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Gail Tosto


I grew up in a monolingual, English-speaking household. My grandparents were all bilingual, but those were the days when first-generation Americans felt a need to prove their patriotism by speaking only English with the children. As a result, my parents learned only a smattering of Italian and German to pass on to me and my siblings.

In seventh grade I took Spanish because my sister and friends were taking it and I wanted to be part of the crowd. One night my parents came home from a school open house and enthusiastically informed me that my Spanish teacher had called me a “linguist.” I’ve had a bug to study foreign languages ever since. I continued taking Spanish and dabbled in Mandarin and Italian. I got a job in a Chinese take-out kitchen and learned to yell the most popular orders to the cook in Cantonese. Later I attended the University of Puerto Rico, where I made a point of renting a room in a boardinghouse where nobody spoke English. UPR had no major in “randomly selected languages,” so I opted for a bachelor’s degree in General Humanities. The extra electives I got by not declaring a major went toward Italian, French, and German classes, and I sat in on Russian and Haitian Creole.

A year before graduation, my fiancé and I broke our engagement, canceling the plans we had made for the rest of our lives together—which, unbelievably, involved milking cows on his family’s farm in the Dominican Republic. (I’ll say it again: UN-BE-LIEV-ABLY!) While groping around for an alternate life plan, I got a part-time job at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and ended up translating operas from German to Spanish. That was how I cut my teeth as a paid translator, and I knew I had found one of my callings. I enrolled in the UPR’s Graduate Program in Translation, where I earned a master’s degree. After graduation I spent two more years in Puerto Rico, working as a multilingual proofreader/copy editor.

I came to Austin in 1983 to try my hand at a PhD in historical linguistics. The UT linguistics department has what’s affectionately known as the “funny language requirement,” which must be fulfilled with a non-garden-variety language. Influenced by a budding interest in Judaism, I fulfilled the requirement with Hebrew and studied Yiddish on my own, translating family histories for friends whose great-grandparents had put them down on paper after immigrating to the United States.

Eventually, the proposed PhD in linguistics morphed into a second master’s degree (in foreign language education). By then I had decided that self-employment was for me, so I put together a patchwork of ways to support myself. I taught ESL through the UT Informal Classes, which exposed me to all kinds of people from around the world. I proofread for a local publishing company and had them withhold my entire (smallish) paycheck to cover my income taxes while I freelanced elsewhere. Not having children of my own, I taught Hebrew and Judaics to second and third graders at my synagogue, both for profit and as a way to pass my values on to the next generation. Last but not least, in 1985 I sent a résumé to the Ralph McElroy Translation Co., and have been happily translating for them ever since.

My lifelong passion for languages has kept me exploring tongues as diverse as Japanese, Xhosa, Catalan, and Cantonese, but my professional translations are now limited to Spanish and Italian into English. Once in a while I try to think of a livelihood I would enjoy more than my patchwork of language-related services, and nothing has ever come to mind.