On Saturday, January 14, 2012, the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Cameroon (APTIC) held its General Assembly in the conference room of Azur Hotel in Yaounde, Cameroon. I was invited to give a word of advice to the younger members of the Association. This is what I told them.
Mr. President of APTIC, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Translators and Interpreters, Ladies and Gentlemen:
A topic like the one I have chosen to talk on is a very broad one. It implies that society expects much more from us than just translation and/interpretation. We all wear different hats at different times, depending on the circumstances. At home, for example, some of us are spouses as well as fathers and mothers of families. At work, we may be supervisors, or managers, or heads of services, etc. How well, or how poorly, we wear each of these hats has considerable impact on our lives as translators and interpreters; and that is what I will strive to share with you this morning. To the older generation of translators and interpreters, like me, this may sound like taking a walk up an already well-beaten and familiar path; to the younger generation, however, a few things I share with you may strike a positive chord in their hearts and minds and change the way they see their lives as members of this noble profession.
The translator/interpreter and the family.
When I arrived from Douala yesterday, the first thing I did was to call my wife and daughter in Douala, and my two boys in the US of A, to reassure them of my safe arrival. In that particular instance, I was playing two important roles, besides being a translator or an interpreter: I was being a good husband to my wife and a good father to my children.
Had I failed to call them, I would have been unfaithful to my responsibility as a good husband and father. Anyone who hears that I came to Yaoundé but did not call my family would immediately ask to find out what I do for a living, what part of Cameroon I am from, or where I live. If, among the answers to these questions, they hear that I am a translator and interpreter, the typical reaction would then be: “That’s how those translators and interpreters are. They are heavy drinkers. They beat their spouses, double-cross them and maltreat their children.” Then they would quote one or two unfortunate cases of colleagues who might fit this stereotype and generalise it to us all. Then, it is no longer an individual who takes the beating, it is our profession that does. The public delights in stereotyping. A wrong move by one translator or interpreter becomes the bane of all translators and interpreters.
Why, you may wonder, am I asking APTIC members to be good spouses and parents? It is simply because a peace of mind at home enables you, as a translator or interpreter, to give the best of yourself to your work.
Wear the cap of humility
For the many years I spent in university amphitheaters around the world – Yaoundé, Madrid, Paris, Washington DC and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – the greatest minds I encountered, in whatever field of human endeavour, were always the humblest. Many of them passed you by unnoticed until you saw them standing in front of young minds and sharing their wealth of knowledge with them. As translators and interpreters, we too should keep our cap of humility firmly stuck onto our heads, never taking them off regardless of provocation or temptation; instead letting others doff theirs off in awe of us for our professional integrity.
Am I saying that in this highly fluid and competitive world, where translators and interpreters need to be seen and heard in order to gain a foothold in a highly uncertain market like ours, we should shrink into one corner and debase ourselves as a sign of humility? Not at all! Let us advertise ourselves in the most eye-catching manner possible but let us refrain from the frequent habit of stepping on each other’s toes, or denigrating them. There is room for everyone in our profession.
Supervisors and managers, beware!
Some of the people who should never take off the cap of humility from their heads are those of us in management positions wherever we work. Once given a position of responsibility over others, some of us start to behave as if we had just been dropped out of heaven. We start to lord it over others. Colleagues of yesterday suddenly become stiff-necked bosses of today, hardly even greeting the people with whom they worked prior to being appointed supervisors.
Here are few tips some of us can use. As a supervisor or manager, always strive to keep an open-door policy. In other words, always be ready to receive whoever comes to you for a job-related issue. Learn to listen to others and practise what two American management gurus, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, call “management by wandering around”. Do not wait for your people to come to you. As often as possible, go from office to office; greet your people, chat with them, find out how they are doing, how their work is coming, etc. Sometimes just find out how their family is doing. People mellow before such show of concern, especially from someone in a position higher up the ladder of responsibility. When this happens, admiration for you, as a human being and as a boss, will remain glued on everyone’s lips, during, and even long after, your tenure of office.
Let us admit our shortcomings and learn from them.
