I live as an expatriate in a city with tens and thousands of other English-speaking expatriates. Many of the American, British, and Australian friends I have in Berlin work freelance one way or another or are struggling artists, but they have almost all dabbled in translation. Some just need to pay the bills; some are bilingual and think it of it as easy money; some see it as a stepping stone or a way to kill time until something better comes along. The result is that the profession is not taken seriously. I only know a handful of professional, full-time translators in Berlin. The people I meet often think that anyone can translate so long as they have basic knowledge of a foreign language. The attitude I most often encounter though is that translation must be boring.
Until recently I was one of those translators who did it on the side, that is when opportunities fell into my lap. My German friends knew me as a native English speaker and saw me as their personal translator. What they probably didn’t realize is that I am also a qualified translator with credentials. At the time I thought of it as a good way to make money until something better came along. And then I realized that for me there is nothing better. Why look for something better when what I love is reading, researching, deconstructing, learning and writing. Translation has it all. Though some texts can be boring, the translation process is never boring for me. I am grateful that I can work in something so engaging and interesting. Working and reworking language will never become boring to me either. It is what I used to do in my free time, not to pay the bills but because I enjoyed it. Luckily I figured that out before it was too late.
I loved being a student. After graduation, I worked for a year in publishing before I realized that I missed being a full-time student. It wasn’t the dorms and the social life that I missed, but rather the intensive reading and studying and researching. I missed learning something profound everyday, so I went back to school to get my master’s degree. I did not go back to school to get a job or further my career; I did not go back to school for credentials or qualifications; I went back to school to loose myself in literature and language; I went back to school out of passion. My mother taught me to do what I love, so that is what I did. When people asked me what I was planning on doing with an MA in literature, and they always would ask, I would tell them that I was loving every minute of the process and I would figure out the next step when I got there.
It is now several years later and I finally figured it out. I did not aim to become a professional translator. It is not something I went looking for but something that seemed to find me. Do what you love and the rest will work itself out, I was told. And that is exactly what happened. When I started graduate school it hadn’t even occured to me that a person could make a living as a freelance translator. Studying literature in graduate school meant studying translation technique as well. (When I was in school, studying translation technique as a primary subject was not that common in the US, and something I didn’t even really know was possible.) Graduation provided me with a degree in English and proficiency in German-English translation.
I spent years defending my educational choices. Now I continue by defending my professional choices. I am proud and happy and grateful to be a translator, and anything but bored. Perhaps you need to be a lover of literature and language to understand. Perhaps you need to be doing what you love in order to understand. Perhaps there are too many people just killing time and waiting for something better; perhaps there aren’t enough people following their dreams.