By Andrea Brugman, translated by Saveen Uthappa-Eck
I lived in the United States for 15 years. Whenever anyone asked me what I did for a living, I would say: “I’m a translator”, and they would usually say: “That figures!” The effect this reaction had on me changed over time. Initially, it prompted me to offer a “typically German” response: “No, no, it doesn’t figure at all!” – which sounded a bit harsh in the ears of an American from the laid-back West Coast. I would then follow up with a detailed explanation on why mastering two languages was by no means enough to work as a translator. As I got more accustomed to American ways, my answers became far more brief and I responded with a conciliatory “You are absolutely right, it is essential to know two languages” or “Well, actually…” In the end, I often saved myself the hassle of an explanation and instead smiled, nodded my head and agreed with a nonchalant “Sure!”
Being able to speak more than one language with a high degree of fluency is vastly enriching, both personally and socially. And as translators, turning our command of at least two languages into a career is a tremendous gift. However, the journey to becoming a translator was no walk in the park.
From mono- to multilingualism
I clearly remember the day I began learning English. I was 11 years old and had just started fifth year – back then, foreign languages were taught only after primary school – and I was telling everyone that English was my favourite subject even before I’d had my first lesson; having picked up a few words from my older brother I had somehow convinced myself that I was fluent. Imagine my disappointment when I scored an unsightly D on my first test; the worst grade of my school career so far. It dawned on me that more was expected of us than learning English words and writing them more or less correctly. No, we were not allowed to have a single letter out of place.
And as if that wasn’t enough, I became even more disillusioned when I realised that I had to actually learn the English equivalent for every German word I knew (and I knew many) with no discernible rhyme or reason, no systematic link between the two. Of course, some German and English words are similar, but just because “Katze” was “cat”, I couldn’t assume that “Vogel” (bird) was vog or fog in English or “Tasche” (bag) was tasch (or even spelt tash as far as I was concerned). It must have seemed like B language, a language game we played as children, where vowels and diphthongs are reduplicated with the letter B (“Ibi abam vebery thibirsty”), or the cryptographs used in my brother’s detective game, where every A was replaced by a Z, B by a Y and C by an X.
Incidentally, I was overcome with a similar nightmarish feeling when I landed my first job in the US. My contract granted me two weeks of holiday a year – unpaid, mind you – and a cubicle in a dark, windowless, open-plan office, where I was expected to sit at a small desk with a computer, a dim lamp and a telephone, surrounded by grey shoulder-high partitions. My future colleagues surfaced from their own cubicles in this netherworld matrix to greet me when I was shown around. But that’s really another story…or is it? It was my first employer, Amazon.com, where – after interning for a year and a half – my dream of working as a translator finally came true.
Today, I’m glad that as a fifth-year student at school, I was unaware that words in a foreign language are just the tip of the iceberg, if that. Had I known, I might have thrown the shotgun in the cornfield (the literal translation of a German idiom meaning “to throw in the towel”) or removed the make-up of English as a favourite subject (i.e. “to kiss it goodbye”). After all, mastering a language includes learning its grammar rules (including exceptions), not to mention idioms, different linguistic registers and stylistic elements.
But being a translator requires a much wider skillset than being highly proficient in both a foreign (or second) language and your mother tongue. You need to be curious and receptive to new and frequently complex topics. You must be precise and persistent (when researching the right technical term, for instance). And you need a good imagination, for example in dealing with scientific content or when the source text is more ambiguous than the target text permits. There’s also no getting around a certain level of technical proficiency – translators now work with an array of different software tools and content-management programs. Plus, although we write for the reader, we have to think for the customer.
I wonder if future translators will find the linguistic aspects easier, given how much more multicultural the world has become. In Germany, for instance, the number of bilingual childcare centres more than tripled between 2004 and 20141 and the teaching of a foreign language, predominantly English, now begins in primary school2. Even German universities are increasingly teaching courses on different subjects in English.
Man vs. machine?
Given these developments, is it even necessary to continue translating English texts? And won’t human translators become somewhat redundant with the advent of machine translations? After all, translation programs have become technically more sophisticated and are now often capable of adapting to the context of the text. This was a hot topic among translators around a decade ago when I was an active member of my local branch of the American Translators Association in the US. A number of us were worried about the future of our craft.
These doubts are no longer a cause for concern. In fact, there is a growing number of jobs for translators and interpreters, as confirmed recently by the German Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators. Between December 2012 and September 2016, the number of translators and interpreters with permanent contracts rose by around 25 %3. Globalization and the internet have seen the number of texts requiring a quick translation into several languages go through the roof. A professional translation of such information is time-consuming and expensive. Machine translations have their place – for example, as support pages for Microsoft4. The company even encourages its users to submit suggestions for corrections, allowing it to improve the quality of previously translated material as well as future translations without major outlay.
As far as I’m concerned, software tools can take over the translation of repetitive texts. I’ll take fine dining over fast food any day. Because texts that contain crucial information or need to be emotionally appealing to readers require the human touch.
26 letters can pack a punch
Even though we’re using different permutations of the same 26 letters, the results can be astounding: words can inform, change the world, inspire, sell products, create legal contracts, make people laugh or even cry.
And by the latter, I don’t mean as a result of badly translated instruction manuals, although these can cause much anguish when you have to “fold stipple A into the opposite stipple B, without bending too much” or “when you have spread enough tornado glue, stick leg F1 firmly to block 1 in hole 1 on the traverse board”5.
Despite being long and prone to pitfalls, the journey to becoming a translator is still worth taking, now perhaps more than ever.
 FMKS e. V. study in 2014 (http://www.fmks-online.de/download.html)
 “Frühes Fremdsprachenlernen in Deutschland”, Goethe-Institut website (http://www.goethe.de/lhr/prj/ffl/siu/de7512487.htm)