The young whippersnappers today have no idea how good they have it. BY INES SWANEY
When NCTA was founded in 1978, any mention of e-mail would have been understood as Express Mail known in the United States as Special Delivery. This was the common way of sending urgent information, all typed or printed on paper, of course. Fax machines were a luxury that some major companies had at their offices. I still recall my first encounter with one of these devices. Someone explained to me that it worked just like a photocopier, except that you started with an original and then the copy would come out somewhere else, even in another continent, as long as everyone’s telephones lines were working properly and you got to keep the original. My cousin in Houston, who was involved in the energy industry, bragged that he had received a fax all the way from Qatar.
Translators worked on manual typewriters, later becoming proud owners of electric ones, such as the ultramodern IBM Selectric, which made it possible to easily change fonts just by lifting a lever, and then removing and replacing a spherical device, smaller than a golf ball, known as an element. Fixing a typo was simple. Pressing a special key would activate a white erasing ribbon to remove the error, and the correct characters could then be inserted. This was a huge advance over what had existed, when pages had to be retyped so that they would look nice and presentable. Most people still relied on tiny bottles of what was generically known as white-out, to touch up errors already on paper.
Before voicemail existed as a built-in invisible feature provided by the phone company, those of us working as translators and interpreters had to purchase a separate answering machine device and attach it to the phone so that callers could leave messages when no one was around to answer the ringing telephone. But you only found out about upcoming translations and/or interpreting assignments after returning to your home/office and listening to whatever messages had been recorded, if any. I became envious of certain colleagues who would go to pay phones and retrieve their messages from other locations, because they were able to accept short-notice interpreting assignments before I even found out that there was a need for my services. So naturally I had to upgrade to an answering machine that took messages which I could retrieve from any pay phone.
For many years, lesser developed countries had a greater per-capita ownership of cell phones than the United States. Virtually all phones in the U.S. were either connected at home, at the office, or pay phones in public places. Prepaid phone cards were gradually starting to emerge, so that you could more easily make calls when you were out and about, without needing to carry huge amounts of change, and making it unnecessary to borrow someone else’s phone at a business or private residence.
Some people had car phones, which were about the size of a brick. You could easily tell which vehicles had such a device installed, because of the prominent antenna on the car. In order to minimize the risk of loss due to theft, owners started disconnecting their phones and bringing them along in special carrying cases. The phone was safe, but totally useless unless properly connected to the car.
Dictionaries were all on paper, because there was nothing to compare with today’s online glossaries and web searches. If you needed to carry out some specialized research to do a good job on a translation, a trip to one or several libraries became necessary, because there was no other way to find out which location would have the specific book, journal or other printed resource you were looking for. If a colleague had some printed information that could be helpful, perhaps some cooperation could be achieved as long as both sides had a fax machine available to allow for sending information on paper back and forth.
Nowadays I’m amazed at how interconnected everything is. My smartphone contains functions that were previously performed by various separate devices. And yet, it can’t help me when I work as an interpreter from and into Spanish and some terms slightly overlap, such as talking about drug dealers (= traficantes) one day in court, immediately followed by an international conference featuring auto dealers (= concesionarios).
Even speech recognition systems such as Dragon Dictate can never be one-hundred percent accurate. An administrative law judge recently shared with me her frustration upon discovering that whenever she tried to dictate a decision involving the word school, the system would invariably accept it as squirrel. This article you are now reading would have had a slightly easier birth had I relied on a typewriter instead. When I was about two-thirds finished writing it, I accidentally turned off the computer and only later realized that I had neglected to save the file. Using a typewriter would have at least given me something on paper as proof of what I had written so far.
Years ago, I was auditioning as voiceover talent for a “Grandma” voice, but had to leave the studio and walk a few blocks to feed the parking meter where I had left my car. During the walk I kept trying various ranges of possible voices that could become “Grandma.” As I walked and talked using different pitches and accents, I noticed that people were giving me strange looks, as if they felt sorry for me. Poor woman, look at her, talking to herself. Of course nowadays people who seem to be talking to themselves while out on the street are rarely pitied, because they are likely sporting a tiny and discreet Bluetooth or similar device and probably involved in a normal hands-free telephone conversation. IS