Monthly Archives: April 2015

Translator’s Library: Part One

As spring gets underway, the thoughts of translators — at least in Tucson, Arizona — have turned to … books.  That was the subject of discussion at a local lunch that took place at the European Deli on Sunday, April 19.

How-to or “tools of the trade” books such as Morry Sofer’s Translator’s Handbook, with all its continually updated editions, would seem to be obvious candidates for any translator’s attention.  However, that Sunday the group chose to focus on less obvious but still worthy mentions.  Foremost among these were translator biographies.  In that regard, Russian translator Kenny Cargill revealed that he had been reading a biography of Constance Garnett (1861-1946), a noteworthy translator of Russian literature. Some brief facts about her follow.

Based in the U.K., Garnett lived in an era in which women’s roles were closely circumscribed and translators typically tended to be male.  Undeterred, she pursued her education with full vigor and managed to break down gender barriers.  As a translator specializing in the Russian language, she was the first to translate works by Dostoevsky.   A number of other 19th century Russian authors, including Tolstoy, also received the benefits of her translating attention.  She managed to leave behind an enduring legacy in the literary translation field; her translations continue to be reprinted to this day.

To be sure, Garnett has not been without her critics.   Some have charged that her translations deviate too much from the source texts.  Some have even gone so far as to claim that, in taking liberties with the adapting of texts, she sought, in effect, to fill the role of author, rather than that of mere translator.  To judge the matter for one’s self would of course require a good grasp of Russian combined with a thorough examination of original and translated texts for purposes of comparison.  Only then could one determine whether Garnett, in penning her translations, took her adaptation of texts too far or whether she was simply exercising the leeway that applies to literary translation.

When not providing fodder for biographers’ pens, translators of all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds have managed to make it into fiction, a topic I covered during the lunch.  Fictional translators, like their real-life counterparts, have definitely experienced their share of travel and adventure — or misadventure, as the case may be.  A search for fictional translators’ tales at my local public library yielded a rather lengthy list of titles.  Below is a brief look at a small sample of these.

In Nina Schuyler’s The Translator, protagonist Hanne Schubert’s life literally takes a rough-and-tumble turn when she falls down a flight of stairs and consequently develops a rare but real condition in which she loses her native English but retains the Japanese she acquired later in life.  Faced with this new set of linguistic limitations, she takes what would seem to be the most logical step in response; she moves to Japan.  However, once there, her troubles are far from over.  The Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated accuses her of sabotaging his work.  In an effort to get to the bottom of things, Hanne seeks out the actor who served as the inspiration for the author’s novel.  A highly complicated relationship follows.

Georg Polger, a translator eking out a living in southern France in Bernhard Schlink’s The Gordian Knot, has plenty of relationship troubles of his own.  He is approached with the offer of a job as head of a local translation agency — an offer that seems too good to refuse.  Matters quickly heat up, however, when, having taken the job, he falls for the job recruiter’s secretary, only to discover her secretly photographing a military project of a classified nature.  Shortly after this revelation, she disappears.  Georg sets out on a quest to discover not just where — but who — she really is.  In so doing, he may be in over his head.

Meanwhile, not far from the Boston Harbor, Lydia Pallas (featured in Elizabeth Camden’s Against the Tide), a translator working for the U.S. Navy, would seem to be set for life, with all the comfort and security she needs.  However, all that is about to change.  A man on a quest to end the opium trade needs a translator.  Lydia accepts his mission, only to find that her new job is far more difficult and dangerous than she had anticipated.

Anyone with a young reader in his or her life should note that fictional translator tales don’t have to be for adults only.  Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman featured in Scott O’Dell’s Streams to the River, River to the Sea, was actually not only a real person but also possibly the most famous interpreter in U.S. history.  She owes this distinction to the fact that she served as an interpreter during the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806).  While definitely a worthy subject for plenty of nonfiction writing, she has enjoyed a generous share of fictional treatment as well.

O’Dell’s tale for young adults begins when, at the age of thirteen, Sacagawea is captured by members of the Hidatsa tribe.  As a captive, she becomes fluent in the Hidatsa language.  Enter French trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who wins her in a hand game and makes her his wife.  When they meet up with Lewis and Clark, the stage is set for the pair, accompanied by their baby son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, to join the expedition, traveling from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Coast.

Having survived a number of hardships and dangers on their journey, the group ultimately meets up with members of the Shoshone tribe.  It is during this encounter that Sacagawea, who has had no contact with her people since being taken captive, is reunited with her brother, now a chief.

Some background is in order concerning the Lewis and Clark approach to interpreting.  Modern-day interpreters serving at functions involving two or more nations or tribes typically speak multiple languages between them and can rely on headphones and other technology to speed the communication process.  By way of contrast, the interpreting that took place between the Shoshone and the English-speaking members of the Lewis and Clark expedition involved going through a long, arduous series of steps.  The Shoshone chief (or other  tribal spokesman) would communicate his message.  Sacagawea would then translate the message into Hidatsa, the language she had picked up as a captive.  Her husband, Charbonneau, long fluent in Hidatsa since he had frequently done trading with members of that tribe, would then translate the message into his native French.  An expedition member fluent in French then translated the message into English — the final step of the interpretation process.  When members of the Lewis and Clark party wished to communicate messages of theirs to the Shoshone, the whole process, of course, was repeated in reverse.

