How I Became a Translator
A question I often hear is, "How did you become a translator?" Usually implicit in such questions is, "Why [in the world] did you become a translator?" That is a good question, and one I often ask myself. The answer is long, yet boring. But when has a Website designer ever let that put him off? So here is my story.
You're not behind the plow
I graduated from high school in 1988, and went straight into the US Air Force at the tender age of 17. Although I had a vague notion of wanting to become a firefighter, I went in with no guaranteed job, thinking that I would decide once I got in. That turned out to be a big mistake, but one which I later came to understand was actually a fortuitous change of fate.
In basic training they decided that I was to become a Cryptological Linguist (Spanish). I had no clue what kind of job this was, but lack of clues has never stopped the military before – in fact, it seems to encourage them in some perverse way. And so, I was off to the Defense Language Institute, where I would learn to say things like "Sergeant Smith drives his jeep to the base" in Spanish. At first I thought I must have been given the second-lousiest job in the Air Force (top honors going to the people in charge of toe tags), but after a while the job kind of grew on me.
My time in the Air Force wasn't entirely spent drinking beer and going to the beach. I also managed to make the trip back to DLI for the advanced course, and to get an Associate's Degree in Intelligence Collection (I couldn't begin to describe the job opportunities opened to me by this degree.)
Also during my time in the military, while stationed in Panama I began to study Japanese from a Panamanian language teacher who had lived in Japan for a few years (now substantially fewer than I myself have). It is hard to explain my motivations for starting to learn Japanese, especially under less-than-ideal circumstances, but a phrase used by our cousins across the pond comes to mind: "bloody mindedness."
Ah, college life
After five years in the Air Force, I was given a reprieve, and went off to serve out the remainder of my sentence in the National Guard. Having by this time discarded the idea of becoming a firefighter, I decided that I would go to Stanford, then get a PhD in computational linguistics.
Along the way, I continued with my Japanese studies, including studying at Nanzan University. I also married a Japanese woman, which was an added incentive to improve my Japanese. But my main focus of study was in computational linguistics; I was going to develop a text parser that would solve all the problems of parsing Japanese text.
Best laid plans
I eventually did graduate from Stanford, and dragged my wife and our two cats off to Columbus Ohio, to enjoy the life of an impoverished grad student at The Ohio State University's Linguistics Department But shortly after arriving, my wife was blessed with our son. And while we both wanted a child very much, some quick calculations showed that a stipend of roughly $1,000 per month was not going to support a family of three, much less pay for our substantial hospital bills.
It was at this point that I decided to do some moonlighting as a Japanese translator. I had translated as a side job while in college, most notably at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). But I considered such work merely as a source of side income – translating for a living was never really on my mind.
I soon found that translation paid fairly well. At the same time, however, I found that my moonlighting, combined with the job of fathering an infant, was eating seriously into my research and study time over at grad school. At the end of my second year, I asked for and received a leave of absence, to go over to Japan and work for a year, while I thought things over. This was in 1999. During my year in Japan, my advisor was denied tenure, and quit OSU to teach at a small liberal arts college. This incident kind of brought home all the crappy political games that go on in the academic linguistics scene in the US (The Linguistics Wars makes for a fairly interesting read on the subject), and I decided that while I perhaps could not scratch my creative itch quite so well as a translator than as a scientist, I could at least work for myself, and decide on my own what types of work I would and would not do, and who I would and would not work for. I quit OSU, and stayed in Japan to work full time as a technical Japanese-to-English translator, where I specialize in IT-related fields.
Roughly five years after coming to Japan to work full time as a technical translator, I would say that all in all, it has been a rewarding and lucrative career. To my surprise I have found that I like translating, and am fairly good at it.
I have since moved to a rural area of the island of Okinawa, where I have a great view of sugar-cane fields, coral reefs, and azure sea – certainly a location that would have been hard to swing as a computational linguist. As an outlet for my creative juices, I have taken to writing software, the largest of which is the Felix translation-memory system.
My immediate future goals are to improve my Japanese ability and technical knowledge, release a couple more translator-productivity software titles, and learn how to sail.
This essay was written circa 2004. As of this writing (2008), I'm still a translator, and I still live in beautiful Okinawa, although I never learned how to sail. This essay is of mostly historical interest (if any), but I'll leave it up for posterity.