Out with the old, in with the new

What happened to last year? Somehow it’s already 2022. They say time flies when you’re having fun.

Well, I’ve enjoyed working and interacting with colleagues although it’s not all been plain sailing (I even joined the ITI Sailing and Boating Network to help with terminology for an emerging specialism).

The year began with a flurry of finding out what the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement might mean for our profession. I joined colleagues from various service industries for further investigations and reporting as a Cross-Border Services group.

My interactions with colleagues may have been mainly online, but I’ve really valued them all. There have been meetings, quizes, social gatherings, an online ITI Conference, some mentoring and teaching…

In 2021 I became a Fellow of the ITI; I was also lucky enough to win an award for a long-running book translation project. I’ve felt a bit uncomfortable recording videos of myself, like I did for the online ITI awards ceremony, but I’m learning.

The publicity surrounding that last book has helped find me a new book to translate (thanks also to a colleague, Sarah Bichot, who put me in touch with the authors). This book is already published in France and describes how towns and cities emerge, taking a very long-term perspective. I’ll continue to get to grips with it in 2022! Watch this space.

I’ll also be investigating translation ethics and intercultural project management with a group of Durham University students in spring. This promises to be an interesting year for me… I hope it will be for you, too.

Le Corbusier, grammar and the city

Translating a manuscript and accompanying essay

A book translation of mine was recently published as Le Corbusier’s Practical Aesthetic of the City: The treatise ‘La Construction des villes’ of 1910/11. This was a complex translation project!

To begin with, it’s worth noting that the manuscript was written when Le Corbusier was known by his birth name: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. He began writing it because his teacher at art school asked him to prepare a study on the current state of city planning. The project expanded until the planned study had become a 600-page book in draft form, yet Jeanneret did not end up publishing the manuscript.

The publication saga began much later, after Le Corbusier’s death. American historian Harold Allen Brooks discovered 250 pages of the abandoned manuscript in Switzerland in the late 1970s. Swiss architect Marc Emery published these in French in 1992. In the late 1990s, a German PhD candidate, Christoph Schnoor, discovered another 350 handwritten pages of the same manuscript – which was then reassembled. Schnoor published this commercially in Switzerland in 2008, alongside his own analysis of it. The new Routledge edition contains this analysis plus the full manuscript, both in English for the first time.

The author asserts that La Construction des villes represents some of Le Corbusier’s most successful writing. My aim was to achieve a careful translation into English of this important manuscript, which Le Corbusier never published, and the essay about it. Both would extend current knowledge about his work to readers of English.

The manuscript and essay combine to show that, when working on his manuscript, the young Le Corbusier studied space in urban areas; this taught him new ways of seeing space in terms of architecture, which in turn informed his later work. He also developed a ‘grammar of the city’, breaking it down into individual constituent parts.

La Construction des villes is remarkable as it shows Le Corbusier’s intellectual influences and documents the contemporary discourse. Le Corbusier emphasises the idea of space in the city as a prerequisite for aesthetic urban planning – this is noteworthy since he later reversed his position. Le Corbusier ultimately abandoned the manuscript, partly because he wasn’t satisfied that it was sufficiently avant-garde.

There are several reasons why translating this manuscript was particularly complicated. It quotes from numerous sources, some referenced and some not. Aspects of the French manuscript remained somewhat opaque. Some areas were unclear because the manuscript remained unfinished. Other challenges included the use of terms specific to Swiss French, and language interference from the German Jeanneret is quoting from.

It was also a challenge to properly pick out Jeanneret’s unique voice from among all the references, and convey this in my English translation. I was delighted to be able to attend the Translating History workshop, where I gained insights into the manuscript from native speakers of French and English, both history scholars and translators. Christoph Schnoor’s translation of the same material into German was also very useful as reference material.

Translating the essay about the manuscript, written by Christoph Schnoor, required a different and perhaps more conventional approach. He had commissioned the translation and was available to answer queries on the project. And as luck would have it, he works in and English-language environment in New Zealand, so had ready access to subject-specific colleagues and reference materials.

Further information

If you are interested in reading a bit more about this translation project, there’s a video of me reading from both essay and manuscript on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. Pages 7-10 of the preview pdf provide more information about the decisions taken when translating the manuscript. The book itself and other information are available on the publisher’s website. My article about the use of terminology when translating La Construction des villes, In pursuit of the intangible, was published in the French translators’ association journal Traduire as À la poursuite de l’intangible.

Translating Across Worlds

Translation, Creativity, and Intercultural Politics in Contemporary Francophone Women’s Writing

What a great opportunity: an afternoon and evening of French, writing, translation and interesting questions in nearby Durham. It was certainly wide-ranging and explored many different ‘avenues’, and I really enjoyed attending.

The first part of the afternoon involved a creative writing workshop led by Amaleena Damlé, which asked ‘What potential does creative writing have in coming to terms with traumatic legacies and offering fresh perspectives on the world?’. Co-organiser Amaleena stepped in as the scheduled leader, author Ananda Devi, was ill. Luckily, we attendees were still able to use Ananda’s materials for the workshop: images to inspire our creative writing plus Ananda’s own response to one of these.

The three images were all paintings which feature subjects apparently undergoing inner turmoil, who avoid looking the viewer directly in the eye: The Scream by Edvard Munch, The Queen by Lucien Freud, and The Monomania of Envy by Théodore Géricault.

‘By Jericho?’ Translators of a certain vintage may appreciate the digression my group went off on at this point, dredging up memories of an example taken from Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s translation of Asterix. Sadly, our more creative responses to the writing workshop are harder to summarise here, so I’ll move on.

There followed a translation workshop led by author Colette Fellous and translator Sophie Lewis, based on This Tilting World (Pièces détachées). We heard a bit of background about the book, then each tackled one of three extracts from it.

We discussed which issues we’d considered when approaching our extracts. If you notice a feature of the text at first reading, is it necessarily a particular feature of the book as a whole, with wider significance? It was possible for us to decide on some of these cases in a relatively short space of time, but only because we had both the author and translator present! Tips which Sophie gave for handling such questions included developing a style sheet for a particular translation, and listing any key terms which you decide to retain or replicate in translation.

The extracts we examined contained multiple intertextual references; one was the film title ‘Tu trembles, carcasse’ (which itself is a quotation), a phrase which cinemagoers in Tunis learn from the film itself, and repeat. This introduces the idea of fear into the text, which is echoed later in the same sentence. Perhaps the English film title ‘Scared Stiff’ doesn’t carry the full resonance of the French, but it can be echoed by a reference to ‘fright’ in a similar way.

Sophie mentioned a difference of opinion about translating the pronoun ‘on’, and how this affected the degree of responsibility which the narrator is portrayed as taking. For example, our second extract contained the phrase ‘on va lui faire du mal’, where ‘on’ could have been translated as ‘we’ but ultimately became ‘he will be hurt’. Colette said that, when she used ‘on’, she hadn’t necessarily wanted to convey a sense of the narrator’s responsibility, but did want to allow for a sense of guilt.

After the workshops, we strolled through Durham for a change of venues. After a ‘vin d’honneur’, the evening event began: a panel discussion with Colette, Sophie, Jessie Spivey (from their publisher, independent press Les Fugitives) and chair Rebekah Vince. Sophie interpreted for Colette, so that non-French-speakers could benefit from the entire discussion.

Colette thought it fitting that she was in the UK to discuss This Tilting World which, although it is set between Tunisia, Paris and Normandy, opens the night after the 2015 terrorist killing of mainly British people in Sousse. Colette’s is a point of view which spans different locations and identities, and it was fascinating to hear her speak. She described a book as a translation of things the author is unable to say in real life. She also said the reader translates the content of a book for themselves (and by extension, I suppose a translator translates the content for a new set of readers, who in turn translate it as they read…).

If you’d like to hear more, there’s a video interview with Colette at the bottom of this page. And since I mentioned intertextual references, here’s a Spotify playlist for This Tilting World – as compiled by Sophie.

Update: Some creative writing produced that day has now been published in the journal Francosphères.

Translation: 20 things in 20 years

I recently realised that I’ve been working as a translator for 20 years now: I graduated in 1999. Here’s a selection of (not necessarily profound) things I have learned.

