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November 5, 2010 6:59 PM   Subscribe

I spent most of my childhood in Ukraine. I am what you might call a heritage speaker of Russian (and, to a lesser extent, Ukrainian). What can I do with them?

I have a BA in cognitive science and work as a research assistant for a research organization. My degree is in cognitive science because my alma mater didn't offer linguistics as a major field of study. The experimental research I assist with is only tangentially related to language. I like learning and learning about language and languages from almost any viewpoint: formal/theoretic, historical, anthropological, and humanistic.

I maintain my Russian by keeping up with the Russian media and press. My reading and spoken comprehension are native or near-native, my spoken Russian is more domestic than professional. I have worked on research teams with Russian researchers, and find it difficult to discuss statistics and experimental design in Russian.

I would like my Russian to be more than a hobby or a party trick.

I enjoy translating the occasional newspaper article, short story, or poem, and used to have a romanticized view of translators and translation. Having done a few informational interviews, I discovered two types of translators:
  • boutique translators who chance upon and occupy a small niche, like a friend of a friend who was living in Germany and almost by accident became the translator for a local yeshiva, eventually developing that job into a legal/judicial translation bureau in Manhattan
  • commodity translators, who translate specialized and mind-numbing material (e.g., melamine board manufacturing standards) under horrific deadlines; one person I spoke to advertised the fact that she lived several time zones ahead of her clients, thereby making it possible for them to send her work as they went to bed and receive finished product when they woke up in the morning.
I am horrified by the latter, and not on track toward the former.

I have gathered that interpretation is a specialized skill that requires talent and experience. I suspect that I'd find the demands of interpretation stressful and debilitating.

I have scanned lists of suggested jobs at my alma mater's career center, and most of them seem to require language as a secondary skill. I haven't given much attention to, and have no background or experience in, art history, international business, international development, international finance, or international public relations.

Finally, I'm not sure how much demand there is for Russian teachers/tutors. I have looked into teaching at Berlitz, and instructors there get about $12/hour. That's outrageous. For anything better, I suspect I would need a certificate or an additional degree. I'm not sure how convincing an instructor I'd be, since I'm not immersed in the language (i.e., I don't split my time between Russia and the US), so I'm not really an "authentic" speaker of the language.

I live near Washington, DC, which, I hope, should broaden my options. Thanks for any advice or suggestions.
posted by Nomyte to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does the local school board teach heritage languages in school and if so are their any schools offering Russian or Ukrainian? If so, I wonder if you can sign up to be a volunteer speaker on some topic familiar to you (perhaps your childhood in Ukraine). I would imagine they won't need a lot of tutors since the parents of kids taking heritage languages likely speak the languages themselves.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2010

Actually. I am good friends with a woman who has a child. She has primary custody, is American. The child is learning Russian because that is her fathers home language, though he is an American citizen. My friend does not speak Russian. Fun times, I tell ya.

If you want to tutor this subset of children, they exist. How to break into it, probably like any other tutoring. Berlitz is charging a lot more than it is paying. Which makes sense - they have all the overhead - location, advertising, etc.

Translating? Volunteer! Local library might have an English literacy program. The legal system would be happy to have you as a volunteer. Register people to vote. WIC program might need you. Find a cause you love, and there is probably a way to insert yourself. Become known as professional, reliable, and good - the money will follow.

(my Spanish teacher in college told us that she used to transcribe telenovelas into English for subtitles. We asked her if the talking was ever too fast for her to translate and type. She said yes, and they were not allowed to stop and rewind - there was no time! How did you deal with that!? we wanted to know. You know what she said? "we had to just make things up!" and that is why subtitles are sometimes painfully, hysterically wrong. Because they are being transcribed by people. Perfection is not required for some translation markets. For others, it is essential.)
posted by bilabial at 7:28 PM on November 5, 2010

A friend of mine who spoke several languages including Russian was employed as a translator for the local courts to help immigrants of various nationalities. He made 15$ an hour but that was back in the 90's in a much more rural place than DC and he was only a college student at the time.
posted by XMLicious at 7:30 PM on November 5, 2010

Here's your problem -

there are TONS of native speakers with a better grapse of English than you have Russian that are willing to be translators. (The whole former USSR provides native (more or less) speakers.)

IME hiring Russian translators, heritage speakers make terrible translators. They don't have an educated vocabulary (as you mention.)

So take some classes/focus on getting better for fun, but I wouldn't count on making a career/money out of it.

