Our story begins with my addiction to foreign languages. For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with languages. When I was learning to talk, I had a Columbian babysitter, so I first began speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English. One of my earliest memories is visiting the cow farms at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture and asking my parents what “toro” was in Spanish. I was horrified to learn that I was already speaking Spanish, and I didn’t know the word in English. When I was four or five, I saw a program about translators at the UN on PBS and immediately decided that I was going to be a translator. I shocked my kindergarten teacher on the first day of our career unit by stating that I was going to be a translator at the UN instead of a nurse or a teacher or a mommy like the other little girls.
I kept the dream alive until I could study Spanish and German in secondary school. Then my mom found me opportunities to be an exchange student to Costa Rica and Germany. By the time I was 16 years old, I was fluent in English, Spanish, and German and had traveled around Europe and Central America. I studied French and Latin during my senior year of high school because I was beyond the school’s Spanish and German classes. French and Latin were so easy for me that the teacher eventually gave me blanket skip privileges as long as I turned in all homework and scored 98 or better on all tests.
For college, I went to Georgetown University, where I majored in Spanish, learned conversational Japanese, and studied German-English translation. Spring semester of my senior year, I had to decide what I was going to do with my life. Georgetown accepted me into its Spanish Master’s program. The NSA offered me a job listening in on Spanish-language phone calls. I was having fun helping a Puerto Rican friend do translation from English to Spanish, but I just wasn’t ready to settle down. In April some Chinese friends asked me to edit a document they had translated from Chinese into English. All the words were spelled right, there were no grammatical errors, but I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say. My translation teacher had told us that the best translations come from collaboration between a native speaker of the original language and a native speaker of the target language who are fluent in both languages. When I could not help my Chinese friends, I knew what I was going to do!! I was going to learn Chinese.
I asked around and learned that Georgetown had a sister-school relationship with National Taiwan Normal University. I was given preferential enrollment to NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center. My Chinese friends helped me find a place to stay in a Chinese household. A friend graduating in TESL decided to come along to get experience teaching English abroad. So we set off blithely at the end of August, 1982. I thought it would be easy; after mastering Spanish and German, no language had been too much for me. Learning by immersion would make things go more easily. I estimated it would take me nine months to become fluent in Chinese. Then I could return to the US and begin my career in translation. If only I had known how hard it would be!!!