This is a guest post by Joseph J. Welch, a lawyer, financial planner, and now — at age 63– a Master’s in Translation Student. See the end of this post for Joe’s full bio and contact information.
Follow your passion, and you’ll never work a day in your life
It’s never too late to change careers. We’ve all heard stories: The 45-year-old computer programmer who went to med school and began a practice in her early 50’s. The 52-year-old executive who got laid off and started a business doing what he’d always wanted to do. And many more. People change careers for all sorts of reasons. Their values shift. Their work-life balance gets off kilter. They have money issues, family considerations, or too much stress. Perhaps they’re forced into it due to a layoff at a mature age, like the 52-year-old above. Or maybe they just don’t have any passion for what they’re doing.
My reason was the latter, combined with the fact that I’d left another passion behind years ago. When I was 19 (I’m 63 now), I was given the opportunity to spend the summer studying French at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. I excelled and absolutely loved it. I went back to college that fall and later was given an opportunity to go to the University of Caen, in Normandy, for a spring semester abroad. I jumped at it and earned a certificate in French language. Not only did I love it, but I decided I was going to earn my living using French. My goal was to become a simultaneous interpreter at the UN – “Interprète simultané aux Nations Unis,” is what I would tell people. It was all about the French language.
I was going to stay in France, not only for the summer, but to finish college. I enrolled in French literature at a French University. The goal was to further perfect my language skills and ultimately go to the University of Geneva for their interpreter training program. That was the plan, but…back home, they did not approve. I was encouraged to aim higher, to become the one being interpreted, to become the diplomat. I succumbed to the pressure and that fateful decision sent me in a different direction, and off my track.
The interpreter, or the one being interpreted?
I came home from France, finished my degree, and once I graduated, I was “strongly encouraged” to change my “total” French language focus to an international focus, a diplomacy focus. I met with the Consul General at the French consulate in Boston to discuss, in French, what course of study I should follow at a French university to get into international relations. He advised me to pursue law, so in the fall, I went to the University of Strasbourg to study law. After that first year, I returned home for the summer. No one could understand what I would do with a French law degree and why I would go back. People thought I should go to law school in Québec, which is closer to home and French speaking. I applied to Laval (civil law degree only – all in French) and McGill (civil law and common law degrees and 90% in English). I was accepted to both. But again, no one could understand what I would do with just a Québec civil law degree. I was ultimately persuaded that living in Montréal and going to McGill would give me the best of both worlds: plenty of French all around me and I’d graduate with both a civil law degree and a common law degree, the latter allowing me to sit for the bar exam and practice law in Massachusetts. After all, McGill did in fact offer an environment that was bilingual and bijuridical (a word coined by me).
I was now pretty far from my original plan to become a simultaneous interpreter at the UN. I have to admit that I am embarrassed that I let myself become so completely influenced by those around me. Part of the reason I am telling this story is say to younger generations, “Don’t be swayed by what others want you to do, or to be. Follow your passion.” And to parents, including myself, “Let your kids figure it out.” You’ll both be better off in the end.
The passion never dies!
I never lost my passion for French. I managed to keep it alive for many years. I joined French-speaking organizations. I borrowed materials from what was then the French Library in Boston. I recorded and listened to French radio stations on cassette tapes. I later subscribed to French audio publications. I sent my kids to the Ecole Bilingue de Boston. I tutored French. I went on interviews for a job in Geneva and then later for one in France. We did a one-month home exchange in Aix-en-Provence. I convinced my wife to become part of a program where teenage French kids lived with us for a few weeks at a time during the summer, and she taught them English. I tried to move the family to France. I even interviewed with the CIA in a totally nondescript office building in Boston, an interview which took place entirely in French. And during all that time, I accumulated various French-English dictionaries, lexicons, phonology tapes, vocabulary exercises and other French language materials and recordings, all with the intent of practicing and perfecting that level of French that I had attained. I refused to let French go.
Deep down, I always knew that I had happened into a law career that wasn’t a good fit. But I had invested time and money in becoming a lawyer and told myself that, “Surely you can make this work.” I knew I needed a change but couldn’t see or admit the consequences of having left my passion behind. I went from law, to selling legal technology, to financial planning. With all those jobs, I always tried to see the French angle. “Do they have French clients?” I would wonder. “Maybe a subsidiary in France that I could work my way into.”
Destiny calls…via an e-mail from ProZ!
I got close to seeing things clearly around 2007. I was between jobs and took a few online translations classes at NYU. I joined the ATA and ProZ and just as I was starting to get projects, I received a fantastic job offer selling technology to law firms that I simply couldn’t refuse, from a financial perspective, and for my family’s sake. I dropped my membership in the ATA and unsubscribed from ProZ emails. For many years, a few ProZ emails would still trickle in, and I would delete them.
Thirteen years later, in early July of 2020, when I was a financial planner and still not totally thrilled with my work life, I received one such ProZ email. I hovered on it but did not delete it. The next day, I opened it and read it, but still did not delete it. This cycle continued until one day, I opened the email and had a Proustian-like experience. My memories as a 19-year-old kid in France wanting to become a simultaneous interpreter came rushing into my head. Staring at the email, I thought, “You’ve been pushing your family to do these French things. You recently tried to convince your eldest to do the same program in Caen that you had done….” And suddenly light dawned on Marblehead. “I’m the one who has a passion for French. I’m the one who wants to travel to France…I’m the one who needs a job involving French. Why not translation?” Being 63, I thought the option that would give me more time to think would be the better one. Interpretation, requiring quick thinking on my feet, will have to come later.
Back to school at age 63
The next few days involved frantic research on whether I could do this, was I too old, did I have any credibility, could I make money, were there any programs or courses I could take? A colleague advised me that since I did not have any professional translation experience, a Master’s or a certificate program might be a good idea.
Now, finally, 40 some odd years later, I’ve taken the bull by the horns and made the decision to change careers. I’ve come full circle to that point I was at in Caen in 1978. Well, sort of, I’m not 19 anymore. I’ve just finished up my first semester at Kent State University in their two-year online Master’s in Translation program. It’s an excellent foundational course of studies which has kept me quite busy learning strategies and technology, gaining confidence and credibility and removing any kind of imposter syndrome that I might have.
I plan to launch my French to English legal translation practice in the very near future. As an optimist, I have to say that I am in an ideal position. I’m coming back to a point where I was 40 years ago with a wealth of knowledge, education, experience and wisdom.
Interpretation will come at a later point. One thing at a time!
I am coming full circle. I’m doing it. You can, too!
Joseph J. Welch holds a bachelor’s degree in French, from Salem State University, an LL.B. and a B.C.L. (common law and civil law degrees) from McGill University, and an MBA from Suffolk University. He attended the University of Strasbourg (law) as well as the Universities of Caen and Genève and is currently enrolled in the Master’s in Translation program at Kent State University. Joe began his career practicing law, then selling technology to law firms and finally working as a Certified Financial Planner ®. He originally hails from historic Salem, Massachusetts and currently lives in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his lovely wife, his two beautiful daughters, and the cutest four-month-old grandson you’ve ever seen. He plans on launching his French to English legal translation practice in 2021. Joe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.