This was the question that the professor who was congratulating me on a brand new diploma that I was being awarded asked me during a graduation ceremony. The place was Prague, now in Czech Republic. The year was 1980. I think I responded by saying something like: “I am not sure yet, but I will figure it out eventually”.
The professor, let’s call him Mr. S, was a very smart man. For some reason, there was always a smile on his face, which was not very common in Prague at that time. He originally graduated in Persian studies, but later became an expert on cuneiform, which is one of the oldest writing systems on this planet that was used more than 3 thousand years ago in the ancient Middle East. Mr. S married one of his students who was much younger than he, of course, and as she was sitting in his classes with me and a group of other students her age, we were all wondering whether the sex between Mr. S and Mrs. S was as great as we thought it could be, or just OK. But only for about the first 5 minutes or so because his lectures were really interesting. Mr. S published several books about ancient Middle East in German and in Russian. He died in 1990.
Unlike for instance many of the young lawyers mentioned in the New York Times article linked here, I actually got to do a lot with my degree almost right away. My first job was interpreting for Japanese actors and a Japanese film producer for a film co-production in Prague in 1980. I met quite a few Czech movie stars during the shooting of the film. They all had to talk to me because I was the only one who could speak Japanese. Some of them were very famous already, some would become famous later. I even got to know some secrets about at least one of the movie stars who became very famous as well as infamous later. But I am not going to divulge them here.
I worked as a translator and editor for CTK, a news agency in Prague, and then mostly pretended to be working as a research assistant for the Oriental Institute in Prague. The institute did not really made me do anything because I was there only for a few months and then left for an “extended vacation” to Croatia, hitchhiked from there through Austria to Munich and stopped only more than a year later as a brand new immigrant in San Francisco. So you could say that in a way, I have been on an “extended vacation” for the last 30 years, and I was able to fund this “extended vacation” mostly thanks to my diploma.
The diploma in Japanese studies also led to my job with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1982, my first job in America. It was a fun job without a lot of responsibilities as I was mostly just talking to tourists in English, Japanese, German and French. I did that for three years. I then worked for three Japanese companies, one in Tokyo, and two in San Francisco, until I became a freelance translator in 1987.
I wish I could talk to Mr. S now to tell him that I did put my diploma to good use in all of the various jobs that I was able to have mostly thanks to this diploma, or rather thanks to what I learned before and after Mr. S gave us our diplomas during that little graduation ceremony in Prague in 1980. Although my old alma mater prepared me initially mostly for a career that would be similar to that of Mr. S – teaching what I know about foreign languages and cultures to university students, while keeping myself young through daily interaction with much younger, pretty female students (was this why Mr. S was always smiling?), it also prepared me quite well also for my present job, namely that of an independent, freelance patent translator.
There are many people who think that translators, including patent translators, will be soon replaced by machine translation software. See for example this discussion on my blog here. But it is of course wishful thinking. There is no software substitute for real knowledge, including knowledge of languages.
I think that the real problem that the young lawyers and other professionals graduating from colleges and universities in America now have is the debt burden from student loans that will make the life of so many young people very difficult for many years. They did learn something valuable in their law school, and they should be able to put their diploma to good use too. But they will have to carry a crushing debt burden for many years, which may prevent them from being able to use their diploma the way they would like to use it.
In a way, I was much freer 30 years ago behind the Iron Curtain then they are now in America. Although I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I had no debt and thus I was free to decide what to do with the rest of my life.
If “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, as Janis Joplin famously sang in the sixties, what would be another word for a crushing debt burden from student loans before you even had a chance to really start your life?
If you are allowed to use only one word, my vote would be for the word “slavery”.