Albert G. Bork was born and reared in Mexico City, where he attended a bilingual elementary school. After his family moved to the U.S., he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in French. The siren song of interpreting in Brazil diverted him from completing a Ph.D. in Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. He began translating in 1969 and interpreting in 1973. He holds translation certifications from ATAEnglish ↔ Spanish and English ↔ Portugueseand Spanish interpreter certification from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He is also licensed as a court interpreter in Spanish and Portuguese by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. His published translations include Brazilian novels and poems, Mexican and Spanish history, Cuban short stories, and Latin American art criticism. He headed the Texas Rehabilitation Commission's Translation Services at Disability Determination Services from 1983 to 2000. He has been the official court interpreter at the Alpine, Texas, U.S. Federal Court since June 2001.
y initial reaction when Gabe asked me to write a profile for Translation Journal was one of feeling honored, followed immediately by trepidation at the thought of trying to figure out what to write and what to stress. As I understand it, these profiles are meant to help guide the young and foolish who venture into the world of translation. So, let me start when I was young and foolish and started translating.
My first real experience with foreign languages began when I was four and my family moved back to Mexico City. I went out to play and met a kid my age, who said, "¿Cómo te llamas?" To which I replied, "¿Cómo te llamas?" To which he replied, "¿Cómo te llamas tú?" To which I replied, "¿Cómo te llamas tú?" To which he replied, "¿No, cómo te llamas tú?" To which I replied, "¿No, cómo te llamas tú?" At that point he became frustrated with me, thinking I was mocking him, and we ended up fighting. Eventually we became great friends, and I learned Spanish and became bilingual and bicultural during my family's stay in Mexico. I attended a bilingual school that alternated the language and content of each subject each year. Thus, one year I studied arithmetic and the following year, "aritmética."
I've gotten to the point where I prefer electronic glossaries and dictionaries and, like so many others, usually Google unfamiliar terms.
In high school, at Southern Illinois University High School, in Carbondale, I studied Latin for two years and French for one. In college, at Southern Illinois University, I majored in French and was lucky that they started offering Portuguese and I was able to study it for two years. This was when Bossa Nova was sweeping the United States, and it caught my attention. During my studies of French, I had started listening to French musicprimarily Edith Piaf and Françoise Hardyto help with pronunciation and fluency. When I started studying Portuguese, it was, of course, João and Astrud Gilberto along with Caymmi and Quarteto em Cy, which I had picked up in Rio. The oral aspect of foreign languages was and is most appealing to me.
My first job in college was as a bibliography searcher in the library's purchasing department. I also did some of my first translations of letters to and from publishers in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. I'm sure if I could retrieve any of those I would be greatly embarrassed at how bad they were. I do remember one big faux pas committed in my eagerness to show off my vast knowledge of Portuguese. I "corrected" the publisher of several Brazilian books published by "Editora do Autor." Thus, an anthology of Manuel Bandeira's poetry appearedafter my handiworkas "Editora Manuel Bandeira." I don't know if those books ever made it to the library. I discovered my error when I had the good fortune of spending a couple of weeks in Rio de Janeiro after my junior year and purchased that very anthology from the publisher, Editora do Autor!
After my senior year I received a fellowship to attend summer school at the University of Lisbon. Of particular interest to me was Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's greatest twentieth-century poet, who earned a living as a commercial translator, essentially as a corresponding secretary for import and export companies, while creating an incredible body of work. I remember attempting versions of several of his poems in English, which pretty much convinced me I had no future in that area. But it didn't stop me from trying.
After Portugal, I began my master's degree in French at the University of Iowa. Fate seemed to be with me because the university had a growing Portuguese program, which enabled me to continue studying Brazilian literature and Portuguese language. I didn't do any translating other than as course work at Iowa. The prevailing attitude among my literature professors was that the only way to really know a work of literature was to study it in its original language, not in a translation. Thus, I made no attempt to approach the translation workshop at Iowa.
