I graduated from Manchester University in 1979, still not sure what I wanted to do, but knowing that it had to involve languages. Like lots of fresh graduates back then, I drifted into teaching English as a foreign language at an evening school in Hamburg. I enjoyed the work for two years, and loved Hamburg, but gradually got fed up with the very irregular working hours. Apart from teaching, the other obvious job for a languages graduate seemed to be translation, but I felt I should first obtain some further qualification. I therefore returned to England and did a postgraduate translation diploma at the Polytechnic of Central London (now known more glamorously as the University of Westminster!)
Before I had even taken the final exams, I started applying for jobs in Germany, and in the summer of 1985 I came to Stuttgart to work as an in-house translator. I’ve been in my present job at STAR Deutschland GmbH in Böblingen near Stuttgart since 1990. It’s really not typical for a translator to work in-company for so long, most stay just a few years to gain some varied experience and then leave to work freelance. That can be much more lucrative, and working from home does have its advantages (no commuting!), but it can also be a very lonely life. Suits some, but not me, so I was always happy to stay at STAR, which is now the biggest translation company in Germany. Although the bulk of our work can be described as ‘technical translation’, I myself have no real technical background, so I tend to concentrate on non-technical texts – press releases, marketing, trade fair brochures etc.
In my 31 years working as a translator, the job has changed considerably. In the early days, we often had to painstakingly update previous versions of the texts to be translated, especially where operating manuals or instructions were concerned. Then in the 1990s, translation memory, or TM, was all the rage, and automated the ‘cut and paste’ process. It met with some resistance at first, but became increasingly important for the translation of certain types of technical texts. Without TM, the great volume of technical documentation required by our customers today would not be possible in the time allowed.
What TM was in the 1990s, MT (machine translation) is now. At present, the computers really cannot generate an acceptable translation of demanding texts, and all kinds of howlers make us humans laugh. Just recently, I had to check an automated translation of the instructions for use of a sauna. People should please never sit or lie naked on the wood – “immer Handtuch unterlegen”. These last words came out as “always towel inferior”! So the human translator still does have a part to play. I’m nearly sixty now, so my job should be safe, but I wouldn’t like to say what the situation will be like in 50, or even 20 years…
Even now, after I’ve spent more than half of my life in Germany, the novelty of being immersed in the German language has never worn off, and for me it’s still a very rewarding experience to live in a foreign-language environment. Germany is also a great place for cycling; every summer I set off on one of the many national cycling routes for a couple of weeks’ bike-riding. It’s possible to cycle from one end of the country to the other on the network of bike paths barely touching a main road.
Everybody in Europe now learns English, often to a very good level, but not the level of native speakers. So native English speakers who also have a very good knowledge of other languages are therefore still in demand in the world of translation, and it will be some time yet before those pesky machines are able to take over completely.