for Translation Journal
December 10, 2004
Gabe suggested that I be the Translator Profile
for this issue of the Translation
. I wonder why? Suspicions crowd upon my mind. If there is one thing
my fellow featherless bipeds make me absolutely sure of, it is that no good
deed ever goes unpunished. What's the catch? What scheming interests stand
behind Gabe's seemingly innocent invitation, and what is it that they really
want? Do you see now, how exciting it is to be paranoid? Assuming that we all
somehow agree on what "it" could possibly be and, most importantly, what
the meaning of "is" is.
But then, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Self-interview is the easiest way
to do it. I'd ask a question that might be of interest, I'd give an answer in
my customary insufferable manner, and move on to the next question. How about
Why did I become a translator?
There's a shrewd line in the otherwise stunningly bad movie, The Last
. While negotiating the streets of Tokyo with the protagonist, a
garrulous Japanese-English interpreter explains his reason for becoming what he
is: "I had a very unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country
where no one ever says what they mean. So, now I very accurately translate
other people's lies." This sums it up.
How did I become a translator?
All the usual Soviet feeding troughs were inaccessible: I was too fastidious.
My inborn distaste for hypocrisy and coercion was amplified by an upbringing in
a dissident family. Socialist societies are extremely hypocritical and
coercive. Life often compels us to make a choice: either to adapt to the world
by betraying ourselves, or to remain true to ourselves by confronting the
world. For me, the latter always has been immeasurably easier.
Even in the "workers' paradise," one has to make money. Substantial
money, if one is married and has a child. I've been a construction worker, a
night-watchman, a ballet pianist, a private piano teacher... you name it. I
learned to type fast very early, at the age of seven, to help my mother. She
was typing, editing (and writing) theses and papers for the dismally illiterate
Soviet "economists" who were flaunting doctorates and high salaries.
To supplement my meager income, I tried translation. Reading in several
European languages has never been a problem for me. I have a congenital knack
for smooth, literate writing in Russian. My father, a mathematician and a true
polyglot, owned many dictionaries. We had a small East German typewriter. That
battered typewriter was responsible for many copies of books by authors
proscribed by the Soviet authorities (Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, et al
circulating in our Academy Town, the Western Siberian knock-off of Los Alamos.
So, there I was, typing away in the kitchen, night after night. The pay was low
and illegal (without the required diploma, I had to resort to the surreptitious
services of middlemen). Nevertheless, a translator's wages were higher than
those of a night-watchman. As Robert Heinlein remarked, writing beats digging a
ditch. I know, I've done both.
I remember well my first large translation from English into Russian. A private
client asked my father to translate a thick book by Grinder on NLP
(neurolinguistic programming). This subject was considered to be
"shady" by the Soviet authorities; such a book would have never been
printed in the USSR officially. Father was busy, and dumped this job on me. I
churned out this text in one month. The client paid 300 rubles—approximately
what I would make after a month of working very hard 12 hours a day, 7 days a
week under the most disagreeable conditions at some construction site.
The other thing I recall translating back in Siberia—and I remember it because
it was a classified US Navy document—had to do with missile defense system
software on nuclear submarines. Thus, a young Russian anti-Soviet poet (and a
draft dodger to boot) was illegally making money in the Siberian winter by
translating secret American military papers for the Soviet authorities! I still
can't figure out how this document found its way into my hands. Naturally, I
saw to it that some critical information was translated incorrectly. That was
the only case of a pre-meditated mistranslation in my life.
My primary skills are those of a classical musician: I write music, I play
piano and violin, I could sing professionally. After coming to America as a
political refugee in 1986, I tried my luck at music. I failed.
Many people still appreciate classical music but it doesn't pay to write it any
more, unless you are prepared to stoop low enough to apply for grants or to
play the spaniel in Hollywood. Governmental subsidies, bureaucratic
institutions, mass indoctrination through public "education," TV
culture and, above all, the natural domination of mediocrity in a society
looking up the lowest common denominator—these factors effectively exterminated
most original talent in music and arts.
Have you ever asked yourself why there are no new Mozarts in our brave new
world of "equal opportunity"? Because the Salieris are always
"more equal" than the Mozarts, that's why.
