I worked as a translator for Massey-Ferguson, the tractor manufacturer, for about a year, “learning by doing.” Then came the Sunday when the wrong newspaper was delivered, and in this interloper was an advertisement for a translator with Siemens. Another application, some more tests, and suddenly I found myself in a small town in Bavaria in the middle of winter. Into the foundations of my career as a technical translator, dug by an M-F back-hoe—or TDL, as we called it in England—Siemens poured the concrete. It is a company that takes translation very seriously, and I remain very grateful for the professional grounding I received there.
But after only one beer festival, only one Christkindlmarkt, it was time to move on again, this time to the European Commission in Luxembourg.
"A round for the translators?"
Where I translated agricultural texts (the time at M-F came in useful there), texts on electrical engineering (thanks, Siemens!), as well as new subject fields such as nuclear power and coal mining. Plus texts on statistics (don’t like statistics!) and dozens and dozens of public-works contracts, always urgent.
A change of job, although this time without a change of location. The Commission had bought rights to the Systran machine translation system, and was looking for someone to manage the development of its French-English component. Of course, I "knew" that a computer could not translate—"Do you know, it actually rendered 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' by....."—but I suddenly realized that I should go to the interview, because then I would "really really really know" that machine translation was impossible.
Within minutes I was captivated! I saw that machine translation was not only possible, but that pushing the limits of what was possible could be tremendous fun, at the same time as an opportunity to develop a practical tool that would be helpful to my translator colleagues, among whom I still counted myself. Tremendous fun, indeed, was what it proved to be, for several years. And as well as the fun, the job gave me my first taste of America, since from time to time contract work had to be supervised at Systran's headquarters in California. "I like America," I mused. "America has palm trees, and ocean breezes, and characters from Baywatch long before the series has been invented. I like this country." Other trips to California followed, sometimes with my family, and we all agreed that we liked "America."
Which made it all the more of a shock when we found ourselves disembarking in Newark NJ in a freezing February!
Headhunted by one of the commercial MT developers. I had thought I was going to corporate headquarters in Boston, but no. The research and development center in a horrible little town in New York State. (Subsequently moved to northern New Jersey, which was also not what I had been expecting!)
But one adapts, and it was while thinking about additional sources of work that it occurred to me that I was only just down the road from UN Headquarters. Surely, they must have truckloads of freelance translation work that they were just desperate to hand off to someone? Surely, I was the answer to their stressed-out prayers? "No, we don't send out freelance work. Except to retired former officials." "Oh." Crestfallen, I was on the point of hanging up the phone. "But you can come in and test for short-term in-house contracts, if you like." I liked.
And it was during one of those in-house contracts that translation seemed for one magical moment to gain the respect it was owed: heading tiredly one evening towards the exit from the Secretariat building, I was surprised and pleased when the uniformed guard stamped to attention, snapped off a respectful salute and bellowed "Good night, Sir!" Wow, recognition for the profession at last! Glow, glow. Alas, a moment later it became evident that as I was approaching the door from one angle, the Secretary-General was approaching it from another. Sigh.
Continue to Report-and Précis-Writing.