It should be noted that, regardless of circumstances beyond her control, Sacagawea was not merely the passive recipient of events that befell her.  On the contrary, O’Dell depicts her as a strong, independent individual and thus definitely a worthy and admirable character for modern-minded readers, whether male or female.

Rounding up this brief look at fictional translators, nine-year-old British girl Maddy, featured in Brian Falkner’s Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, has the amazing ability to speak every language in the world.  Her mother, at first wary upon discovering Maddy’s unique ability, soon finds ways to capitalize on it.  Once Maddy appears on a talk show, word spreads rapidly of her language abilities.  A certain professor seeks her out in the hope that she can translate some ancient scrolls located at a monastery in Bulgaria.  The professor seems trustworthy enough, and getting her parents to approve the trip does not prove difficult.  At first Maddy is thrilled to be embarking on this adventure abroad.  Evidence soon surfaces, however, that the professor is not quite all she seems.  What is her real motive in requesting the translation of the scrolls?  It would seem that they contain not benevolent information but evil spells.  Events take a sinister turn when the young, adventuresome translator finds herself kidnapped.  Her only hope of escape lies in turning to her friends, including a young, aspiring ninja, for help.

Two themes here will definitely ring true to real-life translators with a bit of age and experience under their belts.  First, the profit motive is alive and well in the world of translation, and the linguistically gifted can and do face the very real risk of exploitation.  However, on a brighter note, if one finds one’s self in a bit of a jam, beset by circumstances that threaten to overwhelm one’s problem-solving capabilities, the right kind of teamwork can make all the difference in the world.


Non-Fiction:  Biography

Garnett, Richard.  Constance Garnett:  A Heroic Life. — London:  Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.  402 pp.

Adult Fiction

Camden, Elizabeth.  Against the Tide:  A Novel. — Minneapolis:  Bethany House, c2012.  362 pp.

Schlink, Bernhard.  The Gordian Knot. — New York:  Vintage Books, 2010.  246 pp.

Schuyler, Nina.  The Translator:  A Novel. — Newburyport:  Pegasus Books, 2013.  320 pp.

Young Adult Fiction

O’Dell, Scott.  Streams to the River, River to the Sea:  A Novel of Sacagawea. — Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1986.  191 pp.

Children’s Fiction

Faulkner, Brian.  Maddy West and the Tongue Taker. — North Mankato, Minnesota:  Capstone Young Readers, 2014.  355 pp.

Online Resources

Pima County Public Library catalog search results for translators in fiction:

Lewis and Clark Expedition entry in Wikipedia:

Sacagawea entry in Wikepedia:


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Autism and Employment: A Work(ing) in Progress

For the most part, this blog is dedicated to issues affecting indexers and translators. This posting, by way of contrast, offers a look at an issue with somewhat broader implications for all of society.  Autism is characterized by social impairment.  Children on the autism spectrum struggle to master even the most basic of social skills.  Undoubtedly even modest success in that arena can only help them as they go through life.  However, even as adults they may find that their social deficits continue to haunt them as they struggle to form relationships or find employment.


April is National Autism Awareness month, and Jackie*, an adult on the autism spectrum, has a boon to pick with the promoters. It seems to her that children with autism get the lion’s share of the attention, despite the fact that plenty of adults live with this condition as well. Citing the use of the color blue as the popularly recognized symbol for autism awareness, Jackie states quite bluntly, “Tying it on blue does nothing for us. We need jobs.”

Undoubtedly, helping children get the best possible start in life has a major impact on the people they will one day become. The case can definitely be made not only for recognizing the special abilities of children with autism but also for helping them achieve their fullest potential, whatever that might be. The right start can not only enable children on the spectrum to make progress in overcoming their particular stumbling blocks but can also enable them to grow into capable and, in some cases, highly functioning adults.

The question is, what happens to these adults? What happens when, echoing Jackie’s words, they say, “We need jobs”? Can they get them? What does their employment situation look like?

India learned first-hand how difficult it can be for a person on the autism spectrum to get a job when she finished up her master’s degree in the late 1980s. Applying for jobs in her chosen field, for which she had worked hard to earn the right qualifications, she went through interview after interview but could not seem to convince anyone to hire her, even though she looked good on paper. It took her over a year of trying to land the job she wanted.

Fast forward a decade and a half. Having successfully held a job in her chosen field, India found herself out of work when her organization underwent a major management upheaval in the middle of the nation’s post-911 economic crisis. So she again started the application process, tried networking in her community, and again went through a round of interviews. Despite months of effort, she simply could not duplicate her earlier success in landing a job in her field.

