Job spotlight: Sylvia Mercedes Trelles, freelance translator

The road that has brought Sylvia Mercedes Trelles to this stage in her career as a freelance translator or interpreter has been a long and winding one.

It was two decades ago that Puerto Rico-born Mercedes Trelles graduated with an industrial engineering degree in Atlanta and ventured to South Carolina to work with the textile manufacturer Milliken & Co. But that only lasted three years.

"I wasn't terribly happy with my job because I had to deal with machines all the time and I'm more interested in dealing with people," the daughter of a retired pharmacist says. "Even though I love computers and technology, I still felt isolated."

She then shifted gears, going even more high-tech with a job in the documentation department at credit-card processor TSYS, which would eventually lead her to the firm's translation services department because of her fluid Spanish skills.

Her 18-year career there was interrupted only by a one-year stint as a Spanish teacher at Pacelli High School in 1998 before heading back to TSYS, where she would work until a wave of layoffs in 2010 put her and more than 200 other staffers out of a job.

"It was hard for me. After being there so long, I felt like, oh gosh, my world is coming to an end," says Mercedes Trelles, who harbors no ill feelings for her former employer, a place she loved to work.

Following some soul searching and a few months as technical writer at Synovus, Mercedes Trelles, 44 and a single mom, earned her certification from the National Language Service Corps last fall. She is now setting up a translation service that she believes will be valuable to both corporate employers in Columbus, as well as some agencies at Fort Benning.

The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Mercedes Trelles recently to discuss her journey to this point, what it has been like making a living from languages, and the life ahead of her. It has been edited for length and clarity.

How did it come about that you began working at TSYS?

They were starting a project with Mexico and they needed bilingual people. They were looking for training people. It helped that I had a background with numbers and I love numbers. I do calculus for fun. I'm sure it's a disease, but that's OK. I'm not dangerous. (laughs) I could do Sudoku in my sleep.

That meant a lot of traveling back and forth?

I loved it. I learned the system. I can still balance (numbers) in my sleep with different currencies. I wrote the technical documentation and information bulletins.

What's an important aspect about interpreting languages?

Barry Carswell, who I used to work with, he would tell me: You need to think of translations not as looking up a word and then telling me the same word in a different language. You need to extract the meaning of what you're trying to say and figure out in your head how can you put it in a different language. And once you have that idea, that concept, then you put it down on paper. I learned a lot from him.

The Mexico project had to be pretty involved and interesting?

We had all of the subject matter experts from TSYS that knew each sub-system really well, and then we had people in Mexico that knew the (financial) industry very well. So we had to be in the middle trying to figure out how to say what they're trying to convey in a language that they understand. There were some long hours, but it was fascinating. I loved that job.

After your layoff, your father said you should go back to school?

My dad has always given me the best advice. He always said: Find something you love and just do it. He saw how much I love translation. That's what gave me the idea that I need to start my own agency. I'm qualified to do this work because I've been doing it for so long. And I'm passionate about languages. I already know Portuguese, French, and I'm starting to learn Italian and I'm going to be taking German.

What's your strong point?

Knowing so much about the banking and credit-card processing industries, and with having such a big company like TSYS here, I think that I can capitalize on that.

What's a key to translating well?

I think learning to watch people and analyze their body language, their facial expressions. I think that's like 90 percent of the deal. And I'm fascinated by cultures and people. I think for any human being that's really the key. Just treat them like a person and listen to them and you'll be fascinated about how much you can learn from them.

Have you ever tried Rosetta Stone or any of those kinds of learning programs?

No. I think they are very overpriced. Somebody like me, I have a different way of learning. It's so easy for me to approach people because I'm friendly.

Out of Portuguese, French and Italian, which language is hardest to pick up?

They're all about the same because they're all romance languages. And they all come from Latin, so they're pretty similar.

I read where the average interpreter makes about $60,000 per year. What's the going rate?

In the industry, it's like 26 cents a word, for a written word. For an hour, the rates are through the roof. It can be very expensive.

How has the Internet impacted the translation services overall?

Google Translate I thought was a threat. But it turns out that it's not. We can try to translate the sentence, 'The PIN (personal identification number) is alphanumeric.' For "the," Google Translate will give you the article in Spanish, 'el' or 'la,' depending on what it is. Then we go to PIN and we have an acronym. Now the word for pin in Spanish can be translated as "alfiler," which is the pin that you use for sewing. So if you translate using Google Translate you can end up with ... 'The sewing pin is alphanumeric.' It makes no sense whatsover. So you always need to have a human edit whatever is translated.

What's the best piece of advice for people who want to learn Spanish or any language?

Do an immersion program. Go to a country and immerse yourself in the culture and find some people to talk with. Just get together and talk about your day.

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer