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Events in Bath for translators

There are two events taking place in Bath this month that I think will pique the interest of fellow translators. (Thanks to Cherry for the heads-up whilst blackberrying yesterday evening!)

The first will take place on Wednesday, 7 September at Topping & Co's bookshop. David Bellos, a translator and biographer has been invited to talk about the process of translation at the shop as part of its regular programme of events. Bellos, who currently teaches French, Italian and Comparative Literature at Princeton University has won awards for his translations. His most recent work published by Penguin is a survey of translation theory Is That a Fish in your Ear? More information and tickets from Toppings.

On Tuesday, 20 September, Maureen Freely, who is perhaps best known for her translations of Orhan Pamuk's novels from Turkish into English, will be giving a talk at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Freely also lectures at the University of Warwick and is an entertaining speaker. I heard her talk at the Bath Literature Festival last year and thoroughly enjoyed her lecture.

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!


Handbags and gladrags

I have not posted any new entries on the blog recently but this does not mean that nothing has been happening here at TrànslationWörks. Far from it. Much has been achieved in two of my specialist areas of Immigration and Travel and Tourism.

In addition to the conventional translating and proofreading aspects of my work, I have also been out and about.

As last year, I visited a local secondary school to talk to students at the Careers Fair about translation. Once again, I was delighted by the enthusiasm of the young people for languages in general and hope that all of them will be weave their language skills into their future careers, even if they decide not to become translators.

Earlier in the month, I attended a couple of events at Bath in Fashion Week. It is important for translators to keep up to date with the latest developments in the subject areas they translate and so this was a perfect opportunity to combine a bit of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) with some fun!  Bath has been a fashionable place for several centuries. The rich and famous of past eras have visited the town for its spa and entertainments. And nothing has changed in this respect. The town seemed to be really buzzing with greater numbers of the fashionably dressed, and all the shops also appeared to be putting their best foot forward. I learned more about what happens behind the scenes in this world that has a cachet of glamour. Like many professions, the end result is a culmination of hard work and creative thought and lateral thinking all working together to look effortless.


This blog has been receiving inordinate amounts of spam comments recently. All seem to be promoting the benefits of purchasing replica designer bags (also known as "genuine fake" as I once saw on a sign in Turkey!). I say "seem" because the English is so mangled that it is actually not always clear what the comments are trying to convey.

Here is an example: "If you're serious about buying Cheap [designer brand name] Replica Handbags at discounted prices, you should be the ads in the newspapers of the season slip and tend to the shops, we know that selling big brands buy, offer authentic reproductions and a price of more than his actual value."

One day, I may blog about machine translation. I suspect the above is the product of machine translation and an excellent example of why everyone should employ a well-qualified human translator if they want to promote their goods and services to a discerning market.

For the time being, I have disabled the Comments function. I hope normal service will be resumed in due course.


As a New Year's Resolution, I challenged myself to read one World Classic in translation every month.  Something I did not appreciate at the outset was how huge a task this actually is. World Classics tend to be mighty tomes and so far I have found that I am behind on my quota!

However, my quest has not been entirely in vain, for, when reading Fyodor Doestoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I came across this passage which is a perfect illustration of one reason to use a professionally trained and qualified translator and not to believe that by using a student you will obtain a product of equal quality.

In this short scene Razoumikhin meets his friend Raskolnikoff in the street.  "Stop a minute, Mr Chimney Sweep! You are positively out of your mind! I am giving no lessons myself, either. I am at present doing translations for a publisher. I had counted on you as being useful to me. My orthography is rather bad and I am very weak in German - indeed, I only undertook the work with the hope of its leading to something better. Look here, he will pay three roubles for translating these German pages, and you may do them if you like. Here!"

Raskolnikoff is not tempted by the handsome sum on offer and refuses the translations and payment. He has weightier matters on his mind - namely the premeditated murders he has just committed for little material gain. His mental anguish is such that he is unable to function properly and has made himself ill.

