by Miriam Mustain
When I first met Sharlee at an NCTA meeting in San Francisco, it was obvious that she was a remarkable woman. She is so soft-spoken and unassuming that it can be difficult to realize the impact that she has had on the NCTA. I had read the December 1999 issue of Translorial (her last as editor) and had been very much impressed by the professionalism that it conveyed. The few words we exchanged made me want to know more about this dedicated and vivacious person. Sharlee graciously answered my simple questions with the following fascinating responses.-MM
Q. How did you acquire your foreign languages?
My parents encouraged their children to study French as the language of culture, which is now an old-fashioned view. I started with the first course offered, French in the eighth grade. Latin was not given until the ninth grade. That made five years of French and four of Latin before college.
During World War II when the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco, my mother suggested how wonderful it would be to interpret for them, but that was never my goal. I fell in love with the written word and, from the beginning, played at translating whatever literature we studied in school and anything else that interested me.
College gave me one more year of Latin, and French forever. I had French courses every year until I received my doctorate at age 34. In the meantime I had been required to study German and another Romance language, which I chose to be Italian. My very first paid translation job, offered to me by my professor, was a translation of an insurance survey into (!) Italian. I immediately ran out and bought myself a gold bracelet with the proceeds in honor of the occasion.
After I had been teaching high-school French for several years, a Fulbright scholarship sent me to France to study at the Sorbonne. That period and a two-year residence in Lausanne, where my husband’s work had taken us, were my only experiences in French-speaking countries.
One day in Lausanne I received a phone call from the United Nations in Geneva, saying they had my name from the UN in New York (where my doctoral advisor had sent me to take the UN exam for French). It was the era of the Kennedy Round trade talks under the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and Geneva needed more translators. The fascinating subject they assigned me was standardization of pallets!
I never formally studied Spanish, which has turned out to be my dominant spoken foreign language, but when I was living in the Canary Islands I did grammar exercises in Spanish school books and corrected them myself. I arrogantly considered myself an expert on Romance grammar, partly from teaching French for five years at the high-school level and two at the university level. As a mother with a small child, I spent baby-sitting hours memorizing irregular verbs and repeating to myself conversations I would overhear in social situations.
How we got to the Canaries is a long story in itself. In brief, my husband, departed from this world while we were there, wished to retire at a relatively young age. With very little money we researched in the local library where in the world to go for a good climate, an easy language to learn, and a low cost of living. Lo and behold, there was a book called You Can Live Cheaply in the Canaries. That convinced us, and off we went, with a new-born babe, our car and all our books and furniture, sight unseen to spend the rest of our lives there – that was the plan.
The thirteen years spent in Spain overlaid, for a time, the twenty-one years I had spent studying French and even made inroads into my English; but now, years later, l can work equally well translating from either language.
Q. Where did you earn your PhD?
The short answer is at the University of Pennsylvania, which in spite of its name is a private, Ivy League college and not part of the state university system as one might expect.
My doctorate is in Romance Languages. Because my advisor was writing a dictionary at the time (the then highly regarded University of Chicago’s Spanish English dictionary), I wrote my dissertation on problems of lexicography in monolingual French dictionaries, carefully comparing Littré, Larousse and Dauzat. The lessons of Professor Edwin Williams have stood me in good stead throughout my career, leading me to the ATA’s Dictionary Review Committee, on which I have served since shortly after I became a member, around 1985.
I probably would not have a doctorate if the U of P had accepted my University of California credits for the Master’s degree. It is hard to believe, but true, that Penn would not accept the graduate courses I had taken at night at Berkeley while teaching high-school French during the day. The direction of my life changed when I learned that those same units could be credited towards a doctorate if I cared to pursue it!
The second unbelievable quirk in graduate studies at Penn was their policy that all graduate courses had to be taught in English. When we had a visiting professor from France whose accent in English made his lectures on linguistics nearly incomprehensible, we petitioned the department to allow him to speak French. Petition denied!
Q. Have you traveled outside the United States?
Yes. It you count it, I was born in Toronto, but our family moved to the Bay Area (the company my father worked for expanded to the West Coast) when I was ten, the first of several long cross-continental train trips. (l commuted to Vassar as an undergraduate.)
My travels have been mostly in Europe: once to Russia (a boat cruise across from St. Petersburg, across Lake Ladoga, up the Svir River to Lake Onega), once to China (a five-week trip) and once to the South Pacific (for a two month’s stay in Raratonga). I’ve also made several trips to Mexico.
Last year I learned a few words of Turkish while touring Istanbul, Cappadocia and sailing and hiking the southern coast of Turkey.
This year I have earned enough to go to France and England. We’ll stay in a friend’s house near Toulon and then visit some literary sites in the south and southwest of England.
Q. How did you get into the translation business?
My first translation job was through my Italian professor. While I was a professor at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, I did many translations for the physical chemistry department, not by asking for jobs but simply by being there and being English-speaking. The professors there knew enough English in their fields to understand technical articles, but when they went to symposiums and conferences they could not converse in English. So, during our lunch hour, I held conversation classes for them; subsequently, they gave me their monographs to translate into English so that they could be published internationally.
Q. Do you interpret as well?
When I returned to the United States after a 15-year absence, my Spanish was quite fluent, so I signed up to be a host with the International Visitor Center in Philadelphia. After studying up on the subject, I led busloads of Spanish tourists through America’s most cherished historical monuments.