  1. Over the years, I have got very bored of the phrase ‘Lost in Translation’ (part of the ‘shoot the messenger’ series).
  2. It’s interesting to see what other people think is ‘untranslatable’ – but some of us will probably be asked to translate or interpret it anyway! So it’s probably not worth dwelling for too long on the idea that some things can’t be translated.
  3. It’s all about the context. Of course it is; this is a very necessary ‘translator reflex’. Customers usually know the background to their texts, but you often don’t. When I worked in-house, I knew a lot more of the context for my translations, without having to ask; now when an in-house translation unit outsources to me, they can explain the context. Direct customers who are sympathetic, and/or understand the translation process (perhaps because you’ve explained it), will take time to answer questions. But many agencies fail to provide context as standard, and sometimes they don’t know it when asked. A good intermediary will however pass on your questions to the customer or author, and may put you in touch directly, so you can be fully informed.
  4. It’s not just about the words – we translate meaning. The key is to translate what the words convey. If that’s an impressionistic sense of something (like a building or work of art), then the actual words you use to convey the same impression in your translation might be quite different to the words the original author used.
  5. This is especially true when the same words (or cognate words) have quite a different impact on the source and target audiences. For example, ‘franglais’ sees English words adopting new meanings in their new host languages. A related issue is that people who have grown up speaking other languages (e.g. German) can feel more comfortable using English swearwords than Brits. So the words often have to change, even if they were in English in the source text!
  6. It’s not all about you; it’s about how others see you. From a professional point of view, it’s worth making sure customers and colleagues see you when you’re at your best. This is even more vital now that negative images and comments can be shared so widely and easily online (see also ‘marketing’).
  7. It’s about what makes you different, your USP. In my first in-house job, I soon realised that not all translators have the same aptitudes (for example I don’t have a natural affinity for technical translation, but I do care more about writing style than some other translators).
  8. It’s about specialising – and then evolving with your specialisms. Or ditching dead ones and finding new ones. When I started translating commercial documents, mobile phone networks and the associated services were cutting-edge. Telecommunications were big business and I had to learn to spell ‘telecoms’. What use is that knowledge to me now?
  9. It’s also about what makes each customer different – their language preferences, house style, ‘brand’, how much involvement they want to have in the translation process. How they like you to send queries: in an email, a comment bubble…
  10. And since I translate into English: I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about variations on ‘correct English’. In many cases, there are several ‘right answers’; in these instances the translator will need to follow the customer’s preference, if they have one. And if not, you will at least need to be consistent and be able to justify your choice if asked. For example, before I started work I hadn’t heard of ‘Oxford English’ (so called because you use the first spelling listed in the OED, including the -ize variants which some see as typically US English). I can now produce it if I’m asked to.
  11. Another familiar choice to be made is: ‘sourcier ou cibliste’? You have to decide whether to focus on staying close to the original, on how the translation comes across in the target language, or how to combine the two. I like translating into UK English that reads well. I take pride in my work and aim to create a translation which also reads like an original.
  12. On the other hand, sometimes new ideas are introduced into the target language from other places. Sometimes the words for these ideas *do* sound strange to target readers’ ears. This may be unavoidable, and it might not be such a bad thing. In general, UK audiences are perhaps keener than most on a text that ‘sounds like English’; perhaps exposure to new and exotic terms might help open up their world view.
  13. On the subject of broadening horizons, I accept that you don’t necessarily need translation theory – but I do think it can help. Imagine you know there’s something wrong with a translation you’re checking, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You’ll need to find out what’s wrong, and explain it to your colleague in as objective a way as possible. Having a relatively neutral way of discussing translations can be useful when a client suggests that their own wording would be better than yours! (I accept that there’s a lot more to it than that…)
  14. The internet helps too. Translators used to have to do their research using books, which you can’t always search through quickly or reliably, or asking other people directly. Now other translators’ research is often available online and is frequently searchable: sometimes as a downloadable terminology database or translation memory which plugs directly into your translation environment.
  15. Twenty years ago, many searches for terminology relied on dictionaries and indexes in books; you made your own notes or word lists or databases to fill in the blanks. Some in-house departments built their own electronic corpuses and indexes, on which they could use Boolean search terms, but this cost considerable time and money. Now you can often find a corpus or corpus search engine online, or a bilingual website to provide parallel terminology and expressions. The technology is cheaper and more readily available.
  16. And yet the internet also doesn’t help. Internet searches can now return more, relevant results at great speed. But you also need to beware: who has posted them, and do they know what they’re talking about? I recently came across an apparently made-up term on Wikipedia, which mysteriously vanished soon after I mentioned it on Twitter (no, I wasn’t considering using it – just curious). Dictionaries remain a largely reliable source of information, created with the help of paid employees who are knowledgeable in their fields.
  17. On the subject of trust: there are public discussion forums about translation online, but closed discussion forums of trusted colleagues are often still a more reliable shortcut to the right target term, or at least to a closer understanding of the source. These tend to have shifted from platforms like Yahoo groups to groups.io, Google groups, Facebook and other media.
  18. It’s about networking too. People’s instinct is to trust people and things they know. If customers need to feel a connection before they will work with you, then referrals from someone else they already know are a great way of getting new business. Similarly, keeping up communications is a way of ensuring a good working relationship and keeping your existing customers. And meeting colleagues and clients in person is also an excellent way of gaining and maintaining their trust.
  19. It’s about creating your own community, perhaps now more than ever. It’s true that freelance translators can now work from home without needing any trips to libraries or post offices, or even any phone calls. For any translator who’s more inclined to try and work alongside colleagues, there just aren’t many in-house translation jobs: so many back-office functions have been outsourced to reduce organisations’ headcount. But we do seem to seek out a sense of community – there’s a surge in demand from our profession for ways to connect or reconnect with fellow professionals, whether at international conferences or local co-working events.
  20. It’s also about languages more broadly. The future of translation and interpreting depends on having people with language skills who want to do the job, whether come from business and then into translation/interpreting, or go straight into translator/interpreter training and work. The demand won’t go away; let’s hope that the supply of new translators won’t either.

