August 2011 Archives

Bridging the Gap

There have been reports this year of thousands of A level students foregoing the opportunity of a gap year so that they can ensure they start university before fees are raised to £9000 a year. And this attitude is perfectly understandable. Particularly as gap years have acquired a less-than-sparkling reputation for being a 12-month-long party on the beaches of Thailand and Australia financed by the Bank of Mum and Dad.

This may have been the case for some students but many take the opportunity to do something worthwhile, be it to further their understanding of the subject they wish to study, earn some money before going to university or enhance their career prospects - or even all three. I think my own gap year probably fulfilled two of these three as well as giving me some life experience and a few hilarious anecdotes.

When I attend a local school's careers fair, I often suggest to young people that they consider spending a gap year in advance of their course. Not only will they arrive at university fluent in their chosen language, having a clear advantage over their fellows who are still making grammatical mistakes, but they will also be able to read secondary literature in the foreign language more easily (and quickly!) giving a further depth and understanding to their studies.

Gap years spent in the target language country are invaluable for linguists. By immersing oneself in the local culture, community and language, one learns so much more than a whole course could teach in three years. Classroom learning has its place, of course, but it cannot demonstrate the cultural details one learns by actually living in the country itself.

With the economy in Europe suffering its current problems, it is likely that competition will be stiff for the plum jobs (approximately 45% of Spain's young people are currently unemployed) but there are opportunities nevertheless.  This British Council website is an excellent place to start your search. And it is not restricted to opportunities for would-be translators and interpreters, there are also suggestions for those wishing to combine their language skills with other areas.

My advice to students is to think broadly. If, for example, you are interested in studying Art History, why not find a job in Italy, lodge with a family, brush up your Italian on a course for foreigners and even find a course on Italian art? or do something similar with German and Music, or French and Cookery, or any other exciting combination?

Another option, perhaps once you have completely fallen in love with the language and country, would be to consider doing a degree course in that country. If the tuition fees are lower than those in the UK, not only will your language skills benefit you will find yourself eminently employable.


Improving your spoken language skills - Part I

When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living they often react with something bordering on awe. I find this rather embarrassing as I am all too aware of my own shortcomings no matter how impressive others think it is to be able to speak two foreign languages.

As a translator who specialises in certain fields, it is possible to forget vocabulary in other  areas of life because, as with everything, one has to keep in practice. One way of practising skills that are likely to get rusty from lack of use is to join a conversation group.

Many classes at adult education colleges have been victims of spending cuts in recent years and this seems to be true of courses in foreign languages. However, all is not yet lost! It costs nothing to chat and so about 15 months ago, I put an advert (in French) in the village newspaper announcing my intention to set up a French conversation group in a local pub. I had little idea of how many people would come and was delighted when about 8 people, including a couple of native speakers, turned up eager for a French conversation workout.

The group agreed to meet once a month and has a number of core members now. In addition to the native speakers, who also value the opportunity to keep their mother tongue in good shape, there are people from all walks of life ranging from retired people with property renovation projects in France, to a couple of translators to people who have spent a little time in French-speaking countries on a professional basis. The group also includes the local handyman (who was determined to learn a foreign language and whose vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic language are second to none), people who studied modern languages at university and need to brush up and school students determined to boost their grades and others whose native language is neither French nor English.

How is the group organised? This group is delightful in that it runs itself.  I hold an e-mail list of participants and send a message a week in advance as a reminder of the date of the next meeting. Members arrive at the pub, order a drink, sit down and start chatting! The subjects discussed are wide ranging including visits to the vet with the cat (it turned out to be quite a drama with the poor cat dying in the car on the way home), problems with restoring antique motorbikes, and new job applications. We have a big bi-lingual dictionary on the table to help with words that aren't in our everyday vocabulary such as "sump", "breech birth" or "dove-tail joint" and the Grammar Police are nowhere in sight. If someone needs help with formulating a sentence correctly, help is given but no one automatically corrects lapses in grammar. Purists may find this a bit shocking but as long as the sentence is comprehensible, the flow of the conversation is not interrupted. Members can study grammar books at home and hope to apply the rules more accurately next time.

Such a group is easy to set up and run - and our reputation has spread beyond the village with people coming from other areas to join us. We do not restrict our ability speak French to Francophiles; we have been known to generously share our knowledge with the local community. For example, we participated in the pub's annual "Beer and Carols" night in December last year. The regulars were treated to a rendition of carols in French - with tunes familiar to the audience to encourage some to join in with us. We hope to establish this as a tradition and do it again this year.

