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A Translator’s Life, Without the Glamour

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Earlier this month, Newsweek magazine featured an article on professional translators. Grandly titled “Across Literary Frontiers,” the piece focused on such linguistic and literary marvels as William Weaver, who lyrically transformed “Il Nome della Rosa” into “The Name of the Rose.”

Without translators, Newsweek proclaimed, we would be deprived of the Bible, Dante and Tolstoy, Freud and Kafka.

Since I have been working as a translator for slightly more than 13 years, I found the article a bit amusing. “The Iliad” and “The Tin Drum” are only a small part of the overall picture. For most of us, the everyday realities of the profession are far less glamorous.

After leaving Stanford with a Ph.D. in Germanic languages and a minor in French, I originally pursued a career in academe. For eight years I was a professor of languages, first at UCLA, then at Pomona College. But in 1973, just as the market was becoming glutted with language Ph.D.s, my position was eliminated and I became unemployed.

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I panicked. All I had ever done was teach. What else could I do?

Then, looking through the classified ads, I found a single listing for which I might qualify: translator.

Anticipating a challenging literary project, I responded to the ad with enthusiasm. The material I was given to translate, however, was all about cat food.

The Belgian product was Poussy pour le Chat, and its German equivalent was called Katkins fuer die Katze. It seems a number of TV commercials had been filmed for Poussy and Katkins, and European cat owners--after sitting through special test screenings--had been asked to jot down their reactions to each version of the commercials.

The handwritten comments were a sobering introduction to the field of translation. One read: “The woman in those films pretends to be a cat owner, but you can tell she doesn’t even like cats.” Another one read: “That woman looks as if she’s going to eat the cat food herself.” And a male respondent observed: “Boy, that lady sure is stacked!”

Although this was a far cry from “The Magic Mountain,” at least it was a way I could earn a living. As time went by, gradually I began to establish a free-lance niche for myself as a translator.

The assignments--all of them--turn out to be unexpected:

A UCLA doctor brought me a Swedish report on nefrectomized rabbits. Frank Zappa sent the contract for his upcoming television appearance in West Germany. A man from Pacific Palisades arrived with a packet of Swedish love letters found hidden under his mattress. (Perhaps they might shed some light on the disappearance of his wife.)

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One day brought a Swedish Bible inscription dating from November, 1729, as well as transcripts from a German laser acupuncturist. The next day brought a subpoenaed ship’s log, whose entries in scrawled Swedish indicate that the swells were rough and west-northwesterly and the crew intoxicated more often than not.

Then there were the French elephants. . . .

A film was being made about the dawn of man, and I was hired to translate the French press kits that told this story. The cast members were to be clad as Neanderthals, and elephants--outfitted in “immense fleecy and hairy leggings” as well as Fiberglas tusks--were to appear as woolly mammoths. After six months, the elephants, in isolation, had grown used to the feel of their costumes. But it wasn’t until they were finally brought together in front of the camera that they saw how they looked. Suddenly saisispar le sens du ridicule-- seized by a sense of the ridiculous--they went on a rampage, destroying their costumes and everything in sight.

As Los Angeles prepared for the Olympics, I worked for 18 months for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. One of my major tasks was the translation into German of the sports glossaries--each containing hundreds of words, all out of context. The cycling list, for example, included “devil” and “bonk.” Some hasty phone calls revealed that “to have the bonk” means to be completely exhausted and “devil” is short for “devil take the hindmost.” Since the latter is a highly rowdy event unknown to German cyclists--and since my deadline was swiftly approaching--I simply reproduced the idiom in its German slang equivalent: Den Letzten beissen die Hunde ; whoever is last is bitten by dogs.

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And if my stint with the Olympics wasn’t what I had hoped for, at least I am hired periodically as an escort-interpreter for the State Department. A particularly memorable assignment was Swedish parliamentarian and defense expert Hans Lindblad. One day I found myself interpreting for him high above Dothan, Ala., in a Cobra fighter helicopter--which then precipitously dived down to sweep full-tilt just over the treetops, demonstrating what they call “nap of the earth” flying.

My turn to perform came soon afterward when “Secret Weapons,” an NBC Movie of the Week, needed some post-production voice-overs in Russian. I was called, because: “You do languages, right?” Never mind that I hadn’t “done” Russian since I was a Stanford sophomore. I was to translate 10 different phrases (such as “Room service!”), then record them in Russian the next Monday.

After considerable scrabbling, I was bailed out--just before midnight on Sunday--by a friend from the Olympics who had managed to track down all the phrases. But “Room service!” was patently absurd, since there was no such thing in the Soviet Union. He suggested a reasonable equivalent: “You ordered something for your room?”

As my friend began dictating over the phone, I jettisoned any attempt at Cyrillic letters--or even meaning--and furiously scribbled the sounds down phonetically.

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At Glen Glenn Sound the next morning, I took my turn at the microphone just ahead of Sally Kellerman. Trembling inwardly, but with all the authority I could muster, I intoned: “Vwee za-KAH-zee-vah-lee shto-tuh v nohmr?

“No, no!” cried out director Don Taylor: “That won’t do!” I stood there stricken. I’d been found out. But calmly Taylor went on to explainthat the phrase sounded too long for “room service.” Could I please say something else--something shorter?

After leafing through a pocket dictionary and carefully bypassing any grammar, I finally proclaimed: “Ofitsiant--zavtrak!” (“Waiter--breakfast!”)

“Perfect!” Taylor said. “That’s a take!”

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So you see, the daily business of being a translator is far less lofty than Newsweek would have it. In fact, there are times--having to “act” in front of Sally Kellerman in Russian--when I feel very similar to those French elephants turned into woolly mammoths. I am seized by a sense of the ridiculous.

And yet, now that I think about it, things could be far worse. I could still be a teacher of German. I realize that in confronting undergraduates at 8 a.m., five days a week--"Decline after me: der Mann, des Mannes, dem Manne, den Mann!"-- life had ceased to hold any surprises.

On the other hand, as a translator, I never know what to expect from one day to the next. I may not be crossing any erudite literary frontiers, but at least I’m having fun.


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