Interview conducted by Jen Guernsey
At the ATA Annual Conference in San Diego, Amy Lesiewicz, an SLD member, was awarded the S. Edmund Berger Prize for Excellence in Scientific and Technical Translation. The Berger prize is one of several prizes awarded annually by the American Foundation for Translation and Interpretation, a non-profit entity closely linked with ATA. Jen Guernsey interviewed Amy about the prize and her translation career.
JG: Congratulations, Amy! Tell us a little bit about your prize-winning translation.
AL: Ah, this is becoming a common misconception. Let me clear this up right away! In the past, the Berger Prize has been awarded to a senior translator for demonstrating excellence in scientific or technical translation. This year, rather than recognizing someone at the end of his or her career, the American Foundation for Translation and Interpretation decided to award the Berger Prize to an up-and-coming translator to promote the start of a career. I don’t want anyone to have the impression that I’ve translated the collected works of Andrei Sakharov or something like that! I’m very honored by the award, but humbled too.
JG: Who nominated you for the prize? Did you know your work had been submitted?
AL: Last fall I was laid off from my in-house translation position at an engineering company. Although I had been translating full-time for five years, the vast majority of that was in-house, and I suddenly found myself a freelancer. I made all the rookie mistakes and was feeling a bit lost when I looked at the ATA website one day and saw an invitation to apply for their mentorship program. The application process was straightforward and painless, and before I knew it I was matched with a wonderful mentor, a German to English translator named Amanda Ennis. She helped me focus on reachable goals, including highlighting my scientific specialization and preparing for my first ATA conference.
Unbeknownst to me, Nick Hartmann from the Foundation asked Susanne van Eyl, the director of the mentorship program, if there were any scientific translators in this year’s mentee class. She gave him a short list, and the Foundation selected me. I was completely surprised and very grateful.
JG: I find that most US-based translators have ended up in the translation field in a roundabout way…from what I know of your career, you fit that mold to some extent. Tell us about your background and your translation career thus far.
AL: I was a chemistry major and much focused on academics; I came to college with 22 credits already under my belt from advanced placement tests and some college classes I took while still in high school. This gave my chemistry advisor the impression that I was headed for a PhD and a career in academia. Therefore, he advised me to take at least two years of French, German, or Russian so that I could read the major chemistry journals in another language. The French and German classes conflicted with my chemistry schedule, so I took Russian, and I immediately fell in love. My instructor, Dr. Irina Ivliyeva, was a wonderful teacher, and a perfect fit for her science and engineering students. I wonder if my science (and maybe even music) background helped with the initial learning process: some students seemed to struggle with learning a new alphabet, but for me it was natural and easy to learn a new symbol and associate it with a sound and/or meaning. Perhaps it’s similar to learning chemical symbols and associating them with elements, bonds, structures, and compounds.
By my fourth year in college, I realized I was disenchanted with potential careers in chemistry; my last semester’s course load included nine credits of Russian and only one credit of chemistry. My advisor was studying biimidazole chemistry, a field that had been extensively researched in the Soviet Union. One particular article hadn’t been translated into English, and he asked me to translate it. With only three semesters of Russian behind me, it was well beyond my level of understanding and beyond my little pocket dictionary, so one Friday afternoon I claimed a table at the back of the library and built a little fortress out of dictionaries and went to work. When I realized I was hungry I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it was after 9:00 pm. That was when I realized that translating is fun; it’s like solving a complex logic puzzle.
From there, it took me a long time to feel qualified to call myself a translator. I finished my chemistry degree, worked various entry-level jobs, went to Michigan State University to earn a BA in Russian, and then realized I still wasn’t qualified, so I went to the University at Albany to earn an MA in Russian and a Certificate of Advanced Study in translation. Since they didn’t have any summer classes in the Russian department, I decided to try to find a summer job or internship in Russia. I ended up with a year-long position as an in-house translator at Language Link Translations in Moscow. It was a great learning experience and introduction to the profession.
JG: In your translation work, are there any particular parts of your experience that you draw on aside from the obvious language-related capabilities?
