I Tried It: Hiring a Translation Intern

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One of the best business decisions I’ve made in recent years was to hire an intern. I had learned about it while take a massive open online course (MOOC) on employment law through Northwestern University. If you don’t have a budget to pay an assistant yet, or want to test the waters before you hire part-time help, recruiting an intern is a solid move.

 

Because of the nature of labor laws, an intern generally can’t produce work product for you. (If you’re not compensating them, you can’t earn profits off their labor.) Interns must have documented knowledge gains from their experience, and they have to learn about the meat of what you do – coffee jockeying and photocopying shouldn’t be their main responsibilities. Likely, working with an intern will have a negative ROI – it will take some time away from your regular work, and for anything they produce you will have to take extra time to correct it. But it’s not as useless an effort as the language of the law makes it sound.

 

I found my intern like most opportunities I’ve had in business, through happenstance. M. graduated from the same departments at my alma mater as I did, and her advisor had suggested she contact me in late 2014 with questions she had about becoming a translator.  (The French Department was putting together a program on alumni who actively use their language degree in their career, so my name was already being thrown around in those discussions.) I had put out a call for a remote-working intern through the University of Virginia alumni career board with only OK results. M., on the other hand, was a perfect candidate and her interests aligned with mine; it was a natural connection.

 

We set up a 20-minute telephone call to discuss logistics, our mutual expectations, and some of her other questions about the field. A week later, M. submitted her resume and an example of her translation work (executed as part of coursework, rather than for a client). Based on her availability and my own, we decided to work together for 10 weeks by email, with weekly telephone calls to discuss assignments in detail. She signed a standard non-disclosure agreement before we started; you may also consider using a non-compete agreement or limiting access to your active client database.

 

In order to meet the legal requirements of having an intern and still get something helpful out of it for my business, I created a curriculum for M. that gave her an introduction to the business side of things and also had “real-life” translation assignments based on my past client work. M. had what we called “permanent tasks,” to be completed every week, and also “variable tasks,” which alternated between language and business lessons. All of it was designed to be doable in 8 hours or less of her time per week – since I didn’t have the budget to pay an assistant, I wanted to be sure she could help me around an income-generating job. Everything was flexible except the weekly phone calls, which I structured using preset agendas.

 

The permanent tasks related to market research and advertising. She was responsible for sending me links to 5 articles of interest to the translation community every week; this helped her form an important habit for herself and learn more about the industry, and I used the links I liked to post to my social media. She was also responsible for submitting the names of at least 3 new prospective clients or events in my area that might be useful for meeting potential clients; this gave her insight into how prospecting works, and I learned of events I may not have found on my own. She was also responsible for coming up with “fun stuff,” mainly related to marketing. This is a skill that is difficult to teach – applying your creativity to business, and learning to create your own tasks. If you’ve only ever worked as not-a-boss, it can be difficult to learn to make up a to-do list for yourself. Through this permanent task, M. came up with some fun quote pictures for me, which were becoming popular on social media at the time.

 

The variable tasks were more like homework assignments from traditional courses. M. translated short passages from my prior client work on a range of subjects, including a diploma translation assignment that proved helpful to her in a later job. She learned to create glossaries and take the time to focus on deceptively simple phrases (“Je suis Charlie” was our first example). She learned how to cold-call people and find out how much agencies versus individuals charge for certain kinds of work. I provided her with an office form I use to track common errors (which I catch during the proofreading stage of projects) and differences in various client styles. We also discussed client management issues, such as how to set up a new project cleanly and work with a range of client personalities.

 

Throughout the 10 weeks, we had a constant dialogue for feedback – Were the assignments addressing her needs? Were they addressing my needs? Were we communicating our expectations well? Based on her comments after the internship ended, she gained confidence in her abilities, new skills, and a wider perspective of what translating professionally truly entails. I strengthened my ability to manage others, delegate tasks, and separate business concerns from language concerns. The experience also forced me to organize myself better and to actually implement some of the systems I had set up for marketing.

 

In all, it was quite a rewarding experience to be both a boss and a mentor. She still sends me links of interest from time to time, and I still answer her occasional questions as she finishes up school and enters the working world. If you are looking to do something new with business in 2017, definitely consider an internship program!

 

Carolyn Yohn

Carolyn Yohn translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into American English under the name Untangled Translations.

 

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A Translator’s Review of the Box-Office Smash Arrival

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The translation world has been abuzz about the film Arrival since it was released on November 11, 2016. Translators have been intrigued, and some would go so far as to say flattered, by the elevated position a language expert is given in a Hollywood blockbuster. On top of that, the starring translator is tasked with saving the planet!