Forging ahead

I attended ITI Conference in May, the theme of which was ‘Forging the future of the profession’. As I approach my summer break I have been looking back over my time in Sheffield.

My conference experience began on the Thursday, with a stint at an ITI research network event (I was there in my capacity as practising translator). This event will form the basis for an e-publication, as with its previous incarnation. In the first session, groups discussed various scenarios, seeing what ethical (rather than practical) issues emerged; this would inform a research project. Next came a Faraday discussion: the academics at the event briefly presented their papers (which we had read in advance), after which came questions and discussion. I was interested to hear Dragoș Ciobanu’s enthusiasm for voice recognition software. Many of the speakers also presented at the Conference on the Friday or Saturday, often on approaches to MT and AI.

My Thursday got busier and busier, as colleagues arrived from around the world. Some of them were chilly in Sheffield in the rain; I was better equipped to cope, having only travelled a couple of hours down south to get there. Catharine Cellier-Smart told me about the latest shark attack on a surfer in Réunion (I enjoy her updates, as I studied and worked there briefly). David Warriner, who’s based in Canada, told me about the lineup for Glastonbury this year (naturally). The welcome reception at Bungalows and Bears was a real cacophony of different voices and languages (no, nobody knows why it’s called that). The ITI German network caught up over tapas afterwards.

Then it was Friday, and time for the Conference itself. I can’t possibly describe everything I saw, heard and thought, but here are some impressions of the event. I was pleased to see and hear the ITI Bulletin editor Radhika Holmstrom in person. She was the first speaker and set a suitably multicultural, portfolio-career note for this forward-looking conference. The flexible working theme continued later with the presentation by Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst from the Hoxby Collective, who had moved from more conventional jobs into a different way of freelancers working together (and yes, they were asking for collaborators). They describe this as a #workstyle revolution.

Adam Fuss spoke about Translators as Communicators, with tips such as only opting to work in copyediting if you can edit quickly – it might not be worth your while otherwise. For copywriting and transcreation, it was important to invest time in research and keeping up with the markets; he recommended an ATA webinar. Adam also discussed providing consultancy services on communication such as PR; he mentioned reading around the subject with the help of organisations in those fields, such as the CIPR in the UK.