On completing my master's in French in January of 1969, I was offered an appointment as a teaching assistant in Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. I arrived in Austin just as another graduate student was leaving. He had been translating a newsletter for the International Geophysical Year from English into Portuguese. The person in charge called the Department of Spanish and Portuguese looking for someone to continue doing the translations. Somehow I ended up with the job. It paid the princely sum of $5.00 per page. It consisted essentially of articles much like press releases in the fashion of the very short articles in Science News. When I got the translation assignment, I treated it much as I would have any research assignment. I was given past issues of the newsletter so I could see the style and the level that they wanted. I tried to find articles on similar topics in Brazilian magazines and journals and jumped right in. I have no doubt that I created some atrocities. About five years ago I ran across my files on this first real translation job and recycled them without having the heart to look them over again. I did get feedback on my translations, but no constructive criticism of any sort. This job serve to establish my general approach to translation, which is to find an equivalent or as close as possible to one in the target language for the concepts, words, or terms in the source language.
Brazilian poet and literary translator Haroldo de Campos was a visiting professor at the University of Texas during the spring semester of 1971 while I was doing course work for a doctorate in Portuguese. In a course he suggested that he would like a work translated as a term paper. A fellow graduate student, Ralph Niebuhr, and I agreed to do a four-handed translation of Oswald de Andrade's short novel Memórias sentimentais de João Miramar. This became a translation workshop for Ralph and me. We would each try our hand at a chunk of the novel, then each Monday afternoon, we would meet at Haroldo's apartment and read our translations aloud to him and Norman Potter, another faculty member, who was a native of São Paulo, where much of the novel takes place. This was a priceless learning experience for me and for Ralph as we took turns listening to each other's versions and finding a proper combination of the two to satisfy Haroldo. We finished the translation, and Ralph was able to use it, along with his description of our process, as his master's thesis. We had an offer to publish our translation in The Texas Quarterly, a literary and arts journal published by the University of Texas Press. We didn't think about a copyright in our names. Recently, when a publisher expressed interest in doing a reedition as a book, we found that the University of Texas Press still holds the copyright. Did I mention at the beginning of this profile that it was about the young and the foolish?
I completed course work for the doctorate and took some sort of a comprehensive exam to show that I had in fact learned something in the courses. All that was lacking was a dissertation. In the meantime, I had accepted a job as an instructor in Portuguese at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. During my interview for the position, I recall being told that the governor had recently been asked about how he planned to control university expenses and he had suggested cutting useless things, such as "Portugeese."
Haroldo de Campos asked me to translate one of his essays on translation for publication in English. It appeared as the lead article in the September 1974 issue of 20th Century Studies, Translation and Transformation, No. 11, "Hoelderlin's Red Word." This translation involved considerable research to locate the originals and to give them the critical apparatus that had been lacking in what was not a scholarly essay but an introduction to Haroldo's Portuguese translation of Hoelderlin's Antigone. This, my second published translation, is scheduled to reappear in a book from Northwestern University Press that is in press. I recently reread the translation and became once again aware of how much I had absorbed of what Haroldo tells us is Hoelderlin's translation theory.
It was while I was teaching at the University of Nebraska that I began interpreting. A graduate student in history arrived in Lincoln during the same semester I did, fall of 1971. He was a native Brazilian contract interpreter for the State Department who had had enough of the traveling life of an escort interpreter and wanted to move into academia. I had the opportunity to observe Gerry Cardozo in action when several groups of Brazilians visited Lincoln. He became a good friend and in some ways a mentor when he asked me to help with some volunteer interpreting when a group of Brazilians came to Lincoln to help establish a sister state program. Gerry was accompanying the group each day when they went to meetings, but he asked me to help with the interpreting in the evening when they planned their schedule for the next day and evaluated the day's activities. I ended up accompanying the group to the state capitol to meet the governor and lieutenant governor. I even interpreted a conversation with one of the visitors from the state of Piaui and Governor J. James Exon, yes, the governor who wanted to eliminate "Portugeese."
Consecutive interpreting came to me fairly easily and I found it very enjoyable. I had several more experiences as a volunteer interpreter of Portuguese during the time I was at Nebraska. While at Nebraska I also created a translation track or option in survey courses of Brazilian and Portuguese literature. I was able to find a remarkable number of translations of poetry and fiction in journals and anthologies already in the University of Nebraska Library and also at an unexpected treasure, the Nebraska Book Warehouse.