The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who is originally from Québec and likely no stranger to malentendus and the trickier aspects of communication. His work is a carefully crafted narrative about memory, love, and the future of humanity. The film’s protagonist, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a linguistics professor at an unnamed university. She is fluent in English, Farsi, Mandarin, and other languages. She is contacted by an Army intelligence officer played by Forest Whitaker when aliens arrive on earth. She has top-level security clearance from previously working on a Farsi translation project for the government. When they meet in the film, Whitaker’s character says, “You’re at the top of everybody’s list when it comes to translations.”

This, as every translator and linguist knows, is a common misconception about our respective professions. Despite language services industry jargon that refers to translators as “linguists,” linguists—i.e. theoreticians of language—are not necessarily interested in translation at all, nor are they necessarily good translators for that matter. The likelihood that a linguistics professor would be tapped to translate Farsi for the government is essentially nil, but Louise nevertheless winds up being the perfect choice to decipher the alien visitors’ language. Her work both saves the world from certain destruction and unites the human race at a critical juncture.

The film’s central issue is finding out why the aliens have come to Earth. As Louise points out in one scene, the sentence “What is your purpose on earth?” is fraught with issues for a linguist in her situation. A translator might compare it to asking a third-year French student to translate Pascal’s theorem or Perec’s La Disparition into English. Just take the word you: what is the alien word for you? What is the possessive form? Is there a separate word for the singular you, the plural you or a general “all of you aliens” you? And how in the world do you convey an abstract concept like purpose when even the word you is elusive? Translators are used to, and relish in, analyzing complicated sentences, but no translator should ever be called upon to decipher a language that he or she does not know. That is indeed the work of a linguist. Viewers should not get hung up on this distinction for too long, however. The film is science fiction after all, and what follows is a poignant, thoughtful, and suspenseful rendering of what Louise’s field work into the aliens’ language looks like. This has implications not only for her personally, but for the entire planet.

Louise quickly realizes that since the aliens’ spoken sounds are not reproducible by human vocal cords, she should focus on their written language, dubbed Heptopod B after the aliens themselves are dubbed heptopods. Heptopod B is written in billowy streams of ethereal black ink emitted from the aliens’ squid-like arms. It resembles the milky clouds of cream in your morning coffee. The ink materializes into a circle like the drips of the brush of a clumsy calligrapher. It is displayed on the luminous barrier that separates the humans from the aliens within their giant black pod of a spaceship. Louise determines that, due to the circular nature of the writing, the aliens perceive time in a non-linear way—with no beginning and no end. Once she makes this discovery, the plot delves deeply into the ramifications of a linguistic idea called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the theory of linguistic relativity.

Readers who are fluent in more than one language will undoubtedly identify with the idea that, to a certain degree, learning another language can change the way the world is perceived. This is, in many cases, what draws translators to the profession in the first place: the joys and challenges of translating not only words, but different cultures, world views, and realities. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a speaker’s very thoughts are determined by the language that he or she speaks, and consequently, becoming fluent in a different language could alter the learner’s thoughts in profound ways. Arrival explores this idea to the extreme as Louise starts to experience the side effects of learning Heptopod B.

It is safe to say that translators and other language professionals will view Arrival differently than the general population. There are myriad parallels between Louise’s experience and that of many translators. Some, such as the role that technology plays in decrypting the heptopods’ language, are glaring and resonant. Deciphering Heptopod B without a computer in such a short amount of time would have been impossible, and while the programs Louise’s team uses are more like CAT tools on steroids, they nevertheless echo the use of increasingly sophisticated and computerized tools in our everyday work. They also mirror the increasingly important role that technology plays in translation. Other parallels are subtler and may resonate more or less strongly depending on the viewer. Many translators will empathize with the fact that Louise’s work, much like our profession, is misunderstood by outsiders and the fact that those who are unfamiliar with what we do often hold us to unrealistically high expectations. Why can’t Louise just waltz in and ask the aliens why they are here after merely hearing an audio recording on someone’s phone in her office? Translators will commiserate with the long hours Louise spends alone at her desk, poring over a text into the darkest hours of the night—though her task is to avoid an impending global war or potential alien takeover, whereas a translator would likely be working merely to help a client with an urgent request. Others still will relate to the introversion and subtle loneliness of Adams’ character, coupled with an underlying, quiet confidence. She may have been content to work alone on her academic papers and Farsi translations in her office but was forced into the world to share her talent with those who needed it.

The film’s most powerful aspect for translators is that it allows us to imagine what it would be like if our skills bestowed super abilities—as if being able to read and translate one or several languages in a single day was not super enough. What if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true to the extent that it is portrayed in the film? Being a polyglot would suddenly become much more desirable, and our roles as conduits of culture and communication would become infinitely more complex and critical. We will likely never have the gift of omniscience, no matter how many languages we speak or write, and most of us will not be called upon to save humankind, but we will all continue doing our part to ensure that we keep communicating and that we, hopefully, understand each other just a little bit better.

Ben Karl

Ben Karl is a French- and Mandarin-into-English translator specializing in marketing and finance. He is based in Reno, NV.

The Role of the Genealogical Translator

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My response to the question “what do you do?” tends to be a conversation stopper. I’m a professional genealogist and genealogical translator. Most people don’t have an idea of what either field entails. A professional genealogist or a professional translator might have some idea, but they’re usually missing part of the picture.

I usually begin by clearing up a few of the typical misconceptions. First of all, genealogy (the study of family history) isn’t a hobby for me, although I do trace my own family tree on occasion. In my professional genealogy career, I primarily do two kinds of work: research, in the form of tracing a client’s family tree, and teaching. While my post-secondary education in history gave me some background in genealogy, I’ve had to pursue extensive additional study to meet my clients’ and students’ needs. I current hold a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University’s Center for Professional Education and expect to complete a Certificate in Canadian Records from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies (Toronto, Canada) this Spring.  I’ve also completed a number of non-certificate granting courses, including the Daughters of the American Revolution Genealogical Education Program. Genealogy is a tremendous amount of fun, but my business also represents a great deal of study and knowledge. Second, translation isn’t a hobby for me either! As the professional genealogy field is still developing its “rules” and “structure,” it is fairly easy for someone to call themselves a genealogist or a genealogical translator. This, unfortunately, has led to some people claiming to be professional translators who have had nothing beyond a high school study of the language. Thankfully, such individuals are rare – but they have impacted the reputation of the genealogical translator. Most, like me, have a mixture of exposure through daily life and formal education. I hold a BA in French Literature and have completed K-12 World Language teacher training.

If my listener has accepted my professionalism, their next question is often about genealogical translation and how it differs from typical translation. At first glance, genealogical translation seems simple. In most cases, all you’re doing is translating civil registration (what Americans call vital records) from French to English. Most employ standard sentence structure, so a translator is not faced with the literary complexity of a novel. But that understanding has missed a few important factors.

The first of these factors is the handwriting. Can you read the document below? This is actually on the easier side, as most of the document was printed. Whether you’re aware of it or not, handwriting and spelling have shifted dramatically over the centuries. An “ff” recorded in an older document is now read as “s.” A circonflexe in French word indicates the word originally contained an s — île was once isle. In fact, there’s a field dedicated to the study of the changes in writing, called paleography. To understand these changes, a genealogical translator either has to have read a number of historical documents or had formal training. Having both, as I have, is more typical.

gean

For those of you who were struggling, a transcription follows:

“Luxembourg, Civil Registration, 1662-1941,” images, FamilySearch (http://www.familysearch.org: accessed 5 February 2015), birth entry for Anne Marie Reuter, image 562; citing Niederanven, “Naissances 1796-1829.”

[Second entry on left side of the page. The entry is in two columns; the first is to the left of the body of the entry. Words in bold are preprinted]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 11

L’ AN [L is oversized] mil huit cent vingt-six, le Dix-Sept du mois de Février

à onze heures du matin par-devant nous Jacques Funck, Bourgmestre

officier de l’état civil de la commune de Niederanven, canton de Betzdorff,

Grand-Duché de Luxembourg, est comparu Jean Reuter

âgé de trente ans, Manouvrier

domicilié en cette commune, Lequel    nous a présenté un

Enfant du sexe féminin__, dont son épouse Catherine Danckhoff,

est accouchée Aujourd’hui à dix heures du matin à Senningen,

et auquel il a déclaré vouloir donner le prénom de Anne Marie

Lesdites déclaration et présentation faites en présence de Mathais

Schmit âgé de vingt huit ans, Clerc de Notaire

et de Etienne Noÿs âgé de trente quatre ans,

                     Huilier                        domiciliés en cette commune, et

                     ont les témoins ______ signé avec nous le présent

                     acte de naissance, après qu’il leur en a été fait lecture. Le comparant a

déclaré ne pas savoir signer de ce enquis.