With the autumn on the horizon, a traditional time of year to think of evening activities, why not set up a group in your area? It is an ideal opportunity to start to dispel the myth that the Brits are "not interested in languages" and get plenty of practice before your next holiday!


A bit of drama

Isn't it wonderful when your chosen profession dovetails nicely with your other interests?  I spent a pleasant hour on Sunday afternoon visiting Bath's Museum of Fashion and taking the opportunity to do a little light Continual Professional Development.  The museum is a fascinating place for not only is it located in the city's famous and beautiful Assembly Rooms, it has an ever-changing programme of exhibitions.

I indulged my love of costume dramas by visiting the latest exhibition called Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards.  I was fascinated to see costumes from some of my favourite films including the wedding outfits worn by Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, the fabulously evocative cloak and dress in which Meryl Streep, as the mysterious Sarah, wraps herself when she stands on the wind-lashed Cobb in Lyme Regis in The French Lieutenant's Woman, and the clothes worn by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. (It almost looked as if he was actually in the costume!)

Although visitors were not allowed to touch the costumes, there were samples of fabrics to feel. It's good to remind oneself of what certain fabrics are like to touch especially if called on in a translation to describe a type of material. I shall have to do a little research on a term used to describe a dress worn by Kiera Knightley in her role as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (scenes of which, incidentally, were shot in the Assembly Rooms and in the town). It is called a "drunk dress". Does any one have any ideas what this means? Here's an image of it taken by Aylwen Gardiner-Garden and can be found with other images from the exhibition on her blog .

KK drunk dress.jpgIt was good to see costume designers getting a bit of well-deserved acknowledgement as they are an integral part of film-making and can often be overlooked. Perhaps there are parallels with the role of the translator whose contribution when performed seamlessly (pun intended) can also go unrecognised. If costume designers put an actor in the wrong clothes for the period, or a translators use the wrong word for the context of the piece, it can jar and audiences in both cases notice the faux pas. If we do our jobs well, we blend into the background and our role is unacknowledged. So I, for one, am pleased that there are Oscars for costume design. Perhaps we should have them for translation too?

The exhibition continues until 29 August so there's still time to see it if you're interested.

Thoughts on life after A level results

In much of the UK today, young people finally came to the end of their agonising wait for their A level results.  Every year - and this year is no exception - there is much discussion and analysis in the media about the grades achieved, the scramble for university places and job prospects for those not going on to further their studies.

According to the BBC, there were 867,317 candidates for all subjects at A level this year. Of these, 13,196 (1.5%) took French, 7,610 (0.9%) took Spanish and 5,166 (0.6%) took German. Other languages including Welsh and Irish accounted for even smaller percentages.

Over the past 20 years, the number of candidates for French has dropped from nearly 30,000 to its current level - a decrease of roughly 17,000 entrants. Candidates for Spanish have increased slightly and candidates for German have decreased slightly - and this is despite German being the language most in demand by employers, according to a report by the University Council of Modern Languages. The Guardian reports an increase in candidates for Chinese - but does not report how many passed.

A quick glance at the UCAS website advertising unfilled places (clearing) at universities on modern languages degree courses indicates that there is a vast choice available to those wishing to pursue their studies. It seems there are over 269 courses ranging from Italian with Marketing offered at the University of Hull, to Computing with Hispanic Studies at the University of Kent to Electrical Engineering with a foreign language at the University of Sheffield and Translating and Interpreting courses at the University of Salford.

With so few students taking A level languages I wonder if all these places will be filled? And if not, will the courses or even the departments eventually be closed down?

Conference season

There is always something going on in the world of languages and the early autumn is no exception.

This year, the European Day of Languages will fall on 26 September. Check out the website for further information and inspiration., the translators' portal, is in the throes of organising its third virtual conference to co-incide with International Translators' Day which also falls on 26 September. The conference has been extended from a single day event to one that runs until 30 September. All call for speakers has been issued - so if you have some insights to share with the professional translation and interpreting community this is your chance to put your name up in lights! More information is available here.

The Great Translation Debate also organised by Proz is scheduled to take place on 29 September. Amongst other topics there will be a live panel discussion considering the motion: Translation automation is good for the translation profession. 
This promises to be a lively session and if you want your say or wish just to hear what others have to say, then register here.

If you prefer a non-virtual experience, then perhaps the Language Show Live will be up your street. Held this year at Olympia London from 21 - 23 October there will be hundreds of language-related exhibitors' stands to visit, language taster sessions, short foreign films to watch, career opportunities to investigate and cultural shows to watch. Registration for free tickets is now open.