Translators in the City: Part 5 – San Diego


Translators in the City (#xl8city) is a series of articles that looks at why translators choose to work in a certain city. Since freelancers can essentially set up anywhere in the world, the series seeks to find out what individual cities can offer linguists, and features testimonies from a handful of translators about how their city can motivate and inspire them in their work.

Maryam Kosar Abdi (@Maryam_Abdi) is a Court registered Somali interpreter, freelance translator, and founder of Translators Academy. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego. Maryam is a recipient of the State Bar of California Wiley W. Manuel award for pro bono legal services.

Rafa Lombardino (@eWordNews) is a certified translator working with English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian since 1997. Originally from Santos in São Paulo, Brazil, Rafa moved to Santee, in San Diego County, in 2002.

Juan Dávila-Santiago (@jdavisan) is a court interpreter certified by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and an ATA-certified translator from English into Spanish. A native of Puerto Rico, Juan has worked as a court, conference, and live broadcast interpreter. After obtaining a master’s degree in bilingual legal interpreting, he became a staff interpreter in Phoenix, Arizona, before accepting a similar position in San Diego.

Translators in the City seeks to uncover the core reasons why freelance linguists would choose to settle in a certain place. To my mind, it would have to take something really special, especially in a country as diverse as the United States, to attract freelancers to a specific city.

Maryam went to the University of California in San Diego, and stayed in the city after graduation. San Diego isn’t her only base, though. “I also work in Los Angeles and Orange County, but I chose to stay in San Diego because of the quality of life. Although it’s a big city, it’s not as busy as Los Angeles.”

Rafa moved to San Diego to live with her husband, who is from the city. “I had already been working as a translator to support myself through journalism school, so it was easy to continue my activities in a new place. That’s the magic of this occupation; if you’re a translator, you can work anywhere with a computer and internet connection.”

As for Juan, it was his job as a staff interpreter that brought him to San Diego. But he wonders whether it was more than work that lured him to the city. “Is it the nearly perfect weather we get to enjoy year-round or is it the vast array of educational and entertainment options we have right on our doorstep? Maybe it is because we can venture up the mountains to play in the snow on a cold winter morning, and then drive back to catch a wave before hitting a hip restaurant for dinner—all on the same day!”

As someone who has never been to California, I imagine it would be an ideal place for a translator to set up in. But what else apart from the weather entices translators and interpreters?

Rafa loves the technological benefits of living where she does. “I enjoy working in California because of the infrastructure, as far as computers are concerned. It’s easy to find parts to fix your computer and be up and running in no time. There’s always a technology company nearby, especially in Silicon Valley. We also have access to a high-speed, business-grade internet connection. High-speed internet should be a given for translators these days, but it seems connections in California are a cut above the rest.”

As much as Juan loves the city he has called home for five years, there are some downsides, he says. “San Diego is no stranger to wildfires, droughts, and earthquakes. More importantly, if you are familiar with the infamous “sunshine tax,” you probably know that all that desirability comes at a price. At 31.9 percent more than the U.S. average, San Diego has the ninth highest cost of living in the United States. According to 2012 data, moderate-income families in San Diego County spend, on average, 63 percent of their income on housing and transportation, which is more than in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boston. Not surprisingly, recent surveys indicate that more people left San Diego in 2013 than moved in.”

But San Diego must be doing something right to keep freelancers there. What do its surroundings offer that inspire translators in their work?

“Working in an urban city has motivated me to start and run a thriving freelance translation business,” says Maryam. “On a professional level, San Diego is a great city to work in because it inspires individuals to challenge themselves and keep up with fast pace of the city. On a personal level there are many activities and fulfilling things to do so boredom is not an issue. The weather in San Diego is warm throughout the year. I find it inspiring to work by the beach at one of the local coffee shops in Pacific Beach. I believe our surroundings influence our outlook on life and work, so I try to work outside of the house often.”

There is more to San Diego’s climate than the obvious advantage, as Juan explains. “Our forgiving weather also allows for increased peace of mind, like knowing that you are not likely to lose power to a severe thunderstorm right before a big deadline or that your cross-country flight is not likely to get cancelled the day before an interpreting assignment. Anyone who is regularly held hostage by severe weather systems knows that a predictable, hassle-free commute is priceless when your assignment is a two-hour drive away or when you spend a good part of your day driving or walking back and forth between court hearings and jail interviews.”

For Rafa, it’s San Diego’s offer of rest and relaxation that she appreciates. “Since this is truly a fast-paced and demanding industry, I believe language professionals deserve a break ever-so-often to recharge their batteries and give their brain a rest. The San Diego area has many beaches and parks to offer inspiration, and a nice stroll can sometimes help you come up with the word or expression you’ve been looking for and that no dictionary will really help you find in just a glance. Living in Santee, I get to enjoy a very nice park around the lakes, go for long runs in pedestrian-friendly roads and enjoy the view of the West Hills behind my house when I’m taking a break from work. Still, I’ll always long for the beach in my hometown, and nowadays find myself working hard in Santee to enjoy those breaks back in Santos.”