[ ?] Noÿs

Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]

 

After the handwriting, the next factor to consider is the language. Words are added and dropped from a language as new things are developed and older things disappear. Did “email” exist even thirty years ago? The above document is largely written in language a modern French speaker would recognize, but there is one exception: “huilier.” Most would be able to translate the word as “oiler” or “oil maker,” but do you know what it entails? Georgette Roussel indicates in the “Vieux Métiers“ section of the blog Familles de nos villages (http://famillesdenosvillages.chez-alice.fr/les_vieux_metiers_026.htm) that the huilier was responsible for taking the harvest to the mill and returning the oil to the village. Today, the person who controls the mill would have the title. A genealogical translator is responsible for recognizing and communicating the difference if it at all impacts the nature of the document.

Third, one must consider the document’s structure. While typical translation allows some fluidity in wording so that the document “reads naturally” in the target language, genealogical translation tends to be much more rigid in keeping the original structure. Why? Because the original structure can tell us something about the circumstances under which a document was created and offer details about your ancestor’s life. The format of the above cited document, a civil registration from Luxembourg, was regulated by law. A failure to use the word “épouse” can indicate that the couple was not married and may require additional research into their background.

In most circumstances, the genealogical translator would produce the following translation and stop, as their clients are controlling the direction of future research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 11

The year one thousand eight hundred twenty-six, the seventeenth of the month of   February

at eleven in the morning before us Jacques Funck, Burgomaster

officer of the civil state of the commune of Niederanven, canton of Betzdorff,

Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, appeared Jean Reuter

aged thirty years, laborer

domiciled in this commune, who presented to us a

Child of the feminine sex, to whom his spouse Catherine Danckhoff,

gave birth Today at ten in the morning at Senningen,

and to which he declared to want to give the first name of Anne Marie

The said declaration and presentation made in presence of Mathais

Schmit aged twenty-eight years, Notary’s Clerk

and of Etienne Noÿs aged thirty four years,

oil manufacturer domiciled in this commune, and

the witnesses signed with us the present

certificate of birth, after he had been read it. The appearing

declared to not know how to sign this inquiry.

[ ?] Noÿs

Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]

 

Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]

 

Yet, in other cases, in which they are acting as genealogical translator and genealogist, they would use the information contained within the document to pursue further research. In this case, we know Anne Marie Reuter’s parents were Catherine Danckhoff and Jean Reuter, aged 30, and that they were married. Finding their marriage certificate is a logical next step.

The role of the genealogical translator is often considered to be  either confusing or deceptively simple. The reality is that my occupation is neither. It simply uses different set of rules than typical translation, requiring a greater awareness first, of the history behind the creation of the document and second, of the nuances of the document that must be conveyed in the target language. For a history lover fluent in a second language, genealogical translation can be a perfect fit.

Bryna O’Sullivan

Bryna O’Sullivan is a Connecticut based French to English genealogical translator and professional genealogist.

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À Propos: FLD Member Updates – Third Quarter 2016

Members provide updates to share with the French Language Division. If you have a professional update you would like to share, please email it to us at divisionfld@atanet.org.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

  • Angela Benoit is teaching Transcreation, a language-neutral online class offered by the NYU School of Professional studies. Prospective students interested in this class may contact the school at 212-998-7200 or sps.info@nyu.edu for information about enrollment for the next term (Spring 2017).
  • Eve Bodeux published a new book called Maintaining Your Second Language for translators and interpreters and other language lovers who need ideas on how to stay fluent in their first or second language for professional or personal reasons.
  • Bryna O’Sullivan presented a successful poster session on genealogical translation to the Association of Professional Genealogists 2016 Professional Management Conference.
  • Bruce Popp took the written and oral exams in June 2016 for the Diplôme approfondi de langue française. After passing, he received the Diplôme approfondi de langue française – niveau C2 from the French Ministère de l’éducation nationale in September 2016.
  • Kathleen Stein-Smith’s book, The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit: Strategies for Maintaining a Competitive Edge in a Globalized World (Palgrave Macmillan), is now available. In addition, she was invited to join the CSCTFL (Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advisory Council.
  • Karen Tkaczyk was admitted in August 2016 as a Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. For more information on what it takes to become a fellow, visit the ITI site.

L’arabe du futur : une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1978-1984) – Riad Sattouf

ata-fld-newsletter-logoI am not someone who has a natural inclination to read graphic novels. The first one I read, at the urging of a book group, was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I thought it was a fascinating peek into what it was like to grow up in Iran and it made me realize that graphic novels can indeed be literary endeavors. This particular genre is a revered form of expression within Francophone culture so I am in good company. My most recent foray into the world of graphic novels was to read Riad Sattouf’s L’arabe du futur : une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1978-1984) by Allary Éditions, the subject of this article.