Could the future involve working more closely with clients? David Jemielity certainly does: he talked about an advertising campaign at the Swiss Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV), where he works in-house, and gave plenty of real-life examples. He described some benefits of working closely with the creators of the source text, which included seeing the ST as an ongoing, diachronic process rather than a static, synchronic snapshot; it helped that these adverts were seen in the context of the campaign as a whole. This point of view helped the translator to focus on the overall message the ST author wanted to convey, rather than being limited to the details of the particular ST they received.

The campaign in question initially ‘translated’ the source language ideas to suit the target audience: from in-house finance speak to language in general everyday use. The emphasis was on keeping the ads relatively informal, practical rather than abstract, and using figures that were relevant to the audience – ordinary people in the Canton.  For instance, ‘a third of mortgages locally are with the BCV’. This preparatory work was done before translating into the target language.

I attended several talks at the Conference on how to ‘forge ahead’ in literary translation. The speakers impressed their audiences with knowledge and experience in what can seem daunting, and very specialist, fields: Carolina Smith de la Fuente on illustrated books, including graphic novels, William Gregory on translating for the theatre, David Warriner on translating crime fiction, and Daniel Hahn on teaching literary translation. It’s hard to sum up these really worthwhile, in-depth sessions, and of course many of the tips were targeted at the speakers’ own disciplines – each of which involves conveying meaning, which is not all contained in the individual words on a page of source text.

I found myself noting down helpful hints during Daniel’s session on teaching through practice. I was particularly interested in the idea of exercises which oblige students to replicate aspects of the source text other than literal meaning. If you ask people to translate a Greek poem into English when none of them know the source language, or some birdsong (an idea from Sasha Dugdale), then they will be forced to focus on aspects of the source material other than meaning! Needless to say, I may not use those particular exercises with generalist MA students. But the idea remains relevant: it’s about getting to the essence of what the source text is transmitting, and then conveying that in your translation.

Sessions on the future of ITI, and by extension languages in general, provided a call to action aimed at reaching the early stages of a translator’s development. Alison Hughes encouraged us to ‘reach out’ and become ambassadors for languages, inspiring the next generation of translators and interpreters. Outgoing ITI Chair Sarah Bawa Mason looked at the work done by the ITI, and much more besides. Translation Nation was an example of good practice, taking translation activities into schools.

I liked the idea that we can reframe translation to ensure the work is done, if not purely by humans, then at least by centaurs – the technology can do the legwork, but there must always be human brains in charge! The Conversation was cited as a good place for spreading the (true) word about translation, since many news agencies look there for information.

At the plenary on Saturday, Oliver Kamm enthralled and moved his audience, providing moral support with which we can face the future. He expressed his heartfelt support for a multilingual, multicultural approach to life. He also provided apt examples from translations by his mother, the late Anthea Bell; it would have been her 83rd birthday the previous day.

I was pleased to help to publicise the contribution of women translators in a small way, by plugging ITI North East’s exhibition In/Visible which had travelled to Sheffield for the Conference. After the closing session, the North-East contingent packed up the exhibition and headed for the train home full of information, encouragement and enthusiasm.

(Thanks to ITI for letting me use the photos!)

Poettrio translation workshop

During the Newcastle poetry festival in May 2018, the Poettrio experiment held workshops introducing participants to their way of translating poetry. No knowledge of the source language was required, as each trio includes a language advisor who speaks both source and target languages. The source poet and a target ‘poet guide’ complete the trio. My group tackled a poem which begins ‘hela licht dat men werpt…’ by Hélène Gelèns, from her collection ‘Applaus vanuit het donker’.

Disclaimer: I am not a poet, and I don’t know Dutch. The language advisor had prepared an ‘interlinear’ translation which we were given in advance of the workshop to help us access the poem. The interlinear notes key points and features in the source text. I found that despite my lack of Dutch, my knowledge of German was also helpful at times to give me a general idea of the meaning. My experience as a translator also helped me ask pertinent questions, such as how different the Dutch and English approaches to punctuation are.

The creative aspect of the workshop, with all participants proposing suitable terms to use in the target poem, meant the Poettrio could pick up on suggestions they felt fitted particularly well. The group came up with a loosely agreed version; I suspect each person noted their favourites from among the many options suggested.

More background on the Poettrios can be found here and in a recent ITI Bulletin article by Francis Jones (January-February 2019 issue, p.12).