Now, I am not suggesting that students are known for committing murder but it is clear here that Razoumikhin realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew. He admits that he cannot spell and that his German is not up to the standard required. His inexperience and eagerness have caught up with him.

Professional translators will know their limitations; for example, I know that I do not know anything about nuclear physics and so will not attempt such a text. Conversely, translators do know which texts they can tackle to make a difference and make the language sparkle. Recently, I was asked three times by a project manager to work on texts concerning railway engineering. Each time I reiterated that he would be better advised to ask someone qualified to undertake the work. I did not omit to mention that would be happy to help him if he required translations of texts in my specialist areas of marketing and advertising, travel and tourism, education, human resources and cookery!

[Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosteyevsky. Penguin Popular Classics 1997]

Training as a Translator

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News from TrànslationWörks 16 June 2010

Recently, I was invited to participate at a careers evening held at a secondary school here in Bath. My role was to speak to young people individually about their aspirations for using languages in their careers and particularly in the world of translation.

I had no idea how many people would come to my desk and so I was delighted when I had a steady stream of youngsters stopping for a chat.

One of the many attractive advantages to being a translator is that one can embark upon a career in this area at almost any stage in life once one has acquired the necessary level of language skills.

Acquiring language skills is naturally the key point. My advice to the young people included:

  • making sure that in their enthusiasm for foreign languages they did not neglect their skills in the English language
  • exploring the possibility of spending some time in their "source-language" country before embarking on their degree course, gaining fluency, understanding how the foreign language really works (i.e. going beyond a school textbook)
  • gaining experience and understanding of one or more professions in which they might like to specialise, and considering taking a degree course that combines a profession with a language, such as Engineering with German or Economics with Italian - the combinations are almost endless. Taking this route has the advantage that one learns - and can correctly apply - the right terminology in both languages as well as learning the nuts and bolts of the subject area.

There are, of course, other routes into translation such as the traditional approach of taking a Modern Languages degree or a degree in Translation Studies. I'd be interested in hearing from established translators about the route they took and what, if anything, they would do differently with the wonderful advantage of hindsight!

A day of anniversaries

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News from TrànslationWörks, Bath, 9 November 2009

Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell, heralding a new era not only for East and West Germany but also for the world. It symbolised the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the promise of a new era of peace. In the meantime other political disputes have taken its place but for ordinary families in Germany at least there has been the opportunity to rebuild the lives and relationships that were divided by a border.

Ten years ago today, much less world-shattering, but nevertheless significant in my life, I started out as a translator. A few days earlier, I had sat the Institute of Linguists' Diploma in Translation exam, and without even knowing the results, I started work as an in-house translator in a translation agency in London. Was it a good move? I am often asked. The reply is a resounding "Yes!". As a translator I have the opportunity to be involved every day in an area that never ceases to fascinate me: the inter-relationship of two languages, English and German. Looking back over my career before I embarked upon translation, I cannot now imagine how I lived without it!

The secret of the swimming pool

It is common knowledge that we derive great benefits from exercise.  We maintain a healthy body weight, exercise our muscles and heart, oxygenate our blood and generally acquire a glow of wellbeing.

This summer I have had the opportunity to swim my 50 lengths a day in an outdoor pool. What could be more pleasant than gaining the above benefits under a pleasantly warm sun (or warm rainfall some days!), with the beautiful green hills gently rising and birds and butterflies flying and fluttering above me?

And the benefits are not all mine!  There have been occasions when I have had great inspiration for translations. The rhythm of my strokes and breathing have allowed my mind to move onto other planes. Phrases that have eluded me at my desk have fallen neatly into place when "getting away from it all" for an hour.

It is not always easy to come up with 'le mot juste' when time is of the essence and deadlines are tight. I always try to persuade clients to build in a little extra time - even when the pressure is on. Some people like to have time to "sleep" on the final version of a project and with a bit of planning and good judgment, sometimes even just an extra hour or two can make all the difference between a good translation and a sparkling one. This summer for me the secret has been in the swimming pool!