Sunday, May 22, 2011

For The Good Guys

If you’re a contestant sweating your way into Final Jeopardy against a former history teacher and a Harvard Law student you might hope for one thing when Alex Trebek announces the category of question on which your fate (or cash winnings) will ride. That is, if you’ve been making your living as a translator.

And that one thing is just what Sandra Alboum got:

“Official Languages”

When she heard that announced as the Final Jeopardy category Sandra said to herself, as she explained to me in a recent interview: “There is a God.”

This Language is an official language in around 30 countries second only to English.”

Sandra picked up her stylus and quickly wrote “Spanish” on the flat screen in front of her.

That was too easy, she then thought. And wasn’t Africa, after all, full of former colonies?  And the question described the language as “an official language” not “the official language”.

Before time ran out, she changed her answer.

(If you’ve been humming the Final Jeopardy tune to yourself, it's time to wrap it up and find out what happened.)

The history teacher, it turned out, wrote "Arabic".

The guy from Harvard (smart but no Ken Jennings, in her estimation) had written "French".

She’d written French, also, and she, too, was correct.

But unlike the law student, Sandra had wagered enough to win.

She won one more game, and eventually walked away from her stint on Jeopardy with enough after taxes to save a bit and to finally buy the really nice dining room set her husband had said was too expensive.

But a life of translation is not all fun and game shows.

Today, Sandra’s life sounds more like that of a Superhero.

“We’re the translators for the good guys,” she told me, explaining the motto of her Washington, DC based translation service, Alboum & Associates. When she says Good Guys, she means organizations focused on public health, education or other causes she believes in but with one important caveat.

“We work with the ones who have good funding,” she clarified.

Take for example Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The group realized if it wanted to curb access to cigarettes in the global arena it needed to focus on Ukraine, a country with particularly low excise taxes. They worked on making legislative changes, and enlisted Sandra and her translators to get the message across in Ukrainian.

In the past three years, the country “has passed four tobacco tax increases...” according to the Campaign’s website, which has fact sheets posted in Ukrainian, and thankfully, English. But taxes are still relatively low and smoking rates among both youth and adults are said to be among the highest in Eastern Europe.

Sandra’s work in Ukraine, it appears, is not yet over.

Still, even when it is, she told me, “I can’t work for Philip Morris.” And neither can her translators. “We won't play both sides of the fence.”

Sandra said she is unique within the field of translation agencies, a distinction that helped Alboum & Associates became the exclusive translation agency for Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

“The other day I did something in Shona and Ndbele,” she said.

Zimbabwe, in case you didn't know where Shona and Ndbele were spoken, a fact she told me faster than a speeding bullet, or at least much faster than my fingers could type a Google search.

Working for the Good Guys means this superhero translator can help hundreds of thousands of people, instead of a handful. The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation website for example records the impact of its effort in Zimbabwe. As of last December, they’ve tested more than 742,000 women for HIV, and provided nearly 961,000 women with prevention of mother-to-child transmission services.

How does she do it? She’s got 250 free lance translators around the globe, vetted by her own standards.

She'll send a prospective translator "...something small and say can you please translate this. We send it (the translation) to an existing translator and say would you be comfortable working with this person?”

Being bilingual, after all, does not mean someone will be a competent translator. Thinking that, Sandra explained, would be like saying, “I have two feet. I can ballroom dance.”

Dancing is not exactly what Sandra does in her office, but like many parents of young children who have little time to exercise, she daydreamed of a way to multitask at work.

“I said to my husband I wanted a treadmill where you’d have to be walking for your Internet to work.”

She couldn’t find one of those, but she did find a TreadDesk, and plans to walk eight miles a day at work, targeting a goal often voiced in the universal language of motherhood:

“I’m going to lose this dumb baby weight.”

Working for the Good Guys has motivated Sandra to look within her own neighborhood, as well.

“I volunteer at a food bank, and at a free clinic,” She said. 

“Interpreting...mostly Spanish..” She also speaks Catalan, the regional language of Barcelona. But, for that, she said, “I don’t get a lot of requests.”

But one request she got last year tested her superlative powers.

She got a call from a guy, “...going to a Star Trek convention and he wanted to give a speech in Klingon. I thought it was my Dad,” she said, describing what she first thought was a joke.

“Then I realized my dad isn’t that clever.”

Despite her usual curiosity, she turned down the Trekkie.

Still, in creating a thriving business devoted to serving the mission of the Good Guys,  Sandra’s carved out a niche others have bypassed.

To that we might say to her, "majQa."

Which, as anyone who knows Klingon will tell you, means “well done.”

This is a the first in a new periodic series profiling Lunch Box Mom readers called Lunch With....

We can't all introduce ourselves in person, so I thought it would be fun this summer to begin taking a look at the people who read, comment, and contribute to the network of this blog.

I first met Sandra when she commented on the post, The Disney Princess Invasion, but she walked into our family's life when she did translation on my father's book on Roberto Clemente. I suppose both my father and the baseball player and humanitarian Clemente qualified as Good Guys.

I'd like to profile a family making a long car trip or train ride this summer. If that describes your travel plans and you think your story would make a good Lunch With.... profile, email me here.


Tim Morrissey said...

A great story...and an interesting concept! (And yes, your dad and Roberto Clemente DO qualify as "good guys.")

Anonymous said...

What a cool idea, Sarah! I enjoyed that.

parenting ad absurdum said...

Amazing. I feel so underaccomplished!! And I feel stressed out just by the THOUGHT of being on Jeopardy. But we do take lots of long car trips (we just drove from Seattle to Walnut Creek and we'll be at least going from VT to Montreal this summer) so if you don't have several more interesting candidates, which you probably do, lmk :).

Sandra said...

Thanks for the great profile, Sarah. Love your blog!

SoVeryVienna said...

This is a neat story about an interesting lady. Thanks for sharing.