After the workshop, we were asked to share our translations and notes on producing them. Here are some of my ‘translator’s notes’:

I did not use exclamation marks in the first stanza in English, since (as I understand it) their use is more ‘marked’ in English than in Dutch.

Our source poet, Hélène Gelèns, has a background in astronomy: it was useful to know this when approaching her imagery. It helped us to imagine the poet’s perspective on ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ in relation to the sky beyond the earth. I feel as if the poem is written from a vantage point above the earth, looking down. The references to light also relate to modern life, with its artificial sources of light.

The poem’s first stanza is quoted in this Dutch book review:

hela licht dat men werpt in de nacht!

verleden donker: vergeten donker

hela lasershownacht! skylinenacht!

heel wat licht om het licht!

hela lichtspoor!

I may have introduced an ambiguity not present in the original poem. In my translation of the Dutch ‘verleden donker’ meaning ‘darkness of the past’, ‘past darkness’ could also be interpreted in the English poem as referring to the action described in the previous line: ‘cast / past darkness’.

The novel, compound nouns in the source poem were reproduced in English, but I hyphenated them: I gather that running nouns together completely is rare in Dutch, but even rarer in English. The hyphenation aims to retain the novelty of the nouns while not making them more alienating for an English reader than the source nouns are to a Dutch reader.

The source term ‘bewonderogen’ (literally ‘admiration-eyes’) was translated with what seems to be a cognate, ‘wondering’. ‘Wondering’ is also reminiscent of ‘wandering’ which often collocates with eyes in English. I felt this was in keeping with the sense of movement and agitation in the poem. It links the moving eyes to the light show they are ‘glued to’.

During the workshop we discussed that, from the third line of the last stanza onwards, the poem refers to people in general (‘iedeeren’… ‘we’). I chose to indicate this by adding ‘we’ in some places where I felt that an impersonal construction, although more reflective of the Dutch, would not sound natural in English. I also used ‘our’, which (in informal usage) also reflects the familiar tone of the suffix ‘-jes’ in ‘stadslichtjes’.

I chose two parallel texts to incorporate into my translation as a reflection of the Dutch children’s song referenced in the second- and third-to-last lines of the poem, and its echo in the last line. The interlinear translation advised us that ‘we gaan nog niet naar huis’ is a Dutch travel song for children, to keep them happy in the back seat of the car; the last line of the poem uses similar wording to say ‘we won’t be tired for a while yet’.

gaan we nog niet

naar huis bij lange niet bij lange niet

we zijn nog lang niet moe

These were ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’. I hoped that, when combined in this way, they would reflect some of the defiant mood, rhythm and subject matter of the Dutch song in the source poem (as I understand it). ‘We won’t go’ on its own is reminiscent of children refusing to go to bed. Both texts use ‘we’, which fits in with my use of ‘we’ earlier in the poem.

My translation

hey there light we cast into the night

past darkness; lost darkness

hey there laser-show-night, skyline-night

loads of light for light’s sake

hey there light trace


evening falls, dusk switches flip

fingers dance the match-strike-fizz, the light-switch-slap

we all live on light here, on stretched days

our talking heads commune in blue glow,

wondering eyes glued to our city lights, to fireworks

climbing into chandeliers, we won’t go

we won’t go until we’ve got some

we’re not scared

Translation Workshop on Art, Architecture and Design

I enjoyed taking part in the local ITI North East translation workshop in November. This is an annual event, organised by our regional group one year and Yorkshire Translators and Interpreters the next. Several students from Durham University also attended this time, working in various language combinations. We were very grateful to the university for hosting the event.

Participants began by settling in and sharing a buffet lunch at the venue. For the second year running, a speaker launched the event by introducing the subject area. This year we tackled various texts in the fields of Art, Architecture and Design; I gave the introductory talk, with examples of issues I’ve encountered while translating in these fields.

For the main sessions, we split into groups for each language pair and/or direction, including French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian and Dutch. It’s often handy to have native speakers of the source language on hand to help with understanding nuances in the source text. The general rule for the workshop is that any language direction can be accommodated at the workshop, provided more than two participants sign up in advance.

