“Hey, Jimsmuse!” you’re saying to yourself after reading the job title above, “Didn’t you already feature this cool job when you interviewed Douglas Dunn who works with English and American Sign Language?” Interestingly, and lucky for me as your guide to the world of work, the answer is no. Although many people use the words “interpreter” and “translator” interchangeably, to those who work in the field they are very different occupations.
An Interpeter is someone who provides live, spoken communication between people who speak different languages, and a Translator provides that communication through the written word. Today’s Cool Jobster, French to English Translator Céline Graciet, has even written a blog post on this very subject, which makes clear not only the difference between the two jobs, but her preference for translation!
I love the English language and have always been a “word freak”, but didn’t become interested in the subject of translation until I read Douglas Hofstadter’s incredible book Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. While the main text of the book deals philosophically with what constitutes a “good” translation between two languages (or if a “good” translation is even possible), he also explores some of the most challenging translations ever attempted and the thinking and creativity that went into them.
For example, Hofstadter spends quite some time considering the translation of “La Disparition” by Georges Perec, a novel written in French that does not contain a single use of the letter “e”. What is the “right” way, Hofstader wonders, to translate this novel into English? Would a literal, word for word translation into English (which would surely contain many instances of the letter “e”) be the best way to convey the original author’s work to English speaking readers? Or should a translator be willing to change a word, a sentence, or even an entire paragraph in order to render the work into English without the letter “e” so that readers of the translation will experience in some way the original author’s intent? (In fact, translator George Adair made the latter choice, and won a prestigious award for his translation of Perec’s novel, entitled “A Void“.) ‘
I’ll grant you that the above is a very extreme example of the challenge a translator might face, but if you’ve never really stopped to consider how much creativity and consideration goes into even the simplest of translations, or how many choices a professional translator faces, I hope it’s at least got you thinking!
While literary translations of famous novels may be what we avid readers usually think of when presented with the word “translation”, in a world that’s gone “international”, there are thousands of people who write documents in hundreds of different languages that require translation into many hundreds of other languages so that the transmission of ideas can take place without all of us having to learn and speak dozens of languages.
I’m glad that I didn’t have to learn French to read “A Void” and enjoy its eerie weirdness, and I’m glad that there are Cool Jobsters like Céline to foster communication between people via the written word — including writing subtitles for everything from episodes of “The Simspons” to the movie “Shaun of the Dead” and if doing that doesn’t qualify as her as a Cool Jobster, I don’t know what does. You can check out more of Céline’s interesting translating jobs here.
So what’s the work of a Translator like? Let’s find out!
1) When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
I say “I’m a freelance English to French translator”, which is as simple as it sounds: I get sent documents in English and I have to send them back in French. If I’m in a talkative mood, I’ll go on about some of the interesting projects I’ve worked on or some of the things I’ve learnt through my job. From translating dozens of device manuals over the years, I can troubleshoot most printer/scanner/copier problems; from translating magazines on bodybuilding, I can tell you what exercice will give you the perfect calves and I know way too much about the workings of testosterone in men; from my work for NGOs, I have a pretty good idea of the problems linked to aid in the developing world and from my work with local authorities, I could probably design a comprehensive waste management strategy for a small country. I’ve also been on interpreting assignments in a helicopter, on landfill sites and on a boat shaped like a big sausage.
2) What are the things about your job that you love?
I really love translating. I’ve been doing it for 8 years and I just can’t get bored of it. I’ve often been asked why I offer translation services in just one language pair, when I could be opening up my client base and earn more by teaming up with translators working with other languages. My problem with that is that it would mean cutting down on my translation work to take on more project management-type work, and I don’t want to do that. I want to translate all day long! I don’t really have any greater ambition than that.
The other thing I love is that to me, a computer has always been a big toy and I still can’t believe I’m allowed to play on it all day. I love being constantly online and in touch with the news, my friends and family and with everything that’s happening out there. And of course, being my own boss, nobody will tell me off for playing Scrabble with my friend in America or checking my favourite blogs.
3) What are the things about your job that you hate?
I spent the first four years of my career working from home and after three years, I started really hating it. I felt completely isolated, cut off from the rest of society and going on translators’ forums for a chat just wasn’t the same as being in the actual presence of another human being. I felt like the world was going on without me and I found the silence of my own flat rather oppressive. Eventually, I found a shared office, moved in and was extremely happy there for 3 years: I made some excellent friends and my work clearly benefited. When I moved town, my first concern was to find a football team, then a new shared office.
That’s about the only thing I hate(d). I sometimes worry that my clients will all stop calling me, but I don’t think any job is 100% safe. Actually, being the Pope is quite safe, but there’s no opening at the moment.
4) What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
The funny thing about my job is that anyone at all can call themselves a translator. Nobody will come and check that you are actually qualified because there is no official body that grants the “translator” title. I would say the main qualifications you need are an in-depth, near-native knowledge of your working languages (certainly a native knowledge of your target language) and of the cultures to which they belong, excellent written skills and a capacity to research and learn very quickly, as you might not be a specialist in all the areas covered by the documents you’ll be asked to translate. You have to be self-confident, self-reliable, organised and resilient. These clients don’t find themselves!
5) What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
Hm. I’m not saying translators aren’t a bundle of laughs, but I can’t really think of anything really funny that has happened during my work (if you exclude some of my ex-co-workers’ “hilarious pranks”, of course; calling my phone just as I’m on my way up to the toilet, causing me to sprint back to my desk, nearly falling over chairs and small dogs, only to hear them say “Just wanted to say hello” at the end of the line, is NOT that funny).
However, the latest funny translation mishap I’ve seen is as follows:
Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated”.
So that was what went up under the English version which barred lorries from a road near a supermarket.