Interview of Sharlee Bradley by Miriam Mustain

by Miriam Mustain

This is an updated version (January 2020) of an older interview from 2000, which can be found here.

NCTA Event 2017

L to R: Sylvia Korwek, Martin Hoffman, Merav Rozenblum and son Arial, and Sharlee Bradley at an NCTA event in San Francisco, November 2017.

Q1. How did you acquire your languages? (This may lead to other questions)

Our parents encouraged their children to study French as the world language, now perhaps an old-fashioned view. I started with the first course offered, French in the eighth grade in California. 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. Instead I fell in love with the written word and from the beginning played at translating whatever literature we studied in school and more besides.

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 me by my professor, was a translation into (!) Italian of an insurance survey. In honor of the occasion I immediately ran out and bought myself a gold bracelet with the proceeds.

After I had been teaching high-school French for several years, a Fulbright scholarship sent me to France to study at the Sorbonne. That summer and a two-year residence in Lausanne were my only experiences in French-speaking countries. But 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 known as GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and Geneva needed more translators. The fascinating (not) subject they assigned me was standardization of pallets for shipping and moving merchandise.

Spanish, which turned out to be my dominant spoken foreign language, I never formally studied, but when first living in the Canary Islands I did grammar exercises in Spanish textbooks 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, who 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. by Peggy True. 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 for a time overlaid the twenty-one years I had spent studying French and even made inroads into my English; but now, years later, I can work equally well translating from either French or Spanish.

Q2. Where did you earn your PhD? Doctor of ….?

The short answer is at the University of Pennsylvania, which in spite of its name, is (or was in 1964) a private, ivy-league college and not part of a state university system, as one would expect from its name.

The degree 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, where I served since shortly after becoming a member of ATA, about 1985, until the age of internet dictionaries, when the committee was discontinued.

I probably would not have a doctorate if Penn had accepted my University of California credits for the Masters’ Degree. It is hard to believe that Penn would not accept the graduate courses I had been taking 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 its 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!

Q3. Have you traveled outside the country?

a. Yes. If 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 10, the first of several long cross-continental train trips (I commuted to Vassar as an undergraduate).


b. Mostly Europe. Also, to Russia (a boat cruise from St. Petersburg, across Lake Ladoga, up the Svir River to Lake Onega), China (a five-week trip), and the South Pacific (for a two month’s stay in Rarotonga). Once on the Amazon River and many times to Mexico to play tennis.

One year I learned a few words of Turkish touring Istanbul, Cappadocia and sailing and hiking the southern coast of Turkey. Another trip to France included a stay in a friend’s house near Toulon after visiting literary sites in the south and southwest of England.

Q4. How did you get into the translation business? How long have you been doing translation?

My first translation job was through my Italian professor. Later, 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 for presentation and then publication in international journals.

Back in the United States I checked the Philadelphia phone directory for translators to see what I could find. That led me to the Delaware Valley Translators Association and the American Translators Association, and networking brought translation and interpretation jobs as soon as I was certified.

Q5. Do you interpret as well? For….?

My Spanish was quite fluent, so I signed on to be a host with the International Visitor Center in Philadelphia. After studying up on its history, I led busloads of Spanish tourists through America’s most cherished historical monuments.

One day the Center called me to say they had been asked to supply an interpreter at the federal court, where the regular interpreter was unavailable. Could I go? Although I had never interpreted, I boldly agreed to go and thought I 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 he didn’t know what was in it, 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 known University of Arizona program, I was able to interpret without emotion almost anything thrown my way. For several years at the Marin Country Health Clinic I interpreted for legal and illegal Hispanics, many of whom were in desperate need, but some of whom were trying to take advantage of the system offered them long after they were able to get along by themselves. Only because of 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, lawyers and insurance companies, among others.

As time passed and considering a two-year hiatus in interpreting while my second husband was terminally ill, I gave up interpreting to do translations exclusively for a couple of decades. Now that I am 90 years old, I have closed down my business this past December, but since I cannot give up translating entirely, I will limit my output to volunteering for Translators Without Borders.

Q6. What are some problems (and possible solutions) that you encounter in your translation business?

Access to the Internet solved a lot of research problems. I no longer felt isolated from a big university library as I once did. Now I am trying to donate my dictionaries, some on CD and others, books on shelves.

With two monitors, I can have terminology up on one while working on the translation on the other screen, split for source and target texts unless I’m using a CAT tool, Wordfast being my favorite.
Organizing my terminology lists was always on my mind After each job I entered the new data; then the next time I need a term, I have that glossary open on the other monitor while translating.

I did a number of jobs involving machine translation. The best jobs were for the Pan American Health Organization with their proprietary system that included many macros to make common corrections, such as substituting two nouns for a prepositional phrase.
The current problem faced by translators and interpreters, especially in California, is the new anti-gig law that has unwittingly caught many contractors in the net cast against Uber. A few professions, such as doctors and truckers, were able to gain exemptions, but we were dilatory, and this year are suffering the consequences. I have retired just in time!