Everyone is invited to submit suitable texts to work on, and these are distributed beforehand so people can prepare them. Groups translating from English tackled a 1906 extract from Houses and Gardens by M. H. Baillie Scott about cottages. In places, the terms and concepts described were no longer in common parlance, such as a ‘scullery’ and ‘back kitchen’. More obscure still was the expression ‘carriage people’, apparently used to distinguish between people along class lines. Several terms used were also arguably specific to the UK, like the word ‘cottage’ itself.

The texts selected all presented different challenges. For instance, the French to English group were set a source text ostensibly aimed at children visiting a museum; however, they decided that the content of the target text would need adapting to make it more readily understandable to children.

As usual, a short plenary session at the end of the workshop enabled each group to feed back the insights they had gleaned while translating. I always find it interesting to hear how other groups have worked and what they have concluded. The plenary also received several suggestions for next year’s workshop topic. I look forward to seeing what YTI decide to tackle next, and to joining them.


Translating History

In December I spent a very productive week at Stirling University taking part in a group workshop entitled Traduire l’histoire. This was the first in a series, La Fabrique des Humanités, organised by ATLAS – Association pour la promotion de la traduction littéraire.

The series brings together translators working in both language directions: a rare UK-based opportunity to discuss translation and more in French as well as English! It was interesting for me to find out more about the worlds of literary translation and academic history in France and Belgium. I gained greater insight into US English too, as the other 3 into-English attendees were originally from the States.

The week included an introduction with Jörn Cambreleng of ATLAS on the Monday, and a talk by Dr Michael Rapport on the Thursday about ‘What historians want from translators’. We also visited The Pathfoot Press, a small ‘hand press’ printer based on campus.

In the workshop sessions proper, 3 hours were dedicated to each participant’s text. With everyone having read and prepared the source texts in advance, this was an opportunity to really get to grips with the whole extract submitted.

The proportion of time devoted to discussing the context, approach to take, and details of the text itself varied according to the translator and source material. The manuscript I’m working on is ‘history’ in the sense that it’s a primary source; all but one of the other participants were translating secondary sources.

I was the only into-English participant approaching the subject from a translation background, rather than a history one (both tutors were experienced translators, and Siân Reynolds worked as a history professor too). The tutors and attendees provided lots of knowledge about history, methods and more for me to absorb. Hopefully the historians gained from the translation input too.

I have found it pretty much impossible to sum up the experience, not least given the intensive nature of the study during that week and the variety of material we tackled. Suffice it to say that this was a mind-broadening experience, which also deepened my knowledge. And what a great opportunity to get to know my colleagues!

Scots Wrote

I attended an interesting, varied conference at the end of September: Scots Write, organised by the Society of Authors. The event was held in Cumbernauld, and it was a treat to have sessions on writing, translating, marketing and technology within easy travelling distance, with keynote speeches from well-known figures from the world of publishing.

While I can’t hope to capture everything I learned – especially from the useful sessions on ergonomics and combining writing with life – I hope to provide a flavour of the event.

The conference was loosely themed around the concept of Ikigai, which is perhaps most easily illustrated using a Venn diagram. It is a way of balancing passion, mission, vocation and profession which can certainly also apply to translators.

The first plenary session I attended was given by Jane Johnson, who described how her life had developed and shown her the path she now follows as an author. Jane introduced us to interesting ideas about writing, including thinking of writing as engineering. You may be afraid of causing an accident by changing something, but initial trial-and-error attempts can then be edited to make them safe, and new mechanisms that ultimately don’t work can be put back as they were.

Jane also addressed the issue of cultural appropriation: is it appropriate for a writer to speak through characters whose cultural background they don’t share? She turned the question around, asking what would be lost if everyone only wrote about what they knew.

She had looked into a family story about a kidnap from the Cornish Coast in 1625, tracing the Barbary pirates responsible back to Morocco. She thought it would make great material for a novel; a trip to the country for research brought her greater understanding of the people involved and their background (and triggered fascinating events in her own life).

Indeed, several speakers at the conference mentioned that developing a sense of empathy with the characters you’re writing about is an effective way to avoid many of the pitfalls associated with cultural appropriation. This particularly sparked my interest, as I believe empathy is an essential component of the translation process, too. In order to reproduce someone’s words convincingly in a different language, you need to be able to empathise with the speaker.