Sorry for being so harsh.
posted by k8t at 7:37 PM on November 5, 2010

Along with the other volunteer suggestions, our local hospitals often ask for translators to assist immigrants without strong English language skills. Many areas could use someone like yourself to help Ukrainian and Russian immigrants, especially the elderly.
posted by ldthomps at 7:38 PM on November 5, 2010

As a volunteer, it will (to most recipients) be ok if you need to reach for your dictionary once in a while. This will, as k8t says, be really bad if you're a paid translator. If you have any hope of becoming a pro in this arena, actually doing it is required. Don't just take classes. Get out into the real (but shallow end of the pool) with translating.

You also can find skype conversation partners. And probably a lunch and learn type group for Russian or Ukranian.
posted by bilabial at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2010

I appreciate all the advice for taking classes, but my Russian is fluent and unaccented. I have difficulty with technical topics, like the aforementioned experimental design. I suspect that many Russians do, too.

I am not necessarily looking for paid work, so advice for volunteering opportunities is welcome.

I have looked into volunteering with courts and hospitals. When I was unemployed, I volunteered as a tutor for children of immigrants. It would be difficult to pursue while engaged in a full-time job.
posted by Nomyte at 7:53 PM on November 5, 2010

I haven't heard you speak, obviously, but my experience is with those that didn't attend university or high school in Russian. I've hired dozens and worked at orgs that have hired hundreds.

Evaluations of translators of the heritage (like I said, no university or college in the language) are always rayed poorly themselves (thus making us not hire them again) and are rated as being a deteriment/distraction to the program. (This was for professional development exchange programs.)

- You see the translators getting hung up on technical terms
- So-and-so speaks like a child
- I understand enough English to know that so-and-so isn't fully translating
- Slang is dated to 30 years ago
- Literal translations rather than real terms used (Domestic violence was translated literally rather than the term everyone uses.)
posted by k8t at 8:12 PM on November 5, 2010

I am not interested in being a freelance translator with a bureau, which is what you're describing.
posted by Nomyte at 8:26 PM on November 5, 2010

Volunteer at an elderly housing unit with Russian population. Those people would love for you to talk to them. Plus you'll hear some interesting stories. I am not from DC area, so I can't help you with particulars. Local Jewish Community Centers often have Russian services and connections to elderly housing.
posted by Shusha at 8:50 PM on November 5, 2010

There are certainly many Russian-speaking professionals in the DC area. I would be glad to be wrong, but I am not seeing working-class immigrant Russian enclaves around DC. The primary evidence is lack of a Russian "ethnic foods" store anywhere in the area. I used to live in Baltimore, where I could think of 4-5 off the top of my head. So, there's little chance of volunteering as an ad hoc interpreter at a hospital, or something similar.

I am a little puzzled that someone who might have taken a few years of a language at college and maybe spent a year abroad has a better professional outlook than someone who speaks the language fluently. I was hoping that my range of options for things to do would be a little broader, but there's nothing that's coming up that isn't immediately obvious.

I will mention a couple of other possibilities I considered: taking the DLPT or getting an ILR evaluation to obtain a demonstrable credential. Perhaps these may be useful to someone reading the thread. I am vaguely aware of a number of government jobs that require language proficiency, but it seems I'll have to learn about them on my own.
posted by Nomyte at 9:05 PM on November 5, 2010

Have you considered working for Language Line? They offer Work-At-Home jobs with flexible hours. I'd do something like this myself, but my second language is American Sign Language, which makes it a little more complicated!
posted by etoile at 9:42 PM on November 5, 2010

If you are under 42, join the military. In the Army, the MOS you want is 35P, and that's probably your best bet to find a slot as a Russian linguist. The other services have fewer slots overall, and they tend to concentrate on the high-demand languages like Arabic and Chinese and Dari.

Russian speakers aren't in quite such high demand. But if you could, say, read a newspaper in Russian, you could easily pass the DLPT, and they'd like you because they wouldn't have to send you to language school. Basic Training followed by six months of training in Texas and you'd be ready to work. Do one term of service and, with native proficiency, you'd be able to get a job at one of the intel agencies for sure.

