How I became a multilingual translator

David is a NAATI accredited translator with 37 years’ experience translating into English from 13 languages -Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, French, German, Icelandic, Latin, Latvian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish. But did you know that English is the only language he speaks?

How did he come to translate from so many languages? In this article, he shares his story.


I don’t know where my interest in foreign languages came from. No one else in my circle of relatives has this interest.

I grew up in St Kilda for some time in my childhood and remember being exposed to Jewish and other European shops and being fascinated.  But by about year 10 in school, where I was doing French and German, I realised I was captivated by how sentences were constructed in foreign languages. My favorite activity was comparing English and foreign texts, which had been translated from LOTE to English or vice versa. By year 12, I had also taken on Dutch at school. I remember the unexpected situation where the headmaster gave me the dictation test.

After school, I worked in the Immigration Department for a year and then undertook a BA degree at the University of Melbourne, adding Swedish as a subject. This was to stand me in good stead for my 25 years full-time employment with Telstra as a technical translator from 1971 to 1996, as there was lots of Scandinavian work.  This also gave me the opportunity to teach myself many European languages on the job and learn from more experienced senior translators, otherwise the work would have had to be sent out to other freelancers.

Finally, during the 1980s, before the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, I used to frequent the Spring Bookshop in Melbourne, buying up cheap books (grammars and dictionaries) that taught Eastern-bloc languages from the standpoint of Russian, never dreaming that 30 years later I’d be using some of them in my translation work, e.g. a 2-volume Latvian-Russian dictionary.

All this has given me such an exciting career, and I think I would have died of boredom if I had restricted myself to French and German.

*David specialises in migration-related translations, personal documents as well as commercial and technical correspondence.