 22. My translation was all marked up in red. I was good, but inexperienced! Although the translation was accurate, it lacked free flow and idiomatic smoothness. This, just like the prison, was a good life lesson for me. It helped me become better.
After serving my sentence I took another chance. I omitted the fact from my resume that I had been incarcerated, which was another crime under the Communist rules. I was lucky; I got the job as a translator at the Central Research and Design Institute for the Silicate Industry in Budapest. Every day I had to commute to work and to kill the time on the trains I decided to learn Polish. Just by myself. I enjoyed it thoroughly. In a year I took the language proficiency exams in Polish, Russian, English and German at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Passed them with flying colors.
Next I learned enough Norwegian and Danish to translate technical materials from these languages, too. To support my family, I did freelance translating on the side. My full-time job, however, required me to travel frequently to the Soviet Union as an interpreter. So, I became more and more familiar with the Russian culture and during my trips I found the loopholes in their tightly controlled society to visit interesting places like Armenia, Georgia, Murmansk, and Siberia.
At work a new complication emerged. One of the researchers wanted to take me to West Germany as a German-Russian interpreter. As any trip to the West this would have required a thorough background check, and my politically tainted past would have been revealed. My choice was either to quit the job or to escape from Hungary, but this time together with my family. My choice was the latter. I perfected my passport-forging skills and forged another passport for myself after my wife and children left for West Germany to visit my youngest daughter's German godmother in Nürnberg.
This time my plan worked. It was a true adventure but it is too long for this column. It belongs in a book, which I intend to write later. In Germany we got political asylum in three days and, while working for a large motel, I did free-lance translating. Our goal was to immigrate to the US for political reasons. Since we were political refugees, it was not difficult. We arrived in New York in September 1973. After a few disappointments I learned that nobody would hire me as a full-time translator in the US, since my native language was Hungarian and my English, albeit good, was still not good enough, but this was not really the reason. Who would have needed a Hungarian-English translator in a society that did not recognize translation as a legitimate profession? This was 32 years ago, and today in 2005 this recognition is just beginning to emerge.
Working full-time as a front office manager at a New York City luxury hotel helped me earn a salary plus I did freelance translations on the side. I started my first translation company with all the mistakes a newcomer and novice business owner can make. I expected the world to adjust to my ideas, but that stubborn world never did. So, I had to do the adjusting. In the meantime I enrolled at New York University for evening courses of Mandarin. I liked it, but a full-time job, freelance assignments and being a father and a husband drained my energy, and I quit after two years, but still got a solid ground in Chinese. Not to translate, but to understand the grammar and the culture. I asked my professor if he could recommend a teacher who could "unteach" my Hungarian accent so that my spoken English became perfect. He strongly advised me against it. He said: "Why do you want to become one boring individual in the masses? Your accent is pleasant and it will help you hold the attention of the audience. Jimmy Carter has an accent, and he wants to keep it." His words represented the timeless Chinese wisdom. Well, Chinese he was, and a smart one at that.
Five years in New York City was plenty and my conclusion was that it was not the ideal place to raise children. Pulled up stakes and moved to an intellectual areaHopewell, New Jersey, just next to Princeton. I became a hotel manager, but still continued my freelance practice, since I never lost interest in this beautiful profession. After working 11 years as a good hotel manager, the owner of the hotel fell in love with my assistant, who by her age could well have been his daughter. The new lover needed a higher position, and I was fired. Being fired turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After brainstorming with my children, who by then became smart and pretty young ladies, in 1989 I established my current company East-West Concepts, Inc. This was a full-time translation company with employees and good contacts. It was the era of "détente," the market was hot for Eastern European languages, and I was quite familiar with them. We capitalized on the market, keeping quality the prime criterion of both accepting and delivering jobs. Quality always sells; you just have to find the right customers.
After eight years, the push for Eastern European markets abated. So did the need for their languages. It was time to make a move. Physically too. I got tired of the don't-even-know-your-neighbor attitude in New Jersey and wanted to move to an environment where I could look people into the eyes, where I met them on a daily basis, where people were friendly to each other and where people didn't have to lock their doors when they left the house for a day or two, and where I didn't have to shovel snow in the winter, yet office rentals were affordable. So, I took my wife to Hawai`i to look around. We both liked it, but no decision was made yet. One day I was on an interpreting assignment in Hungary and when the day came to fly back from Budapest to New Jersey. I decided to make a slight detour, so I flew back via Budapest-Kaua`i-Newark. No, no, not Budapest-Newark-Kaua`i. I stopped in Kaua`i for three days, held interviews, found a house, and told my wife in New Jersey that we would move in 6 weeks.
