Have Language, Will Travel
When Gabe approached me with the idea of writing about my experience in the profession, I thought, `what is there to write?` I`ve spent most of my adult life in remote places and have never achieved many of the standard milestones of success. As I actually tried to make a timeline, however, I realized my life has been extremely varied and I have been extremely fortunate.
One secret of my `success` (I consider myself so) is my willingness to take on challenges and embark on adventures. To say, `Yes!` I hope it inspires someone.
I was a precocious child in the 1960s in California. By the end of the decade, I was in a mentally gifted minors program in school, started taking drugs and had run away at 13 to Berkeley to get involved in radical politics. Upon returning home, I went to a Catholic boarding school (a seminary) and joined the Army at 17, with my mother signing for me. I loved basic training and was a good student in advanced training (missile repair) but my drug problems led to a negotiated departure from the Army with an honorable discharge. I began studying on the GI Bill but dropped out, hitchhiking across America and Canada before joining a small Christian youth group in Quebec. During this period, through osmosis I picked up some French in Quebec and Spanish in El Paso, Texas where I was stationed.
As a lay missionary I traveled to Mexico and lived for a year in the state of Michoacan. Again, my language learning was informal and rudimentary. There I met a couple with children who wanted to go to Brazil and asked if I wanted to go along to help with their ministry and kids. I said…Yes!
In Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, I would go out with my broken Spanish and people would think I was from one of the many small towns in the hinterland where descendants of German immigrants still speak German after generations in Brazil! I practiced sight translation every day, reading out inspirational texts in English to a Portuguese audience. I provided consecutive interpreting for visiting religious speakers from the US, and even used a VCR (remember those?) and simultaneously interpreted movies and videos in English for the Portuguese-speaking congregation. All this time I was training for what I would do professionally afterwards—without realizing it!
Also in Porto Alegre I met my wonderful Brazilian wife, who has put up with me now for over 30 years. As Cat Stevens predicted, `if I find my hard-headed woman, I know the rest of my life will be blessed`. Among the many essential services she brings to our relationship is the level-headedness to balance my over-eagerness to step into the unknown.
After dedicating 12 years of my life to volunteer work, I became curious how `normal people` lived. I entered secular life in 1990 at age 32, with no formal education, no marketable skills, no money, and a wife and six kids in a foreign land. So I did what most do when needing to make money living abroad—I taught my native language. After working at language schools, taking on as much work as humanly possible, I saw that I would not be able to support my growing family through teaching. I moved up the food chain out of desperation. I subcontracted my work to a `sworn translator` in Brazil, translating on paper and having someone else type it up. Although I didn`t make a lot of money at the time, it was liberating because with teaching, it didn`t matter how efficient I was or how hard I worked, there were only a certain number of hours I could work, and little chance of substantially increasing my hourly rate. With translations, as I learned to work faster and more efficiently, I could increase my earnings, plus there was the possibility of getting direct clients and increasing my price as well. I was very lucky that the person who took me under her wing was a born (actually retired) teacher. She patiently went over my work and corrected me, until I came to the point where I could correct her!
She also `introduced` me to conference interpreting. She was hired and had me as her booth partner. She was an accomplished consecutive interpreter, but became nervous and was unable to perform under simultaneous conditions. Remember my interpreting videos? It came naturally to me, and everyone was amazed—which did wonders for my ego.
I began working with a large regional company, traveling throughout Brazil as a conference interpreter. In the 1990s there was worldwide attention on the Amazon, where I lived at the time. I started organizing events on my own that were too small for this larger company. I eventually bought my own equipment and started a company from the informal group I had formed.
Besides interpreting in suit and tie at high-level events, I also accompanied visiting delegations from donor countries into the Amazon, spending weeks on boats, in bio-reserves, and visiting indigenous peoples. One German member of parliament for the Green Party had met me on different occasions in the rainforest, and we met at a G7 meeting in Bonn in suits and didn`t recognize each other!
My professional life has been one of periods of high income and constant work, and lower periods financially and work-wise, which are nonetheless very satisfying—being able to relax and spend time with family and friends.
After the period in which the Amazon was focus of world attention, things went slow for a time. Then came the privatizations in Brazil promoted by the IMF. I would fly to Brasilia Sunday evening, work in the data rooms Monday, fly to a property under analysis on Tuesday, to another part of the country on Wednesday, and back to Brasilia on Thursday and Friday, and then back to Belem to rest. It was a frantic schedule and many interpreters didn`t make it. Some left of their own accord. Others were asked to leave for professional reasons, and others just because of personal mannerisms that didn`t sit right with the engineers and accountants doing the due diligence. One colleague, as old as I am now, actually died of a heart attack after a particularly stressful week! The interpreters would dress and look just like the other executives during the day, and most continued dressing elegantly after work. I, on the other hand, would put on Bermuda shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals. I became known amongst my colleagues as `Mr. Flip-Flops`.
