Posted by: patenttranslator | September 14, 2011

What Would You Say To Yourself If You Could Go Back in Time in a Magic Time Machine?

“If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau

If there was a magic time machine and you could go back in time and talk to that young person that used to be you, let’s say 20 or 30 years ago, what would you say to him or her? Would you two be able to even talk and understand each other?

That young person would probably want to know what is it that you do now that you are an “old” man or women, where do you live, in what kind of house, what kind of car you drive …. and probably also who you married and whether you have children. Would you be able to impress the person that you used to be you two or three or more decades ago? One thing is certain: you are not the person that you used to be back then anymore. If you could go back in time, the old (young) you and the new (old) you would be two completely different people.

If you could go back in time in that magic time machine and meet the person that you used to be you when you were just starting out, let’s say right after you graduated from college, would you be able to impress the young person who was about to become a translator (if that is what you do) with who you are today? And what advice would you give that budding translator?

I think that I would probably be able to impress the young me by talking about the places where I have been and the countries where I have lived and worked, mostly as a translator. The young me (the stupid me?) would probably think that it must be so cool to be able to live in places like San Francisco and Tokyo (did the word “cool” even exist 30 years ago)?

I would tell him, for example, that it is not really possible to be fluent in 7 languages. But that does not mean that you should not give it a try, young man. It’s a lot of fun and if you work really hard at it while you are still young and have a lot of energy, you should be able to fake those languages well enough at some point in your life to make a decent living simply with your languages.

I would also tell him, for example, that it is not possible to become really fluent even in one language if you pick a language as diabolically difficult as Japanese. I could demonstrate it on a randomly selected sound, for instance the sound “shi” in Japanese. I would list all Japanese characters that are all pronounced “shi” in Japanese, while each of them means something else, starting with the word “shi” for “beginning” (which is written with the radical that means “woman”, since that is where everything always starts), and ending with the “shi” character that means death and kind of looks like a dead body in a coffin: beginning, 市 city, 氏 Mr., 視 see, 詩 poetry, 士gentlemen, 誌 magazine, 師 teacher, 史 history,  飼 feed, 資 capital, 紙 paper,子 child, 四 four, 刺 pierce, 歯 tooth,  私 me, 示  show, 使 use,仕 serve, 支 support, 指 finger, 至 reach, 矢 arrow, 姉 elder sister, 枝 branch, 茨 thorn, 思 think, 試 test, 糸 thread, 漬 soak, 雌 female, 弛 loosen, 斯 such, 柴 brushwood, 止 stop, ..……………… death.

Or I could do it with “ki” or hundreds of other characters in Japanese that are pronounced the same way although they mean something else. But I hope that I would not be able to dissuade that young man who used to be me from trying to learn this language. What’s the point of learning things that can be learned easily? If you want to learn something that will give you job security later, you’d better figure out how to learn something that is impossible to learn, young man.

If that young person asked me what is the most important thing that he should be aware of, I would probably tell him some variation of what Henry David Thoreau said more than a century and half ago.

Forget about what people say to you. As long as your heart is beating, trust your instincts and listen to the beat of your own drum. Because you are the only one who can hear this drummer.



  1. I would tell that young female me not to listen to all the men who kept saying “Only men this…” and “Only men that…” to try anyway. I would tell that young female me not to listen to male department heads in charge of signing my course choices who said to take Spanish instead of Russian and to get a teacher’s certificate so I could put my husband (non-existent) through school (did not do so, thank God!). I would tell that young female me that I would be uncertain, unhappy, lonely and without money much of the time, but that I had brains, ability and an impeccable work ethic, and to decide that I had to decide for myself. And I would tell that young female that even though times have changed in 51 years, men still talk over and walk all over women, so stand strong. To thine own self be true. Even late in life. After all, saith Emerson, the only escape is performance.


  2. So the root of all evil is not money …. it is …. men!

    And here I thought it was women.


  3. You are advised to fix your typo by taking either “詞 word” or “飼 feed”.


  4. I would tell that person, “Have fun and trust your gut.”
    And the younger me would roll her eyes and say, “No kidding!”
    The both of us are pretty happy with the way it worked out (not at all as planned).


  5. In what language would the younger you have said it and what would it sound like?


    • In my case, English, even the eye roll. On graduation from college, my current source languages had not even entered my consciousness, although I had some knowledge of four others by then. I didn’t start learning Serbo-Croatian, as it was then called, until I was in my late 20s. I’d like to start learning another language at 50, and perhaps another at 70. If this doesn’t keep dementia at bay, then at least I’ll be an entertaining old coot — incomprehensible in 6 languages!


  6. Plutarch tells us that Cato was pretty old when he learned Greek (Cato senex literam Greacam didicit). I can’t remember whether he was 70 or 80.

    So I still have plenty of time to start learning Spanish, and you have plenty of time to start learning Czech or Portuguese or a similar language, but probably not Japanese because that language just takes to damn long to learn!


    • I was thinking Turkish — different family in the same neighborhood. My first choice is Arabic, but I find the orthography impenetrable. I may have to find a way in by ear.
      I used to know a few words of Japanese. I did lighting for a show that played in Tokyo, so I learned enough to focus the lights without an interpreter (smaller, wider, hard, soft, up, down, left, right, perfect!).
      My mother took a Japanese class in her 70s. She learned some phonetic characters, and once at a Japanese restaurant was able to make out a few words on the menu, including ka-pu-chi-no. (She had no idea why the rest of us were laughing so hard.)


  7. I was wondering, can you get enough work with your language combination?

    I get maybe half a dozen translations from Czech a year if that many.


    • I also edit and proofread in English for clients in the US (that work is not translation related), and between the two, I have a fair amount of work — I wouldn’t call it “enough,” though. Then again, if I took the low road price-wise, I would have more work than I could handle. There is plenty of work overall, I think — between US government/intelligence, EU accession, ICTY (for now, at least), the nonprofit sector, pharmaceutical and other industries, and small business. Some of this is English into Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, but many clients want back translations as part of the process, so I can participate in those jobs as well.
      Many of my colleagues work from more than one source language, the connecting thread being subject-matter expertise. I’m trying to do the same with my English-language editing and proofreading.


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