Posted by: patenttranslator | February 7, 2017

When a Translator Dies

When a translator dies, it is just like when any person dies, I suppose. Sad, unbelievable, heart- wrenching even, if you knew the person well. But to me, it is a little different when it is one of us.


The first one I remember dying passed away in 1991 in his early fifties.

F and I, we had big plans (I will use only one letter instead of the names because I think that death is a rite of passage that should probably be kept at least as private as birth).

On foggy Sunday mornings he used to come to a tiny office that I was renting in an old building on Fifth Avenue off Geary Street in San Francisco with a bag of sugary Dunkin’ Donuts. I liked the chocolate ones best. We would drink coffee I had made, eating donuts and plotting how we were going to go after direct clients in the Bay Area. We decided to try mass mailings. This was at a time when most people did not know much about what the word “internet” meant. To me, the internet was just a connection through a phone line handy for sending files to customers using a modem.

At that point we were not yet sure what kind of translation we would specialize in. I was translating anything and everything, computer game manuals – they were really simple back then, personal documents, medical journals, newspaper articles, a few patents every now and then and just about anything else. It was F who said that we should target patent law firms. Just about anybody can translate simple game manuals, but not that many people could translate Japanese patents and do it well, he said.

So we did target patent law firms, in addition to high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, and after we sent out the first few hundred letters, we started comparing results as work started slowly trickling in.

But then, one extremely unlucky day F got terribly mad for some reason at some dude who was installing a new phone line at his place, probably a fax line, which was cutting edge technology back then. He turned red in the face, collapsed, fell into a coma and never woke up. The cause of death was a brain aneurysm, which is most of the time undiagnosed, until the blood vessel in the brain ruptures, and it’s over.

Who knows, maybe he still would have had a few more years if he hadn’t gotten so mad at the incompetent telephone guy.

“He was such good person”, his wife told us when she was visiting our apartment in San Francisco, with tears in her eyes. But within a year, she remarried. Graveyards are full of indispensible people who were also very good people.

This was the year when Enya’s Caribbean Blue CD came out. I used to love Enya’s music, so soft and gentle and soothing, perfect for translating. But every song on this CD sounds like a dirge to me now and I don’t listen to it much anymore.


S died two years later, in 1993, from complications from pneumonia when he was in his early sixties. He was very well known among Japanese translators in San Francisco; in fact, had I not met him six years earlier when I was working as an employee for a Japanese travel agency, I would probably never have had the courage to become a freelancer. F and I used to call him “Tenno Heika” which means “His Majesty, the Emperor”, the honorific title of the Japanese Emperor. S was also interested in Slavic languages – he spoke Russian (with a very strong American accent) and passable Slovak.

After I got fired from a stupid job, I decided to imitate Tenno Heika’s example and become a freelance translator which was how my amazing career and adventures in technical translation were launched 30 years ago (but who’s counting).

In the pre-internet era, S published a newsletter about Japanese technical translation for quite a few years and mailed it to paying subscribers on several continents. He also held meetings of translators in his house for at least a decade.

He was not married and had no children, so when he died, we cremated his body and scattered the ashes on the cliffs of Point Reyes, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and facing Japan.

Afterwards we had a meal at a great seafood restaurant and talked about him. We promised ourselves we would keep up the tradition of meeting together a few times a year.

We met about three times, but without S, the group of Japanese translators in the Bay Area was leaderless and aimless. Some people moved to other parts of the country and to other countries, and we eventually lost contact with each other.

I don’t even know where most of the people I used to know back then live now, or for that matter, whether they are still alive.


D died of cancer eleven years ago in 2006 when he was in his mid fifties. I only found out that he had cancer when I called him in 2006 to ask whether he could help me with a rush translation of Japanese patents. I had about a dozen of them that had to be translated within a week, so I was calling other translators I knew. He told me that he was too sick for that, and that he did not feel up to it, so we talked for a while about cancer and other things before we ended the call.

But about an hour later he called me back to say that he had changed his mind and that he would like to translate that patent that I was offering. I sent it to him, quite a few thousand words, and he did a very good job as I remember.

It was probably his last translation because he passed away not longer after that. I hope that it took his mind off his disease and that it felt good to be working again.

The last time I saw D in person, rather than just talking to him on the phone, was about eight years before he died when D, another friend of ours called Richard and I were having a dinner in a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Japan town. I remember which restaurant it was, although I don’t remember what we had for dinner.

It is true what they say that the good ones die young. D was a very gentle person, always smiling, always so polite. At the dinner where I saw him the last time, we talked a lot about Russian writers, especially Dostoyevsky because I was obsessed with Dostoyevsky and the story of his life at one point in my life. I read all his books when I was a teenager. I did not even know that D knew Russian quite well, he had never told me that, I only found out at that dinner.

The last thing I remember about him was when, just before he got into a brand new BMW, he quipped “Well, I had a few good jobs, that’s all”. In fact, we knew that it was his father’s car because he told us. Then he got into the car and drove off to his house, about an hour away.