I continued to work for one of the multinationals that had bought part of the Brazilian telecommunications system. They were hectically hurrying to prepare for the entrance of competition, and so cared nothing about my rates. I charged conference interpreting rates, and as they needed more interpreters, obtained the same rates for them. After nearly a year when the CFO saw the bill, he was upset to say the least and we were offered much lower rates, and I quit. Predictably, a slow period ensued. One important thing that I did during this period was to use the cash flow I enjoyed to enhance my skills professionally. When auditors were coming, I flew to Rio, took a 3 day course in accounting terminology and came back minimally prepared for the work ahead. I could take courses and fly people to Belem to teach me. It was an excellent investment!
Around 2000 I got involved with a volunteer organization called Babels, which provides interpreting and translations for the World Social Forum. It was a wonderful experience personally, I participated as a coordinator and interpreter in events throughout Europe and the Americas and met some of the most amazing people in my life. It was too much chaos for a serious professional, however, and I ended up quitting.
Two important facets of my professional development were 1) participation in professional associations (I was accepted into the Brazilian Translators Union in 1993, the Brazilian Translators Association in about 1998 and the American Translators Association around 2000); and 2) participation in discussion lists. I felt physically isolated from everyone, living in the Amazon as I did, so I reached out through these as much as possible.
My next `high` was when I was interpreting on the floor of a local brewery and the owner called me into the office. He was German and disagreed with a professor in Germany on a question regarding brewing. He realized that the professor had more technical knowledge than he did and that he spoke better German. As a tactic to put him on the defensive, he asked me to translate his letter from Portuguese to English. He liked my writing style so much that he told the director to hire me full-time! Again, I charged daily interpreter rates - this lasted nearly three years.
As my conference interpreting company`s business grew, I was faced with the urgent need to find and train more professionals. Often it was not economically feasible to fly people in from other regions. I started giving informal courses on my own, and used my connections on discussion lists to identify and bring knowledgeable professionals to give short courses in Belem. Through that, I started a discussion list for professionals in the region, where I would post news about local opportunities, plus forward news from other lists and sources.
In 2008 I saw and forwarded an announcement that the United Nations was hiring a Portuguese translator to work in a peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste. I forwarded it and immediately it generated discussion and several colleagues applied. At my wife`s insistence, I did as well. After a lengthy recruitment process, I was hired and embarked on yet another adventure! Years later I discovered that I actually placed second in the selection process but the first-placed applicant hesitated when called, whereas, again, I just said `Yes!`.
When I arrived, the president had recently been shot in a coup attempt and there were IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) everywhere in makeshift camps. In these last five years, I`ve seen the transformation of this post-conflict country from chaos to peace. I feel good being part of that transformation. My specific job is with the UN Serious Crimes Investigation Team, tasked with investigating and compiling cases on crimes against humanity committed here in 1999 during the referendum for independence.
I did not know it at the time, but there is such a thing as `second-hand trauma`. Spending each day poring over case files, witness statements, autopsies and reports got to me. I became depressed. Although I had to sort it out pretty much on my own (and in prayer), I am grateful to colleague Rina Neeman, who showed me that others also go through this and gave practical advice on coping with it.
Another interesting experience in the UN mission was that my first job upon arrival was to translate the recently-enacted Criminal Code from Portuguese to English! Despite my protests of not being qualified, I was told to do it. I appealed to colleagues on discussion lists in Brazil and the US, where there were many trained lawyers-turned-translators, whose assistance enabled me to do the job!
The UN is an excellent employer, with the best benefits I have seen so far. During these last years, I have been able to put kids through school, and have had the privilege to travel with family throughout Asia and to countries in Europe and the Middle-East. It has enabled me to continue participating in conferences of associations and short courses. Now, four-and-a-half years later the peacekeeping mission has closed and our work is also wrapping up. I have picked up a new language—Tetum—and (for the third time, who knows if it’s the charm) started university again.
My present job in the UN will end in June. In the Headquarters, translators and interpreters have permanent positions, in Field Missions (my case) there has to be a need for their skills to remain in the Organization. In all probability, in June I will embark on yet another adventure!
By Robert Ewing Finnegan