SLD member Lucy Gunderson has had an active role in ATA and SLD for many years. SLD members know her as a past Administrator of the Slavic Languages Division (2011-2015), an extraordinary colleague, and an expert in human rights translation. This important subject seems fascinating to many, but it is challenging to find information about what it takes to work in this field.
We asked Lucy to share her story and advice with SLD members. She also presented an ATA webinar on this topic in September 2020, which is now available on-demand.
- Can you please share your story of getting started as a translator?
I remember learning the instrumental case at the end of first-year Russian. We had to answer the question “Кем Вы будете?” (What are you going to be when you grow up?). My vocabulary was quite limited at the time, but I went carefully through the choices. Doctor – No. Lawyer – No. Engineer – No. Переводчик – Hmm. “Я буду переводчиком!” So I guess I’ve always felt an obligation to remain faithful to that solemn oath I took in first-year Russian.
I held “regular” jobs (English teacher in Russia, document manager/translator at a banking company doing business in Russia, editor at a newswire service) before going full-time freelance, but I always did some translation as part of my job or on the side. I understood fairly quickly that I wasn’t suited to a corporate environment (or, to put it better, that the corporate environment wasn’t suited to me!), so when an attractive translation opportunity presented itself, I started working part-time at the editorial job. That part-time job was eventually moved to another city, so I took the leap and started working towards full-time translation.
- Why did you start specializing in human rights and how did you build up your expertise in this area?
I never consciously made the decision to specialize in human rights, but I can see how I ended up here when I look back. I spent my junior year in Voronezh, Russia. I arrived two weeks after the August putsch in 1991 and stayed until June 1992, which means that I witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of newly independent states. I returned to Russia in 1993 and experienced the October 1993 coup and, later, the currency fluctuations of the mid- to late 1990s. This experience living in Russia was what initially sparked my current interests in human rights, international relations, and law.
My first referral for a human rights translation came from an SLD colleague (Nora Favorov). The file she asked me to handle was about electoral fraud in Belarus. I was initially worried about my ability to translate this file, but then I realized that 1) I actually knew where Belarus was, 2) I actually knew who Lukashenka was, and 3) I had read an awful lot about electoral fraud when I lived in Russia, so I was probably better prepared than I thought to translate this. The client was apparently happy with my translation because they kept coming back to me for more and also referred me to other human rights groups.
I am constantly building up my expertise by pushing at my boundaries. It’s important for us to specialize and know our limits, but it’s also important to understand when we can stretch those limits just a bit.
- What type of clients do you usually work with and why do they need their documents/content translated?
My main human rights clients are NGOs, although I have also worked with one agency that specializes in human rights. The kinds of documents they need translated are reports for UN Committees, government agencies, the human rights community, and the general public; columns and articles for online media; and sometimes even primary sources.
- Can you share an example of the most rewarding project you have ever worked on and why it felt this way?
My most rewarding project has been ongoing for several years and is the #AllJobs4AllWomen campaign. The goal of this campaign is to get former Soviet countries to repeal the List of Arduous, Harmful, and Dangerous Jobs Prohibited for Women. My work on this project has involved translating reports for the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and columns for the general public about this list. Now, several former Soviet countries have repealed their lists and others have shortened theirs or agreed to review them specifically because of the pressure mounted by this campaign. So I feel very good about being the main English-language voice for this campaign.
Another project involved mining on indigenous lands. The affected indigenous group won a court battle against the mining company and had their lands returned to them. Even though the court proceedings took place in Russia, my client in this case had repeatedly raised this issue at the international level using my English translations. I believe this had some impact on the outcome, so that makes me proud.
- What project was the most challenging and why?
The most challenging projects are the ones that touch my emotions the most.
One was the translation of a blacklist, published by the Luhansk People’s Republic, of Ukrainian police officers (along with their photographs) who were allegedly actively working against the Luhansk People’s Republic. This list called for the capture or murder of these officers. Even though I understood that the purpose of my translation was to reveal atrocities, it was still difficult to process.
Another difficult project was the translation of a letter from a political prisoner to his wife.
If you work in this area, it really helps to have someone to talk these jobs through with. I have found that my clients have struggled with the psychological effects of this kind of work and are more than ready to talk about them, so that has helped me get through these difficult jobs.
- What are your favorite resources for research and continued professional development on human rights, translation, and related topics?
For human rights, my favorite resources are Human Rights Quarterly (published by Johns Hopkins University press), Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, by Jack Donnelly, and Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Clapman. The first keeps me updated on current human rights issues and helps me understand major trends in this area, and the last two are great for reference information when I have trouble understanding a certain concept. And of course, the Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) websites are extremely useful resources for understanding contemporary challenges, learning new terminology, and improving my writing in this field.
For translation/writing resources, I also recommend the AI and HRW websites because their publications on Russia are almost always available in the original English and a Russian translation, which helps with terminology and writing. I would also recommend any book on plain language, since human rights documents can be heavy on the legal language. I love Dreyer’s English for grammar.
- What advice would you give to colleagues who would like to start specializing in human rights translation?
Network, network, network! I’m lucky to be based in New York City, so I have been able to attend several talks at universities here where I made some contacts, and I’ve even represented ATA at the UN twice. The pandemic hasn’t been good for much, but it has presented the perfect opportunity for people who don’t live near universities to attend lectures online that they wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to email a speaker that you hear online and establish contact with them. Both Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and New York University’s Jordan Center have had great online offerings since the pandemic started. You can sign up for their mailing lists on their websites.
It’s also important to network with colleagues working in the same area or language pair. It can be tricky to approach a translator working in the same language pair, but it is always possible to offer editing services to them. It’s even better to approach linguists working in a different language pair because then that translator has no fear of competition or losing a client to the other translator. Finally, I’ve had some success attracting attention from my ideal clients on social media, but this is really a long-term effort the requires dedication, a lot of trial and error, and openness to failure!
Lucy Gunderson, CT is an ATA-certified Russian>English translator specializing in human rights, academic, legal, and literary translation. She has a master’s degree in Russian from the University at Albany and a certificate in translation studies from the University of Chicago, where she also served as a tutor in the Russian>English translation program.
Lucy has been translating for non-governmental organizations for the past ten years and follows the human rights situation in Eurasia closely. She has presented on human rights translation for ATA and the New York Circle of Translators.
She is a past chair of ATA’s Divisions Committee (2015-2019) and a former administrator of the Association’s Slavic Languages Division (2011-2015).
Website – https://russophiletranslations.com
LinkedIn – Lucy Gunderson, CT | LinkedIn
Twitter – @LucyGund