Translating for Europe: From the Bench to Brussels


If you?re planning a tour of Europe, you might want to take Liisa Salo (seen in the photo to the left) along. English, French, German, Greek, Spanish ... in addition to her native Finnish, there is hardly a European language that she does not know. It seems amazing that someone with such an aptitude for languages should have come to translating only as a second career, after spending 20 years working as a biochemist.

"I think I might have taken up languages in the first place," explains Salo. But finding many subjects interesting in school, she focussed on biochemistry with chemistry and physics for her first degree. After her master's, and a year on a French government scholarship at a university near Paris, she took a job running the research laboratory in a department of the medical faculty at the University of Oulu, Finland, in 1973.

"It was just my perseverance that took me through," she says of her career change. But perseverance also played a key role in her academic life. She began a PhD researching connective tissues while she was working in the biomedical chemistry department at Oulu. However, the pressure of combining research with all her administrative duties meant that the degree was unfinished when, feeling like a change, she moved to the dentistry department 10 years later. Fortunately, she could take her experience with soft connective tissue and cartilage into the study of calcified connective tissue. But once again she had to balance her research time with duties such as organising supplies, buying equipment, and taking responsibility for technicians. So it was only in 1996, "when I was nearly 50 years old," that she was finally awarded her doctorate.

Meanwhile, Salo was doing a bit of translation work on the side. "I had quite a few clients," she says. During her early studies she had taken some "proficiency tests ... in order to become an accredited translator." Through her scientific work she saw a need for translators. "Most textbooks, of course, are in English," she points out, "but for lab technicians, it would have been quite useful to have more texts translated into Finnish." Towards the end of the 1980s she knew that she would like to become a translator full-time.Although she applied for jobs, "it was quite difficult as I didn?t have a degree" in translating, which was necessary for most positions.

It was Finland?s decision to join the EU in 1992 that finally gave her the impetus to study for a translator?s degree. Because Oulu was not among the three or four universities in Finland that offered translation sciences degrees, she took a 2-year leave of absence from her job to pursue an accelerated master's course at Turku. At that time she also applied for a job at the Finnish ministry of justice, where the secondary legislation was being translated in the run-up to accession to the EU. But "in spite of my experience, they didn?t want me because they just wanted people with the basic translator?s degree."

Fortunately, the European Commission was far more welcoming. She actually applied to work for the commission?s translation service before she had completed her master's in 1996 (in the same year as her Ph.D.--quite an achievement!). "Just one university degree" in any subject was the necessary qualification, together with evidence of her "experience in translation or languages." Despite having to leave her family behind, the opportunity to move to Brussels would fulfil Salo?s longstanding desire to live in different European countries, something that was not really feasible before Finland joined the EU.

Even after seven years at the European Commission, Salo loves her job. "I?m interested in politics in general, [and] I have interesting texts to read," she explains. "One of my favourites is energy policy," she says, and she is currently translating the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?s (OECD's) instructions for testing of toxicological substances into Finnish. Environmental policy is, she points out, "very high on the political agenda right now." And she finds her scientific background extremely valuable. It?s often the case that "you can translate, even if you don?t master the language perfectly, if you know what it?s about," she says. "And it helps especially in cases when the grammar is not clear," she continues. In such situations, "if you don?t know about the subject matter, you are absolutely lost."

Such understanding of the subject matter can be crucial because European Commission officials usually draft texts in English or French, even if these are not their mother tongues, so the translators can be faced with grammatically imperfect documents. It?s an inconsistency that Salo finds a little hard to understand, given that, in theory, translators should work only into their native language. She does admit, though, that this rule was relaxed after Finland joined the EU, since Finnish is a rather uncommon language for foreigners to speak. She can see things becoming even more relaxed when all the new eastern European countries join the EU in the near future. "I hope that young people would take up these languages," she suggests.

In fact, if the Finnish experience is anything to go by, would-be translators from the accession states can expect to be kept extremely busy, at least for the first few years after EU expansion. At first the Finns "didn?t know European politics so well," she explains, and there was a lot of catching up to do. "When a new version [of a text came up], we had to translate the first version, as well as the amendment," she points out.

Despite the vast number of languages at her disposal, the majority of Salo?s work involves translating from English or French. "It?s usually the English who will take [a new document] up first, and the others will translate it from English into the other national languages," she explains. Couldn?t this ?double? translation risk the introduction of errors? "For certain ... all language versions are not quite concordant," she suggests, "but I?m sure it does work."

Even if Salo is not able to fully utilise her personal language collection in her job, she surely takes advantage of it in her leisure time. "One of the best points" about Brussels "is that it is easy to go somewhere else," with low fares. When she spoke to Next Wave, Salo was planning successive weekend jaunts to Krakow in Poland and Salamanca in Spain. Otherwise, she says, Brussels is a great centre for music of all kinds.

Despite having red eyes from sitting in front of a computer all day, Salo has no regrets about her career change. "This is what I can do best," she explains. And as an employer, the European Commission is to her liking. "I was used to being a state official, which means a secure job," something the commission also offers, although she probably wouldn?t choose to work there in another capacity. "This seems to be more interesting because you come across different subjects," rather than "only working with just dangerous chemicals notifications, for instance." And a further plus is that translators are left to "manage our work rather independently."

"For rarely used languages, or languages other than the bigger ones, it is the EU which is the most important employer," she points out. She advises, however, that linguists from Spain, for example, might also look to the OECD, the UN, or other international institutions for work.

Salo certainly believes that her skills will continue to be much in demand. Even though the politicians might suggest that texts should be shorter, or that not everything needs to be translated, "somehow there is still the demand for translation." And the subject matter is continuously extended. Meanwhile, "it would be quite interesting to develop a scientific Finnish language," she muses, "...when I retire. ..."

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