On Becoming A Translator


I graduated from university with a firm belief in my own professional inadequacy. It was certain that I would never become a translator. The fact caused me no particular concern however, as I desperately wanted to apprentise to a shaman.

I could think of no career more noble.  I would experience shamanic death, after which the spirits would find me fit for conversation and I would become wise having very little need for dictionaries because the spirits would all speak English.

The fateful meeting occurred on a late winter’s night in Siberia. The shaman sat waiting for us, warming a stringed instrument by the open door of a white-washed stove. I was introduced and rituals ensued. He was kind. I stood up with my back to him, arms outstretched. Looking into me through flames of burning juniper he uttered just one word: ‘interesno!’

It all took place on the other side of the mountain pass at the indigenous heart of the Altai Republic. It was a place no English woman should really be. My presence was suspicious and yet I clearly meant nothing by it. The shaman was about to answer the question everyone had been whispering since my arrival: “Who is she?”

There was tangible silence in anticipation of what he would say. “She’s a translator”, he said. Unlucky, I thought, and saw the road of potential close before me. “Yes” he continued, “a translator for nature”. OK! A sense of magic returned and I saw the road open again. The shaman’s advice to me was to walk the land which I set about doing with earnest.  In Altai, Siberia I found myself spending days in the saddle, riding through snowstorms, crossing rivers, valleys and mountains passes with other people who did not speak each other’s native language.  With time I acquired my own stove at which point I started translating books in the warm. I was so busy exploring, learning and engaging in philosophical dilaogue that I hardly noticed I had been interpreting and translating for a decade.  It is work more fascinating than I could have imagined.

4 responses to “On Becoming A Translator

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