German: Most of my work from German has been technical: patents, specifications, tech reports.
A feasibility study on a tunnel under a part of the Baltic; an analysis of sound spectra of rotating mining machinery; another of lateral forces exerted on car tires. But there have been jobs that were quite different: excerpts from contemporary news reports and journal entries on a Jewish family’s flight from Nazi Germany to, ultimately, Seattle; and, by contrast, eye-witness accounts of the death of an American client’s German grandfather on the Eastern Front.
The French work tends to be international organization material: studies on endangered wildlife species; country reports on progress (or lack of!) in eliminating discrimination against women; the situation of human rights defenders. But I have done plenty of technical work from French too: specifications for a small plane, another set for an experimental train; ventilation problems in coal-mines; loan agreements between various European art galleries and a major New York gallery. And a whole sheaf of documentation for an international child custody battle.
Busy in Madagascar!
The Spanish is also largely international organization material, particularly endangered species, but has also included, for example, specifications for a metro system somewhere in South America, ditto for a very big audiovisual installation, a massive study on the European System of Accounts…
I also became quite an expert on South and Central American birth certificates: some years ago, New Jersey suddenly announced that foreigners did not need to be legal residents in order to obtain a driver’s license. All they needed was an English version of their birth certificate, produced by a translator approved by the DMV. I must have done a hundred in just a few weeks! Equally suddenly, the program was then canceled. Strange.
Italian isn’t a UN language…. which has the paradoxical advantage that when there is Italian to be translated, I’m one of the first freelancers that the UN calls on. I learned, too, a few years ago that I’m the only UN New York freelancer who works from both German and Italian, so when there was a huge bilingual border agreement between Italy and Austria to be translated ….. Took me three months!
At the other end of the scale was the one page of my hairdresser’s grandfather’s discharge certificate from the Italian Army.
Luxembourgish: For the first two years of my ten in Luxembourg, I accepted the popular wisdom that it was impossible for a foreigner to learn Luxembourgish. Until one vivid day, when I thought to myself "What does that mean, 'impossible to learn'? We're professional linguists ....." It did indeed prove rather difficult, although for an intriguing reason extrinsic to the language itself: since all Luxembourgers are at least trilingual, detecting a French or German accent in the beginner's fumbling attempts to speak Luxembourgish they will reply in French or German, frustrating one's attempts to learn. With the best of intentions, of course—they simply can't believe that anyone wants to learn their language.
But I persevered, agreeing with arguments I didn't understand, and buying products I didn't want, rather than admitting that I had not understood something and risking having an explanation in French or German. Of course, I thought that learning Luxembourgish was just a fun intellectual exercise, without any professional relevance whatsoever, until that phone call a dozen years later: "Remember me? I used to work for you in New Jersey. I'm with a translation company in Luxembourg now, and we need someone to translate a speech by the Prime Minister into English. Don't I remember that you know Luxembourgish?"
That was fun!