One day, the Center called me to say that they had been asked to supply an interpreter at the federal court, where the regular interpreter was unavailable. Could l go? Although I had never interpreted, I boldly agreed to go and did a fine job of interpreting. However. I did not conduct myself very professionally. It was a drug smuggling case. A “poor” young Hispanic had been caught in the airport with a bundle under his arm. He protested that he didn’t know what was in it, and he had his mother and grandmother there to witness his character and swear that they would go hungry if he went to jail, for he was their sole source of income. While the grandmother spoke, I gravely interpreted while tears were running down my face. I fell for the whole thing, hook, line and sinker.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, later, after studying court interpreting at the nationally famous University of Arizona program, I was able to interpret without emotion almost anything thrown my way. For several years, at the Marin County Health Clinic, I interpreted for many legal and illegal Hispanics, many of whom were in desperate need, but some of whom were trying to take advantage of the system long after they were able to get along by themselves. Only because of my training was I able to be objective during interpretation. In addition, I have interpreted for the Parole Revocation Board at San Quentin, the Department of Motor Vehicles in San Francisco, the Department of Education in Fresno, the State Labor Relations Board in Sacramento, doctors and insurance companies, among others.
As time passed, and because I had already taken a two-year hiatus in interpreting while my husband was terminally ill. I gave up interpreting and now do translations exclusively.
Q. What are some problems (and possible solutions) that you encounter in your translation business?
Access to the Internet has solved a lot of research problems. I no longer feel so isolated from a big university library as I once did.
Some dictionaries in my office are on CD and others are books on shelves. It’s sometimes a toss-up which will be quicker, getting the book and leafing through it, or changing CDs on the computer and typing in the term. The ideal would be to have all dictionaries computerized and available at a keystroke. At present, the only dictionaries in my computer memory are the Word and WordPerfect spellchecker dictionaries and Stedman’s medical dictionary. The other electronic dictionaries are on CDs, which must be inserted, even after installation. I find myself taking a fair amount of time taking out one CD and putting in another and waiting for it to pop up, even at today s megahertz computer speeds.
If I had two monitors, I could have terminology up on one while working on the translation on the other screen, which is often split already between source and target texts.
Organizing my terminology lists has always been on my mind, but I m often too rushed to enter new data when a job is finished; then the next time I need the term. I remember I have it somewhere, but it takes an age to find it. I would like a macro written that would copy the term right out of my text and into the proper glossary on my computer. Then I could have that glossary open on another monitor while translating. I can do simple macros, but that one seems to me to be getting perilously close to programming – not something I can do, especially in Windows and Word. It is much easier in DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, where the codes can be seen on the screen.
There is no dearth of other problems to discuss, only a dearth of time and space…
Q. How did you acquire your expertise in journalism? (We’re all curious because you did such a great job as Translorial editor.)
First let me be flattered by your praise. Calling what I did “expertise in journalism” seems somewhat of an exaggeration. I filled the Translorial with articles from our own members, articles taken from other newsletters and sources that were not newsletters, such as comments on translation by literary figures, and helpful hints tor translators and interpreters still in a learning process. We were all adapting to the computer age, and there was a lot to learn that could be shared. I think one of my guidelines was “If it is of interest or helpful to me, surely it will be so to many other NCTA members.”
So much for the subject matter. As for actually editing someone s writing, that was natural, for I taught English and corrected compositions, essays and examinations for more than 17 years before “becoming an editor.” Now that we have a new editor, I still keep my eyes peeled for items of interest and send them in for consideration.
Q. What problems do you see facing the translation business today? High expectations (formatting, speed, etc.) because of computers? Customers using machine instead of human translations?
I really think there is nothing to stop the juggernaut or our growing industry. The world is a handkerchief as they say in Spain, and now that we can all be so easily connected on the Internet, and with the movement toward the formation of trade blocs, such as the European Community and the NAFTA countries, demand for our services can only continue to expand. There should be lots of work for us for the foreseeable future. However, we do have to contend with the possibility of competition at lower rates than prevail in our country. In the long run, though, I imagine there will be more than enough work for all professional translators and interpreters.
The once apparent threat of machines replacing us is now seen to be something for the distant future, if ever. Perhaps the next generation of translators will have to be even more specialized than today if machines do succeed in translating some boilerplate better than they do now, but that’s about the most fallout I can imagine.
In general, however, translators do need to keep abreast of fast-paced technological advances. That means a new computer every few years, new software to learn, especially translation memory programs. On the non-mechanical side it means moving with our subject field, generally by voracious reading or texts in the target language in search of the latest terminology.
The clients demand tor speed ( “I need it yesterday”) will probably not change. It could be mitigated if our public relations program were actually to get under way. Public ignorance of what we are what we do and how we do it needs to be transformed into awe, admiration and understanding. That will only happen if individuals take on a project to publicize our profession and if groups such as the NCTA make formal plans to carry out an educational publicity program. Our chapter seems to have been an innovator again in visibly going on screen to help public television raise funds. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, and at least one other chapter of ATA has since done the same. So maybe the translation industry/profession will eventually make its mark on the public at large. I’m optimistic.
Interview with the Interviewer
Although born in San Diego, Miriam Mustain was schooled in Belgium, one of the global stops of a father trying to support eight children. Her French accent is thus a genuine one.
Her specialty is editing English translations, especially those done by her sister, Theresa Lynch, a professional translator and current president of MITA (Metroplex Interpreters and Translators Association in Texas). Miriam looks for consistency of terminology in large and small projects and is an experienced formatter.
Her home is outside of “civilization,” forty miles from the nearest town – no electricity, even-where propane, a generator for the computer, and a passel of pets (six horses, two dogs and a cat) make for a happy life in northern California with her retired- from-law-enforcement husband.