True confession: I fell into the localization industry. That is, unlike what many of my industry colleagues experience, I didn’t come into the industry because I was bitten by the language bug. There was no love of language learning. There was no grand desire to travel abroad and speak with the natives — Let’s eat croissants and talk French politics in French! — in their mother tongue. And there was no cryptographer’s keen interest in discovery, that breakdown of the symbols and patterns until the code revealed all its cultural mysteries in ways I could understand.
Nope, it was an accident. And, like accidents sometimes do, it was the result of a chain of other accidents and has spawned a chain of others that I can now define as “a career.”
Having met my fair share of freelance translators, I know that falling into the translation and localization industry is as typical of immigrant stories as those of the New York taxi driver who was once a doctor or lawyer in her (former) home country. I’m not a doctor. I do not play one on TV. But the experience of displacement, of a new land and new choices — well, that’s my story too.
Granted, I did go to college with the intent of studying a foreign language. My choice: Russian. Blame it on the 80s. On Reagan. On a Cold War played out in, perhaps, one James Bond film relished a little too much. Whatever the reason, and in the way that real life plays out sometimes, it suffices to say that I found Russian to be far harder than my I-wanna-grow-up-to-be-a-spy fantasies. After similar run-ins with Chinese and Spanish, I decided to give up the whole language thing entirely.
So how did I get back here? And, now back on the language track that I’d thought I’d abandoned for other pursuits, what keeps me motivated to stay?
In the textbooks and self-help guides, careers are the result of a smart set of rational choices rooted in inherent skills that reveal themselves in childhood — e.g., “Just look at how talented Jane is with those watercolors! I bet she’ll grow up to be quite the Picasso!” — that are then nurtured on to their fulfillment. We move right on through school to our first internship and into the field we (or our parents) always knew was right for us.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no place in these textbook-tales — let’s call them fairytales, shall we? — for coincidences, detours, the opportunity that comes out from left field, and life-changing incidents (good or bad).
Recently, the actor (Chris!) Ashton Kutcher spoke at the Teen Choice Awards. He was there to accept the Ultimate Choice Award, what he jokingly said was “the grandpa award” and the likely preface to his visit to a geriatric ward. Kutcher’s brief speech went viral so quickly that everyone from political pundits to celebrity gossip columnists felt compelled to say why. How did Ashton Kutcher become the star actor he is today? Amazing insider secrets?
He carried shingles on to roofs for his dad’s business. He worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant. He worked at the grocery deli. And, after that, he was employed as a sweeper on a factory floor.
“Opportunity looks a lot like hard work,” said Kutcher.
While I can admire the motivation that took a lot of my colleagues from their trips abroad on through linguist studies and into the language industry, I can also admire those of us, who through the simple motivation to work and follow opportunities, who also make this our industry. We language devotees and accidental tourists complement each other, such that the industry is as diverse as the languages and peoples it serves.
So keep on keeping on, language lovers … and you stumbling-into-it others!