In this new(ish) column of the SLD Blog, we feature members of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division: translators and interpreters working in Slavic languages. Their stories, experience, and career highlights will inspire both beginners and experienced professionals. Today’s post is an interview with a long-time SLD member, Natalie Shahova.
- Can you please share your story of getting started as a translator?
I started learning English with a private tutor when I was five. However, as a student, I got a PhD in math at Moscow State University and for about fifteen years I wasn’t professionally involved with languages (except doing some random translation jobs as a student). I worked as a professor of computer science at a Moscow university. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had to moonlight and gradually became a full-time translator.
- What fields do you specialize in and how did you build up your expertise in those areas?
At first, I specialized in IT (based on my computer science background). Back in the 90s, IT translations were in great demand as at that time Russia was flooded with foreign equipment. New devices required user guides, operator manuals, and other documentation translated into Russian. Also, several foreign (mostly American) magazines such as PC Week and PC Magazine introduced their Russian versions. Translating articles for these magazines allowed me to keep abreast of the latest technologies. However, over time the demand for IT translations greatly decreased as IT companies started to translate their documentation centrally and Russian IT magazines moved to publication of original articles written by Russian authors. By then, I was already managing EnRus translation agency. After IT, we focused on medicine through our long-term cooperation with AIHA (American International Health Alliance). Currently, we mostly do legalese – certainly not my strong point. So my job is mostly that of a manager – attracting customers, receiving and assigning orders – and I translate nonfiction as a kind of hobby (this kind of work – in most cases – doesn’t bring real money).
- Can you share an example of the most rewarding project you have ever worked on and why it felt that way? What project was the most challenging and why?
The most famous project of EnRus was translating Business@The Speed of Thought, by Bill Gates: as the author is well known in Russia, the Russian translation of his book was reprinted several times and widely discussed in the media. This brought me a lot of intense feedback: the readers of our translation wrote me and even called my phone.
My favorite project was the translation of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I was always interested in grammar and semantics (both in Russian and in English) and this book includes many interesting facts about punctuation in general and English punctuation in particular, as well as tons of funny and enlightening examples. I love humor, and trying to make my translation as amusing as the original was a very gratifying challenge. After finishing the translation, I wrote an article on the differences between English and Russian punctuation and on how punctuation marks should be changed while translating from English into Russian. The article was published in Мосты and in SlavFile (Fall 2008 Vol. 17, No. 4).
- You translated the book “Found in Translation” by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche into Russian. What was that experience like? Can you share the story of how this project came to be? Did you have an opportunity to discuss your translation strategy with the authors? Were there any particular segments that were especially challenging or interesting to translate that you would like to share?
I bought the book at the ATA conference in San Diego (2012). The authors signed my copy, and I started dreaming of translating it sometime in the future. In 2019, all of a sudden, the publishing house Azbuka Atticus approached me with an offer because my translations of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos, A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe and Babel by Gaston Dorren, and How to Speak Any Language Fluently by Alex Rawlings brought me the somewhat unjustified accolade of an expert in linguistics.
The translation was done in close cooperation with the authors who kindly and patiently answered my numerous questions.
For me, one of the interesting topics covered in the book was Deaf culture. Below are just two quotations from the book:
Jack Jason is known as a CODA, a child of deaf adults. As with most CODAs born in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL)—not English—is his native language. He grew up in California, so the only voice in his house was the voice on television. As he got older, Jason eventually became part of the hearing world, went to school, and learned to speak English (and Spanish).
Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not universal—there are hundreds of signed languages in use throughout the world. For example, there are more than eighteen different sign languages used in Spanish-speaking countries. Wherever there are large communities of people who are deaf, signed languages emerge naturally, and usually without any dependence on spoken languages.
- What advice would you give to colleagues who are just getting started in translation?
I would like to tell them that translation and interpretation is a very diverse field and only an extremely talented person could be a “universal” translator. I suggest trying and seeing what is good for you and specializing in that particular field because there are only two ways to achieve high income (and I think it applies to other professions as well):
- performing a high volume of simple jobs, at a low rate;
- performing only selected jobs that require high quality, at a high rate.
Unfortunately, customers rarely seek high quality as most of them just don’t understand that translation could be of various quality and that the quality of translation could have an impact on their business (because not all of them have read Kelly and Zetzsche’s book). That’s why forming a base of clients ready to pay for quality can take years.
I found Becoming a Translator by Douglas Robinson (EnRus has translated it into Russian) very helpful because I did not have a background in linguistics. I believe that it could be also useful to other beginners even if they do have a linguistic diploma as the book connects theory to practice.
Natalie Shahova is the founder and head of EnRus translation agency. She has translated some 20 books and published dozens of articles in both Russian and English.
We would love to feature other translators and interpreters working with Slavic languages in future SLD Blog posts! If you have recommendations or would like to share your own story and expertise, please email the SLD Blog co-editors: Veronika Demichelis and Marisa Irwin.