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Four translators share their experiences of working in language as a profession
By Christy Olsen Field
Norwegian American Weekly
In today’s increasingly globalized world, translators play an important role in technical and cultural communication. They move effortlessly from Norwegian to English (and often several other languages as well), keeping the lines of communication clear with clear, straightforward translations for a diverse range of clients from individuals to multi-national corporations.
I spoke with four translators, specializing in Norwegian and English, who shared their experiences as working in a minor language as a career. With different backgrounds and expertise, these translators have a special relationship with Norway and the U.S. and their languages.
Irene Levin Berman of Hartford, Conn., was born, raised and educated in Norway. Coming from a family of linguists, learning new languages came easily to her. She learned to speak English at the age of 13, and learned French and German as well. As a young adult, she moved to the U.S. for one year to improve her English to pursue her interest in becoming an interpreter, but ended up staying permanently after marrying an American and settling on the East Coast. As a language teacher in Norwegian, Swedish and English, Berman transitioned into translation as a business owner and freelancer.
Erling Dugan of Ventura, Calif., spent his formative years on both sides of the Atlantic. He was born in Norway, and moved to the U.S. when he was five years old with his family to join his father in New York. Dugan grew up in Brooklyn, then moved to Norway to study engineering at the University of Stavanger. He spent many years in Norway working as an engineer at the Oslo office of an America company, and then an American nonprofit that worked with eastern European countries. With the end of the Cold War, Dugan decided to make a change and work for himself as a freelance translator.
Tynlee Roberts, who lives outside Oslo, Norway, had a circuitous route to Norway. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Roberts moved every two years to a new country. She was born in Taiwan, and lived in Hong Kong, Belgium, China and Singapore. French was her first foreign language, and she studied Mandarin, Italian, French and German in college. She moved to Australia to attend an MBA program, and married a Norwegian from Vestlandet and settled in Oslo. After working for several hospitality companies and Nordmanns-Forbundet / Norwegians Worldwide, Roberts created her own company in 2011 called TPR Communications Consulting, specializing in Norwegian / English translation and consultation.
Vigdis Eriksen, President and CEO of Eriksen Translations in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up on a small farm outside of Fredrikstad, Norway. She left Norway at the age of 20 to pursue a career in theatre, and spent time in Paris and Amsterdam before moving to New York. She worked for a translation company in Manhattan for two years before going freelance. She then founded Eriksen Translations, Inc., an award-winning company that employs 25 people and works with 700 freelancers annually in over 100 languages.
Christy Olsen Field: In your own words, what draws you to language?
Tynlee Roberts: I have always had a passion for writing in English, and I would have majored in English in college had I not discovered from an early age that I enjoyed reading, writing and dissecting a foreign language even more.
Irene Levin Berman: It’s fascinating being able to understand a foreign language. The more you learn in one language, the easier it is to learn a second language. There is an enormous sense of intellectual pride to pick up two or three familiar words, and suddenly you get the gist of the sentence – almost like an intellectual high. I still have that feeling.
Vigdis Eriksen: I left Norway to explore the world at age 20, after finishing upper-secondary school. I studied drama in Paris and Amsterdam, perfecting my French and learning Dutch along the way, in addition to German, which I had studied in Norway. I came to New York in the late 1970s to continue my theater studies, but after a few years I caught the translation bug. I’ve never looked back!
Erling Dugan: I have always been interested in language. Language is like a puzzle – you start seeing how pieces fit together. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I grew up with a lot of Jewish friends and I was interested in Yiddish. Today, I understand most of Yiddish. Once you see the similarities of one language, you can learn the others.
Christy: How did you decide to pursue translation work as a business? What steps have you taken along the way to get you to this point?
Tynlee: At the age of 19 as a summer job, I worked freelance in Hong Kong for American Express Travel Guides, editing their Hong Kong edition for that year. Throughout my career, I have enjoyed writing and translating sales and marketing material for various well-known international hospitality companies. While working for Nordmanns-Forbundet (now known as Norwegians Worldwide), I began editing and proofreading articles, which led to translating soon thereafter.
Vigdis: I started my freelance career at a good time, and soon I had so much work that I needed to hire assistants. Things quickly evolved and in 1986 I founded Eriksen Translations Inc., setting up shop at 32 Court Street, Brooklyn where we have remained until this day. Our focus was then on the Scandinavian languages, but in 1994 I acquired another small company and we expanded to other language combinations. This is where the linguist turned entrepreneur, and I became passionate about managing people and building an organization… I developed a team around me who shared the same standards of integrity, hard work, and a commitment to the highest level of professionalism and service.
Irene: It came by itself. I had done some brief translation work as a favor for friends and acquaintances. I was also trained as a Berlitz teacher in Norwegian and Swedish, which is a well-known program for learning a language based on conversation and demonstration, versus studying and memorization. After relocating from Baltimore to Hartford, Conn., I started teaching Norwegian and Swedish, as well as English as a second language (ESL) at a language school. The owner approached me to purchase the school, and we ended up becoming business partners. The school then turned into a translation business called Accent Inc., and we had clients from all over the country.
