Posted by: patenttranslator | April 13, 2019

A Degree in Languages Can Be Very Valuable

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

― Mae West

First of all, I want to mark myself safe after watching almost all episodes of four seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Yesterday I tried to watch for a change a movie about the end of the world due to flesh eating creatures who react to sound and then attack humans, but after about 15 minutes I could not stand it anymore and went back to what’s still left for me of Breaking Bad.

The series is almost as addictive as Walter White’s, the good/evil protagonist’s of the Netflix series, blue and white meth.

But that is not what I want to be writing about today. Today I would like to share with the readers of my silly blog my deep thoughts on the subject in the title of my post.

Many translators are constantly bombarded by comments from people who are telling them that they made a big mistake by spending decades of their life studying languages to graduate with a degree in a foreign language. Imbecilic comments of this kind often appear in smug comments of know-nothing morons analyzing problems with current education in newspapers, on Youtube, and we might even hear this received wisdom after we reveal our occupation to someone asking us the nosiest question of them all: “So what is it that you do for a living”?

Especially now that machine translation, which is often confused by civilians with actual translation, is available for free on computers and smartphones, people who don’t know much about languages, and often not much about anything else either, are convinced that the study of languages is a waste of time because good money can be made only by those who have a degree in one of the STEM fields (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

And since it is unavoidable that all translators will soon be replaced by computers and software, or so the received wisdom goes, what is the utility of non-STEM education in the marketplace of the modern, high-tech world that is full of destructive technologies, right?

Well, what do I know, maybe there is a point to this kind of reasoning. But although I have been hearing for about the last 40 years from all kinds of people that my choice of what I wanted to do with my life was not very practical because technology would soon make professions like mine redundant, it is clear to me that whether translators will become obsolete or not would among other things depend on how one would defined the term “all” and the term “soon”.

I don’t have a crystal ball revealing to me what is going to happen in the future job market. But I do have some limited experience as somebody who many years ago received a theoretically useless degree in a non-STEM field, in particular in Japanese studies, which on the surface of it is as far from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics as one can get.

Even back in the last century, many people thought that the education in the field that I had chosen to pursue all those years ago would not turn out to be very practical and conducive to earning a decent living.

But these false prophets were wrong, as time would prove in due course.

After graduating with a degree in Japanese and a minor in in English in 1980, the imperative, non-compromising arm of wanderlust pushed me a few years later away from the Old World into the open arms of the New World, so that in 1982 I found myself as a new immigrant walking the streets of San Francisco.

Just like today, there were homeless people sleeping in the streets of the fair city already then, only not as many as today because the cost of housing was a fraction of what it is now.

My mission, which I could not afford not to accept, was to make sure that I was not going to join their ranks, something that could have easily happened given that I had no money and did not know a single person on the entire American continent (counting also Canada and Central and Southern America.)

But since there were hordes of Japanese tourists wandering with their authoritative Japanese guidebooks in the early eighties around San Francisco, ready to spend their hard-earned money but unable to communicate with anyone to convey the gist of the adventure that they were eager to experience, it took me less than a month to find a new job in San Francisco thanks to the fact that I could speak English and Japanese, and French, and German, …. and a few other languages that did not really count for too much back then. Despite my ignorance of the City, these four languages combined gave me my first job with the San Francisco Convention & Visitors, although I knew virtually nothing about the City in which I had spent only a few weeks.

Helping to send American and international clientele to numerous tourist traps in and around San Francisco was an enjoyable and interesting job, so much so that I lasted on that job for my first three years in America. After the first year or so I became a virtual, multilingual authority on what to do and where to go in San Francisco and the Bay Area, thanks mostly to my interest and education in foreign languages.

A good education in a STEM subject would probably do the same trick for me … eventually, but that was not were my interest was and still is.

After three years of dispensing advice to tourists, my interest in languages and overall linguistic background led me to meet and eventually marry a Japanese woman who as so happened did not want to go back to Japan after her student visa expired. Ours was not a perfect marriage, but what marriage is? It did last 34 years, and it gave us two beautiful boys, who now are two adult American taxpayers. All roads do not lead to Rome as an old European proverb has it – it is written in the stars that some lead to San Francisco, whether you are coming from Prague or from Tokyo.

After my first three years in San Francisco, I spent a year living with my in-laws in Tokyo. Again, I was able to find a job thanks to my linguistic education within less than a month there, and I started working in downtown as a translator for a somewhat shady import-export company specializing in gray markets.

