Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teresa Translator

Teresa Translator interpreting at an international conference in Taipei

Proofreaders, translators, and copy editors

Shipping Department
In May of 1983, the assistant editor-in-chief of the church publishing company paid Lynne and me a visit. He invited us to sit in on their translation discussions regarding the outlines and other material for an international church conference in California in July. Lynne and I had planned from the outset that we would end our year in Taiwan with a trip to that conference. We were both very interested in helping out because the translated materials for the Chinese New Year seminar had had egregious errors in the Chinese. The discussions began at 1:30 pm and went on late into every night. Lynne was not able to get out of her teaching duties from Monday through Friday, so I went by myself on the week days, and Lynne just came on Saturdays (which was a work day in Taiwan).

I am not sure how much I was able to contribute during my first few months as a translator, but I certainly noticed that my progress in Chinese increased rapidly. Many times I came across what I perceived as errors in translation because the text did not slavishly follow the original text word for word, but then I would learn that this was a more literate way of saying what I was trying to say. I learned that there is a huge difference between formal, written Chinese and the colloquial, spoken language. The assistant editor-in-chief and I would have horrendous arguments about a phrase or even a word. Sometimes we would go around in circles for an entire afternoon. In the end, we would take our problem to the editor-in-chief, an elderly gentleman with impeccable English and Chinese. He would first tell me that my Chinese was not up to understanding what had been written and that the Chinese did convey the meaning as it stood; then, more often than not, he would next turn to the assistant editor-in-chief and tell him that his Chinese was awkward and ambiguous and come up with a simple, elegant rendering which captured the meaning of the English while adhering to standards of good Chinese writing.

When the proofreaders and copy editors saw that I was not afraid to take on the assistant editor-in-chief, they would bring me what they perceived to be problems in the translation on the sly. I became their foil to improve the overall quality of the translation. I did not realize what they were doing until much later, but such a move was very typical of Chinese culture at the time. If a person had the title of assistant editor-in-chief, no one dared contradict him to his face. The proofreaders were afraid to take things directly to the editor-in-chief, too, because he was extremely busy with all of his projects. The result was that many of the company’s translated publications were unintelligible to the average Chinese reader.

By adding my objections to the mix, our production slowed down considerably. This meant that we worked past midnight most days of the week. Eventually, I had to cancel my tutoring classes. I was not being paid by the publishing company, but I was learning so much through the translation discussions that I thought my time was better spent at the publishing company. I also thought this was going to be a temporary project. By that time, I was pretty sure I would need at least another year to get completely fluent in Chinese, and I was considering returning for another year of classes if I could work out the logistics of financing tuition and living expenses.

By the middle of June, it became obvious to the general manager of the publishing company that none of his staff was going to be issued a US visa to attend the conference. He asked Lynne and me to lead Taiwan’s group of participants to the conference and to be sure that the boxes of translated materials made it to conference headquarters. We agreed to do these two things, but we did not know that he had also listed our names as workers from his company to help run the conference. Before leaving the US in 1982, we had made arrangements with friends in DC to enroll us in the conference and find us a private home-stay. When we arrived at the airport, we got the books and all the members of the Taiwanese contingent through customs, and then we left with a woman named Sue, who was our home-stay hostess for the week. No one noticed that we had gone.

It was such a relief to us to be in an American home. The shower was fixed to the wall over our heads, and we had all the cheese and sweet snacks we wanted. We immediately went to sleep on clean sheets for the next 15 hours. We had the Chinese publications safely in the trunk of Sue’s car and were planning to take them to conference headquarters first thing the next morning. The head of the Taiwan publishing house had neglected to tell us that he was arranging for his American counterpart to pick us up, give us lodging and put us to work. I guess he was afraid that we would say no, and then he would be in trouble for not contributing manpower to help run the conference. We were blissfully unaware that the publishing companies on both sides of the Pacific were frantically trying to locate the missing books and workers. We had a refreshing sleep, a great American breakfast, another shower with full water pressure, and then we took the books to the California office.

When we got the cartons inside the door, we were besieged by frantic secretaries wanting to know where the Chinese women Lynne and Teresa were. We had a hard time figuring things out, until the manager came out and told us that we had been signed up to work during the conference. There was a moment of total confusion, and then we met with the manager in private. He spoke with the owner of the two publishing companies, who was also the author of the publications. The author was quite pleased with the improvements in the accuracy of the Chinese translation. In the end, we were both offered jobs translating at the branch office in Taiwan if we wanted to return to Taipei to continue our Chinese studies. Lynne was unable to go back because she had to begin repaying student loans, and she needed to start her career as an ESL teacher. She went back home with Sue and returned to DC to teach English at the end of the conference. I accepted the translation position and moved into the company dorm at the conference facility.

When the management learned I spoke Spanish and that I had taken courses in interpretation and translation at Georgetown, I was immediately put to work as the assistant Spanish interpreter for the conference. I had not spoken Spanish in a year, but after the first session, it all came back to me. People from the Taiwan contingent would seek me out during break times to help them buy things or to handle communication problems. Eventually, I did not know what language I was speaking. I found myself speaking Spanish when I thought I was speaking Chinese and Chinese when I thought I was speaking English. Sometimes it seemed as though my entire brain was frozen.


Joannalynne said...

do that too...speak one language thinking I'm speaking something else. Its really bad because now I have to catch myself from speaking in Italian when I go to Chinese class right after my Italian class.

I can't believe you were able to translate after learning for only a year. That's such an amazing feat!

Teresa said...

I wasn't really translating after a year. I was just proofreading the translations of others and arguing with the assistant editor-in-chief.

During the breaks at the conference, I was mainly helping old ladies who spoke no English ask prices or buy vitamins, Ben-gay, and tylenol in nearby drugstores because those items were not sol in Taiwan then.

I hope you're not writing in Chinese on your Italian exams. That could be a little problematic when it comes to keeping your scholarship....

Linda McLaughlin said...

It sounds like a fabulous learning opportunity, though it must have been exhausting, too. Very interesting.

Teresa said...

It was exhausting. I also went through a period when I couldn't remember phone numbers that I had heard first in Chinese when I was thinking in English and vice-versa. Eventually, my brain made more connections between the stereophonic language tracks.

murat11 said...

How wonderful to be soaking in a multilingual steambath. The conference escapades sound like pure Marx Brothers.

This far into the memoir, it seems clear that there is Design to this life. Were you always aware of God's hand in all of this? And did it add to your perseverance and commitment, knowing that you were involved in a larger picture? You've mentioned church several times, so I'm trusting the questions will not offend...

Teresa said...

No, Murat, the questions do not offend. Both Lynne and I felt led by God to go to Taiwan, and we certainly survived only through much prayer. I truly believe that our faith helped immensely.