Another hat that firmly fits the head of a humble translator/interpreter is the ease with which they accept their shortcomings, correct and learn from them. Your dignity dazzles the eyes of all whenever you do not claim to have a monopoly of intelligence and when you admit your mistakes freely and openly and take action to correct them. Mistakes are, or should be, a springboard to growth. Ours is an ungrateful profession. Few ever come back to thank us for a job well done, but hardly anyone ever forgets our foibles and errors, and they fling them in our faces whenever the least opportunity presents itself. You can defuse such hostility, not by going on the offensive or resorting to a defensive attitude, but rather by admitting your errors, correcting them, and learning from them. Your life as a translator or interpreter will be less stressful when you refrain from needless polemics and fighting with people who know nothing about our job.
Let us recognise our limitations
I may be wrong, but experience has shown me that we are at our worse when we fail to recognise our limitations, especially when we translate or interpret into a language we do not fully master. Some years ago, a young man came to ask me to include him on the roster of translators I occasionally use when I am overwhelmed by work. I asked him his language combination and was astonished when he told me quite proudly that he could translate indifferently from English to French, French to English, English to Spanish, Spanish to English. How did he acquire the mastery of three of the world’s most widely used languages? He said he studied in one of our local lycées, then did his undergraduate studies at the University of Buea before gaining admission in ASTI from where, he proudly said, he had graduated top of his class – Magna Cum Laude.
My simple advice to him – which he did not visibly appreciate – was to concentrate on translating to his ‘A’ language (French), letting others, more competent in English and Spanish, to handle translation to those languages. Then I told him that even though I had been immersed in Spanish studies in Madrid and French studies in the Sorbonne before proceeding to Georgetown University in Washington DC for my translation/interpretation studies, I still did not feel competent enough to translate from English to French, except where no French-speaking colleague is within shouting distance. More often than not, I call on a French colleague to handle translations to French while I concentrate on those to English. Or, if I absolutely have to translate to French, I always make sure that a French-speaking colleague quality-controls the final product before it drops on the customer’s lap. I openly recognise my limitations, and so should we all. Why? Because the more you highlight the strengths of others, the more your own strengths as a good translator or interpreter stand out for admiration as well.
Why do we not always readily admit our limitations? Greed is the principal culprit. We want all the money for ourselves because when I call on a French colleague to handle translation to French for my customer, I literally surrender three quarters of the proceeds to him or her, which is how it should be since the translator in question does all the translation for me. What is the effect of such greed? When we do work for which we are not competent the result is shoddy at best. The customer is dissatisfied and chances that such a customer would come back to us are slim. It is, therefore, not only the individual translator who loses, it is our profession as a whole.
Pride and jealousy
Another culprit that keeps us from recognising the worth of our colleagues is pride coupled with jealousy. This is a deadly combination that makes us shy away from recognising and appreciating the strengths of others. When we talk about our colleagues, especially behind their backs, we usually only find words that hurt their reputation, not those that enhance it. I was talking with one of our young colleagues recently and when the name of an interpreter I hold in great esteem came up, this fellow spat out his indignation for him. He apparently knew him better than I did, having attended school with him some years back. His main contention was that the gentleman in question was now working in a foreign organisation as an interpreter when he had never studied interpretation before. I would have thought that he was going to express his admiration for someone who had not studied interpretation but had fought hard on his own to become a good interpreter, and was now working for a foreign organisation. No foreign organisation is going to employ someone who does not impress them with his/her competence in the field. My advice to the young man was: do not begrudge him his fortune. Imitate him instead and you too will become a good interpreter that a foreign organisation can also employ.
Cooperate, not compete
I worked for over 20 years for the oil industry and one thing that impressed me – among many others – was the way engineers cooperate with each other, for the smooth functioning of their operations. They are usually specialists in different fields – surface engineering, sub-surface engineering, production, etc. When confronted with a problem – and those are people who work under constant pressure — they all get together rapidly and quickly share their knowledge to resolve the problem.