(Be prepared, though: in the Army you'd probably do relatively little actual translation. Linguists are the intel community's go-to smart guys, so you end up doing a lot of analytic work, punctuated by occasional bursts of translation.)
posted by thehandsomecamel at 11:03 PM on November 5, 2010

I have zero interest in joining the armed forces as a career-furtherance device. I already work for a UARC, so I have a direct path to working for one of the three-letter agencies.
posted by Nomyte at 11:13 PM on November 5, 2010

Friends with excellent English but varying levels of Japanese-language competency have gotten work translating/adapting Japanese comics (manga) into English. Translated picture books for children are also common and have a simple vocabulary. You could check if there's a pop-lit equivalent you'd be interested in translating from one language to the other.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:21 PM on November 5, 2010

Unfortunately, you are describing literary translation. There is no Russian manga getting published in English. There's just the contemporary Russian literary novel.

Translators do complete drafts of novel translations that they then try offering to publishers. Alternatively, they submit proposals to translate recently published award-winners.

I follow the Russian lit-fic scene and can tell who won what award when. I also have a draft translation of a favorite novel completed. That doesn't mean anyone will ever buy it. I can't even join the ATA, because only translators with two years of experience are accepted for membership.

Maybe I should get to work on that Solzhenitsyn
posted by Nomyte at 11:38 PM on November 5, 2010

Ah, if you would be interested in volunteering, perhaps an interesting pursuit might be to take over and maintain the Russian translation of one of the free software projects that's out there. Or vice-versa you could maintain the English translation of a piece of Russian software.

There are all kinds of different projects of this sort and you could pick one that aligns with other interests: something personal like the photo gallery software Gallery, scientific / educational software like jChemPaint or the planetarium software Stellarium, software for particular hobbies like Animal Shelter Manager, or of course there are TONS of video games you could do this for. (Those are just examples, I didn't actually check out whether any of those projects currently need help with their Russian translation, although Animal Shelter Manager seems to.)

Or there are big, big name software packages you might shoot for to maximize the street cred you'd get; for example the massive software project Open Office (like a free Microsoft Office) has just split into two different camps due to philosophical differences and the new split-off Libre Office might need help coordinating its Russian or Ukranian localization. (I would assume that there's lots more work and technical effort necessary for something big like this, though as a major project it would look much better on a resumé.)

There's translating the program's documentation, but also the words and error messages used in the actual user interface of the program. The software developers usually have a way of separating everything out so that you don't have to know anything about programming to work on the translation.

Another plus is that this might also be much more flexible time-wise than other volunteering projects. There might be a deadline here and there when they're going to release a new version but for the most part you'd probably be free to work on it any time you want.

Another idea that occurs to me, as something you could do completely at your leisure and as much of or as little of as you want with no deadlines, would be translating and cross-updating articles on Russian Wikipedia or Ukranian Wikipedia. Also there's the opportunity to contribute to public translations of classic literature in the various Wikisource projects.
posted by XMLicious at 1:30 AM on November 6, 2010

Start a Russian conversation club for learners and speakers of Russian.
posted by mdonley at 2:38 AM on November 6, 2010

You sort of have a niche: linguistics and cognitive science. Try getting in touch with departments in Russian universities and offering your services as a translator for graduate students writing articles, or posting your offer on some university forums. Is there a Russian equivalent of craigslist?

If you want to translate literature and don't mind doing it for free, what about translating some of the abundance of material written for the web. Livejournal is apparently really popular with Russian speakers, as are ebooks, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are many writing communities online. With respect to Livejournal, don't be put off if you think of it as only a place for emo wanking :) Apparently there's a lot of serious writing going on there too, both fiction and non-. It would be pretty cool for the more high-quality stuff to escape its current cultural borders.
posted by mail at 3:09 AM on November 6, 2010

I'm confused about your comment about professional outlook. Are you looking for translation work or for work in which your language skills are an asset?

I doubt that people that studied abroad/took a few years of foreign language are working as translators. IME the Russian translator scene is full of native speakers.

Those study abroad types (of which I was one), take jobs (perhaps) where language skills are a secondary asset, I'd assume. (Development work, foreign service) but you didn't ask about that. To add to that topic though, for whatever reason, heritage speakers aren't terribly common in that world either. Sure, there are a few here and there (I recall some deputy directors or other second-in-charge) but the bulk of that kind of work force had a primary skill set before language.
posted by k8t at 3:55 AM on November 6, 2010

This might be super super obvious, but I know DC has a Holocaust museum. Perhaps your skills could be valuable for transcribing interviews? Or conducting interviews?