Sattouf, who has published various autobiographical and fictional works to acclaim and worked as a cartoonist for both Charlie Hebdo and Le Nouvel Observateur, was born to a French mother and Syrian father. His graphic memoir covers, as the title notes, Sattouf’s first years of life, from 1978-1984 when the family lived very briefly in Paris as well as their time in Libya and Syria, his father’s homeland.

Sattouf’s mother comes across as a sympathetic figure but is not as fully developed as the character of his father. I often marveled at her ability to put up with the rudimentary conditions in which they were forced to live and while she seemed to do so without complaint for the most part, this is not to say that Sattouf portrays her as a pushover. She is surely a product of her era and her experiences living in lands so different from France, her country of origin. At times we see her stand up for herself, her family and her European values while still being mindful of the cultures in which finds herself (Libyan and Syrian). The author’s admiration for his mother and her ability to adapt is evident in his work. Her steadfast respect for herself and her children from a European perspective make me curious to read Sattouf’s next volumes in the series (there are three in total) to see how her relationship with her strong-minded husband evolves.

This first volume of Sattouf’s memoir is as much about his father as about himself. His father is always in search of a “better” life for himself, where he will receive the “recognition he deserves.” As the story begins, Abdel, Sattouf’s father, has recently received his doctorate in history from the Sorbonne. To put it to good use, he uproots the family, leaving France to accept a low-paying, low-prestige teaching position in Libya. He is a pan-Arabist whose sometimes inconsistent philosophy of life revolves around what Sattouf portrays as Abdel’s obsession with the Arab way of life getting the respect it deserves.

While Sattouf approaches his story with humor and makes us laugh at times, his frankness about the harshness to which he was sometimes subjected as a child can make us cringe. We learn about his bicultural experience through his personal perspective. As someone who is the product of a very different bicultural lifestyle, I found this fascinating and I am anxious to read the next two volumes in his autobiographical series.

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux is a French to English translator and independent project manager who lives in Denver, CO.

Getting Certified: The Canadian Experience

ata-fld-newsletter-logo“You either have it or you don’t.” That’s what a lot of language professionals think about our profession. It’s what I thought when I was a university student studying abroad in France and I would listen to other American students speaking French, trying to determine if I was as good as they were. Ten years later, I decided for myself that I had a gift for languages—without anyone ever telling me so—and I decided to give freelance translation a try while living in Quebec City, Canada. It was only recently when I obtained the title of Certified Translator from the Corporation of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters of New Brunswick (CTINB), however, that I felt that my opinion of myself was justified. While the road to certification was a bumpy one for me, it has turned out to be a positive and fulfilling experience that I would recommend to all translators, regardless of where you live.

First, let me give you some background information. Not having studied translation formally in school, when I first started out I didn’t realize that Canada had its own roster of translators associations, or that certification was even an option. After speaking with an acquaintance in the US who had told me that I needed to be certified in order to work for the company where he worked, I joined ATA and decided to start by completing a mentorship with an experienced translator. At the beginning of our mentorship, my mentor told me how she had failed the ATA certification exam twice before passing on her third try. Since I looked up to her and valued her advice, I figured that getting certified was essential in order to make it as a translator, and I decided to go for it on my next trip to the States. Unfortunately, after eventually failing twice myself, I decided that I would wait until trying again, thinking that I needed more experience and practice.

At the same time, since I didn’t know how long my husband and I would be living in Canada, I debated whether an American or Canadian certification would bring me the most benefit. I eventually heard about Quebec’s professional association, the Ordre des traducteurs terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec (OTTIAQ), and started looking into their certification process. I learned that, in Canada, the titled of Certified Translator is granted by each province’s regulatory body, the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC), and that each province’s translators association has its own certification process. I was happy to find out that OTTIAQ offers a few different paths to certification, all of which take into account one’s educational background and professional experience and don’t necessarily involve an exam (more on that later). Given my specific experience, the only other criteria I had to fulfill before submitting my application for review was obtaining at least 5 years of experience.

Just before reaching the 5-year mark, my husband accepted a job offer in Saint John, New Brunswick, and more options became apparent to me after looking into New Brunswick’s certification process. Now, I not only had the option of taking an exam or having my qualifications reviewed, but I could also get certified by way of a mentorship. Given my experience with the ATA exam and the uncertainty of meeting the requirements for a “certification on dossier,” I opted for the mentorship in the hopes that my work would speak for itself, in the end.