Nebraska didn't want me if I didn't finish my dissertation, which I didn't, so we moved back to Austin, Texas, and I started thinking about translating as an alternative to academia. My graduate school co-translator, Ralph Niebuhr, and I thought up a name for a company, Accutran, Inc., Translation Services. We didn't have much luck, and Ralph decided to go to travel agent school. I was left with a bunch of business cards and no customers. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese offered me a teaching assistantship again, since I had used only four of the ten semesters I could hold such a position. I did find an occasional small translation job but it never occurred to me to go to one of the various agencies that were in town.
By fall 1977, I thought I was actually making some progress on a new dissertation topic on Doramundo, a novel by Geraldo Ferraz, when a call came to the department asking if they knew anybody who could interpret some phone calls to Brazil. The person who answered was my wife and, yes, she did know somebody who could do that. Several calls to Brazil led to about a dozen trips there over the next few years and, ultimately, a decision that interpreting and taking trips to Brazil was a whole lot more enjoyable than writing the dissertation or grading papers. When I returned to the U.S. after an emergency appendectomy in São Paulo, I brought my medical records and hospital bills so I could translate them and submit them for reimbursal.
I was translating into Portuguese for several law firms that had clients in Brazil. The work expanded to include materials from and to Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and Mexico. I served as an escort interpreter and eventually ended up interpreting depositions. I eventually felt I could use some help and took on a couple of partners in Accutran, Cristina Helmerichs and Raquel Elizondo. The legal aspect of the work was particularly challenging and somehow led us to find out that there was a court interpreter exam about to be offered for federal courts. I took the written portion of the exam in 1980, passed it, and signed up for the oral portion. At this point I had done several depositions in Spanish and Portuguese for civil cases that were in federal court. I felt quite confident about my ability to interpret and had some familiarity with legal vocabulary. When I scheduled my oral exam they explained that the exam consisted of a sight translation, some consecutive interpretation, and some simultaneous. I had never even attempted simultaneous, not even seen it other than in exotic locations such as the UN. Needless to say, I did not do well on the simultaneous portion of the exam. It didn't really bother me because I didn't feel I needed it, since I didn't think I was ever going to be doing any criminal court work.
Ralph and I had both maintained contact with Haroldo de Campos and his brother, Augusto, who had been a visiting professor in Austin the semester I started in Nebraska. Both of the Campos brothers felt that we had done such a good job on our first translation of Oswald de Andrade that we should also translate his other short novel, Seraphim Ponte Grande. When I moved back to Austin and changed dissertation topics and advisers, my new adviser, K. David Jackson, was also a good friend and mentee of the Campos brothers, and he also encouraged us to do the translation and, in fact, decided to join in.
We began this as a six-handed translation. We didn't have Haroldo or Augusto in Austin to meet with, and Ralph went off to become a travel agent and moved out of town. K. David Jackson and I continued with it as a four-handed project. This was also around the time I began to make interpreting trips to Brazil. I managed to add a couple of days on the end of each trip so that I could spend those days in São Paulo. I would take our versions of the translation down with me and go over them with Haroldo and Augusto.
I was able to take advantage of several of those visits to São Paulo to negotiate a contract for the publication of what would be Seraphim Grosse Pointe directly with the author's son on behalf of a private press in Austin. We finished our joint translation and it was published by New Latin Quarter Editions in 1979. The translation was very well received and, as I understand it, was key in getting promotion and tenure for my co-translator.
In the following years, I translated a couple of history books and portions of exhibition catalogs for art shows working directly with publishers. I also did a draft translation of an art book about Wega Nery, wife of Geraldo Ferraz. That book may see publication on the Web one of these times, if proper arrangements can be made. I also have a draft translation of Doramundo that I did while I should have been doing the dissertation on the same work. My reason for attempting a translation of it was that I felt I could only fully understand it if I attempted to recreate it.
