Greatest Women in Translation: Naomi Sutcliffe de Moraes

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As promised, I am back on my feet, and up and running with the blog’s editorial calendar.

Please welcome our new interviewee, Naomi, nominated by Elenice Barbosa de Araujo. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.


naomi-sutcliffe-de-moraes

1. You are an American/Brazilian (dual citizen) currently living in São Paulo, Brazil. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Well, I took Brazilian and English literature courses during my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at UCLA just for fun. All students take electives, and that is what I chose. I have always loved reading and writing, but at the same time I love math and physics. When living in the United States I spent some time in Recife (the northeast of Brazil) every year when I had enough money, and have lived here in São Paulo permanently since 1999. São Paulo was a bit of a shock. Recife and São Paulo do not feel like the same country!

2. With degrees in mechanical engineering and physics, you started working as a translator by chance. How was this beginning, without any prior formal training?

I had very bad luck when I arrived in São Paulo in 1999. I did not know many people, and the people I did know were not the right people to find a job. I left a wonderful job in Los Angeles, that I loved, and spent six months looking for a job in São Paulo through ads in the newspaper and employment agencies. No one needed a physicist with experience related to radar and rocket trajectories. No one was doing research and development in Brazil.

My first job was a disaster. My second job was not much better. I was hired by a Brazilian company’s R&D department, but instead of letting me do development, they wanted me to “first” translate their product manuals into English. I took some technical courses to learn their business (communications hardware) and started translating into English. It was not difficult, because it was technical and I understood the technical information. I mostly avoid engineering translations now because it is so hard to find terminology. I have spent 30 minutes trying to find the translation for one term, without success. Financially, it does not make sense for me to translate something technical in an area I am not thoroughly familiar with. I do not make enough per hour. Scientific translations, however, are great. The terminology can easily be found online, and there are few “moving parts” with complicated names.

After working for that company for about a year, translating the never-ending supply of new manuals, I decided to become a freelance translator and work from home. I had a lot more freedom, free time to do a PhD and play my cello in amateur orchestras, and made more money working for a wider variety of clients.

3. Afterwards, you did enroll in a professional course in translation and interpreting. How important do you think an educational background of any kind in translation/interpreting is when coming from other areas?

I enrolled in the course at Associação Alumni only 6 months after I started translating, so I did not translate without training for very long. I love to study (17 years as a university student so far!) and I really enjoy learning environments, whether virtual or in person. Whenever I am interested in a topic I automatically start thinking about which courses I could take to further my knowledge. I just finished 4 semesters of Hungarian. I have taken many courses on Coursera. I am incorrigible!

Many people do not realize that knowing a second language well is not enough. You must carefully study false cognates, many of which you probably did not even realize were false cognates. You must carefully study comparative grammar and syntax.

You must know both languages much better than a well-educated person, better than 99% of the population.

And you must know your personal quicksand areas, the things you must be extra careful about. In Portuguese we have a special word: desconfiômetro. This means knowing when to distrust your first reaction when translating, knowing when to distrust your solution and do some research to make sure you are correct. It takes time and practice to develop a good desconfiômetro, with feedback from a more experienced colleague.

For those who cannot take a formal course, I recommend they charge their clients full price, then spend half the rate to pay a more experienced colleague to edit their work before submitting it. This way the client gets a good translation, the less experienced translator learns from her mistakes, and the market does not suffer from inexperienced translators charging low rates to get clients who are unaware of quality issues.

4. Although you have degrees in mechanical engineering and physics, your doctoral (in linguistics) dissertation was on legal translation. Why did you choose a different specialization?

During the first 10 years of my translation career, I received ZERO requests to translate science and math. The engineering jobs were often very hard, because of the terminology, as I mentioned above. I kept on receiving requests for legal translation, and I used the method mentioned above. I accepted, translated the text, and paid a colleague to edit so I could learn from my mistakes. My PhD research showed me how little most legal translators know about law, me included!

I actually started my PhD in Luso-African literature. Really! I switched to linguistics because literary criticism was too subjective for me, coming from the hard sciences. I was translating mostly legal texts at the time, and my thesis advisor (Francis Henrik Aubert) was a sworn translator, so it made sense. Legal translation is difficult precisely because the two underlying legal systems are different. Engineering translation is difficult only because you need to find the names of 50 different types of screws, and there are few standard names that everyone agrees on.

I strongly suggest that all translators learn a bit about translation theory.

A great place to start is Vinay and Darbelnet’s book Stylistique compare du français et de l’anglais (English version: Comparative stylistics of French and English, ISBN 9781556196928). You do not need to know much French to understand the concepts. For those getting started in legal translation, I recommend Legal Translation Explained by Alcaraz and Hughes (ISBN 1900650465).

5. I was really impressed by the fact that you decided to take another bachelor’s degree in law to have a deeper knowledge of the area in order to keep translating contracts and legal documents! Do you think it really helped in the end? Would you recommend other translators do the same in their respective translation areas?

In retrospect, it was overkill to do a second bachelor’s degree. However, I can now translate legal texts at the speed of light without having to look terms up in the dictionary! Doing a financial cost-benefit analysis, though, I spent more time (and time is money!) learning about the law then I needed to in order to improve my translation speed and quality. I loved the course on land law, for example, but am unlikely to ever use that knowledge when translating. I could have taken just a few courses and reaped the same benefits, rather than doing an entire degree. It was not cost-effective.

6. Now you have moved back to your mathematical roots without leaving linguistics. How do you combine both?

Strangely enough, I am not translating much these days – mostly just physics, astrophysics and computer science articles. I am a visiting professor in the Center for Mathematics, Computer Science and Cognition at the Federal University of the ABC Region, in Santo André, Brazil. I teach English, mathematics and research methods to undergraduate students. As I mentioned earlier, I love learning environments, and I find teaching extremely fulfilling. It is a pity it pays less than translating.

My research on language learning involves mathematical linguistics, natural language processing (NLP), language acquisition theory, English-medium instruction (EMI), corpora, and complex dynamic systems. Fun!

7. Now it is your turn. Who is your role model?

It was hard to pick just one colleague as my role model. I have learned different things from different mentors along the way. I think that Doris Schraft is a good example of translation professionalism. She is ATA-certified in three languages! Spanish, Portuguese and French into English. This inspired me to begin translating Italian>English. She also focuses on legal and business texts. Focusing on one field and avoiding texts that are outside your realm of competence is very important. She is also a great example of service to others, as the leader of the Portuguese>English ATA Certification exam graders team. It is a thankless task, and I do not know how she finds the time. I still have a lot to learn from her.


Thank you so much for accepting Elenice’s nomination and my invitation to take part in the interview series, Naomi! It was an enormous pleasure to get to meet you and know a bit more about you. And an even greater pleasure to read your answers. Your passion for studying is amazing and I really liked to learn about your opinions on some topics.

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One thought on “Greatest Women in Translation: Naomi Sutcliffe de Moraes

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Doris M. Schraft | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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