I turned again to translation. The world is not without good men and beautiful
women, despite all the desperate efforts of the bad and the ugly. Some
Americans helped me to start my business. Accurapid happened to be the first
translation agency to use my services on the regular basis. One American helped
me to finance my first computer (a Mac Plus it was, which served me well for
couple of years but suffered an inglorious death in a cloud of black smoke as
soon as I installed an acceleration card). Another American, a notable figure
in his Christian organization, cheated me out of thousands of dollars by paying
2.5 cents per word and pocketing the difference.
On the whole, with all its trials and errors, sleepless nights and mad
scrambling to meet deadlines, the occupation of a translator rewarded me with
the greatest luxury one could dream of, that of having no boss, surviving
without dissembling, and living anywhere I want.
I have been a professional independent translator for more than two decades
now. Looking back, I must say that I would have never survived all the
illnesses and crises during these years without my wife, Maria. She does
everything—accounting, typesetting, software and hardware setups, proofreading,
shopping, housework, socializing with neighbors, disciplining, encouraging and
reprimanding our son. Everything is taken care of. If not for that ubiquitous
translation, I could just be basking in the sun, in the Mexican way, or
spending all my days in the tea-house, Turkish style.
One of these days I am going to convince Maria that she take up the translation
part, too. Why not? Aren't there excellent, highly productive female
translators? Aren't women better than us lowly creatures? They are capable of
doing everything we can, not to mention some things we can't, right? So who are
we to discriminate against women by imposing limitations on their abilities?
Let them do it all!
Translation, what is it?
Translation is thinking. Unless artificial intelligence (with lower-case
initials) becomes possible, "machine translation" shall always remain
I read and understand English. I write in Russian something that would produce
an equivalent understanding in the Russian reader's mind. If the client hasn't
provided adequate reference material, I look for the terminology—first in
electronic dictionaries, then in specialized paper dictionaries (I've got three
or four shelves full of these). If the term cannot be found in the
dictionaries, I do an Internet search, ask specialists, and call other
In legal and technical translation, I try to be as close to the original as
possible, without sacrificing the quality of Russian. In every discipline there
is a specific terminology that must be absorbed and followed. It is important
to remember, however, that terminology and style are separate, very different
things. I never try to mimic any professional stylistic bias if my client
hasn't given specific instructions to this end. For example, Russian
state-approved standards (GOSTs) may contain useful terminology but stylistically,
they are far from being acceptable standards. Whatever the customary style of
semi-literate engineers may be, the rules of Russian grammar must prevail.
Translating fiction, I allow myself more freedom, focusing primarily on
producing the same effect, rather than using the same expressions. The same
kind of freedom is necessary in translating advertising and marketing
materials, brochures intended for a broad audience, newspaper articles, trade
Highly colloquial texts are extremely difficult to translate, and the result is
dubious at best. For example, translating some of the Heinlein's fiction into
Russian is a nightmare, for the great late R. A. H. often wrote in
conversational, highly idiomatic American English of the 1960s, with puns and
drollery beaded in chains fully appreciated only by a happy few born at the
wrong time in the wrong place. Even if a wretched Russian translator
comprehends all the ribald preciosity of these verbal fireworks, he or she will
be hard pressed to come up with anything remotely resembling that high-brow
trailer-park newspeak in Russian.
For the same reason, Saltykov-Shchedrin, a Russian writer of no lesser
importance than Turgenev or Tolstoy (and a much greater writer than
Dostoevsky), is practically unknown in the West. Saltykov-Shchedrin's books are
so colloquial and idiomatic that they don't lend themselves to translation.
In my brazen opinion, translation of poetry, particularly of rhymed poetry, is
impossible. Poetry is a synthesis of language and music, as song is a synthesis
of music and language. In some cases, there is no discernable boundary between
a poem and a song. In the translation process, verbal music is always lost, the
all-important mental connotations, invoked by the phonetic and rhythmical
conjunctions, are inevitably distorted. The best one can do is to write
another, different piece of poetry evoking the same emotional state, and using
the roughly similar content to render it.
