Dolphins and Dance-Fighting
The Story of How I Fell in Love with Portuguese and Became a Life Sciences Translator
12 May, 2020 by
John Widick
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Hi. My name is John. I’m a translator at a company called BioLingo. That means that I help people who need high-quality translations for sensitive material, often technical material, and even material that patient safety depends on. You might wonder what kind of a person would want such a job. What compels someone to seek out two unrelated areas of expertise: science and foreign language? In other words, how does somebody end up as a scientific translator? All of my colleagues and I at BioLingo have found our profession through different paths, but to shine some light on the kind of people we are, I’d like to share my story.

I learned Portuguese the Way Most Americans do… from Martial Arts

I grew up in South Florida, and I was very lucky to have the chance to learn new languages from a young age. Later, when I went to college, my language-learning options only expanded. I had a particularly moving experience watching a performance that was an odd mix of dancing, singing and, strangely… fighting? It was the most fun-looking martial art I had ever seen. You may have heard of it. It’s called Capoeira, and it’s a common doorway to Brazilian culture for Americans and people the world over.  

I had heard Brazilian Portuguese before learning songs in the Capoeira studio. It blends African and European pronunciations into something melodic and magical. I had so much fun learning about Brazil in my Capoeira class that I started Portuguese classes at my university. Being a Spanish and French speaker, I learned fast. I joined the Portuguese Club and made friends with Portuguese-speaking students from Angola, who had an entirely different accent. Before I left school, we had a Brazilian-Angolan style graduation party.

Then I Learned Medicine from Dolphins

How are you doing so far? Do you still believe I’ll end up a science translator at the end of this? After graduation I decided to pursue a childhood dream of working with marine mammals. I applied for an internship, and quite to my surprise, I was hired. The internship consisted of ten-hour days spent sorting ice-cold fish before sunrise and then putting on my scuba gear and scrubbing pools before the aquarium opened. Also worth noting, the pools I was cleaning were full of dolphins. I was determined to make it a career. I learned to do my job well and fast and by the end of my internship I had been offered a permanent position. 

I worked closely with the animals and closely with the veterinarians, too. The animals I worked with were rescues and usually had some kind of medical problem. Those who cared for them had to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of drugs, vitamins and supplements. We had to collect blood, urine, fecal, gastric, and exhalation samples (just to name a few) and we had to collect them with the animal’s permission. I’ve heard human patients can be difficult. All of mine could easily defeat me in any test of wills and knew it, and you’re not allowed to withhold food if they don’t participate. I think in the end, knowing I was at their mercy made them less nervous, and therefore, better patients. That was kind of them, because after collecting I would then run across the grounds to the lab to process those samples. 

Working so closely with marine mammals was a rigorous, hands-on learning process in both science and veterinary medicine. I worked with them for ten years. I even published a paper about caring for a paralyzed North American river otter. 

My Story Isn’t Typical

I’ve been extremely lucky to have had these experiences. I took the path less traveled because I was blessed with options. Many of my fellow life sciences translators are bilingual because at some point in their lives they went through the difficult transition of moving to a new country. Depending on when in their lives they moved, they may have found a career in medicine or research in their home country or after emigrating. All of us have put long hours into making sure we are well-versed in scientific terminology in every language we work in, and we were tested thoroughly on both our language skills and our scientific knowledge before we were hired.

Learning a language is like learning how to prepare blood slides. It takes repetition. I originally started translating as a side-hustle while working at the aquarium, and now it’s still a side-hustle to my new career as a stay-at-home dad. At the beginning of this journey I just thought Portuguese sounded pretty and that river otters were cute. Now I can say that both have changed my life, and helped me find purpose in a way I never could have dreamed of. Translating may sound a little dry compared to the other jobs and hobbies I’ve had, but I feel very satisfied knowing I serve an urgent need. People don’t have time to worry about the different meanings of words in different dialects when they’re focusing on their patients or their research. Fortunately, they have me and the awesome team I work with to handle it for them.

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