I wish Cameroonian translators and interpreters were always as willing as oil engineers to come together, when the need arises, to share their knowledge and resolve work-related issues. What generally happens with us, though, is that we compete with each other, instead of cooperating with each other. We denigrate each other, not exalt each other’s performance. We stab our colleagues in the back rather than support and encourage them. Cooperation, not cutthroat competition, holds the key to success in any enterprise. The earlier Cameroonian translators and interpreters learn this simple truth, the better for our profession.
A translator or interpreter who fails to be smarter tomorrow than he or she is today is bound for the garbage heap. In other words, continual education is the key for tomorrow’s successful translators and interpreters. If you have the fortune to work for a company, or an organisation, that promotes ongoing education, you would be a damn fool if you fail to take advantage of it.
However, if you work for government ministries, where ongoing education is totally absent from your boss’ vocabulary, you better invest your time and money in other forms of ongoing training. There are now an endless number of online courses in just about every field imaginable. Let us strive for continuous performance improvement and we will enjoy our work as translators and interpreters more.
Be computer literate
When I talk about online courses, I assume naturally that all translators and interpreters in Cameroon are computer literate and that they each have an e-mail account. If you are still lagging behind in this rapidly changing world of information technology, you will have a hard time with tomorrow’s economy. Not only should we all be computer literate, we should all own at least a laptop, which we can take everywhere with us. Our laptops should be hooked up to the Internet. Our telephone companies, MTN, Orange, and others like Ringo, now sell USB keys that help to connect us to the web, wherever we may be in the Republic. This is indeed great progress which every interpreter or translator would do well to harness.
Learn to type.
It is always surprising to me that many colleagues still find a skill as basic as typing quite challenging, especially those working in government services. You have secretarial pools that handle all your typing for you, and this has created a massive class of typing-illiterates among translators and interpreters in this country. Translation work is still, for the most part, painfully written long hand and given to secretaries to type before the translator corrects/revises it. Come-on, folks! That is how it was done in the 19th century, not the 21st!
A few years ago, we hired the services of a translator, who had worked for several years for such awe-inspiring places as the Presidency of the Republic, the National Assembly, the PM’s office, etc. Those names rolled off his tongue with admirable fluidity. Pride literally exuded from his voice as he talked of how familiar he was with the inner sanctuary of those seats of power in our country.
We sent him work for translation and were waiting for him to send it back to us by e-mail, but I was shocked when he showed up a few days later with a pile of papers with neatly written inscriptions on it. What was that? I asked. He looked visibly surprised by my question because it was the work I had given him to translate. And why was he bringing it to me handwritten? He looked baffled. He was bringing it to me to hand over to my secretary to type for his review.
Our man strongly believed that typing was a demeaning job, which only women should be doing. He took great offence when I asked him to type it himself. Why would he, of all people, sit down over a typewriter? What were women secretaries made for? At the Presidency of the Republic and the National Assembly, he loudly boasted, the women secretaries were falling head over heels to type his work for him. Occasionally, he would toss a five hundred franc coin on their lap and they would literally fall down to worship him. How could I dare ask him to type his own work? He left in a murderous rage and is now busy telling anyone, who cares to listen, what an insolent fellow I truly am! But, learning to type is a skill every translator or interpreter should, and must acquire. Why? It gives you complete control of your work. It enables you to edit it at will as you translate. This gives you complete mastery over your own product.
The phobia for typing
The Cameroonian phobia for typing has always baffled me. Another case that comes to mind involved journalists of the Catholic Media House, commonly known by its French acronym MACACOS (Maison Catholique de la communication sociale). When I became that structure’s General Manager in 2004, we invested in computers and brought in the Internet. Then I informed the journalists that they were no longer going to have a secretary to type their stories for them. They would have to do it themselves. That sounded to their ears like a sacrilege and I nearly had a strike on my hands. A delegation from the journalists came to see me to tell me that nowhere else in the country were journalists typing their stories themselves. They gave the example of Cameroon Tribune, Le Messager, La Nouvelle Expression, etc. They all had secretaries to type stories for journalists; so why would L’Effort camerounais be different? I told them we were setting the pace for others to follow.
