The Accidental Translator


This book tells the story of how I accidentally became a translator — and soon thereafter an interpreter — 30 years ago. It also testifies to how winding anybody’s professional route is and it drives home an idea best summarized in this quote by John Lennon:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”

The book was given to me by a friend during a coffee break in Rio, where we were both pursuing a graduate education in high-performance fitness training. The year was 1986, and I was fresh out of college with a Physical Education degree. translator

It was a book on a novel sport that had me hooked almost immediately: Triathlon. I had given it a try a year or so before, and ranked high enough in the competition to at least keep training. As soon as I was back in Brasilia, with the book in my bag, I took it upon myself to translate it into Portuguese.

To do so I had to first find a publisher bold enough to risk releasing a book on a sport few people knew anything about. More: I had to find someone crazy enough to believe that over-tanned, skinny-looking P.E. teacher with zero track record as a translator could eventually do the job. My English credentials were a bit shaky at the time. Unlike most translators, I learned the language in Brazil, through a series of unfinished courses, battered VHS tapes (ask your father what that is) and thanks to the gracious support of family and friends.

I knocked on at least a hundred doors and got a matching number of rejections. My excitement was fading with each passing day and eventually became apparent to one of the great people I gathered around a pool daily for some coaching in swimming. Flavio Saraiva, a college professor who doubled as chief adviser to the university president, heard my story and offered to deliver a letter to the man if I so wished.

Three days later he emerged from the cloakroom with a smirk on his face and an envelope in his hands. Inside it were instructions from his boss, Cristovam Buarque (who would later become a senator, a governor and presidential hopeful). The note said, simply: “I think your idea is opportune. Please look for Prof. Such and Such at the University Press.”

About eight months later, I had in my hands the very first copy of the book in Portuguese, hot off the printing press. And plastered across the first page was my name as a translator. Folded inside, a note from the editor — and longtime friend since — Regina Marques:

“An accomplishment worthy only of great spirits. Congratulations!”

I eventually misplaced the book. But I kept the note, out of gratitude. I pull it out and look at it from time to time, whenever life wears me down or a dream is taking longer than usual to materialize. Doing so reminds me of a truism I have confirmed time and again:

Pursuing my dreams and trusting the universe never failed me and never will.

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Are you a translator? Share your story.

Are you also an accidental linguist?

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8 thoughts on “The Accidental Translator

  1. Really interesting article, thank you for sharing. I realized I wanted to become a conference interpreter when I was 18 and visited my future university to gather as much information as possible on my course.
    I am a conference interpreter right now and I think it’s a wonderful job, even if it’s not always sunny and you need to struggle every day, but this is also funny because you never get bored and you never stop learning.
    It may not seem something new to say, but your story shows once again that in any profession you should never give up.

    1. Hi, Brenda. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your story. I went on to become an interpreter myself, and it’s been a long while since I last translated anything. I agree with you that interpreting, despite the stress, will keep one entertained for years on end.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. It is truly uplifting.
    I am an accidental linguist too, and my career started with a book. In my case it was Lynn Visson’s “From Russian into English” on conference interpreting. I was reading it during Christmas break in college where I was a third-year economics major. Somewhere around page 12, the light went on in my head: “This is what I want to do!” Several months later, I changed schools, changed my major, and never had a boring day on the job, interpreting or translating.
    It might be a coincidence, but since I made that decision, I have been surrounded by people from different walks of life (not just linguists) who made their hobbies into their main occupations as well. One thing they all have in common: they are all happy and optimistic people. In my experience, pursuing your dreams is worth the effort.

    1. Hi, Sasha.
      I guess your story and mine are the rule, rather than the exception. We were all drawn into the field by different but very genuine reasons. That may help explain why you find yourselves in the company of some happy people. I have met some very unhappy translators. But here it is the other way around: they are the exception, rather than the rule. Thanks for sharing your story. I invite you to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a bit.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story and experience!! You’re such an inspiring person!….and a great interpreter (I guess!).

    I’m a translator and conference interpreter. I’ve studied so much to became what I am today…and I keep on studying as this job is a continuous challenging experience. Sometimes it’s very hard, especially due to unfair competitiveness…!! But I love every single job I get ( in the booth or translating at home). That’s what I love to do, that’s what I wanna do. And if you want it you can get it!

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi, Francesca. It is so interesting to hear from other colleagues and learn that something we wrote resonated with them! Thanks for sharing your impressions. Good to hear you’re happy as an interpreter. It can be a very competitive world — more so in some markets than others. But the joy is always there, that is for sure. My next post will tell the story of how I broke into interpreting (again, quite unexpectedly). I invite you to sign up on this blog to stay tuned.

  4. What a great story and accomplishment.

    I am NOT an official translator, but I do a lot of translating at my job (and technical at that).

    I have always loved languages and admire those who have made it into their profession. I don’t think everyone understands how much work goes into it. Languages are always changing and one needs to keep on studying and learning.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Hi, Maria Elena. Thank you very much for taking the time to read my story and for leaving a personal note. Much appreciated. It is surprising how we come to ‘choose’ our professions.

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