A current project is to see about the publication of an Ecuadorian novel my mother translated. She had mentioned to me a few times that she was translating it, and I had encouraged her to learn how to use an old computer I had passed on to my parents to help them with the arthritis in their fingers. After my parents passed away, I found that about a chapter had been entered in their computer and found a legal pad with the remainder of the translation in my mother's handwriting. I know that my parents knew the author, Jorge Icaza, and that they had visited him in Ecuador, but so far I have found no correspondence about the translation of El Chulla Romero y Flores into English.
Around 1980 or 1981, we of Accutran, Inc., heard about an organization of translators called American Translators Association and we heard that it was going to have an annual conference in Dallas. We joined and attended the conference. We were surprised to see so many translators in one place and to learn that accreditation exams existed as a way of certifying competence. We went back to Austin and began to make contacts with some of the other translators from Austin, including a former classmate of mine, Mike Conner.
Eventually, we found that we didn't really know how to run a translation business if we actually had to go out and look for clients and they didn't just come to us. When our clients' business dropped off, we went our separate ways, Cristina to do criminal court work, Raquel to be secretary to a university dean, and me to continue working with some of the clients who still did have work for me.
Then I heard there was an in-house translator position with a Texas state agency as a medical records translator. This was a new position, and I had some medical records translating experience, much of it of my own medical records, so I got the job. This was in November of 1983, and what I found as my reference library was a total of about four books and a steno pad with some addresses of doctors and hospitals in Mexico.
The Texas Rehabilitation Commission, which had hired me, handled disability determinations for the Social Security Administration. Shortly after I began working there, a decision was made that all medical records needed to be obtained or at least requested before a disability claim could be made. That took care of doubts about whether this would be a full-time job or not. I had had a home computer for three or four years and was delighted with the word processing that could be done on one. It would be many years, however, before personal computers were made available to us by Social Security.
One of the fruits of my job at TRC DDS was that I was in fairly frequent contact with the former translator, Esther Díaz, and she had been in contact with someone who was doing translations for the Texas Highway Department, Harvie Jordan. Not many months after I started at TRC, the three of us met and started talking about creating a local translators' organization with the idea that it would one day be an ATA chapter. I contacted Mike Conner about the translators' organization he had kept afloat for a while. We started holding meetings at our office in the evenings, open to any and all translators in the Austin area, and thus was born the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association.
AATIA began cooperating with ATA and started sending substantial representation to ATA's annual conferences and holding ATA accreditation exams in Austin. I continued to do freelance work for some of my old clients and felt that if I was doing translations for them it would be good to have some kind of credential. Thus I took and passed exams, first from Spanish to English, then from English to Spanish and Portuguese to English on the same day, and, finally, from English to Portuguese, passing all of them on my first try.
I was appointed ATA Dictionary Review Committee chairman in 1993 and held that position until 2001. That was a period of transition in the form in which reviews were submitted to me for editing, from hard copy and files on floppy disks to electronic files. Those same changes were occurring for many dictionaries and are still in process. Whenever I contacted publishers about forthcoming works, I tried to stress to all of them that I felt they should be publishing in electronic format also. I've gotten to the point where I prefer electronic glossaries and dictionaries and, like so many others, usually Google unfamiliar terms.
I was fortunate at TRC in attending the medical training that was offered to the disability examiners. This provided me with the medical background that one should have to properly translate medical records. I began accumulating medical reference materials and began compiling lists of terms. I discovered early on that there were no Spanish-into-English medical dictionaries that were adequate for translating medical records.
The period at TRC reflected how personal computers and the Internet were changing the landscape of the translation industry. When I began, I had an IBM Selectric and even managed to get an "international" ball so that I could type letters in Spanish and, occasionally, Portuguese when we needed to request medical records from doctors and hospitals in Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries. We were able to get memory typewriters after several years and finally, in the mid- to late 1990s, we got personal computers and Internet access. This was years after I had gone through a Commodore Vic-20, Commodore 64, a couple of laptop portables, a couple of Macintoshes, and a Mac notebook that I used in my freelance work. I was doing all the compiling of glossaries and lists of medical abbreviations and doctors on my home computer. I devised a system whereby we could collect data from memory typewriters on 3.5" floppies and transfer those to my personal computer so I could edit them.
