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Meet the accidental translator

By Ewandro Magalhaes

There is a particular book that tells the story of how I accidentally became a translator — and soon thereafter an interpreter — 30 years ago. It also testifies to how winding anybody’s professional route is and it drives home an idea best summarized in this quote by John Lennon, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

The book was given to me by a friend during a coffee break in Rio, where we were both pursuing a graduate education in high-performance fitness training. The year was 1986, and I was fresh out of college with a Physical Education degree.

It was a book on a novel sport that had me hooked almost immediately - Triathlon. I had given it a try a year or so before, and ranked high enough in the competition to at least keep training. As soon as I was back in Brasilia, with the book in my bag, I took it upon myself to translate it into Portuguese.

To do so I had to first find a publisher bold enough to risk releasing a book on a sport few people knew anything about. Moreover, I had to find someone crazy enough to believe that over-tanned, skinny-looking P.E. teacher with zero track record as a translator could eventually do the job.

My English credentials were a bit shaky at the time. Unlike most translators, I learned the language in Brazil, through a series of unfinished courses, battered VHS tapes (ask your parents what they are) and thanks to the gracious support of family and friends.

I knocked on at least a hundred doors and got a matching number of rejections. My excitement was fading with each passing day and eventually became apparent to one of the great people I gathered around a pool daily for some coaching in swimming. Flavio Saraiva, a college professor who doubled as chief adviser to the university president, heard my story and offered to deliver a letter to the man if I so wished.

Three days later, he emerged from the cloakroom with a smirk on his face and an envelope in his hands. Inside it were instructions from his boss, Cristovam Buarque (who would later become a senator, a governor and presidential hopeful). The note simply said, “I think your idea is opportune. Please look for Prof. Such and Such at the University Press”.

About eight months later, I had in my hands the very first copy of the book in Portuguese, hot off the printing press. And plastered across the first page was my name as a translator. Folded inside, a note from the editor (and longtime friend since) Regina Marques said, "an accomplishment worthy only of great spirits. Congratulations!”

I eventually misplaced the book. But I kept the note, out of gratitude. I pull it out and look at it from time to time, whenever life wears me down or a dream is taking longer than usual to materialize. Doing so reminds me of a truism I have confirmed time and again - pursuing my dreams and trusting the universe never failed me and never will.

Ewandro Magalhaes is a writer, senior United Nations staff and conference interpreter. He is also a TED author, professor and a former Chief Interpreter of ITU. Ewandro is a coach and mentor to language professionals looking to up their game. He is also the go-to person in the promising field of remote interpretation. You can follow his writing here. This article was reproduced with permission.