Erling: I had a lot of broad translation experience through my previous jobs, from technical translation to financial translation. I sent my resume to different translation companies, and they contacted me from there. Word of mouth is the most important – companies and customers are satisfied with what I do, and then I get more projects from there. I am also a member of the American Translator Association.
Christy: Who do you work with?
Tynlee: My current clients include Norwegian authors that wish to publish their books in English in the U.S., Norwegians Worldwide, Norwegian companies needing communications auditing for their English websites and marketing material, and Universities or Colleges translating documents from Norwegian to English. For the pricing of larger projects, such as the translation of a book, I use the contract for the Norsk faglitterær forfatter – og oversetterforening, the Norwegian Non-fiction Writers and Translators Association. The contract is based on a per word basis and is available in both English and Norwegian on their website www.nffo.no. For smaller projects, such as corporate language auditing or document translation, the rate is set at an hourly rate comparable to other consultants within the same market in Norway.
Vigdis: My company Eriksen Translations works in a broad range of industries, and we specialize in finance and insurance, health care and education, web-based technologies, and the arts. We partner with many of the leading organizations in these fields, such as MoMA, MetLife, and Medtronic. We assist with any aspect of communicating in other languages, and in addition to translation we provide web localization, typesetting, consulting, and interpreting services.
Irene: When I owned Accent Inc., which I sold 10 years ago, United Technologies was our biggest client. United Technologies is the largest employer in Connecticut, and they made up over half of our business. I still enjoyed doing translations myself, so I started another small translation business called Scandinavian Exchange, and now I do about two or three projects a week.
Erling: I have flexible working hours, and I like it. The company I do the most work for is based in Beijing, China, and I have been to a number of their conferences and was one of the speakers one year. I do a lot of translation of technical and medical material for them, and the biggest challenge is the time difference!
Irene: I often turn down more work than I accept, and I also work with other translators. Erling Dugan and I do a lot of work together – our translation strengths are the opposite, so we make a great team!
Christy: In your opinion, what is the most challenging part of translation work?
Tynlee: The biggest challenge in this field can be a lack of knowledge regarding the subject matter… The end result is quite rewarding as I develop a greater understanding and appreciation for something new.
Vigdis: I have always found that the biggest challenge in translation is knowing what you don’t know, and not falling into the trap of making the wrong assumptions. To do a good translation it is critical that you understand the source material fully, and a lot of research is often required.
Irene: A very famous translator was quoted as saying: “A translation is like someone’s mistress. You can’t expect her to be both beautiful and faithful.” This is the biggest problem: you have to know when you have to be accurate and when to take more freedom… you are judged by what you do wrong. With technical and scientific projects, you have to be 100 percent accurate. the text is somewhat more fluid, i.e. articles, dialogues or literature, you have to take more freedom to make is sound accessible.
Erling: It’s both technical and art – you aren’t translating words, but ideas. American marketing language uses a lot of fluff, and you often see examples of American culture that doesn’t happen in other countries. Another challenge with Norwegian is that it is a special language because of how it has developed. Norwegian has more alternate words than most languages – about 25 percent of Norwegian words have optional spellings or words, whereas Swedish has about 2 percent. People will come back with changes that are subjective, based on their own preferences.
Christy: What has been your most difficult translation project?
Tynlee: One of my most challenging projects to date, (client specifics withheld for the sake of confidentiality), I learned an enormous amount about mine sweeping ships, of which I knew absolutely nothing before!
Irene: I have co-translated six plays by Henrik Ibsen into English together with an American writer/actor. With Ibsen’s work, it’s important to translate thought for thought to make it sound accessible. You can’t do a literal word-by-word translation with his plays.
Erling: Translators specialize in a few specific areas, but it’s different in Norwegian. Norwegian is considered a minor language in translation work, so we have a wide breadth of knowledge and expertise. Some of the most difficult projects I have worked with have been in the health field.
Vigdis: Having a great team means we can do amazing things – a project I remember in particular was for one of our flagship clients, Skype. They needed to relaunch their website in nine languages, quickly. Code-named “Airlift,” the project consisted of 1,000 html and php files (more than 140,000 words), which required translation and re-engineering in just six weeks. We worked around the clock and even managed to deliver early. Skype was very happy, and we were happy. And tired!
For more information, please contact:
Irene Levin Berman, Scandinavian Exchange: accent00 @ aol . com or (860) 242-5330
Erling Dugan, Help-U-Help Translations: eduprim @ aol . com, (805) 813-0565
Tynlee Roberts, TPR Communications Consulting: tprcommunications.com
Vigdis Eriksen, Eriksen Translations: www.eriksen.com
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 28, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.