Robert Addis, 1923-2005

Two remembrances

By Tony Roder and Bernie Bierman

Long-time NCTA and ATA member Robert Addis passed away at the end of 2005, after a half-century in translation. Two people who knew him well—colleagues Tony Roder and Bernie Bierman—share with us their memories of this giant in the field. Our thanks to his widow, Louise, for providing biographical information.

Robert Lester Addis was intrigued by foreign languages from a very early age. His mother taught high school French and encouraged his interest in that language. During his high school years, he spent many hours listening to shortwave broadcasts from Europe.

After high school, he attended Yale on a scholarship to study foreign languages but almost immediately after Pearl Harbor enlisted in the Army. He was sent to Stanford to a special forces language training program and subsequently to Europe. There, he served as a German and French broadcaster for Radio Luxembourg after it was captured by the Allied Forces.

After the war, Robert completed his B.A. at Yale, tried out the corporate world, spent several years in the U.S. Foreign Service, and finally returned to Stanford for Post Graduate studies. After a few years of freelance writing and translation, he founded Ad-Ex Translations in 1957 and proceeded to make a career out of his love of language. He was always concerned with translation quality; he encouraged good translators and paid them well, and promptly. He became interested in ATA and eventually encouraged the formation of a California Chapter in 1963.

An early mentor

Robert Addis was my first client, and it was he who encouraged me to become active in translators’ associations.

In the 1960s, after I started working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and was asked to translate papers in French or Romanian, I was referred to Bob, who at that time was operating a translation business from his house in Menlo Park. I visited him there (no e-mail attachments in those days), appreciating his gracious welcome, his courtly manner, his erudition. He tactfully initiated me in the mysteries of the profession, and cautioned me about its pitfalls.

Subsequently, he invited me to join ATA and wrote the recommendation which the association required at the time. I bear him a debt of gratitude for that. I eventually also joined NCTA, and while I was on its board, I spoke to him on occasion about his interest in, and support of, our local activities. We last met a few years ago, at a nostalgic lunch with his East Coast partner.

Bob Addis has been a keystone of my career in translation and I grieve his absence.TR

A pioneer in the business

With the death of Robert Addis, we have lost another one of an ever-shrinking group of so-called “translator-merchants,” men and women who were active translators throughout their lives, but also combined their language skills and talents with business acumen to establish prosperous and durable translation service companies.

Mr. Addis, who translated from Russian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, was openly contemptuous of those who made comparisons between translation and other professions, and especially of organizations that attempted to apply parameters to translation that perhaps worked well for other professions but were totally foreign to translation. “Translation sits in its own category and does not withstand comparisons to other professions,” he often said and wrote.

As a businessman, he was an avid believer in advertising and never hesitated to spend money on it. He advertised anywhere and everywhere he believed he could get business: newspapers, magazines, professional journals, radio, direct mail (and eventually Internet) and any other medium that could deliver his message. He was always in the vanguard of adopting new technology, although he drew the line at so-called translation-aids tools, which in his view were an anathema to the process of translation.

Mr. Addis joined the American Translators Association in 1960 and very soon became involved in its development. In 1963, he established ATA’s second chapter, the California Chapter (“CalChapATA”). He produced an endless flurry of little newsletters called “CalChap Notes” and served a term as ATA’s Vice-President. In 1972, he became editor of the then-newsletter of the ATA called “ATA Notes” and promptly re-named it the ATA Chronicle. Although his  editorship lasted only three issues, the name ATA Chronicle continued on and even outlived him.

Mr. Addis’ approach to the business of translation was predicated on providing the highest quality of writing and communication, and every translation, whether done by him or one of his in-house associates or a member of his far-flung staff of freelance translators, went through an arduous editing and verification process. And it was this process and his unwavering belief that quality translation was a valuable and unique communications product, that led him to demand—and get—some of the most handsome fees known to the industry at the time.

But what Mr. Addis was incapable of doing was to hold back the tide of change that began to affect the world of industrial translation, and particularly the U.S. translation market in the very late 1990s and at the turn of the century. The “globalization”—or “Internetization” or “Wal-Martization”—of translation had impacted what had once been his impregnable translation fortress. But he continued to survive until advancing age and ill health closed the doors on a long, successful, and remarkable career. BB

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