Finally she resorted to starting her own business. Doing so meant entering into a whole new career field. During the first few years, her income took a substantial hit. Fortunately, during her years of working for an employer, she had built up some savings. That, plus the fact she didn’t have any kids to put through college undoubtedly helped to mitigate what could have proven a major financial hardship as she worked on building up her business.

Today, she can look back on over a decade of slow but steady business growth. As an independent business owner, she has experienced everything that goes with that — both pros (independence, being her own boss, flexible hours) and cons (time management issues, the endless battling of deadlines, the ongoing struggle to achieve a work-life balance, a lack of paid vacation time and benefits, etc.).

India realizes she’s one of the lucky ones. However, for many people, whether on the spectrum or not, starting their own business is simply not an option. Many lack the capital, the time- and money-management skills, the marketing skills, or perhaps a combination of these. Lacking the means either to start and maintain their own business or to convince anyone to hire them, these people can end up in a real bind.

Anyone who has ever looked for work has read the standard advice on how to make a good impression in an interview. We all know that first impressions count a great deal. But what happens if, despite repeatedly exerting our best efforts, we fall short? What if, through no fault of our own, we were born with a disability that hampers our ability to develop the interviewing skills that would convince potential employers to take a chance with us?

Trudy is one person who knows all about disabilities. She has dealt with lifelong visual impairment. Though successive surgeries have brought about a certain degree of improvement, her vision has remained limited to the point where she is legally blind and cannot drive. Writing on the subject of disabilities, she has described poignantly how a person with a disability has to struggle twice as hard as others, just to be half as good.

Now transfer that reality to the marketplace. Imagine that, due to social stumbling blocks you were born with through no fault of your own, you have to struggle twice as hard to be half as good when called for interviews. People on the spectrum don’t have to imagine it. They live with the reality every time they apply for a job. And when you’re faced with a competitive marketplace and other candidates for the job you want include scores of people who know how to ace an interview, guess what? Half as good doesn’t get you hired, no matter how heroically you have struggled to get that far.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, in force now for two and a half decades, is supposed in theory to provide persons with disabilities an equal employment opportunity. But what if people on the autism spectrum who suffer from very real interview stumbling blocks find themselves faced with a hiring system based largely on interviews and interviewing? For those people, equal employment opportunity may be a beautiful idea, but it is not the reality. Just ask India. Just ask anyone on the spectrum who has ever gone through interview after interview, struggling to make the best possible impression but never knowing if the prospective employer can see past the social awkwardness and the interview fumbling and bumbling that go with autism spectrum disorders.

To apply another disability-based analogy: One mother of an autistic adult son has compared the obstacles that autistic people face when trying to get hired to placing a person in a wheelchair at the head of a flight of stairs and then saying, “You have five minutes to get down these stairs. Good luck with that!”

If, five minutes later, the person still hasn’t figured out how to get down those stairs, what do we do? Do we try to come up with a reasonable accommodation for that person, in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Or do we tell the person it’s all his fault he didn’t get the job because he failed to achieve the impossible? For someone on the autism spectrum, the reality can feel all too much like the second described outcome.

According to some statistics, about 15% of qualified adults on the autism spectrum are employed. Other sources offer differing figures, but all present a picture of disproportionate unemployment among persons on the spectrum. While it’s encouraging to know these people can, in some cases, find gainful employment, the fact remains that an awful lot of people have failed to achieve that goal despite long, drawn out repeated efforts.

Here is a challenge for employers to take up: What steps are you prepared to take so a person on the autism spectrum can get the job (s)he is qualified for, instead of always being presented with insurmountable obstacles that keep him or her from getting hired? Is a modification of the employee selection process perhaps in order? When it comes to achieving equal opportunity, what are you prepared to do to narrow the gap between the ideal and the reality?


Just over a week ago Jackie, who was quoted at the beginning of this article, got a job offer.  As this report goes out into cyberspace, Jackie is undergoing the routine background check required of all new hires selected by this particular employer.  Hopefully, all will go smoothly.  We wish Jackie luck as she embarks on her new venture.

*The names of persons mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.


Americans with Disabilities Act information:

Dauten, Dale and Jeanine Tanner O’Donnell. “First impressions aren’t all that count to savvy managers.” In J.T. and Dale Talk Jobs (career advice column), Arizona Daily Star, Sep. 25, 2012, p. A10. (This column recounts the struggles of India, cited above, to get a job.)

Employment statistics for persons with autism:

Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. — 2nd Vintage Books ed. — New York: Vintage Books, c2006. 270 pp. (The book contains a chapter on the stumbling blocks faced by persons with autism seeking employment, as well as possible strategies for overcoming those stumbling blocks. An updated edition of the book came out in 2010.)

Li, Linxiao. “Finding work is tough, harder still for those with ‘invisible’ disabilities.” In Arizona Daily Star, Oct. 25, 2014, p. C7.

National Autism Awareness Month information:

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