Posted by: patenttranslator | August 29, 2014

Brief History of Russian-English Translation in America


A guest post by James F. Shipp, who also published on this blog a post titled Comments of a Veteran Translator on Corporatization of Translation in May of 2014.

When World War II came to its unforeseen conclusion, with the Soviet Union divorcing itself from the Allies and retaining possession of the nations it had “liberated”, the need for Russian-English translators in the United States increased precipitously.

Compounded by the failure of Russian machine translation to materialize as rapidly as anticipated (it still has not come to pass in any workable fashion today), former US military translators, Russian-speaking East European immigrants, and college graduates unable to find positions in academia largely filled this void.

Documents were exchanged in person, through the mail, or via facsimile. Fax machines in those days used a low-quality heat-activated paper that printed out in one continuous sheet, which then had to be manually cut into individual pages. These pages curled incessantly and the translator was forced to weigh them down in some manner in order to read them before they lost their legibility. It was often easier just to make plain-paper copies of the faxed pages, which were expensive in those days, then discard them.

At first, translation manuscripts were submitted in longhand and were typed up by staff secretaries whenever necessary. As the demand for typescripts rose, translators were compelled to take on this additional skill. The first typewriters were big, heavy Remington or Royal uprights. Typing in Russian required a second typewriter with a Cyrillic typeface and a very different keyboard arrangement. Bilingual typing meant the tedious realignment of pages from one machine to the other. Graphics were cut from source document copies and pasted into the translation typescripts, with inset phrases often being whited out and reproduced by hand. A smaller typewriter in something that resembled a hatbox was used for “away” assignments. Typewriter ink ribbons allowed for typing in either black or red. Typos were corrected with erasers until the advent of whiteout products. The erasers left rubber particles in typewriter than inevitably led to sticky keys and typebar jamming.

This situation improved dramatically when IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter with its replaceable printball during the early 1960s. Electrically operated, with a built-in correction tape, this innovative typing system appreciably hastened the translation process, resulting in a higher quality product that was much less labor-intensive.

The IBM Selectric remained the standard until Xerox came out with its Memorywriter electronic typewriter some 20 years later. The Memorywriter featured a replaceable printwheel and a 30,000-character memory that permitted line-by-line editing before printing. This desktop prequel again reduced translation processing time and vastly improved product quality. As with the Selectric, however, the Memorywriter’s printwheel had to be replaced for different languages and special character sets.

Although they had been around for some time, desktop computers remained cost-prohibitive until the mid-1980s. I recall that my first complete desktop system came to staggering $8.000.

The early desktop computer was the size of a refrigerator, with a memory the size of a thimble. The printer was massive, overly sensitive, and together with the attendant fax and modem equipment, accounted for one-half of the system’s cost. The standard word-processing software at that time was WordPerfect – much less user friendly and productive than today’s Microsoft Word.

Imagine if you will a world without the Internet. Pretend for a second that you have to prepare a translation using only the meager hard-copy resources at your disposal. The status of bilingual reference aids prior to the birth of the Worldwide Web was dire. Russian translators in Washington, DC, had a leg up in this regard due to the existence of the Victor Kamkin Bookstore in Rockville, Maryland. There, on a Saturday morning for a negligible outlay, translators could find dictionaries spanning numerous scientific and technical disciplines; however, most of them were English-Russian with short Russian-English indices in the back. They were literally the only game in town. Reliable Russian-English reference aids from the English-language press could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, this situation remained fundamentally unchanged for several decades.

While reverse-sort bilingual dictionaries were available at Kamkin’s bookstore in Washington, D.C., some of us had to resort to making our own dictionaries.

Translators had to keep copious margin notes in the dictionaries that they were able to acquire and to compile their own lists of frequently encountered terms. The Guild of Professional Translators (later the Translation Research Institute) in Philadelphia heard about my first such list – a Russian-English Index to Scientific Apparatus Nomenclature – and published it in 1977. This resulted in the ensuing publication of a Russian-English Dictionary of Surnames in 1981 and a Russian-English Dictionary of Abbreviations & Initialisms in 1982, as well as the self-publication of a Concise Russian-English Chemical Glossary in 1983. Because they continued to be in demand after they went out of print, the National Technical Information Service of the US Department of Commerce in Springfield, Virginia, repeatedly reprinted all these volumes over the years. In 2005, Dunwoody Press, also in Springfield, Virginia, published a Dictionary of Contemporary Russian Abbreviations, Acronyms & Initialisms that I had coauthored with Maks Rozenbaum. The revenues from these publications were extremely sparse, but no amount of money could ever have recompensed the thousands upon thousands of hours spent compiling them – they were strictly a labor of love for the purpose of helping my colleagues generate a better translation product.

Due to the emergence of translation and interpretation as an independent sector, the American Translators Association was founded in Ossining, New York, in 1959. Local affiliates soon sprang up in hub cities across the nation. This organization’s stated primary goals consisted of “fostering and supporting the professional development of translators and interpreters and promoting the translation and interpreting professions”.

Following almost two years of negotiations with The Newspaper Guild, six fellow translators and I founded The Translators Guild (TTG) in June of 1991. Almost perishing to due lack of community support for fear of industry reprisals, this true AFL/CIO union ultimately became The Translators and Interpreters Guild (TTIG), is now an arm of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), and primarily focuses on interpreters, since they comprise the bulk of its current membership.

Despite the existence of these and similar groups, the cards still remain stacked against translators as a whole today, who must often work unspeakable hours to meet impossible deadlines, accept rates of pay that are far from commensurate with the complexity and importance of the work performed, and endure insupportable delays before finally receiving their money. While conditions aren’t as bad as they used to be (one of my first freelance jobs was translating the Shipbuilding Journal on a monthly basis for 4 cents per source word), they are still in need of great improvement before translators see the light of a new day.

Good translating,
Jim Shipp

(Translation history buffs may want to compare Jim Shipp’s reminiscences also to my post about the history of Japanese-English translation in San Francisco in the eighties and nineties which I originally wrote for Translation Journal).


  1. Thank you, Jim for telling the true story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the post! I was delighted to find “Comments on Corporatization” also in the summer edition of SlavFile, the newsletter of the Slavic Language Division of the ATA (, so very true!


  3. Hi Valerij:

    Jim asked me whether I was “shocked” that ATA allowed publication of his article in Slavfile.


    • Hi Steve,

      Right, that is also why I was so delighted 🙂
      But I hear there is something in store for the next ATA conference.


  4. Perhaps something along the lines of the famous quote below?

    LOUIS XVI to François de la Rochefoucauld:”Is it a revolt?”

    François de la Rochefoucauld to LOUIS XVI: “No, Sir, it’s a revolution.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. These links are very helpful. Glad you’ve shared it.


  6. […] In the second part of the twentieth century, translation has come of age and became an important business thanks to technical means enabling dissemination of translated information by the communication means of the last century: typewriter, copier, telephone, and fax. This particular stage was described in some detail by James F. Shipp in his guest post on my blog titled “Brief History of Russian-English Translation in America”. […]


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