Scene 1: In the classic German children's novel,
"Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer" ("Jim Button and
Luke the Engine Driver"), the orphan Jim and his rough-and-tumble
friend Lukas drive their locomotive to China (which for reasons of
political correctness has been changed to "Mandala" in recent versions)
to rescue the lovely Chinese princess Li Si—whom Jim eventually
y childhood love for this novel was why I started to
study Chinese—at least, that was the story I typically told the
folks who would unfailingly ask me: "Why in the world would a
two-meter-tall blond German study Chinese?" But it wasn't true, or at
best was an oversimplification. There are just too many scenes in our
lives that weave into the tapestry of events and situations and lead to
later events (we might interpret them as decisions), including, in my
case, becoming an English-into-German translator.
The base statistics of my professional profile are relatively generic
for our tangled translation world: born in Germany, studied Chinese,
taught German in China, married an American I met in China, received a
PhD in Chinese studies in Hamburg, Germany, moved to the U.S. to work
in a translation company, started my own translation and writing
company, and wrote some books and newsletters on technical translation
Be passionate about language. This
is the one part that cannot be learned.
But clearly it's the motivation behind those dry resume
markings and odd international meanderings that are of interest. What
attracts someone to translation? What keeps one passionate and driven
to succeed and excel? Especially as a freelance translator, with no
outside pressure (except that "minor detail" of having to make a
living), there must be an inner motivation to make one go on.
For me, there are primarily two things that have been
the driving forces in what I do: adoration for languages, and more
specifically, writing and being creative in finding ways to simplify
This may sound like a strange dichotomy. On the one hand
are languages and writing systems in all their complex glory, and on
the other hand there is the desire to simplify processes, including the
process of translation. Yet to me, this is what makes our profession so
rich: Doing one without the other would cause us to lose ourselves in
marveling at the beautiful expressions, words, or characters. The
alternative would be processing dead matter on both ends: dead source
matter in and dead target matter out.
Perhaps these dual passions can be illustrated from some
further scenes in my life and studies that have truly been meaningful
Scene 2: In 1807 a Scotsman by the name of Robert
Morrison arrived in China with the goal of translating the Bible into
Chinese. A mere 15 years later he published the result, a translation
that was all but unusable. Not only had he lacked the appropriate tools
to learn Chinese—most of the time he had lived in hiding—but
he also had much too little help from native-speaking Chinese
translators. Still, his feat set off what may have been the most
interesting episode in translation history: the translation of the
Bible into Chinese. A century later, two dozen New Testaments and/or
Bibles had been published, many in different styles of Chinese and with
different levels of quality.
The most relevant differentiation among them was the
translation of one term: God. The translation of this single
term fueled feuds of a ferocity that no one would have expected the
(presumably) gentle missionaries capable of. At the core of the
controversy were these questions: Should a term be used that implied
that God had been revealed in ancient Chinese culture? Or should a
neologism be used that would define a break between Chinese culture and
Christianity? A stunning number of letters, articles, and books were
written about this. Today, 200 years later, the Chinese church still
uses different versions of the Bible with different terms for God, but,
surprisingly, with a sense of pride: What other culture has the
privilege of having two names for God?
Sound like a long-winded explanation of something that
may not seem relevant? Try spending a good part of a decade devoting
yourself to the history of Chinese Bible translation as I did. I still
find this evident power and complexity of the translation process
fascinating. And those missionaries were passionate—oh, so
passionate—about something that the later Chinese church
eventually put their minds to and solve with a very pragmatic solution.
Here is another way to explain it: If we let ourselves
be driven by only the heart or only the mind, we are going to either burn
up or dry up very quickly. It's the passion of the heart,
the love for something beyond ourselves, that makes us want to keep on
going. And it's the workings of our mind that satisfy us in what we do.
Scene 3: A few years ago I was part of a group of
very experienced and well-seasoned translators—many of
them more experienced than I was—working on the
translation of a large software product into seven or eight languages.
Once the translation was done, we were all flown out to the company's
headquarters to do the quality assurance for our languages. During the
five days we spent there, I must have spent at least three days helping
my colleagues solve computer problems. Now, I am not technical
(remember, I spent much of my adult life in dusty archives reading
missionaries' correspondence), but I had somehow or other found ways to
handle the necessary tools of the trade so they would become a help
rather than a burden.
That week spent with my colleagues prompted me to begin
an ongoing discussion with other translators—who are often as
untechnical as I am—about viewing tools as welcome helpers that,
if employed properly, can simplify things enormously. That's what I've
been doing ever since (in the form of a book, a newsletter, and an
e-learning site), and I cherish that part of my work life. It gives me
a balance in the kinds of tasks I work on, and I get to talk to an
appreciative audience. Translators tend to be lone wolves, but they
sure know how to express their appreciation when someone reaches out to
I love my life as a translator, perhaps because I have
consciously built this strange dichotomy I've talked about into my job
profile. To achieve a similar diversity, here is the advice I give to
- Be passionate about language. This is the one part
that cannot be learned: Your tapestry of life has either given it to
you or not.
- Use your mind to inform your passion. Be curious
about new tools that can improve your translation.
- Do at least one thing besides translation in your
professional life. There are many advantages to this, starting from
creating your own projects if there are no outside projects to
achieving a healthy diversity in your work life.
- Communicate with colleagues, whether at conferences
and other get-togethers or through electronic means.
As a final Christmas present for my colleagues, let me
share one of the results of my passion that I am very proud of: www.internationalwriters.com/characters.