There are several highly praised "classic" Russian translations of
Shakespeare's and Dante's works. They are printed and reprinted, presented on
screens and in concert halls, and widely quoted; they have become a part of the
Russian literary culture. Alas! Were I not able to read English and Italian, I
would have never known what Shakespeare and Dante are all about. There is
absolutely no way to render in any other language the magic mixed with a
feeling of hopeless admiration, fear and woe, reminiscent of the chilling fires
in the endless distances of darkness, that petrify a reader inwardly
pronouncing Dante's simplest words: Per me si va nella citta dolente...
What gadgets, what software do I use?
The computer is a dubious invention. Everyone has been told, ad nauseam, how
computers save us time and effort. Almost nobody wants to talk about how much
time and effort they waste. Anyway, we are stuck with them; our only hope is
that in the future they will become less nerd-friendly and more human-friendly.
We (Maria and I) use two PCs and two Macs, interconnected via Ethernet and
communicating with the outside world through the Direcway satellite system. To
make it all work together, we had to install Windows Server OS on one of the
PCs. The round-up of the usual MS Office suspects allows me to perform most of
the tasks. When high-quality Russian typesetting is required, Maria uses
QuarkXpress. We liked the good old PageMaker better.
Some of my clients insist on using Trados or SDLX. These expensive, cumbersome
and cranky TM-based tools are of no value to me, they only exist to soothe the
corporate managers' vanity. Even assuming that there are piles of similar
documents to be translated (which is a relatively rare situation), a
translation memory would make sense only if it were constantly made consistent
by a single editor dedicating substantial time to this ungrateful task. But a
single translator is better off using electronic glossaries and his own set of
reference and template files. If many translators use and compile the common
translation memory without constant supervision and editing, it quickly becomes
a disparate mess that slows down the whole team enormously. Perhaps, there are
translators whose CAT experience is happier; I won't believe it until I see it.
Why did I quit the ATA?
Apart from holding its expensive and mostly non-informative annual conferences,
which could be imaginatively rationalized as tax-deductible occasions to meet
old acquaintances, the ATA has been useless to me. I was an active member from
1991 to 2003. I diligently placed my curriculum vitae
in the job
exchange room. I gave my business card to everyone I met while attending these
conferences. During the last 12 years only two minor (now defunct) clients,
offering very small jobs, told me that they have found me through the ATA, and
only one (now defunct) client ever asked me if I was a member of the ATA.
Instead of striving to become an organization that would impose strict
professional and ethical standards, conduct serious qualifying examinations,
protect its members from unprofessional, rate-dumping competition, penalize
translation agencies exploiting semi-literate foreign nationals, and provide
its members with access to affordable health insurance benefits, the ATA has
become a virtual free-for-all community club with a worldwide membership, an
inner circle of mutually supporting officers playing musical chairs, and no
In my view, the last straw was the deeply dishonest act of distributing an
electronic questionnaire on the ATA's "continuing education" program
post facto, after this make-work invention of self-serving apparatchiks had
been already approved by management. As one of the most experienced
Russian-English translators in America remarked during the annual conference in
Phoenix, the fait accompli manner in which this program had been rubberstamped
and the assuming nature of the questionnaire that followed, reminded her of a
certain interrogation method that begins by asking: "How long has it been
since you've stopped beating your wife?"
What advice can I give to budding translators?
Who am I to give advice? OK, I'll try. From the bottom of my heart.
1. Take care of yourself, sleep as much as you want. Don't translate more than
10,000 words in a day; this is bad for your eyes.
2. Don't work for peanuts but, on the other hand, don't worry too much about
money. They won't let you become rich, anyway. We live in the world of
mandatory compassion: the more you make, the more they take.
3. Bewildered and tired, losing track of who you are, what you are doing, and
why? Re-read Kipling's If. If this doesn't help, re-read Kipling's The
Gods of the Copybook Headings. That drastic measure unavailing, take a swig
of brandy. Never translate under the influence, though. Customers have no sense
of humor, they think they are always right.
4. If you can write very well in your native language, you already have a skill
necessary to become a successful translator. The rest is hard work.
5. If you can't write very well in your native language, no advice will help you.
The rest is silence.
© Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 2004