It is generally believed that one of the secrets of a happy life is a job that you really love doing. If a burning passion combines with the determination to succeed in your career, professional life has a good chance to be ‘all beer and skittles’ and your individual (short- and long-term) reward will definitely match your expectations.
When passion and discipline work hand in hand
I have heard people saying that being a translator or interpreter does not involve passion of any kind, except – maybe – for a desire to be ‘good’ at what you do and develop the ability to turn into a walking dictionary and act as L1-L2 instant translating/interpreting machine to meet the needs of your employer in a rather restricted language area, according to the very field you have been hired for.
Reality looks a lot different if you ask me. Most proficient translators we may encounter nowadays did not start their tertiary education with a translation job in mind. They were young people with passion for literature in general and language learning in particular and their informal education involved many hours of grammar and vocabulary studies combined with long hours of reading foreign literature in the original. They managed to acquire a good ‘sensory’ knowledge of the language(s) they were studying, together with the ‘bookish’ kind they teach you at university. What I mean is that preparation for any future career that involves ‘handling’ a foreign language requires more than just university courses. As for the moment you begin your self-education in your own study at home, the sooner the better!
Read, notice and enjoy the lines!
In order for you to get a glimpse of what I consider to be solid foreign language preparation for any young man or woman who is thinking of pursuing a translation or creative writing career, I will have to share one of my teaching experiences with you.
Sick and tired of the poor selection of individual study material for upper-intermediate and advanced students of English in the country where I was teaching about six years ago, I decided to step outside the school ‘curriculum’ (God, I hate that word!) and bring in a breath of fresh air. The traditional English classes definitely needed a boost and the group I was teaching were high above the average in the school!
For the reading comprehension section, I selected some of the writers I used to be fond of in my teenage years and devised a comprehensive set of vocabulary and reading-comprehension exercises based on some of the most entertaining pieces of English literature I could think of. The fragments from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’, George Mikes’ ‘How to be an Alien’ and Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ instantly won my sixteen-year-old students’ acclaim. The texts were fun to read and contained enough examples of ‘Englishness’ to ponder on and talk about.
‘Practice makes perfect’ so waste no time!
Later on, my so-(unfairly)called ‘rebellious screenagers’ not only got bitten by the bug and asked for more reading recommendations but also produced far better essays for the following writing section of the course. While the much talked about ‘famous quotations’ that are regularly used as inspiration for essays in the school rarely result in witty pages, their favourite fragments triggered some fabulous thoughts which materialized in good-quality articles to publish in the school magazine. And this is how it all started.
At this point, you should be given another tip: In spite of the latest teaching techniques which avoid translation of any kind for the purpose of increasing the communicative skills of students in the target language, I introduced a few classes of translation practice based on the sentences or fragments that they voted as the most entertaining on their reading list and proved to them that translation work indeed involves a lot of creativity and is not just an automatic process by means of which we simply turn one language into another. The differences between your mother tongue and any target language can be sensed and understood more easily and accurately if you try not putting your mother tongue to sleep while practising the foreign language.
A teacher should know when there are talented translators or writers-to-be in his or her class and I strongly believe that preparation for a language career needs delving into several sectors of language study. If you have met any truly professional translators in your life, you probably know that their general as well as language knowledge exceeds the ‘size’ of the common individual not only because they happened to study one or more foreign languages at the university but also because their earlier self-study was based on thorough reading practice either as a hobby or as part of their conscious process of education.
Reading will improve your writing skills
Getting back to the above-mentioned experiment, few of my students had tried their hand at writing literature in their mother tongue before (other than what the guided writing classes require) but they clearly expressed their wish to write in English. They still claim that loving a foreign language can perform miracles to those who want more than just to become fluent for daily conversation or academic purposes. If you have something to write about and share with the world, you can follow the example of many non-British born writers’ and take the bull by the horns – write in English! It may be a lot more difficult than using your first language but it is not impossible. The world literature is loaded with such examples, isn’t it? Besides, the process of putting down your ideas clearly and polishing your sentences for perfection is an incredibly valuable exercise for the brain.