Volume 16, No. 1 
January 2012


Paul Merriam


Front Page

  Translation Journal
Translator Profile

The Joy of Translating

by Paul W. Merriam

  got interested in languages when I was young. I grew up in California and, though it had ceased to be part of Mexico well before then, there are still reminders of its Mexican and Spanish heritage and plenty of Spanish-speaking people. My mother comes from northern Vermont, not far from the border with French-speaking Quebec. My grandmother’s undergraduate major was French and she kept her college textbooks at her house. And I spent a summer in Brazil with my father when he went to teach physics at the Universidade de São Paulo. In college, I took classes in Russian, Portuguese and German in addition to my mathematics coursework.

Since I work from home, I quite literally live at the office, so I find it necessary to get out from time to time and take classes from various organizations in the vicinity.
After I graduated from college, I joined the US Army. At the time, the Cold War was very much in progress and I spent plenty of time studying the Warsaw Pact. As part of my Army service, I graduated from the Defense Language Institute, where I studied Polish. After that, I went to Europe where, among other things, I translated plenty of documents and talked to plenty of people about what was going on in German-speaking, Polish-speaking, and Russian-speaking countries. (The Warsaw Pact included one of each.) 

I found myself dealing with lots of documents while in the Army, not necessarily in languages or in fields I knew well when I started. Part of that was because of resource constraints. (No funds to hire a professional translator, so you use what you have.) And part of it was that one tried to accomplish the mission as best one could. So I became fairly familiar with a lot of fields, such as nuclear physics, medical procedures, pharmacology, and various other things. And I became familiar enough with many European languages that I often read newspapers from lots of places.

After I got out of the Army, I applied to a lot of places for all sorts of jobs, but I found that what potential employers were noticing was language ability. I eventually wound up in a company that had a contract with the US Department of Justice, Criminal Division, translating documents for them. That familiarized me with a lot of criminal law and, to some extent, other areas of law as well. That has helped me since I became a freelance translator full time in 2008.

The advent of CAT tools has in my mind cut down on a lot of the drudgery part of translation. I no longer have to retype the 18th version of a proposed regulation, which strongly resembles the first 17 versions. CAT tools mean I can spend my time handling more interesting things. And much as translators hate MT, I think it can do some things more efficiently than I can. I used to spend lots of time looking at long documents (such as issues of journals) attempting to find information about subjects I was interested in. It was easy to overlook isolated sentences in an article primarily about something quite different. And when you find a word, it may be used in an entirely different context.

As an example, there is a German word “Birne” which, depending on the context, can refer to pears or light bulbs. Say I’m interested in light bulbs. With good OCR, I can scan my journal and then go looking for “Birne” in it. It can find the sentences with Birne faster than I can. And the MT can help monolingual readers determine what they need. That cuts down on the time I, the human translator, must spend translating long articles about sociology (because some of the research was done by Dr. Birne).  And I don’t have lots of material about pears to deal with. I can concentrate on the part I’m good at.

I keep up with what’s going on through interaction with colleagues (which the Internet makes much easier). I contribute frequently to various mailing lists, including the GLD list, espalista, Translist and the NAJIT member list. Since I work from home, I quite literally live at the office, so I find it necessary to get out from time to time and take classes from various organizations in the vicinity (not necessarily language-related; the Fairfax Bar Association, for example, gives CLE classes). So we’ll see what the future holds.