Posted by: patenttranslator | January 8, 2012

At What Age Do Translators Do Their Best Work?


There is a theory that most rock musicians write their best music about 5 years after they first put together a band and start performing and writing songs. Beatles published Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band about 5 years after they first put their band together. The Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet also about 5 years after they started performing, etc. One could say the same thing about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but of course, these two musicians did not have enough time left on this earth to disprove this theory. I am not sure whether I agree or disagree with the theory, but I have not heard from Paul McCartney, the man who wrote “Yesterday”, any new song that would be really worth listening to in the last 30 years or so.

I think that there is a certain logic to this popular if unproven theory. It is really the energy of youth that powers the music of rock musicians. No musician can possibly continue to be inspired by the same things (love and death, beauty and ugliness, loneliness and pain) forever. When even the most powerful emotions are no longer new to us, they lose their power and no longer inspire as they used to. To mix a Latin metaphor with something that J.D. Sallinger, who wrote only one book that is worth reading while he was still quite young, said about sixty years ago, there is nothing new and really powerful under the sun for people over thirty.

Oh, if we could still feel what we felt when we were young and our bodies still looked the same, is a complaint that one can always hear from us old geezers. Or as Mark Twain put it, “youth is wasted on the young”.

But unlike rock musicians, writers, painters, sculptors, actors and people in other professions, for instance scientists, can sometime do their best work long after the magic of youth has disappeared. They can do their best work in their seventies, eighties, or even nineties because they draw their inspiration not only, or not as much, from powerful emotions. Youth is all about emotions that are new and overpowering. Middle age and senectitudo are about emotions that are tempered by experience, and in some cases even a little bit of knowledge.

I think it is safe to say that unlike rock musicians, translators don’t do their best work while they are still quite young, because they don’t really know anything about anything when they are still young, even the talented ones. Translators don’t need as much inspiration as writers or actors, although they do need some. But they definitely do need experience, and the more the better. Ten years of experience in the field of translation is better than nothing, but it is not much. Twenty years is better than ten, and thirty is better still.

I have been making a living by translating since I graduated with a degree in languages in 1980. Every job I have had during those years had something to do with translating, and I have been a freelance translator for the last 25 years out of those 32 years. I think that the fact that I have been able to support a family on one income in this dog-eat-dog world for the last 25 years now means something. In any case, it means something to me.

I also think that because the work of translators is based on what they know about their languages and the world around them, most of them probably do their best work only after about at least two decades of solid experience in their chosen field, whether they translate mostly novels, or mostly patents as I do.

After twenty five years of on-the-job experience as a freelance translator, more if I include also other jobs in which I had to use more than one language on three continents, I am no longer a beginner in this profession. I am probably somewhere on the intermediate/advanced level at this point, and my hope is that I will do my best work during the next twenty five years.

Freelance translators are among professionals who can work well into their old age if they want to or need to (or both).

A few years ago I translated a long Japanese patent for a patent law firm that for some reason did not seem to have a website. When I did not receive anything after about 5 weeks, I tried to find more about the law firm on the Internet and I realized that this firm did not really exist anymore since the nineties. According to information available on the Internet, the partners of this law firm started practicing patent law sometime in early sixties, and the reason why they had no website was that they were retired. This made me a little bit nervous because the nonexistent law firm owed me two thousand dollars.

But the telephone number of the “retired” partner who sent me the patent for translation worked. By looking at his resume, I estimated his age at between 80 to 85 or maybe even more. When I called him, he apologized for the delay and said that he would have his client send me the check directly. And I did get the check within a few days.

It’s quite possible that rock musicians do their best work after about 5 years, and retired patent lawyers and elderly patent translators after about 50 years on the job.


  1. Bravo – always a treat!


  2. Very encouraging post for this aged but less experienced translator, Vitek-san.

    By the way, do you still like it when people who don’t know you suffix “san” onto to your first name, or would you prefer “Vitek-san”, which I prefer too?


  3. I think that it is more logical to add -san to last name.

    When I was in Japan, I liked it better when young people (and especially women) called me Steve-san, but I was pretty young then.


  4. Do patents get boring? Are some more boring than others? Do the intricacies keep you going more than subject matter?

    I totally agree that we get better with age. I think I’m glad not to be able to read early stuff. I know that I find editorials and political commentary far more interesting now, and all of the “input” has to increase competence.

    Rossini is accused of being lazy, but maybe he had said what he had to say. Rimbaud quit early. Many composers died at a relatively early age, so we can’t begin to predict what they had left or would have done, and I think it is a crime when others, whoever they may be, pretentiously “finish” works left undone. Who knows whether the beginning of something would have survived?


  5. Patents can be boring, but the they are reliable and unpredictable at the same time, sort of like spouses.

    All patents have to follow a strict format, but they can be about any subject one can imagine.

    I like both their reliability – I know what is supposed to come next, and unpredictability – you never know what kind of wild animals will all of a sudden jump at you in the next sentence, sometime in the form of a character I have not seen in twenty years, and other times in completely different forms.

    For instance foreign words are transcribed into a special Japanese alphabet (syllabary) called katakana and it is very difficult to figure out the correct spelling if you have no idea what was the original language. Your last name would be transcribed as “rashina”, and if I did not know Czech and that the original word was in Czech, I would have no idea how to transcribe it into English, which is something I would have to do.


  6. Ah, well! My last name, which has been pronounced as “Luh Seenuh” for as long as anyone can remember, is generally rendered by the very earnest as La Cheena, guessing that I am Italian! It is also generally thought that “Ricky” is short for “Frederica” or “Fredricka,” but it is only my freshman high school friends’ attempt to give me a nickname for Frieda (Mae), which I have always hated. They shortened “Fricky” to “Ricky.”

    I just wish I had been named Leslie or something. Then I’d be Reshrie Rashina.


  7. Well, I was reading this entry on my tablet while walking through a park near my house, and I was just thinking that I’d like to read the entirety of this blog, because it’s so awesome. A few minutes later, while still read-walking, I leave the park for the city street, and a large truck, which had inscribed in huge letters “Vitek” on the side, passes me by. What a fun synchronicity!

    (Sorry for off-topic)


  8. If this is not proof positive of synchronicity, I don’t know what is.

    But reading stuff on a tablet while walking may bring asynchronous events into existence, such as when you collide with a large object such as a wall or a tree.


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