Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Nicholas Hartmann, German, French, and Italian to English Translator

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.
My path was very roundabout indeed. My academic training was all in the humanities—a BA and MA in Classics and a PhD in Classical Archaeology. In real life, however, I always had a layman's fascination with science (knowing how the world is) and technology (how people have made use of that knowledge). During my doctoral studies I earned a stipend and tuition benefit first as a lab technician in the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and then doing a variety of odd jobs and research projects, mostly related to ancient materials, at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA), also at Penn. My dissertation was about iron artifacts in Central Italy in the pre-Etruscan period (about 1000-750 BC), so beneath the surface of my humanities degrees I was always looking at the ancient world in technological terms.
Was it challenging for you to combine your scientific and linguistic interests? What advice would you give to translators or interpreters just starting their careers?
It was not challenging; it was, in retrospect, obvious. My language capabilities have been there from the start, hard-wired into me the way some people are hard-wired for musical performance. I started learning French when I was six years old, Latin when I was 10, German a few years later, and soaked up Italian in the course of a couple of field excavation seasons. When money got even tighter than usual late in my graduate career I began working as a freelancer for a translation agency in Philadelphia, mostly doing French and Italian journal articles about metallurgy. That's when the penny dropped and my academic career ended: I found that I knew more than I had realized about materials (ancient and modern) and was eager and able to learn more about that and other technologies; I had adequate mastery of several source languages and could write plain English; and I had read enough journal articles that I could impersonate a scientist. And I got paid for doing it. I have never looked back.
My advice to a novice translator is to do what every beginner should do: practice. For example: download a random text in your source language and translate it, edit and refine it the next morning, then repeat until what you're writing sounds convincing. The only way to know it's convincing is in turn to read as widely and deeply as possible in your target language and subject specialties. Translators are actors: our job is to convince the reader of our translated text that it was actually written by a scientist / attorney / poet / marketing consultant in the reader's own language. You can only pull off that deception if you know how scientists / attorneys / poets / marketing consultants really talk and write.
What is unique about your skill set? What sets you apart?
If I am unique it is because I have merged a laboriously gained understanding of scientific language with a solid humanities background that taught me how to think and read and write and investigate and discriminate. I am a word person through and through, but I now use that skill in the service of the often un-wordy fields of science and technology.
What is your favorite type of interpreting assignment or text to translate? What makes it fun for you?
For about fifteen years I have specialized in translating German patent applications into English for submission to the U.S. Patent Office, which is now essentially the only kind of text I do. I work almost exclusively for direct clients, many of them patent attorneys—very smart people with very high standards and a very low tolerance for sloppiness or inaccuracy. Meeting those expectations is precisely what's fun: patent translation is a field that many translators find intimidating, but the opportunity to pour into it everything I have learned (and continue to learn), and to contribute to the ongoing human effort to innovate and push back the frontiers of knowledge and capability, is not just fun but a privilege.
Can you describe a project that you’re most proud of, or one that was particularly memorable?
Just as I advise beginning translators to practice and then practice some more, I hope to be judged as a translator not by one particular project but by what is by now a 30-year body of work. I am most proud of daring to think that I could make a living playing complicated multilingual word games, and of having actually done so. That said, I am also proud of the few book translations I have done, including a series of semi-popular French science books on topics like earthquake prediction, paleontology, and crystals. The big one, though (literally), was a multi-volume Italian geographical encyclopedia project on which I was one of several translators: it took two years and required interminable research in the days before the Web. It was probably out of date before it was printed, but the English text is clear and informative and my name is in there.
Are there any resources you use when translating that you’d like to share with readers?
I use very few resources that are not readily available to anyone with a Web connection and a browser. Most of my books are gone, and the Web now contains almost everything I need. The trouble is that the Web also contains a great deal of garbage, so my greatest resource, like that of all good translators, is the experience and good judgment to know what to trust. I have also compiled a 60,000-entry glossary that documents a lot of mistakes but also a lot of solutions that keep me from reinventing some wheels. (Another piece of advice to the beginner: start compiling your glossary NOW.)
How can readers learn more about you and connect with you?

Please visit my website at I have attended every ATA conference since 1984 and hope to continue that streak for a while, and once we have met and talked there I will be happy to connect on LinkedIn.

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