A Vocation Found
This is the first of a series of slightly-edited articles originally written for the Translation Journal, a web publication founded by Gabe Bokor with which I had a very happy relationship for several years.
It was back in 1997 when Gabe Bokor invited me to submit an article. I was surprised, elated and scared. But I am not the type to back away from this type of challenge. So I wrote The Language of Inflation, my first piece for the TJ and still my favorite.
In those times, most of my work was done locally because there was (and still is) a dearth of translators in Brazil whose native language is English. E-mailing a file to someone abroad was out of the question, and we had to make do with whatever we had at hand, meaning, in short, that most of my work was INTO English. It would still be, if I still kept my Brazilian practice. But now I am gradually retiring and all that remains are the memories, good and otherwise.
A Vocation Found
Volume 5, No. 1
I was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in December 1942, into a lower-middle-class family, with stress on lower, I would say. We lived in a rat-infested decrepit house owned by my grandfather in a neighborhood where most people were of Italian descent, although my family is Portuguese and Spanish.
In the late 1940’s you could divide Brazilian schools into three levels: many very bad private –schools, some good public schools, and a few excellent private schools.
One started going to school at seven in those times and in February 1950 I went–to a private school that was far from luxurious, but still more costly than advisable under the circumstances. Three years later we moved to a better home in a different section of the city–and I began my career in the public school system. Public escolas primárias, that is, first to fourth grade, were very bad and I felt the dip in quality. However, the next year, I was in the ginásio–and the ginásio estadual was something special. There were very few of them, there was a very tough entrance examination (very few dared to apply and about one out of three applicants was accepted) and prospective teachers also had to pass a tough examination.
It was a great place, indeed. School buildings were in short supply and GET (Ginásio Estadual do Tatuapé, later Instituto de Educação “Professor Ascendino Reis”) functioned as an evening school, using a building that during the day was a grupo escolar, or public primary school.
Many of the students were quite old for today’s standards. People often dropped out of school at eleven but came back at fifteen or so. One of my female colleagues was eighteen–an elderly lady by my standards. Many of them were too tall for the desks they used. Mostly, poor people who had to struggle for a place in public school because even the cheapest private academy was far beyond their means. Many had daytime jobs.
I spent nine years in high school, for I failed my year-end examinations twice – and that requires further explanation. In those days, there was no such a thing as career guidance and my parents just wanted the best for me. So, when I finished junior high (ginásio) I moved into the science-oriented científico senior high, supposedly “the best.” However, this was a big mistake, given that, to this day, I find the rule of three a mystery. So I crawled along until I was expelled, as was anyone who flunked one too many times. With hundreds of bright, hard-working boys eager for a place in a tuition-free school, the State had no room for laggards like me.
I deserved my bad grades. I knew nothing and cared less. All I wanted was to learn English, talk with my pals and play the accordion. I entirely lacked a sense of direction in life.
Under the spell of Gilberto Rizzo, my second English teacher, who now lives in the U.S. and with whom I had a very long telephone conversation the other day [remember this was written in 2001], my knowledge of English began to improve. Once someone taught us about pen pals (Dr. Sven V. Knudsen, Copenhagen, Denmark–anyone remembers?) I got a few pals for myself and soon was writing letters for several other colleagues, whose English was worse than mine.
On the day of my last oral examination in Philosophy, I decided the examination could wait until I had expounded a certain point in world politics to a group of bored colleagues and was quite late. The teacher, Father João Dias greeted me with a you are late in English, to which I retorted with a better late than never in the same language. Both of us felt that the first one to switch back to Portuguese would lose face, so we went on and on in English. Not very good English, but still recognizably English.
But I, as I said, I was expelled from school for flunking once too many times. And I entirely lost my bearings. I could easily have finished high school in a private academy and then go to college, but somehow I drifted along making some money by playing the accordion and private tutoring in a number of things some of which I did not know very well. In those times the accordion was very much in fashion and I played it reasonably well. For a time, I was an attraction on the Jewish hour on TV–despite the fact that I am not Jewish. But this is São Paulo and nobody pays too much attention to those things.
For a time I taught English at a local network known as Escolas Fisk and when I got married I ran my own Fisk franchise in Porto Alegre, in the South of Brazil. It was a complete failure and I had to return to São Paulo, absolutely penniless. A few months later I landed a job as a translator with Arthur Andersen, a now defunct CPA firm. It was 1970 and I was going on thirty, but it was only then that I discovered what should have been obvious since I had started writing pen pal letters for my colleagues in high school: viz. that my life was in translation.
In the beginning, I worked as a part-time staff translator for the CPAs and moonlighted for a publisher. I soon decided to work full-time as an independent contractor.
I drudged along until the Internet became a reality three or four years ago [again, please, keep in mind this was written in 2001] . Then there was Trad-prt, a discussion list for those translators who have one foot in Portuguese. I am of the garrulous type; always eager to give an unbalanced opinion on some matter I have only an inkling of. Of course, I am quite experienced in some fields and some of my advice on those things has been useful. But I am quite sure it was the humorous quips that made me known.
Then Gabe Bokor invited me to write for the Translation Journal. Although I am very vain, not to say conceited, I am also a very insecure person and must confess I was terrified of the proposition. But my first contribution was quite successful and my articles have become sort of a permanent feature, something I am very proud of.
I have also conducted seminars on technical matters in three Brazilian cities, with attendees from eight Brazilian states. [Again, this was 2001. The number now is a lot bigger]. Then there was the unforgettable week in Portugal, working in Lisbon and talking to students in Coimbra. Then there were the talks to students and peers in colleges and conferences in Brazil. Then there may be a seminar in the U.S. next year. Then there were the glossaries published in Brazil, of which the first two have already appeared and others are due in the near future. Last but not least, I am now working part-time in a translation company, doing this and that.
Life can be great fun, believe me.[Post Scriptum: Most articles for the Translation Journal are too long for the blog and will be published in installments. I hope you like them. Between the installments, I will post other stuff which I hope will interest you.]