We met with Tim Gregory, an ATA certified Arabic-English translator, is completing a Masters in Translation at the University of Illinois. In an interview with Tim, we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
My name is Tim Gregory, I’m currently in the last semester of my MA in Translation from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana online. I spent nearly eight years in the US Marines in my youth, and I’ve worked in computers and networking before becoming a full-time translator starting in 2002.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I started studying Arabic by accident in 1990. It was an accident for me, and a lucky one at that. These days I’m at an advanced level; though I still speak in a way that sounds mostly like MSA.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
When I joined the U.S. Marines in 1989, I took a standardized general aptitude test; based on my scores on that exam they sent me for a couple of others, one of which was designed to test aptitude for languages. Then, two-thirds of the way through boot camp, they called me into an office, let me sit in a real chair and call home, then asked me to change my contract from the infantry to become a linguist – the government catch-all term for anyone using language skills. When they asked me what language I wanted to study – this was the summer of 1989 – I told them Russian. The man smiled and said I had gotten a very high score on the aptitude test and they wanted me to pick between Arabic and Korean. I knew nothing about either, so I more or less flipped a coin. I’m glad it landed on Arabic. Once I got to a good level, learning more became its own motivation.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
There are always ups and downs. I did very well at the Defense Language Institute and seemed to always end up among the top 10% of linguists, which tends to give one a big head. Unfortunately, the system they used to measure who was best didn’t line up well with reality; once I got out to the ‘real’ world, I discovered how much more I had to learn. This is something that comes up for me again and again; every time I feel like I’m “there,” like I’ve hit the level of mastery I need, I find there is another level beyond that and to the folks at that level, I’m a foundering schoolboy.
The other down was when I left the military in 1996. This was one of those plateau points – I wasn’t a good enough translator to make a living at it outside the military, so I spent six years doing other kinds of work and neglecting my language skills. In the summer of 2001 (well before that fateful day) I started brushing up and looking for classes to get myself ready to be a translator again. Then, suddenly, everyone with a decent level of Arabic and English could find work if they wanted it.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
I eventually hope to work as a full-time freelancer. I’m certified by the ATA now for Arabic into English translation, and I do a bit of freelance work on the side (full-time work and MA studies – not to mention my wife and two kids under 11 – don’t leave me much free time right now). I love books and writing, and I’m working through translating a novel as part of my studies, so I want to move into literary translation. Everyone seems to doubt that literary translation can earn one a living, but I want to try.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
Turn off your phone, remove Facebook, and (re-)learn how to dedicate yourself to deep focus. As soon as you can, start learning Arabic grammar in Arabic. It makes a lot more sense once you see how they describe the grammar issues for themselves. Beyond that, I think the most important thing to remember is that you are always a student. People often ask me how long it took me to learn Arabic. My normal answer, and I’m very serious, is that I started over 28 years ago and I’m still learning.