Don't discount the needs of an organization on the face of not being able to see their need. Call the hospitals and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator. That person will be able to tell you what you can do to help. If you ask, they might surprise you. Maybe they want to solicit donations from wealthy Russian speakers. Maybe they will be helping someone from Russia get a life saving surgery here in the states. Maybe they will be hosting a doctor exchange. Maybe once a year they get a terrified sexually trafficked woman who doesn't speak English.

Call every place that has been suggested in this thread, ask the magical question, "how can I help?" and then decide of that's the kind of change you want to see in the world. If it is, be the change.

And I think what k8t means about 'attendin university in Russian' is not a native English speaker with a minor in Russian, but rather a native Russian speaker who went to high school and/of college in Russia, where math, geography, etc were taught in Russian. So the speaker know all the Russian terms for psychology concepts, government structure, weather phenomena- whatever class was about. If you attend college in English, it's unlikely that you learned all those terms in 2 languages. On the other hand, many foreign students are encouraged or required to complete the course work in English and Russian.

(and when I was in Russia and Ukraine in 1995, the 9 year olds did trigonometry in English, sang us songs, asked about our flights, and gave us tours of the school. Also, they were ballroom dancers in fancy costumes their mothers had made. At 13, most of us, on the other hand, were afraid of algebra, spoke no Russian beyond desvidanya, spaciba, and nyet. So I guess you know that you know more Russian than an American who has picked it up, but k8t is trying to point out that the gap between most heritage speakers and those with Russian college is more of a chasm.)
posted by bilabial at 4:53 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

This might be super super obvious, but I know DC has a Holocaust museum. Perhaps your skills could be valuable for transcribing interviews?

Or, for that matter, what about volunteering as a docent in one of the many, many museums in DC? Or as a tour guide to other attractions and cultural institutions?

(I think the best story you could ever tell at a cocktail party would be about your time spent as a Russian language docent at the International Spy Museum...)
posted by Sara C. at 6:26 AM on November 6, 2010

Assuming you haven't already heard of or don't already work for them, have you considered applying to UMD-CASL? Alternately, you might consider applying for a position with the Russian embassy. The bad thing about living near DC is that everyone over the age of 30 probably took a heavy russian courseload during college in preparation for perpetual cold war.
posted by The White Hat at 6:47 AM on November 6, 2010

XMLicious: Thanks, I hadn't thought of that! How would I find small projects that need localization? I'm steering clear of the Russian and Ukrainian Wikipedias — after a few years of exposure, I've concluded that they don't subscribe to the same code of ethics as the English Wikipedia. They're full of warring camps, sock puppets, and POV contamination. It would take an army of editors to put them in order.

mail: Thanks! A lot of my reading does already come from LL (or rather "ЖЖ"), it has a vibrant Russian community. So no need for warnings and disclaimers! On the other hand, if most students read research articles the way I read research articles (skimming the abstract in preparation for a research literature review), translating them is probably not a worthwhile endeavor. There already are journals for research in translation where important articles are published.

k8t: This — "work in which your language skills are an asset"; not this — "translation work"; at least, not strictly. See my original post for what I wrote about talking to existing translators.

bilabial: I'm uncomfortable doing the things you mention in any language (e.g., soliciting donations). I should obviously continue pursuing the other opportunities you mention. Also, when I was in Russia and Ukraine in 1995, I was not learning trigonometry in any language or speaking any English beyond "how do you do." I suspect the school you visited was a bit of an outlier.

Sara C.: That does sound interesting. I'll check into it, although it sounds so cool that I suspect I wouldn't be qualified.

The White Hat: Amusingly, [mumble mumble mumble].
posted by Nomyte at 10:55 AM on November 6, 2010

A good place to start looking for small software projects is freshmeat.net, though as there are tens of thousands of software projects listed there it can be alot to sift through. You should pay special attention to the vitality measures listed and compare when the project was first registered to when it was last updated, to make sure it's still a going concern; many of the registered projects are just something that someone had a bright idea about for a couple of weekends four years ago, but never got back to.

After you've got a couple of good candidates you should do general Google searches to find out how widely the software is used and how big of a user community is out there. If it all checks out then freshmeat will usually have contact info for the developers, links to a discussion forum, and a link to the project's main web site where there is often a "how to help out the project" page.

In addition to freshmeat, SourceForge and Google Project Hosting are some other places you can look for projects. There are also more domain-specific directories like The OpenScience Project.
posted by XMLicious at 11:32 AM on November 6, 2010

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