For this issue of the Northwest Linguist Blog, Laura Friend, our current NOTIS president, interviewed Caitilin Walsh, who held the same role more than 20 years ago—from 1998 to 2000!
You can catch both Laura and Caitilin at our Annual ITD Event on October 1st as well as at #ATA63. Now, without further ado...
Laura Friend (LF): Caitilin, thank you so much for joining us. It is a pleasure to “sit down” with you for this virtual chat. You have done so much for our profession over the years, through NOTIS, ATA and Bellevue College, to name just a few organizations, that I think our members would benefit by hearing from you again in the Northwest Linguist.
Caitilin Walsh (CW): Thanks, Laura, it's always a pleasure to talk with people who have picked up the baton, especially for NOTIS, which will always have a special place in my heart.
LF: You started translating professionally in the late 1980s, after completing degrees in Theatre (Willamette University, 1984) and French Language and Literature (University of Strasbourg, 1989), is that right? What was it about translation that attracted you? How did your earliest projects come to you?
CW: I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but was discouraged when I returned to the U.S. with my shiny French diplomas; in order to teach, I would have had to complete yet another degree, and I needed to generate income (and we won't even mention how low the starting salary for a teacher was). My résumé opened doors to private schools, one of which had a translation department. Since I knew something about it—I had made the acquaintance of a conference interpreter in Germany—they put me on the desk managing T&I, and asked me to do some translation. It turns out that I had a knack for it, and projects started flowing in.
One of my first lessons was that smart project managers (who also do double duty as mentors) like married couples. My husband and I tried really hard to make our resumés different, but of course, our address was the same—and the reason we were first hired! Our first project was a simple one-page invoice, and we spent hours on it. We got hung up on a reference to "16 chains”—we just couldn't make sense of it (how do you count chains?), until my long-haul trucker brother showed up (it was close to dinner time), looked over our shoulders, and said, “Oh, yeah, that's the company that makes these neat new cable chains—so much easier to put on than old chains!” That's when I learned lesson #2: know what you are writing about.
LF: You translate primarily for the software and culinary industries. Did one come before the other? Do you approach software translation projects and culinary translation projects differently?
CW: Software definitely came first. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a localization intern and applied (theatre people will try their hand at anything). I was the only applicant who actually had any real language skills—all the other applicants just "loved travel.” I learned localization from the ground floor—this was just about the time Windows 3.1 came out and changed the game. From there, demand for freelance localization kept me very busy for years, and padded my bank account nicely. Software has many technical demands, but the hardest part is working with developers (and some managers) who never studied language and could not grasp things like gender or accented characters, or different syntax. The sector has matured immensely.
I've always "studied” foods and am accomplished in pastry work and classical French techniques. So, I worked my connections and landed translating recipes in glossy magazines and several cookbooks. It really is a highly technical exercise in knowing how foods and ingredients work: if I add a little more butter to a pastry recipe to round a converted measurement, it won't make a difference; but if I change the amount or type of sugar in a frozen dessert by even one gram, it won't have the right texture. You really need to have a depth of understanding that most home cooks don't.
In the end, both types of translation really have to be user-focused: will they understand a new program or recipe?
LF: I see you have volunteered for Translators without Borders for the past 11 years. What inspired you to get involved with that organization, and what is the nature of the work you do for them? Are there ever legitimate grounds for concern about potential exploitation of volunteers in arrangements of this sort?
CW: If you look at long standing traditions in the "liberal professions” ("professions libérales"), one important piece is pro bono work. Everyone from lawyers to architects to doctors is expected to volunteer their services for the good of society. Translators without Borders is one way I found to give back to those finding themselves in a situation where they need help.
One of the most powerful lessons we can learn both professionally and personally is to set boundaries—that's a lesson from my years in the theatre: you can only be exploited if you allow it; you always have the opportunity to say ‘no.’ (And this applies to more than volunteering professional services!) The folks at TWB have always sought feedback from volunteers to make our experience meet our capacities and abilities.
LF: You served as president of both NOTIS (1998-2000) and the American Translators Association (2013-2015). In your opinion, what are some of the main benefits of organizations like these?
CW: In an industry dominated by self-employed people (and mostly women), professional associations provide us with a "home” to be with others like us. I've seen a wonderful evolution over the years from where we went to meetings to be able to gripe about demanding clients to a place where professionalism is something we learn from each other, and support is just a quick message away. It also allows us to amplify our voices both for our profession and the people we serve, both locally and beyond. I personally enjoy being able to spend this phase of my career focusing on projects that will strengthen our profession for future generations.
LF: You also teach translation and have been working as an Adjunct Faculty Instructor at Bellevue College for 30 years now. What are some tips you can share with student translators and interpreters who are just starting out in the industry?
CW: Because the “product” we sell as independent contractors is ourself, students need to not only work on the “externals” of gaining and honing the skills to work; they also need to spend some time introspectively. Do their life experiences (past jobs, hobbies, curiosity) lead them to certain areas of practice? Do they have the self-discipline to work for themselves, or should they be seeking an in-house position? Knowing yourself is key to marketing your services, setting your rates, and creating a business structure that works for you.
There's no single piece of advice for newcomers, since so much depends on what their own strengths and weaknesses are: if you're gregarious, networking will come naturally; an introvert may abhor the networking but excel at terminology research. If they know and understand their own value, they shouldn't get trapped by unreasonable demands or usurious practices. Learning to say "no” is an important life and business skill. And of course, I am a huge proponent of joining the local and national group(s), both for T&I and for your particular focus area.
LF: Can you tell us a bit about the T&I certificate programs at Bellevue College’s Tombolo Institute? Who are they designed for? How do they prepare aspiring language professionals for careers in translation and/or interpreting?
CW: We were given the brief to revamp the successful, decades-old program at Bellevue College by splitting it into two comprehensive certificates: a language-neutral core certificate, and language-specific skills-building certificate. Additionally, we integrated technology and ethics into each unit of the program, since they touch on all areas of what we do. Our target audience is people with advanced language skills—either learned or heritage language—who want to enter this broad field. By providing them with the tools they need to work (everything from how to work with CAT tools to how to market themselves to working through ethical dilemmas), and the time to really reflect on what they bring to the equation in terms of specialized knowledge and ability, students should leave the program ready to launch their careers.
Caitilin Walsh is an ATA-Certified French-English translator specializing in software and gastronomy, and a translation educator. A past president of the American Translators Association and the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, she chairs the ATA Education and Pedagogy Committee and works on a local and national scale to bring organizations and institutions together to create and illuminate educational pathways for Heritage speakers and World Language students seeking to use their skills in rewarding careers. She brings her strong opinions on professionalism to bear as an instructor in the Translation and Interpreting Certificate Program at Bellevue College’s Tombolo Institute. When not at her computer, she can be found pursuing creative endeavors, from orchestral music to food preparation. You can follow her on Twitter @caitilinwalsh.
Laura Friend is a certified Russian and French to English translator specializing in legal translation. She is currently the President of NOTIS. View her bio here, and read more about her journey as a translator in last month’s issue of the Northwest Linguist Blog.