And this is exactly what we did. We moved with my company to a small island of 50,000 people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You're right. There is not much room for expansion here. And there is not much need for Eastern European languages. Although during the height of the détente I learnt all Slavic languages, I realized that our customers would not call Hawaii for Polish translations. So, let's switch directions. However, the need for Pacific Island languages existed. Not speaking any Pacific Island language it was a challenge and a thrill. Even in New Jersey if I got a request for a language of limited diffusion I rarely if ever did I turn it down. I worked hard and most of the time successfully to find reliable translators or linguists. We built a very good translators' base for these languages. We became the only ones in the country at ease translating Divehi, Dzongkha, Yapese, Mortlock and many others. For some translation companies Kannada, Karakalpak, Inuit etc. is a challenge; for us they were a piece of cake. We took the burden off their shoulders.
Why is it exciting for me? Well, I always learn a lot from any new or unusual assignment. And I have my funny bone tickled by the request of some uninformed clients when I get questions like this: "Please find out if the rule is a 2-m dash or 3-m dash in this Chuukese sentence that you translated for us." Then I would explain with all my decorum preserved that in Chuukese they don't give a damn if you use a dash or not. They don't even have orthographic rules. They have 15 different words for "rain," but no word for "dash" or "deadline" (therefore the concept does not exist in their culture). Or take the Marshallese. Even Unicode does not handle their script.
It is a strange combination, but we also handle a lot of African languages like Acholi, Ga, Pular, Kom, Chichewa, Kunda, not to mention the more common ones like Zulu, Sotho, Kiswahili etc. Finding, training and maintaining reliable working relations with translators of these languages is a challenge, but it is important. They appreciate your keeping your promise and your on-time payment practices. The problem is the infrequency of the orders. How do you nurture a good relationship with a translator if he gets a job from you only once every two years?
For four years I was the Hungarian-English chair of the ATA Accreditation Committee, and I did enjoy that part, too.
What is my current agenda of languages? Presently I am studying Hawaiian in school and I already did my first Hawaiian to English translation for money. I am also learning Dzongkha (my trips to Bhutan truly influenced me) and I will start Yapese in March 2006.
Are we successful as a translation company, or rather, am I successful as a translator? You'll be the judge of it and your judgment will be based on your criteria. You will never see us among the Fortune 500 companies, nor as an ISO 2005 agency. We don't really want to grow much bigger, because then my job would be more of the business management than the direct work with languages. I still want to do the most difficult translations and edit the ones that are critical.
I look at myself differently. While millions of people work through their productive lives in jobs that they don't like or sometimes hate, I did what I liked to do all my life (except three months in military service in Hungary). I am enjoying my work and will probably never retire. I live in an area that is free from the maladies of urban life and where I can do my translations or editing under the banana plant in my garden and study a new language on the beach in the afternoon. What happened to Jancsi's dreams? He became a translator and a good one. And he has visited 61 countries so far, missing only South America from the populated continents, but he'll get there.
Do I have any hobbies, pastimes? Yes, yes. I collect dictionaries and I have more than 2000 of them at home and in my office. Then I collect the book "Snow White and the 7 dwarfs" in different languages from different countries, and extract the names of the seven dwarfs from them. I also collect proverbs and sayings. My favorite one is: "By the time you realize that your father was right, generally you have a son who says you are wrong." I love to teach children and young people, especially to motivate them. I remained faithful to my native language, Hungarian, and actively fight against the internationalization of the language. I am proud that my daughters, who were 4 and 6 years old when we left Hungary, still speak, write and read good Hungarian. I have to admit that it was not always easy to maintain the native language at homewhen they were 9 and 11 they rebelled against Hungarian. But I was fairI gave them a choice: "Either you want to eat and speak Hungarian, or you rather want to speak English at home and not eat." Surprise, surprisethey chose the former. Believe me, they are now very thankful for that.
What's my advice to young translators? The same as Mark Twain's: "Don't forget to have dreams, because if you no longer have them, you may still exist, but you ceased to live."