AL: With each new assignment, I find myself doing roughly equal parts scientific research and linguistic research. Just looking at my work log from the last month, for example, I translated a journal article on pollution with petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals in the water surrounding Vladivostok, a back translation of informed consent and medical history questionnaire for banking umbilical cord blood, and test reports on the efficacy of various fungicides against diseases in several different crops. For each assignment, I had to research the proper terminology used in those fields. I think it’s really fun!
A couple years ago, I was translating a long regulatory document on fire safety of industrial buildings, when I came up against a stumbling block: заполнение проемов. This could mean a door, window, shutter, curtain, hatch, lid, or anything that closes any kind of opening in a wall, floor, or ceiling. The concept is relatively simple, and the words are easy, but it took me hours to find the right term in English. At one point, I literally banged my head on my desk, which startled a passing co-worker (this was while I was working in-house). When I finally found a reliable source text (fire safety regulations from the state of California) that defined this exact concept as “opening protectives,” I was so excited that I actually felt a rush of endorphins. It’s not even a particularly exciting or elegant phrase, opening protectives, but it was the right term for the right concept, and it was a wily little guy.
I also get a kick out of unexpected translations. I was translating a contract for wellhead completion services a couple months ago that mentioned фонтанная установка. Turns out, the English term for this thing is a “Christmas tree.” My project manager emailed me after I delivered the translation, suggesting that I find another translation, because “Christmas tree” couldn’t possibly be correct. So I sent her links to websites with pictures of these big stacks of valves (which look nothing like Christmas trees or fountains, if you ask me) and the Schlumberger Oilfield Glossary.
In cases like those, I sometimes use the Google images search function to double-check that I’ve got the right term: if searches in both languages return pictures of the same thing, I think I’m on the right track.
JG: What recommendations would you make to translators interested in specializing in technical translation, or conversely, technical specialists who would like to transition to translating?
AL: There is a wide spectrum of scientific and linguistic skills, even within a relatively narrow subject matter. For example, my linguistic education is broader than my BS in chemistry, and so my working areas are somewhat broad (from chemistry and the pure and natural sciences to engineering and even non-technical texts). I have met other translators with PhDs in chemistry who focus on a smaller subject area but work from several source languages. Each area and degree of specialization has its advantages.
As a college student, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a teacher to help me find the intersection of my two interests, science and language. I tried contacting chemistry professors who had emigrated from Russia, but they had not maintained any ties to Russia or the Russian language—they read and published in English—and were not interested in working with me. I tried translating a chemistry journal article on my own and asked one of my Russian professors to review it, but he got confused by the science in the second line of the text and gave it back with no input. During my first trip to Russia, I was delighted to find science textbooks in the bookstores, and I spent a year poring over an introductory chemistry book for thirteen-year-olds, looking up every word I didn’t know and writing down all of its collocations and standard phrases. When I was in Moscow, I carried little paperback study guides intended for high school students preparing for college entrance exams, and I read them on the metro during my daily commute. So I guess my advice for language students is: don’t wait for someone to teach you scientific vocabulary and style in your second language. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to find a language teacher with a science background, but in America they will most likely be interested in poetry and history. It’s going to be up to you.
JG: I remember an article in which Kevin Hendzel pointed out to us translators, “You’re only as good as your last translation.” I’m sure you have no plans to rest on your laurels just because the stellar quality of your work has been recognized. Where would you like to head with your translation work in the future?
AL: I’d like to focus on gaining clients who send me “higher quality” source texts. I’ve done a lot of work in the petroleum engineering field, and let me tell you, engineers are not always good writers! I enjoy translating scientific and medical journal articles, because they are well written and have been edited for publication. I’ve just joined the American Chemical Society, and I signed up for some upcoming online courses on medical terminology and the chemistry of drugs in the brain. I plan to start reading chemistry journals in English more extensively. Chris Durban said something at the last conference that really struck a bell with me: as a specialized translator, I should be able to rub elbows with scientists in my field and pass for one of them, if only for a few minutes. So in the coming months I hope to network with chemists in my area.
JG: We look forward to hearing more from you in the future. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!
For more information about AFTI, the Berger prize, or other AFTI activities, visit http://www.afti.org.