I should note that, while ATA certification boosts your credibility in the United States, it is not required by all government agencies and, in some cases, a foreign certification will do. In Canada, however, certification is often required by the Translation Bureau in order to translate official documents for the government. And in New Brunswick—the only officially bilingual province in Canada—certification is mandatory. All the more reason for me to be certified.

Over the next 6 months, I submitted more than the minimum of 30,000 words to my mentor for her review and feedback. While my first few translations came back with a slew of comments (turns out I did need more practice), little by little I started seeing fewer and fewer revisions and, by the end of the mentorship, more than one document came back to me with no revisions at all. Although my mentor told me from the beginning that her aim was for me to go from a “very good translator to an excellent one,” I didn’t start to feel worthy of receiving the title of Certified Translator until she told me a few months into the mentorship that she was definitely going to recommend me for certification.

The big news came a few weeks after the end of the mentorship when I received word from the president of the CTINB that my mentor’s recommendation had been approved by the board and I was officially a certified French-to-English translator. Hooray! It was about time.

Looking forward, I hope to take advantage of the reciprocity agreement between the CTINB and Quebec’s association to have my certification recognized by OTTIAQ, as well as benefit from the liability insurance that the Order offers. As with ATA, there are many benefits to being a member of other translators associations; you just have to pick and choose which ones are most beneficial to you.

And who knows: maybe ATA’s new computerized exam will prove to be another way for me and many other translators to demonstrate our skills, in the conditions in which we feel most comfortable. It’s what I’m hoping for, at least!

Natalie Pavey is a French to English translator who specializes in French to English translation services in the fields of sustainable development, business communications and marketing.

À Propos: Book Review – Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit

ata-fld-newsletter-logoDelphine de Vigan’s Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing Holds Back The Night) begins with its heartbreaking end: the suicide of her mother, Lucile. With suspense set aside, de Vigan instead sets to the task of “writing her mother” by uncovering and unraveling her life in a story that is part memoir and part novel.

Lucile was one of nine children in a chaotic, spirited but close-knit family. By the age of seven, she was working as a fashion model, which garnered her attention from those within her immediate circle as well as those who recognized her from her posters throughout Paris. Doted on by so many, she claims to have “paid the price for her beauty.” Though, even as she laments the attention, she is acutely aware that her changing body prevents her from continuing the work and she must stand aside while her younger sisters take her place. As she navigates her youth and adolescence, her family suffers more than its share of tragedy, the impact of which stays with Lucile as she emerges into adulthood. As she steadily grows older, her mental state also becomes increasingly unstable with frequent episodes of mania, depression, and delusion, setting the uneven rhythm for the rest of her life. Her tenuous grasp on reality, of course, also punctuates the lives of her two daughters, who survive her mother’s vacillations, but not unscathed.

While telling of the story of her mother, de Vigan interweaves her own journey to discover her and reach her in some way that she perhaps couldn’t as a child. She culls through letters and notes written by Lucile at various points in her life and during varying degrees of lucidity; a documentary video of the family recorded by a local TV station; nearly 50 hours of audio recordings from her grandfather; and interviews with as many members of her family as are willing to participate. The second half of the book shifts in tone and in speaker as de Vigan explores her own memories and intertwines them with everyone else’s allowing the reader to become a witness to a private exploration of suffering. She is aware that telling her mother’s story is a flawed and beautifully imperfect undertaking and she seems to prefer it that way. It is, after all, not unlike her mother.

Catherine Savino

Catherine Savino is a FR-EN translator, project manager, and writer originally from Detroit and currently living in sunny San Diego.

À Propos: Book Review – La Nuit Sacrée

ata-fld-newsletter-logoLa Nuit Sacrée, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, is not for the faint of heart. The story begins, “Ce qui importe c’est la vérité,” and the author maintains this principle from beginning to end. Drawing from his experience as a professor of philosophy, the Moroccan writer takes a direct look at the issue of gender inequality from all directions. Naturally, themes of violence, jealousy, love, and hate surface quickly.

Although this is a sequel to his first major success, L’Enfant de Sable, La Nuit Sacrée can be enjoyed on its own. How could you not be drawn into a novel whose premise is a woman’s struggle with her identity after her father, who raised her as a male, dies? Particularly in a country where only men could inherit a family’s wealth, the difficulties are overwhelming and numerous.