When they saw that I would not rescind my decision, and that I had actually transferred the girl, who served as secretary, to a different service, they then asked that the company pay for them to learn to type. I said, ‘Nyet!’ “Invest in your own training yourselves and you will appreciate it more.” I advised them to search in the Internet for free typing programs, which could help them increase their typing speed. Today, none of them would even think of giving their story to anyone else to type for them. They do it themselves and appreciate their work better as they edit and correct their stories in the course of typing them themselves.
Invest in a translation software package
Not only should every translator and interpreter invest in information technology and in a computer, they should also learn to use at least one translation software package (Trados, Wordfast, etc). My personal experience may serve a useful purpose here. For years, I vehemently resisted learning to use one. I pored over long texts and translated them the old-fashioned way. I did not want to hear anyone talk to me about getting help from a machine. One day, however, a customer dropped by with a multi-million CFA franc contract that had what I then considered a dangerous catch to it. It had to be done using Trados. I nearly froze to death. No amount of argument would convince the young lady to confide the work to me. When she left, I jumped into my car and sped up to Buea where a competent colleague, who manipulates Trados well, drilled me for days on it. Given my age, my educational background and my training, I do not master information technology easily. Even though I am a slow learner, I do end up learning well enough to perform in it. And if I can, so can you also, and you will see how truly delightful and quick it is to translate lengthy documents in a reasonably short space of time.
I was with one of our senior colleagues, Mr. Roland Ngong, the other day who was reading all the novels of one of Africa’s, nay, the world’s greatest writers, Chinua Achebe. He was painfully noting down all those beautiful expressions and proverbs of which only Achebe has the secret. Why was he doing that? I asked. He said it was always such a delight when an opportunity presented itself when he is interpreting to slip in one of Achebe’s proverbs. He would always see African delegates lift up their heads and smile, looking around to see where the interpreter is speaking from and occasionally one of them would give him a thumbs-up sign of appreciation. What can be more satisfying than to have your customer express delight for your work! Mr. Roland Ngong continuously invests in his own training by reading the works of a great master of the craft, and using the proceeds to enhance his work. The example of this seasoned and senior colleague is worth emulating.
Volunteer your time for worthy causes
One thing we can always do to put our profession in the limelight of praise, is to volunteer our time for worthy causes. For example, depending on the circumstances, I do not hesitate to translate documents for free, mainly for my church and for a charitable cause. I have facilitated several encounters in my church for free only to reap some unexpected dividends in the long run. I got called up to cover a meeting, for which I was handsomely paid, because one of the organisers of that meeting had seen and heard me cover a meeting within our church circles for free.
I am also a blood donor. The only sister we had fell very ill and volunteers streamed to her bedside to give her blood, which enabled her to pull through. When she recovered from her first illness, she spoke continuously about the generosity of people who did not even know her but who were generous with their blood. That left an indelible imprint on my mind and I decided that I too would help others with my blood.
Even if we cannot all stream to the Cameroonian Red Cross facility, or to an accredited hospital, to part with our precious blood – which would not be a bad idea, by the way – we can at least each find the time to participate in an activity that benefits our society, without necessarily expecting monetary reward in return. What of participating in a clean-up campaign in our neighbourhood, if any exists? If, on a Saturday morning, people were to see a senior translator or interpreter from the Presidency, or the National Assembly, or the Prime Minister’s office, in shorts, a spade and a broom in hand, actively participating with others in cleaning his/her neighbourhood, word goes round that translators and interpreters care about others.
Why, you may wonder, have I been telling you all these things, especially with such passion? It is because, as an old hand in this profession, I have gained enormously by striving, in my own way to be much more than just a translator and an interpreter. When you pay attention to your family life, show respect and concern for others, especially, but not exclusively, your colleagues at work; when you participate fully in the socio-political, religious and cultural life of your community, you stand tall in others’ minds and eyes. As admiration for your personal and community life grows, your professional life inevitably glows in the sight of all; and with it, the financial rewards we all yearn for. Thank you for listening to me.
Douala, January 27, 2012