Posted by: patenttranslator | August 25, 2013

Many Translators Are Pretty Weird People – Or Are They?

I was a pretty weird teenager. When I was about 17, I was learning French from simplified French books published with a French-Russian vocabulary. I was pretty fluent in Russian by then as the Russian language was obligatory for all children behind the Iron Curtain from third grade. In one of those books in simplified French, Voyage au Centre de la Terre by Jules Verne, a message explaining how to get to the center of the Earth was hidden in a Runic cryptogram. I learned the Runic script or alphabet, which was also helpfully explained in that book, one beautiful Saturday morning and then I started transcribing things for myself in that bizarre alphabet, delighted at the thought that nobody could read what I was writing.

Of course, after a few weeks I forgot that ugly alphabet because it was completely useless as I could not find anybody willing to communicate with me in this manner because other kids my age were for some reason mostly interested in drinking beer, playing cards, or chasing after girls.

But my strange and consuming passion for the meaning of things hidden to most people because they happen to be encoded in a foreign language turned out not to be completely useless because eventually I graduated with a degree in Japanese studies (the Japanese writing system being even more strange than the runic script, but also much more pleasing to the eye and much more fun to learn – how could i resist?), and then moved to another country, then yet another one, and another one, to satisfy my strange craving for foreign cultures and languages, until I finally settled down in San Francisco, California, and later became a freelance translator.

Back then in mid eighties, San Francisco was full of really weird translators, Japanese translators in particular, and every couple of months, a meeting of unusual people, mostly translators, was held at the house of one of them who came to epitomize the quintessential weird translator to me. I wrote about these meetings in this post.

A problem that Don had, or used to have, (that was his name, although he did not like it and used a different name among friends), was that he needed to sleep during the day because he could not fall asleep at night and it is hard to keep a job when you keep falling asleep on your day job. But if you are a translator who works at home, nobody cares when you like to work and when you like to sleep as long as you get the job done.

You get away with a lot of things as a translator that you couldn’t get away with in just about any other job. Of course, you don’t need to work wearing a dumb uniform consisting of a suit and a tie, which is what I had to put up with for the first 7 years of my working career when I was an employee in three different countries on three different continents. The same stupid garb was, depressingly, required in each of these countries. There is no commute and you don’t have to talk to anybody for days unless you want to. You don’t even have to answer the phone if you don’t feel like it since most customers, including potential customers, communicate with translators mostly by e-mail these days anyway.

While this sort of lifestyle is attractive to mildly weird people like myself, it can also be a dangerous lifestyle as some translators may ultimately develop a nasty disease called “translator’s dementia” (TD). I described the symptoms of this modern disease, which is affecting more and more translators these days, in this post. I am very proud of this post because as of today, it has 1.8 k likes on Facebook and 138 tweets, which is why I link to it in other posts every chance I get.

It helps to have a non-translator spouse who is relatively normal, but the problem is, even a relatively normal non-translator spouse may eventually become fed up with a weird translator. In fact, the TD symptoms described in my post about TD are obviously based on real symptoms of real translators. I have in mind in particular one translator who, although he owns a lovely house near San Francisco, prefers or preferred to work in the solitude that he could find only in the desolate, hot (or cold) and dusty attic of his house. The last time I saw him, 15 years ago, he had a wild, lost look in his eyes, and his wife was pointing an accusatory finger at him, saying these fateful words “This is not the man I married”. They must be divorced by now.

An important outlet that translators can use to try to minimize the impact of their often unconventional and bizarre lifestyle on their fragile psyches is nowadays found in blogs. Writing, or at least reading about our experiences on our blogs and sharing them with other similarly inclined people is not unlike lying on a psychotherapist’s couch and talking about one’s dreams, childhood nightmares, and unfulfilled aspirations. The main difference is that we can share our experience with hundreds or thousands of followers, which I am sure must have a deeply therapeutic value by itself. Plus, of course, we don’t have to pay for it by the hour.

But it is also possible that translators are not weird at all – they are perfectly normal and it is the world around them that is so incredibly strange, a world that is for the most part blind to the clear and unambiguous meaning of very important messages, messages that may lead to the center of the Earth, or to the center of the Universe, only because these messages happen to be written in a script and a language that most people can’t read.


  1. Sir, your posts are mind/eye-openers..always! …more than once, I found out that you are talking about me! I am reading your posts since quite sometime now… keep it up. Thanks.


  2. Thank you, MN.

    I will think of you as Minnesota since all I know about you are these two letters.


  3. Steve: Thanks for the reminiscences about SF in the 1980s (and the link to your previous article, which I hadn’t seen because I only started reading your blog a year or so ago). I had started as a J-E technical translator while a UCBerkeley postdoc in the late 70s, and continued in my spare time after finding a full-time job in patent law. I remember the meetings at Don’s, TJT, and IJET2; and I wonder how many of “the crowd” are still in the business. Derek


  4. “I wonder how many of “the crowd” are still in the business.”

    Yes, I remember you from IJET II, Derek. Good to hear from you.

    Those were the days.

    Many people are probably still translating, although at least three of them passed away, including Don, and most of them moved to greener (or less expensive) pastures somewhere else, including myself, some to Japan, and one to Israel.


  5. Great post! I am honored to be one of these weird (or maybe not) translators you described.
    Thanks for the smile 😉


  6. I think this weirdness is apparent in all times of jobs that require long-hours in front of the computer drilling away, software developers too. There are tons of jokes about how some developers lack people skills. And all this working silently and remotely for long hours can ruin relationships, marriages, friendships, etc.

    I was interested in this subject (social deprivation, sleep restriction, intense stress) at some point ( but I haven’t followed-up research in this for a long time. There’s been more scrutiny now in terms of folks starting their own companies:

    The first article says this:

    “In his book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America, Gartner argues that an often-overlooked temperament–hypomania–may be responsible for some entrepreneurs’ strengths as well as their flaws…

    Though driven and innovative, hypomanics are at much higher risk for depression than the general population, notes Gartner. Failure can spark these depressive episodes, of course, but so can anything that slows a hypomanic’s momentum. “They’re like border collies–they have to run,” says Gartner. “If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy; they just pace around. That’s what hypomanics do. They need to be busy, active, overworking.”


    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] I was a pretty weird teenager. When I was about 17, I was learning French from simplified French books published with a French-Russian vocabulary. I was pretty fluent in Russian by then as the Russ…  […]


  8. […] post from Steve Vitek over at PatentTranslator’s Blog, who says he was a pretty weird teenager who taught himself languages, got a kick out of […]


  9. Some stuff some translators do probably can’t be done by most normal people. Some skills, or some levels of some skills rather, come at the price of either not quite fitting in or even being straight out diagnosable.

    Liked by 1 person

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