In this case, our protagonist (formerly known as Ahmed) leaves home. She never really receives a new name, which forces you to consider the character as simply a person, rather than belonging to a particular gender camp. Although she refers to herself as a woman, she is unlike any of the women around her. She struggles with the various types of captivity femaleness brings, after what could only be described as a childhood of imprisonment within a lie. Ben Jelloun does not flinch from this conundrum, and the protagonist seems to emerge from everything stronger than your average person.

Dream-like situations and dream scenes recur often, building the emotional environment brilliantly. After such a bouleversement of one’s identity, anyone would feel as if they were in a dream (or nightmare). Scenes from reality interrupt introspection with petty fights, jealousy, and acts of senseless violence, adding to the sense of ungrounded confusion. Sometimes the real violence is so severe as to be unreal. But the protagonist embraces every experience as something previously out of her reach, saying, “Je n’avais pas envie de fuir, ni meme de résister… Je n’étais pas indifférente. J’étais curieuse.

For all the darkness and chaos, La Nuit Sacrée is a compelling and magical tale. Everyone can relate to the struggles in some way—for who has never had an identity crisis? As you read through the harsh realities, you are pulled along, forced to practice a difficult characteristic: courage. By the last page, you will feel as if you’ve accomplished something important. You will have persevered alongside the protagonist. You will have prevailed.

Carolyn Yohn

Carolyn Yohn translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into English from her office in Northern California.

À Propos: Memories of The Lover

ata-fld-newsletter-logoHave you ever had a lover?  Have you ever been a lover?  Or, perhaps a better question, is there someone who is the love(r) of your life?  Have you ever lived or dreamed a love so beautiful, so real, that it could not have possibly existed?  Are you haunted by memories of what was or what could have been?   Some nights, maybe only in your dreams, does that become your reality?  Do you wonder what love really is?  What it looks like?  How it smells?  How it feels?  Reading L’Amant (The Lover) by Marguerite Duras brings up these questions and more.  Written in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, The Lover skyrocketed the already well-known Duras to international acclaim.  Its theme of forbidden but powerful love continues to resonate with readers today.

The Lover is the story of a poor, white, 15-year-old French girl living in French-colonized Indochina (present-day Vietnam) in the early 20th century. She falls in love—or, if you don’t believe it’s love, has a torrid physical affair with—a rich, 27-year-old Chinese man.  China’s colonization over Vietnam has been shattered by the French, and those people remaining are permitted to stay, in part because of their wealth or contributions.  These two broken and resilient people come from vastly different worlds.  They could never connect.  Yet, here she is, alone.  He’s intrigued, she’s amazing.  Nothing could possibly come of this.  Or could it?

Could such a love be real?  Could a poor little abused white girl in colonized Vietnam really fall in love with an older, rich and powerful rich Chinese man?  Could he love her?  Is this just a form of prostitution? After all, he gives her money to give her family, and he enjoys a sexual relationship with his would-be colonizer, reversing, challenging, and twisting traditional roles of race, power, and gender. (This is a generalization, but traditionally, the Chinese were, and perhaps still are, hated by the Vietnamese.)

It is the story of love, yes, but also of survival and death: the girl survives her father’s death, an abusive family, the death of her beloved brother, and more.  And she loves.  She loves her French roommate at boarding school.  She loves her brother.  And then there is her lover.  Our protagonists have no names, which creates a kind of slippage, allowing the reader to enter the text in a way.  The open language, lapses, white spaces, and wide margins (in traditionally type-set editions) allow those who have been marginalized, those with no voices, to enter and speak.  In fact, Duras’s writing style, characterized as l’écriture feminine by noted French feminist Hélène Cixous, creates a cloud-like world where time loses meaning.

The language is deceptively simple.  The narrative, however, does not follow a linear train of thought.  Instead, the story weaves around an aged narrator whose face has been ravaged by time and alcoholism and who reminisces about her “true” self and the infinite incarnations of that self throughout her life.  The text invites the reader into her world.  We are there when her brother dies, when her best friend leaves to get married, when she is excited about school, when she remembers her mother singing.  It is fuzzy at first, and the reader is disoriented.  But let it go.  Go with it.  Let it wash over you like the waves along the Mekong.  Imagine the bustle and smells of the Cholen, the section of Saigon known as Chinatown.  Feel the warm sun and the cool shade of the lovers’ love nest.  You will be taken on an incredible journey into a world that explores the very nature of memory, love, power, betrayal, and reconciliation.

