Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interview with Dee Shields, Danish-English Translator and Interpreter

It seems that many scientific and technical translators take a roundabout path in their careers. Is that true for you? Tell us about how you became a translator with your specialization.
I cast about a lot during my college years. I didn't know what I wanted to do: something in the arts or with languages, since I'd had German since seventh grade. I studied at Chatham University and Penn State, ultimately ending up with a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts with a self-designed language core aimed at getting a job with the NSA. This was at the end of the 70s—Cold War times. I heard they would give you six months to learn a language of their choosing, so along with the German I took a term each of Russian and Arabic just to show I could learn languages fast. I also took a ton of other courses in all kinds of subjects like engineering, chemistry, accounting, astronomy and even Russian history. During my penultimate term at Penn State, I was an exchange student at the University of Cologne, and some friends and I took a fun weekend in Copenhagen—where I met my now husband of almost 34 years. I moved to Denmark about six months later, only to discover that they didn't even know what a liberal arts degree was, much less have a concept of broad-based education. When I was studying Danish, I found I really liked translating—funny how that hadn't occurred to me before. So after about a year and a half of working as a cleaning lady and at an old people's home (although serving beer to sweet old guys at 11:00 am does wonders for your language skills), I decided I had higher expectations and took the entrance exams for what is today called the Copenhagen Business School. I started out with German and English, but dropped the German after getting a bachelor-level translation degree and went for a Master's degree in Danish-English translation and interpreting: a total of six years of higher education on top of my four in the US (no international transfer of credits back then, oh, nooooo). The degree program taught us not just about translation and interpreting, but all about the business sectors, legal systems, school systems and other aspects of the societies of the UK, the US and (indirectly) Denmark. We are trained to be professional generalists, with an emphasis on business and legal English. The degree here gives you access to the option of being granted "state authorization", which is a kind of license or certification that serves as a guarantee for a certain high level of quality of the work you produce. The market is so small here that you can't really specialize except through your choice of assignments—if you can afford to pick and choose. I've been lucky and able to choose more scientific and technology-related jobs than many of my colleagues. But I don't really specialize like so many US-based translators seem to do. On the other hand, my somewhat scattered US university experience has done me a world of good—I know a bit about a lot of things, and that's often enough to enable me to learn more so I can do a proper job.
Was it challenging for you to combine your scientific and linguistic interests? What advice would you give to translators just starting their careers?
It was challenging especially in the beginning because the Internet didn't exist: you had to go to special libraries to get the terminology. And until we independent freelancers formed our own professional association (www.dtfb.dk) in 1990, there wasn't any mentoring or colleagues supporting each other going on here.
I'm a bit of a special case, and I don't live in the US or work much for US clients, so I'd have trouble advising new translators in the US, except do what you love as much as you can. Learn to act like the professional you are and, like Chris Durban says, go for the direct clients if you can: they tend to give you the respect you deserve as a professional—although a lot of that is up to you.
What is unique about your skill set? What sets you apart?
Compared with my US colleagues, my very broad and generalist background and practice, I would think, plus what I learned here about UK English (a lot, since the Copenhagen Business School didn't "do" US English back then). I interpret, too: there's nothing better than a conference on some technical subject.
What is your favorite type of text to translate? What makes it fun for you?
I love translating anything technical. Just like German, Danish uses the passive voice a great deal when, in English, we would use the active voice (imperative for instructions, for example), which adds another layer of difficulty to it. The best part, though, is learning new things.
Can you describe a project that you’re most proud of, or one that was particularly memorable?
Proud of: translating some of the "recipes" for the manufacture of a certain type of drug before there was any Internet. (I wish I could be more specific, but everything we do is confidential by law unless publicly available.)
Memorable: interpreting at a Danish parliamentary hearing on whether to introduce a system of prescribing heroin. It was memorable both because during a coffee break I met the mother of an addict who thought the proposed program was the only hope for her son, for whom numerous attempts at rehab had not worked, and because my booth partner suddenly got heart attack symptoms and had to go to the ER (it wasn't a heart attack, thank heavens, and he's fine), and I had to talk for three straight hours before a replacement for him could be found. I had no voice the next day. I was a little worried about becoming known as a real heartbreaker to work with (sorry: couldn't resist that one).
Are there any resources you use when translating that you’d like to share with readers? (For example, www.clinicaltrials.gov is indispensable for translating clinical trial documentation; www.sokr.ru is great for finding the meaning of Russian abbreviations and acronyms.)
Here's a great site for engineering background information—when you need to learn more about what you're translating: http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/
How can readers learn more about you and connect with you?
I'm on LinkedIn, but I use it as a kind of Rolodex, mostly to keep track of people I've met. I am also on Twitter (@deejshields). I hope to get a Website up and running this summer.