Why go back to college?

I’m 46 years old. I can certainly say that I am mid-career. I hold the American Translators Association certification for Arabic into English translation. I have worked as a translator both in-house and freelance for over 15 years now. I have a few stable clients and a good full-time job. And I am working on my masters degree in translation from the University of Illinois, via their online program.

I have been surprised by how often people, including my fellow students, ask me why. Why, when I seem to have the career they aspire to, the certification they hope to earn someday, and the experience they are seeking through education, am I back in college?

It isn’t to make my wife happy, I can tell you that. And it isn’t so I can spend more time with my kids -though that may be a long-term result. It also is not because I love hearing this question over and over again.

So why, then?

An MA is no small undertaking. I had to apply to the university, I had to apply to the program, and now that I’m in it, I am spending 15-20 hours a week on it. When I already have a 40-hour a week job and about 15 hours a week tied up in my commute, that is a serious time commitment.

So why, then?

My father was not an academic, he was a machinist – he worked on airplane propellers for nearly all of his adult life after having spent his teens trying out lots of jobs (he was a miner, restaurant work, ranch hand, and more). My mother was a stay at home mom, a career choice I still respect very highly. He worked in a skilled labor field, and would have been every bit as proud had I chosen to be a welder, mechanic, or deep-sea fisherman. So it isn’t to please them or live up to some aspiration I think they may have had for me or my siblings.

My folks were an influencing factor: dad was the best at what he did. He was highly respected in his field and was the last pair of hands and eyes on those propellers before they were mounted on an airplane loaded with people or cargo; lives depended on his skill and attention to detail. Mom could have stayed at home and let her mind turn into a rutabaga. Instead, she read voraciously and was active in our church community, studying and improving herself for the things she believed in.

The pursuit of excellence never really ends. I learned Arabic in an academic environment, but I never learned to be a translator. Without a degree, I decided to get the ATA certification (accreditation at the time) as proof of my ability. I failed the exam, then sought advice from those who had passed. Based on that advice, I bought a couple of translation textbooks, studied them, and then passed the exam. And that fact takes me nearly all the way to my conclusion and the truest answer.

I love translation, I want to continue doing it as a career, and I would love to take the “freelance plunge,” working for myself full time. What I really want to do is get into translating literature and translate three or four books a year (there are lots of them out there, and not enough translators to go around). Translating literature is completely different from the work I have done for years, yet close enough that without training, practice and criticism it would be easy to work on literature the same way I work on everything else. That takes me to the short form of my answer:

If reading a few books was enough to help me pass the ATA certification exam, how much will I learn from college professors, texts, and exercises?

The only way to answer that question is to go to college, so here I am. Will I become a full-fledged academic and seek a PhD or a position at a university somewhere? I doubt it. But I will use the knowledge and experience I gain from this program to improve my skills and start giving serious effort to translating books.

Keep an eye on this space. I’ll talk about what I am working on, and when my author permits, I will share it as I go – not in its entirety, of course. I’ll want you to buy the books, after all. But enough to, hopefully, spark some interest.


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