Technical Translation: Combining Careers


The question that puzzled me for decades was, "Is there any way to combine chemistry and Russian in a single job?" Strange as it now seems, I actually started studying Russian before I ever took a chemistry course. From that first day in Russian class as a high-school freshman in the early '60s, I knew that the Russian language was going to be with me for a lifetime. Of course, I also knew that I wanted to be a scientist.

So it began.

After high school graduation, it was time to go to college. I had 4 years of intensive Russian and a few basic science courses under my belt. The Russian/science dichotomy persisted through my undergraduate and graduate studies. Although I was firmly entrenched in a course of study that would lead to a B.S. in chemistry, I was also taking every one of the few Russian courses in the catalog (and even a couple that the faculty invented for me). I got the B.S. in chemistry, but my university did not offer enough courses to earn a second undergraduate degree in Russian.

Flunking the first oral exam in graduate school turned out to be a blessing in disguise. My committee consisted of the usual chemistry faculty members plus a member of the pharmacology faculty. To make a long story short, the pharmacology professor and I did not see eye to eye on a few questions. He argued against passing me. In the end, I replaced him with the Russian professor from whom I was taking courses--"on the side"--and petitioned the graduate school to get a minor in Russian. Shortly thereafter I was off to a postdoc position armed with a Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry with a minor in Russian.

I spent the next dozen years gaining scientific experience--first, as a postdoc in the research laboratory of a major oil company, then as an assistant chemist at a Department of Energy national laboratory, and finally as a senior researcher for a radiopharmaceutical manufacturer as well as a start-up biotechnology company. My interest in Russian continued. I maintained fluency by reading, listening to shortwave radio, and cultivating Russian friends whenever possible. The scientific literature in my field was particularly relevant at the national laboratory, where the Russians were considered to be our most serious competitors, so there were numerous Russian journals in the library. Although I had toyed with the idea of becoming a translator earlier in my life, the seeds of my desire to translate finally germinated when I found myself often consulting the original Russian text because the quality of the translations available was somewhat questionable. I knew I could provide better translations than those being published.

Then came "the day." It was not a particularly eye-catching advertisement. A major publisher in New York was looking for people with degrees in science and knowledge of Russian to do freelance translations. I sent them my résumé and heard back from them rather quickly as I remember. They sent me three test articles in Russian. I sent them the English translations. They liked what they saw and began sending me articles from a variety of Russian chemistry journals on a regular basis. It seemed ironic to get paid for what I was doing on my own anyway.

Then opportunity knocked at the door. The biotech start-up I was working for blew through its bank account and needed to cut expenses. Management decided that the research staff should be the first to go. So there I was, out on the street, with lots of time on my hands. Early the next morning, I called the publishing company and asked them to send me everything they could. And so, for the next year, I had all the translating business I could ever want. I got up early in the morning and translated in solitude for hours on end.

But the lure of the lab was too much for me. After all, how could I let Russian dominate my life and give so little attention to chemistry? So, I called a friend at a nearby Department of Energy national laboratory and asked about possibilities there. As it turned out, they were looking for someone with my exact scientific qualifications. I went back to lab work by day and translated in the evenings and on weekends. My workload increased to the point where I had absolutely no time for anything other than work and translating.

And then Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union.

In the frantic grab for anything that could earn them hard currency, the Russians wrestled almost all of the translating of scientific journals from the hands of Westerners. My translating workload shriveled to a trickle. However, contact between Russian and U.S. scientists was definitely on the upswing. For example, during the last decade I have had numerous opportunities to meet some of the scientists whose publications I had been translating into English, was offered a 3-year assignment as manager of a Department of Energy program in Moscow due to my language abilities, and have worked on several U.S.-Russian joint programs at the national laboratory. It was great immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union because I was a rarity among U.S. scientists. But now there are enough ex-Soviet and Russian scientists populating our ranks and even some U.S. scientists who have jumped on the bandwagon and learned Russian--these days, knowledge of Russian is no longer the ticket to exotic and prestigious assignments that it was 10 years ago. Gaining accreditation from the American Translators Association was one way to distinguish myself from these newcomers.

Now I am focusing my efforts on preparing for retirement from the laboratory and resuming the life of a translator. The U.S.-Russian programs at the national lab have been invaluable: This is where I learned the specialized terminology associated with some extremely narrow topics such as nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear safety. My goal is to gain experience in several of these programs both to expand my technical base and, more importantly, to gain recognition as an expert in these fields. Then, when the time comes to retire from the laboratory, I should be excellently positioned to assume the role of a freelance translator for some of the agencies that provide our translations.

In summary, I cannot emphasize enough that a sound technical education is essential if one wishes to be a technical translator. There are several reasons for this. First, one must understand the text being translated so that it makes sense to the reader. Literal translation of scientific text seldom conveys the meaning intended by the author. Second, one must know how to use information sources and databases to resolve questions about terminology. If all else fails, one must have a network of specialists available for consultation on particularly challenging acronyms and obscure terms.

As it happens, I feel I have answered my own puzzling question. Translating is an ideal way to combine chemistry and Russian into one job. It offers the challenge of learning new technical topics. Spending hours in the library looking up references and searching for just the right terminology is like writing a winning research proposal. Networking with peers and discussing technicalities supplies the human interaction needed to prevent one from becoming permanently attached to the keyboard and fax. For me, freelance translating is the wave of the future.

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