In a session aimed largely at non-translators, Ruth Martin and Daniel Hahn explained how translators produce ‘Exactly the same book, except for all the words’ in their talk on ​translating and being translated. They explained how translators can ‘make culture travel’ and promote ‘listening to one another’s stories’. One challenge literary translators face is to increase the proportion of translated literature sold in the UK, which currently lies (well) under 5%.

In terms of illustrating the process of translation, Daniel Hahn provided a classic example of a translation constraint. This was also a great one to choose for an audience of authors:  Georges Perec’s OuLiPo novel ‘La Disparition’. This book was written in French without using the letter ‘e’; Gilbert Adair translated it into English, also without using the letter ‘e’, (as ‘A Void’). This major, overriding limitation meant that many of the words, and indeed meanings, in the original French could not be transferred into the translation. Yet the translation did fulfil the same purpose as the original – it was also an exercise in applying this rule of ‘avoidance’.

Session attendees also experienced translation constraints as part of a practical exercise. These were images and rhymes in the children’s picture book Daniel had brought as a sample source text. On one page, a set of ‘before’ images were described; on the facing page, a set of ‘after’ images were also described, in language that rhymed with the ‘before’ descriptions. The nature of the book meant space was limited to one or two words for each image. This shows how inventive translators may need to be to meet their translation objectives!

Another successful illustration of the difference word choice can make was the first line of Camus’ L’Etranger, ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’. This has been much-discussed, and it clearly makes a difference to the tone of the opening whether ‘maman’ is rendered as ‘my mother’, ‘maman’, ‘Mummy’ or ‘Mama’ (which can be read as if it’s pronounced ‘mumma’ or ‘mahmah’, both with different connotations). Even brief examples can provide plenty of food for thought!

Back at my desk after the weekend conference, I found myself refreshed after seeing writing and translation from several new perspectives. My own attempt to balance passion, mission, vocation and the translation profession continues…


Conference snapshots

My ITI Conference was jam-packed with impressions; here are some short snapshots of events I attended.

Karen M. Tkaczyk provided a thorough and knowledgeable insight into one strand of her work, editing non-native English. As in all areas of this business, managing customers and their expectations comes into play. Karen finds it useful to ascertain whether the writer she’s editing is likely to welcome – and learn from – her explaining the corrections she makes. This saves time all round, as she doesn’t explain to people who won’t listen, but does benefit when receptive customers learn not to make the same mistakes in their next paper.

Alison Hughes provided many helpful ideas for the translator faced with a creative text, including an emphasis on lateral thinking. Flow and style are paramount, and liberties may therefore need to be taken with the individual words. Thus you might end up searching for the right-sounding word, or one that fits with the other words used: there are websites to help you find rhymes or words starting with a certain letter.

Alison’s co-presenter Adriana Tortoriello helped me think of a creative text as multisemiotic, a combination of verbal and visual meaning. In this context, the visual aspect of the words is also important: you might say that in an advert, typeface is to text what intonation is to speech. And tone of voice is key to conveying the ‘personality’ (e.g. brand) which the source text embodies. Again, translators need to ascertain the level of work customers want – a new lick of paint for their vehicle, or a complete overhaul?

I was intrigued by the idea of the ‘TED-style’ talks, new to Conference this year. I heard Richard Davis speak about whether agencies (like his, winners of the ITI Corporate Member Award) are ‘servants of the dark side’. He deliberately defied expectations, and showed the added value agencies provide from an unexpected angle or two. After asking the audience what they thought the ‘point’ of agencies was, Richard explained his view.

I found it interesting to note that agencies build up experience through the sheer volume of jobs they handle, and that experience is retained even when individual employees move on. This enables them (in theory) to foresee and help pre-empt problems. Similarly, agencies with several in-house employees can dedicate resources to managing terminology and other repositories of knowledge which can help achieve the best translation.

I was a Singing Translator once again this Conference. For anyone who missed the show, a video is available here (or search for ‘ITI Conference Day 2 916’ on YouTube). Please note the pun inherent in the choice of song: ‘Memory’ from the musical ‘CATs’!

– This material was originally written up for the ITI French Network newsletter. You can find out more about the French Network here. –