While I was at TRC, November 1983 to July 2000, the translation and interpretation needs increased to the point that I had a staff of eight and anywhere from two to four contract translators. One of the important elements of our work was to handle phone calls from Spanish-speaking disability claimants to inform them of the status of their claim or to obtain some information from them. The disability-determination process was also changing so that in 1997 we were asked to find qualified interpreters for medical exams or administrative hearings all over the state of Texas. At this point I decided that it would be best for me to get my own certification as an interpreter if I was going to be asking people about their qualifications and experience interpreting.
Even after I started at TRC, I still had occasional freelance translating and interpreting work from my old clients, generally, law firms that were still handling cases on which I had worked. I was still asked to interpret an occasional deposition in the U.S. or in Brazil or Peru or to travel as an escort interpreter. In assisting with some letters rogatory in Peru, which were handled by the Peruvian judge as if they were U.S. depositions, I first had occasion to observe someone doing simultaneous interpreting for one of their clients, another of the parties in the lawsuit. I must admit that I was amazed at how it seemed so effortless to the interpreter. I asked her where she had learned to do that. She informed me that she had trained as a conference interpreter at Georgetown University. It didn't seem to me that it was a humanly possible thing to do. Later on that same year, 1987, I believe, I was asked to be present at some depositions in New York, on the same case, in which the interpreter was asked to interpret simultaneously to speed up the process so it could be completed within the necessary time frame. I was once again amazed and still convinced that there was probably no way I was ever going to be able to do that.
AATIA had established a fairly regular schedule of meetings and activities. One of the duties I took on was to maintain the membership list and create a membership directory. One of the things I did was interpret "Austin area" as a state of mind and send postcards to all ATA members in Texas informing them of the existence of AATIA and inviting them to join. AATIA membership eventually included translators and interpreters from throughout the state. One of those interpreters was looking for volunteers for a conference in San Antonio, and I volunteered. When I arrived, I found it was simultaneous that they were looking for and was encouraged to give it a try. I did and managed to stumble along fairly well for very short periods. I started doing occasional practice on my own but still had doubts about being able to do something that seemed impossible.
As I volunteered for conference interpreting assignments I became more comfortable with simultaneous interpreting and was eventually hired for some local conferences. Since I was working full time at TRC I wasn't able to sit in on court hearings or observe court interpreting. I attempted the federal oral exam a couple more times as I became more confident of my ability but still felt overwhelmed when faced with the simultaneous portion of the exam.
When one of my duties at TRC became finding qualified interpreters, I decided I had best get serious about getting federally certified as an interpreter. I purchased Holly Mikkelson's self-study tapes, The Interpreter's Edge, and began playing them during my morning and afternoon commute. I figured this was good multitasking training, since I needed to pay attention to my driving and not just the tapes. I also attended an oral exam preparation seminar at the Monterey Institute, taught by Holly, and since it was to be one of my duties to supervise interpreter contracting, I was able to get training time to do so. That did the trick ,and I passed the oral portion of the federal exam in late 1997 and became a federally certified court interpreter in 1998.
As the staff grew at TRC, administrative responsibilities became more burdensome. I was having fewer and fewer opportunities to translate, although I had an opportunity to interpret a couple of administrative hearings, including via videoconferencing. My freelance business continued with increasing conference interpreting, and the federal courts started calling me to interpret for them also. I found these jobs fascinating and began to enjoy working in federal court. There seemed to be enough potential interpreting jobs that I resigned and decided to try the freelance life again.
After a few months of freelance work, much of it court interpreting, I saw the job posting for a staff interpreter for federal court in Alpine, Texas. Alpine is 420 miles due west of Austin. I figured I wouldn't stand a chance, what with all the certified interpreters and the small number of staff positions, so I didn't apply. The posting closed and nobody applied, so they posted it again, I applied, and here I am, living in a town of some 6,000 inhabitants two and a half hours from the nearest commercial airport, and feeling very fortunate to be here, no longer young and maybe not as foolish.