Sea Story: my first professional translation (1962)

My mother was always impulsive and eager to please. She also was fascinated by the Roman story of Cornelia, and loved to show off her “two jewels,” as she called my brother and me.(*) I think she went overboard during my 15th summer, but I have been ever grateful that she did.

It had been my custom since the 6th grade to find summer employment to pay for the books for the next school year. At the end of my freshman year in high school, Dad was taking my brother and me to England with our step-mother, so I was having trouble finding a job for only part of the summer.

Just before the school year ended, Mom came home with a deal for me. She had met one Dr. Luciano Moretti at work, who had a particular problem. He had written a book on blindness, La lotta contro la cecità (The Fight against Blindness). The Italian Association of Eye Donors was sponsoring him on a fund-raising lecture tour of the United States. The non-profit could not afford to have the book translated into English by a regular translator.

“My son can translate that,” she told him, and that day, she brought home the offer to me. The Association could pay me ITL 250/page (USD 0.40), which was less than the going rate for simple typing. They would give me a typewriter and a copy of the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary to keep. They also arranged for a professor at the British Council to review the translation. The typewriter was a heavy, steel Underwood with a QWERTY keyboard, which was probably lying around the office, because no one could type on an American keyboard. It had been patented in 1896.

1896 Underwood

1896 Underwood

The fact that I could not type and had never translated anything longer than a newspaper article meant nothing to Mom. I was terrified, but also excited. The book did not seem that intimidating. After all, it was written for a general audience, and I had been an unpaid interpreter for almost four years already. We signed the contract in June, and I went off to England with Dad and my brother.

When we returned, the first of a lifetime of deadlines was hanging over my head. I turned to my best friend, Walter, who could type. We holed up in the back of his father’s store for six weeks, while I sight-translated (dictated) the book to him, walking in a circle around a big table. He taught me ten-finger typing, as we typed and re-typed the drafts of the manuscript. I delivered on time (28 August), collected my fee, and bought our books for the coming school year. The professor at the British Council gushed with praise. I was never given a copy of the book after checking the galley proofs, so I had no idea what the final product looked like.

Fast-forward 50 years. As an experienced translator, I had always cringed to think of what that first translation looked like. By now I had learned that a British professor (not a professional translator) gushing with praise could mean that the translation read like a boring 19th-Century essay, or worse. One evening in the summer of 2012, I was surfing the web, and decided to type “L. Moretti fight blindness” in the search bar. The book I had translated showed up at Abe Books in London! They even had 35 copies of it. I immediately ordered one. When the package arrived, my heart was in my throat as I carefully slit open the envelope. Just how bad was it going to be?

The volume that fell out was paperbound. Every page and the cover were yellow with age, but undamaged. Clearly, the Association had not been able to afford acid-free paper. I was also surprised to see that they had completely changed the typesetting after I had approved the galley proofs. Instead of an English section and an Italian section, they had it reset with the English alongside the Italian in two columns on a larger page.

To my immense surprise and relief, the translation was not as bad as I expected. In fact, the only obvious errors I found were hyphenation mistakes, because the Italian typesetters did not know where to split English words at the end of a line. I now had a copy of every book that I had translated.

Today, The Fight against Blindness sits alongside the others, in a position of pride at the end of the shelf.

© 2019, JT Hine 

(*) An anecdote related by Valerius Maximus in his Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX (IV, 4, incipit) demonstrates Cornelia’s devotion to and admiration for her sons. When women friends questioned Cornelia about her mode of dress and personal adornment, which was far more simple and understated than was usual for a wealthy Roman woman of her rank and station, Cornelia indicated her two sons and said, haec ornamenta mea [sunt], i.e., “These are my jewels.” (Wikipedia)

3 thoughts on “Sea Story: my first professional translation (1962)

  1. One of my pet peeves is when editors run an English text through a German hyphenation checker, or visa-versa. This results in errors when can confuse readers to no end (and make me realize how important correct hyphenation is, and how different it is in the two languages).
    I must admit that I have never had the courage to listen to the 1967 radio interview in which I interpreted French>English at short notice for François Mitterrand. https://operasandcycling.com/mitterrand-and-the-pantheon/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for “The Rest of the Story” ending! You have indeed lived a long and interesting life…and may you continue to do so, my Friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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