He was just joking, not many translators drive brand new BMWs, or at least I don’t know any.


 At this point I am not sure whether the person I will call in this post ???? is alive or dead, so that’s why I will identify him in mu silly post with four question marks.  I hope he is still among the living because I owe him a few hundred dollars and I would like to find a way to give the money to him.

I don’t know this person on a personal basis, but when he sent me his resume in November of last year, I took a good look at it and saved it. I usually delete dozens of translators’ résumés, but some I do save.

This one was from an old-timer, probably much older than I was I thought, who has been doing exactly what I do for longer than I have been doing it.

So when I was snowed under with a whole bunch of long patents from one client, I sent him the shortest one for translation in December.

If something goes wrong and the guy only looks good on paper, I will just retranslate the whole thing, I told to myself. But I needn’t have worried, he did an excellent job on some pretty nasty stuff with really complicated terminology (that was also why I sent it to him, I did not feel like doing it myself).

He did an excellent job, except that there were two small paragraphs that he omitted, one in the beginning, one in the end. Strange, I thought to myself. But it was not a big deal, I am used to things like that. I translated the two missing paragraphs and sent the job off to the client.

On January 5th of this year I sent him the payment by PayPal, and the payment went through just fine, so the e-mail address must have been the correct one. Everything seemed to be just fine until I received the following e-mail from PayPal on February 5th:

Dear [my name]

 On Jan 5, 2017, you sent a payment to [translator’s e-mail address] for [amount in question].

 The funds have been returned to your account.

[translator’s e-mail] did not sign up for a PayPal account or did not complete the registration process.

What the heck? I thought. I double-checked, but it was the correct e-mail, the one the translator gave me for payment.

I called the number he gave me, only to get a message the number is no longer in service, followed by a cheesy offer of an incredible rate if I switch my phone service to that other phone provider outfit, probably some kind of scam.

Who does not check their e-mail, allows payment of money to be returned back to the payee, and has his phone service discontinued? Dead people, that’s who, I thought to myself.

Is ???? even alive? He did seem rather old based on the information on his résumé, probably older than me, maybe much older.

I decided to give it one more day. Maybe it’s some kind of a jinx, I’ll try to unjinx it tomorrow, I said to myself. It’s always best to let the earth spin around its axis once if you want to unjinx something.



Good news: ???? is alive! I called him today, this time the number worked and we talked for a while. He had no idea how was it possible that the payment bounced back from his PayPal account to mine, or how I could have gotten the message that his number was disconnected.

I have no idea what happened either because I am sure that I did not misdial since I triple-checked the number.

He is even older than I thought he would be, but eager for more work, even though, as he told me, he does not really need the money.

He does it mostly for the challenge, he said.

Well, I do it for the challenge too, but I have to say, mostly for the money.

Maybe there will come a day for me too when I will be doing what I am doing mostly for the challenge … if I live that long.

I certainly look forward to it.


  1. […] When a translator dies, it is just like when any person dies, I suppose. Sad, unbelievable, heart- wrenching even, if you knew the person well. But to me, it is a little different when it is one of us. F The first one I remember dying passed away in 1991 in his early fifties.…  […]


  2. I enjoyed reading about your friends in this post, even though I never met them. Another kind of loss that you touch on tangentially is when people you connect with move away. I love America and I have thrived here, but it is so big that when someone moves (and people seem to moving all the time), they’re usually gone from your life altogether. And yes, there is social media and all that to keep in touch, but to me nothing beats getting together for coffee in person. I can get kind of melancholy about it, but on lighter days I appreciate the friendships that have lasted, and you have to keep working on building new ones I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I feel an odd sense of comfort to learn a bit about your colleagues whom you honor through the memories you are sharing with us. Maybe they didn’t leave behind great works of art, like Dostoyevsky did, but, somewhere, some people are using some invention for which they translated the patent, enjoying better health because of a medical translation they did, or understanding the world a tiny bit better because of a news article they translated. Even if those traces were infintessimal in the scale of world events, those translators mattered, and they mattered to those around them. These memories matter. I love that D worked on one last translation even while he was dying of cancer. I love that you and your friends honored S by scattering his ashes over the cliff facing Japan. And I’m so glad ???? is still alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been enjoying your posts for a while now, and with this one you brought back memories of my good mate Miguel Llorens, a financial translator like myself, who passed away at the age of forty. To this day whenever I’m stuck, I always catch myself saying “I wonder how Miguel would’ve phrased this…”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to read his blog and share it. He left several comments on my blog too. He was a brilliant writer. To this day I don’t know how and why he died at such a young age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thrombosis or Deep Vein Thrombosis. He had a condition, but he had stopped smoking, was fitter, had moved to Spain and as you say was a brilliant writer. A great advocate for translators too through is blog, and he could make you laugh with that wit of his. You see, I was right about the connection. All the best.


  6. Those are touching stories. Or lives, I should say. It’s sad but life doesn’t stop for anybody. At least it looked like your friends enjoyed living. “Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.”

    Liked by 2 people

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