Truth is somewhat elusive in this powerful text.  In some interviews, Duras claimed the text was autobiographical, but the text is classified as a work of fiction.  There are contradictions in the text that always bother my students, but to me, these differences explore the concept of memory, how it changes, and how it works against us as time passes.  Our cherished memories lose part of their reality as we write them, rewrite them, and replay them in our attempts to relive them and hold on to them.  The truth is lost.  We can feel it slipping away sometimes, causing us to hold on tighter.  We attempt another revision or ignore any disparities until there is no longer an outside perspective.  We look in the mirror and no longer see the adult we have become; only we can still see the young girl or boy, perhaps naïve and ignorant in their world view but worldly all the same and ready to embark on an adventure.

The narrator looks in the mirror and sees not the woman withered from age and trauma but her true self, herself at fifteen and a half.  I can too see this girl boldly crossing the Mekong on a ferry wearing her threadbare hand-me-down silk dress, a man’s pink fedora, her brother’s belt, and gold lamé high-heeled shoes.  The wind is blowing her braided hair.  Her face is warmed by the hot Vietnamese sun as water splashes against the boat.  Then she notices the black limousine, hiding the silhouette of a delicate Chinese man.

Their story is one that I recommend you read.  Be prepared for confusion, twists, and challenges.  Be prepared to have your memory stimulated.  Your past loves and lovers may come to mind as you navigate this beautiful and tragic world.  The text haunts me, in the best ways.  The last few pages, especially the last paragraph, always give me shivers.  My students do always not understand; most have not been or had lovers.  They have not been all-consumed.  They still like the text but they wonder.  They have questions.  As someone with some experience in life, I have some answers.  My answer is yes.

Gay Rawson

Dr. Gay Rawson is a professor of French with over 20 years of teaching, translating and interpreting experience.  Twentieth-century French literature is one of her many passions.

À Propos: Synonyms in French

ata-fld-newsletter-logo French is a language that makes liberal use of synonyms. Et pour cause. Synonyms add variety to writing.

But the French don’t seem to be content with simply using the occasional word having the same (or nearly the same) meaning as another in the language. They use these “lexical stand-ins” at every possible turn.

More accurately, many of these lexical substitutes are metonyms. A metonym is a figure of speech in which a person or thing is called by another name rather than its own. (Think about how many times you’ve seen l’Elysée used to refer to the French government.)

Consider a recent article I read about a French soccer player. In the span of 79 words, the writer referred to Charles N’Zogbia as Charles N’Zogbia, le gaucher, and l’ancien Havrais. (He used to play for Le Havre AC.)

In fact, instead of using only [player’s name] and a pronoun [il, elle] for variety, French writers invariably name the player by other means. These include the use of demonyms (le Francilien, la Bulgare) as well as position or ranking (l’ailier, la 2e mondiale).

Of course, we see this in English sports journalism, too—“the power forward,” “the LSU alum”—but my suspicion is that it’s a writing technique not used to the same degree as in French.

Politics is another realm in which synonyms are widely used. As you would expect, you see titles and positions used (both to provide information and to avoid the repetition of the person’s name), as in président le la CMP and le député du Nord. But you also see sentences like the following:

Aucune majorité n’étant dégagée sur ce point, l’élu a jugé vain de poursuivre plus avant la séance.

Can you think of a single English article in which you’ve seen the term “the elected [one]” used to refer to a politician?

Synonyms abound in financial writing—especially, it seems, in articles about the stock market. Take the English word “increase,” for example. You might see it used in an article about a stock index of a particular country. Read a French article about the same topic and you’re likely to see not only augmenter, but s’élever, en hausse, monter en flèche, prendre son essor, and perhaps s’intensifier, s’amplifier, se développer, and se multiplier.

Mais le comble ? In an article in Science & Vie magazine by French science writer Lise Barnéoud titled “Vers la fin des grands arbres,” les grands arbres are referred to in almost twenty different ways: as doyens de la nature, maîtres de l’espace et du temps, rois des forêts, and titans ligneux, to name a few. (You can read my post “18 Ways to Say ‘Large Trees’ in French” for the other phrasal synonyms that she uses.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on “synonym density” between French and English. (Corpus linguists, consider that an idea for your next academic paper!) But I suspect that the French use synonyms, metonyms, and other lexical stand-ins more frequently than Americans.

Matthew Kushinka

Matthew Kushinka is a French-to-English translator and the owner of RedLine Language Services LLC, a company that offers translation, copyediting, and formatting services to commercial clients

If you have comments or links to other articles about this topic, please write me at matthew@redlinels.com. I’d love to see some numbers on the subject.