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Face to Face with Stefan Paloka

Just close your eyes for a few seconds and type a sentence or two at your keyboard. Then open them and see how you got on. If you’re a touch typist, chances are you didn’t do too badly, but nevertheless you’re keen to check – a task for which you use your vision of course. Now imagine operating “in the dark” throughout your professional career, typing sentence after sentence, translation after translation, without ever being able to see the page, and without using any kind of speech-to-text software. The trick? Well, on your keyboard, there are tiny key bumps on the F and J keys, as well as on the number 5 on your numerical keypad. Perhaps you’ve never stopped to give them much thought. But for a blind person, they are essential, and orientate the fingers around the entire keyboard.

Welcome to the extraordinary world of Stefan Paloka.

Stefan Paloka - Photo, 09.05.2021

However, the last thing we want to do here is sensationalise Stefan’s achievements, as he has made it his life’s mission to play down any notion of “disability” or “disadvantage” and is keen to stress how he has been able to accomplish the same as any able-bodied person.

Let’s unpick the strands and see exactly how he’s managed that.

 

First of all – Albania is not the easiest country in which to be blind. Awareness of disability and social inclusion leaves a great deal to be desired. In early childhood, Stefan only had 5% vision – unable to see faces and making out words only by pressing his face to a book. His right eye had zero visibility. And yet his father insisted on him joining a mainstream school, as well as enjoying a vivid community and extended family life. His father’s motives were no doubt a mixture of noble aspirations and an unwillingness to accept the situation, but either way the outcomes were the same: Stefan grew up seeing his condition as normal and refusing to let it set him back in any way.

 

In some ways he even turned it to his advantage. At school for example, where the blackboard was out of range, Stefan developed his very own shorthand system which was the envy of his fellow students. Whenever there were gaps in their class notes, they turned to him for help, although they were clearly unable to read his strange squiggles for themselves. Of course, those schooldays were also punctuated by periodic episodes of bullying, but none of that deterred the young boy.

 

He turned out to be an outstanding student throughout his school years. His curiosity and hard work brought him impressive results, and he taught himself both English and Italian to a high level. At a time of communist dictatorship under Enver Hoxha – a period in which Albania was so isolated it was the North Korea of its day – he first learned Italian by tuning in to the signal of an Italian radio station that was beamed across the border, and memorizing up to 150 words a day. Fast forward to the present, and Stefan is now in a position where he reads, writes and speaks both Italian and English to a professional level.

 

When the dictatorship fell, it seemed like a great opportunity. Stefan threw himself into his language studies and obtained a scholarship in Law from the University of Tirana along the way. Nevertheless, gaining recognition for those university studies was itself a struggle which took up valuable years, with vital energies expended tackling the incomprehension and intransigence of the authorities.

 

His professional career began as a public administration employee from 1999 to 2007, reaching the position of Vice Registrar in the then local Office of Real Estate Registration, but he was unjustly dismissed, winning damages from the court. The following seven years were among the worst: unable to find a regular job and facing huge economic and social difficulties for himself, his wife and his children. As if this was not enough, he was struck by a closed-angle glaucoma attack, which worsened his already very bad eye condition. But Stefan wasn’t about to give up.

 

In 2010 Stefan learned for the first time about assistive technology, which enables blind people to use electronic devices without the need for sight. It was a total game changer. Between text-to-speech which enabled him to “read” texts by listening, plus a range of spoken commands that replicate our regular use of functions like “Find” and “Replace”, “Select” and “Overwrite”, his use of Word is fluent and uninterrupted. Similar commands also drive other functions such as opening and responding to emails or social media comments. Touch-typing using those bumpy keys and a map of the keyboards in his head, he is able not only to type with great precision but also to proofread the words of others, often operating faster than his colleagues at whatever the written task of the day is.


For the last eight or so years, Stefan has worked for Caritas Albania, starting from humble beginnings but making steady progress, as his qualifications, skills and abilities became known to his colleagues and superiors. Thus, in September 2014 he was employed as an advocacy officer for disability-related issues, as well as providing primary legal counselling. In this position, in 2019, he coordinated the preparation of and drew up the report that Caritas Albania submitted to the UN Committee tasked with overseeing the country’s drive to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

 

Working as a local project coordinator for Caritas Albania in an EU-funded regional project involving also Caritas Serbia (as project leader), Caritas Kosovo, Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina, Caritas Montenegro, and partner CSOs since April 2020, has been a great opportunity for him to grow both personally and professionally.

 

Along the way, his projects have involved plenty of regular translation work, and at one point he took on the modest task of translating Stephen Hawking’s entire children’s book “George's Secret Key to the Universe” into Albanian, just for his own personal satisfaction and for his children.

 

But now the time has come to launch into translation as a career, enabling him to contribute the gift of his languages and earn the appreciation he deserves. His recent first post in this group was just one example of his go-getting attitude, and his ability and willingness to contribute. He’s unafraid to stand in the limelight, and says he has plenty of energy to spare – he’s 55 going on 25.

 

If it is really his mission to “normalise” the accomplishments of people who are often branded by society as somehow disabled, then he has clearly achieved that in abundance already – a journey that manages to be both ordinary and utterly extraordinary at the same time.

 

 

Face to Face is a feature series highlighting active voices in the ProZ.com Facebook community.

To contact Stefan, go to:

ProZ.com Profile

 

Topics: translator, interpreter, facebook, interpreting, face to face

Andrew Morris

Written by Andrew Morris

French to English translator, Translation Mastermind founder, ProZ.com staff.

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