With California being one of the most cosmopolitan states in the US, does this translate into a strong multilingual community in San Diego that translators and interpreters can benefit from?

“California is truly an international hub, and demand for language services is always high,” says Rafa. “Even though translators work mostly online, we do want to interact with colleagues once in a while and learn from their experiences face-to-face as well. The cultural diversity here allows you to do just that and get to know translators who have a different background and deal with segments and fields that you may virtually know nothing about.”

For Juan, the city’s proximity to Mexico, with the border less than 20 miles from downtown San Diego, also expands the professional development options available to linguists. “This opens up a world of possibilities for providers interested in either receiving or offering continuing education south of the border. Being so close to a country where the overwhelming majority of the population speaks one of your working languages also allows for easier access to subject matter experts, trainers, professors, and fellow linguists.”

Indeed, it is not entirely surprising to hear some people talk about San Diego and Tijuana as a single metropolitan area, explains Juan. Unfortunately, it isn’t that straightforward. “In spite of this seemingly porous (yet heavily monitored) boundary line, there is no escaping the fact that border-related tensions shape multiple aspects of life in San Diego, including the work done by many language providers. The caseload handled by federal court interpreters in this region, for instance, is almost entirely composed of border crimes such as alien or drug smuggling and illegal re-entry by previously deported aliens [immigrants].”

This must be a fascinating situation in linguistic terms, though, and certainly incomparable to anywhere in Western Europe that I can think of.

Life along the border does have a direct impact on our city’s linguistic environment,” Juan continues. “The long-standing, dynamic influx of non-English speakers into San Diego has turned it into a veritable language lab. You will hear English coexist (and often collide) with Spanish and other languages nearly everywhere you go: from shopping malls, entertainment venues, and restaurants to buses, hospitals, and government agencies. Being exposed to language as used in this region is not only beneficial to translators and interpreters with limited knowledge of border culture, but also particularly important for Spanish interpreters who grew up in a country other than Mexico — as is my case: San Diego is an urban classroom where every outing becomes a learning experience.”

It isn’t just a fusion of English and Spanish that people in San Diego can enjoy. The city’s linguistic situation is much deeper than that.

“Not everybody is fully aware of the linguistic diversity that San Diegans get to enjoy,” Juan maintains. “While Spanish has been present in this area for centuries, many other languages also make their way into the United States through our city. Mexico alone is home to nearly 70 indigenous languages, some of which are the only language spoken by many immigrants who come across the border.

Additionally, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) resettles more than 1,000 refugees per year in the San Diego area through a partnership with the U.S. Department of State. As these immigrants and refugees come into contact with health care providers, immigration authorities, and law enforcement, it becomes essential to have qualified language practitioners available in multiple settings.”

We would hope then that San Diego’s linguistic diversity would put it in good stead to offer a robust portfolio of translation and interpreting courses and events. Is this the case?

“There are many continuing education programs in San Diego,” Maryam clarifies. “The city has the University of California, San Diego Extension translation program for anyone interested in getting a certificate in translation or interpretation. Interpreters and translators can join professional associations such as the California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) and the Association of Translators and Interpreters in the San Diego Area (ATISDA).”

Readers in the U.S. will remember that the annual American Translators Association conference was held in San Diego in 2012. Is this a one-off or does San Diego play host to translation events often? “There are many events and conferences held here since it’s an ideal location for many translators and interpreters. It’s a great place to mix business and pleasure and plan a vacation around work related events.”

Let’s wrap up with some final reflections from our contributors. Why do they think San Diego is a world-class city for translators?

“San Diego is a great city for translators to start their freelance translation business,” Maryam thinks. “The opportunities are limitless and the demand for translation services has increased over the years due to the growth of the limited English proficient population. There are over 150 languages spoken in the city and it has the busiest international border. The proximity to Los Angeles and Orange County also gives freelance translators the chance to get more business.”

Juan also paints San Diego in a good light for those thinking of starting up in the city. “In spite of the challenges that places like San Diego are bound to encounter, I believe this city offers a highly unique set of opportunities for language professionals. Even doing business here is appealing when you consider that Forbes magazine just picked San Diego as the best U.S. city to launch a startup in 2014, which should set the business-minded linguist at ease. Thanks to San Diego’s cultural diversity, multiple training options, and steady market for language services, working here as a translator and interpreter is truly a blessing. Oh, and the weather helps, too.”

Next week marks the final post of Translators in the City. The series reaches its climax and heads over to the eccentric city of Barcelona, with Judit Izcara (@dramacanpatatas), Simon Berrill (FB: SJB Translations) and Maia Figueroa (@maia_figueroa).