I’ve been working on a little personal project lately which has involved rifling through lots of old scraps of paper collected since I was a student in Germany. And today I unexpectedly stumbled across a hastily scribbled note which—though I couldn’t have imagined it at the time—ultimately led me to my current profession.
The note, along with contact details for an “E. Patschke” and an “R. Müller”, reads as follows:
15,68 pro Stunde
I started working on a master’s degree in Freiburg in 1996. Two years later, I was still flitting from subject to subject, not knowing what I really wanted to study or why I really wanted to study it. I was also looking for a student job that was slightly more fulfilling than my previous attempts at making money, i.e., working in a flower shop (horrible and really tough) and working in a jewelry shop (mind-numbingly boring).
I vividly remember standing in KG IV (the building which housed the history department at the University of Freiburg), looking at the notice boards and seeing the announcement for the Ed-Media/Ed-Telecom conference. The computer science department which was hosting the international event was looking for students to work the registration desk and guide the attendees from one venue to another during the conference. Applicants needed to have the equivalent of an undergraduate degree, “good manners” and a knowledge of English, and they needed to be reliable and know their way around Freiburg.
This described me fairly well, so I plucked up the courage to contact E. Patschke and go along to the first organizational meeting. I got the job and wound up working at the conference registration desk, which was rather stressful but also quite a buzz. The oddest experience I had was helping out an American couple whose travel agent had booked them a hotel room not in Freiburg im Breisgau, where we were, but rather in Freiberg, Saxony—a good 650 kilometers away. It was pushing on towards evening, the couple didn’t speak a word of German, and they were both exhausted and desperate after driving around town for an hour looking for a hotel that didn’t exist. After several phone calls, I finally managed to get them a last-minute room nearby, and their gratitude buoyed me throughout the rest of the hectic day.
I guess I proved to be a good little worker during the conference, because when it was all over, the computer science department asked me if I wanted a permanent student job with them; most of their articles for journals and whatnot had to be written in English, so they needed a proofreader. I happily obliged and started making regular treks out to the department, red pen and style guide in hand. Eventually they gave me translation work in addition to the proofreading, and I started doing more and more translation jobs for people outside the university as well, and suddenly everything snapped into focus and I realized I really wanted to be a full-time translator.
I scribbled down two other job leads alongside the conference job on that day back in 1998: one was from a journalism student looking for someone to proofread her essays and help her with English speaking and comprehension, and one was from another student needing written English help. I wonder now what would have happened if I’d chickened out on the conference job and contacted one of the two students instead. Maybe I would have gone down the English-teaching route for a while, but I think I still would have wound up getting into translation; I’m much more of a flicking-quietly-through-the-dictionary person than a standing-in-front-of-a-class person.
I’ve spent all the intervening years flicking through dictionaries on a full-time basis, and as I’ve done so, I’ve often thought fondly of the people in the computer science department and how they kind of gave me my “big break” without any of us even realizing it. And it’s funny to still have this artifact, this little note I scrawled in the university hallway over 11 years ago, marking the moment when my life took one path and not another.
NB: “E. Patschke” turned out to be Elisabeth Patschke, an administrative assistant who still works for the computer science department, and “R. Müller” was Rainer Müller, a lovely IT chap who, several years later, wrote a reference for me to get into the linguistics program at the University of Sussex. The Ed-Media conference still takes place every year; this year it’s being held in Honolulu. And the only reason I’ve hung onto that scrap of notepaper is because there’s a fish recipe from my friend Schorsch on the other side.