That was fun too! And I learned a lot from that job as well.

But when my new wife finally got her immigrant visa for United States, after a year we both had enough of Japan and returned to the city where we met – now a favorite question used by banks and credit card companies, in addition to your mother’s maiden name, to establish the identity of a person who has lost the password.

It took me another year after my return to San Francisco before I figured out that the best way to put my education and my skills to good use was to start my own translation business, which I did in 1987 and which is still active, even though I am officially retired by now. But being retired for me at this point only means that I don’t have to work because unlike in the past, I don’t really need to make money … it does not mean that I will not work if the subject is interesting and the money is good!

So there you have my life in a nutshell, and this blog shall remain a living testimony to what one can do with an education that puts an emphasis on foreign languages, namely experience all kind of interesting things and places and have have a lot of fun doing so.

It’s not that I don’t value education in a STEM subject, especially since for more than three decades I have been translating mostly patents and articles from scientific and medical journals. But an education in a subject that may eventually turn out to be lucrative, but at the same time does not really interest you too much, is probably a recipe for a boring, unfulfilled and unhappy life.

And as Mae West, who is described on Wikipedia as an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, and sex symbol (1893 – 1980), whose entertainment career spanned seven decades, and was known for her lighthearted bawdy double entendres and breezy sexual independence, said a long time ago, it’s important to have fun, because you get to live only once, life is short and then you die.


  1. I have been getting a few inquiries from some of my regular customers as to whether I do post-editing of machine translation. My stock reply is that I am simply too busy doing actual translation to offer those services. As a technical translator who sometimes covers AI-related materials, I have been researching the current state of machine learning. These neural net systems are good at recognizing language patterns if they have enough input data to analyze. However, they don’t “understand” language by any means and often fall apart when it comes to the overall structure and flow of a translation, especially with less explicit languages like Japanese.


  2. This is what I wrote on the subject five years ago, and my opinion has not change since then.


  3. I don’t in principle disagree with what you say, Steve – though my way into translation was through a STEM education and a couple of years in Japan courtesy of a Mombusho (as then was) scholarship. And it was translation that got me started into what I have now more-or-less retired from, being a patent attorney; so I’m very glad I gave it a try.
    However, you are talking of starting afresh in 1980, or 1987, whichever you prefer, and not in 2020. I only have to go back through your blog to see what has happened to translators’ earnings relative to the cost of living. I won’t say that there’s a race to the bottom, or that it isn’t possible to earn a decent living at translation, but I think it’s probably a lot tougher for a newbie now than it was when you and I were getting going.


  4. Absolutely, I was very lucky that I got my start in the translation business more than thirty years ago. Globalization, machine translation and the frenzied race to the bottom among translation agencies created a very different environment for patent translators and I might not be able to provide for a decent life for a family of four now.

    But a lot depends, even now, on one’s language combination and translation niche. Although translations of Japanese patents for prior art more or less disappeared from my field of vision, possibly because they are cobbled together from machine translations somewhere in India, I’ve had and still do have quite a bit of work from European languages, especially German, mostly German patents for filing in English and correspondence from German Patent Office with US patent lawyers, and my agency work is still continuing, translations of patents for example from Chinese and into European languages. So my focus has shifted now from Japanese mostly to German and French, which is kind of unfortunate because Japanese was my specialty for so many years.

    But a similar situation now exists also in other professions: radiologists and anesthesiologists, for example, face competition from machines, some legal work is now done by cheap Indian lawyers, etc.

    I would probably try to use my linguistic education in a different job now if I were forty years younger, rather than starting a translation business, although I don’t know what it would be.


  5. I can’t believe anyone was telling you 30 or 40 years ago that you’d soon be replaced by MT. I almost never heard that until 10 years ago and especially 5.


    • Forty years ago, my degree was not practical because Japan was too far and how would I get there?

      But thirty years, some people were already saying that my job would be done by computers.


  6. I am a 50 year old Japanese woman living in Tokyo doing translation work as a living with my husband who is also a translater. I was surprised to know from this blog that your ex-wife had been Japanese. What has brought you to major in Japanese language at collage when you were in Prague?


    • I just always like foreign languages and Japanese was just foreign enough for me.


  7. Music majors will be as valuable as language majors in the 2020s:

    Climbing the country charts! “You Can’t Take My Door”


  8. Very good information, thank you.


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