Faraway, So Close

Drawing on Our Virtual Community

By and large, we translators work all by our lonesome—physically, at least. In the beginning of my career, I liked this. Having escaped the numbing landscape of cubicles in Manhattan investment banks, my ten-second commute seemed the height of envy-worthy luxury.

Now, almost 20 years on, my fantasy is a translator co-working space. We would all work harmoniously, independently or on joint projects, in a wonderfully bright, spacious office, with a fragrant garden for breaks (make that a vegetable garden for fresh produce), and an espresso machine always buzzing. My fantasy translation team would have a mix of great IT>EN translators, with a perfect array of specializations, talented EN>IT translators, and an English reviser. Areas of total silence would alternate with group spaces for brainstorming, kvetching, and general socializing.
We would have a Head of Administrative Headaches, who would do all our invoicing, chasing down payments, haggling on our behalf, formatting Word tables, and realigning PowerPoint text boxes. There’d be an IT expert who would keep all our computers in tip-top shape, solving our computer problems while we went on coffee breaks. We would call out to each other for advice and inspiration. “Hey, what would you do for ‘artigianale’ in this sentence?” Every translation would be revised both by a native English speaker and a native Italian speaker and then proofed again.
Perhaps my fantasy life is too limited. Why not throw in a sushi chef and yoga classes while I’m at it? After all, this fantasy office is not so far-fetched. Co-working is a growing trend. In England, there’s the Brighton Language Collective, a co-working collective just for translators.

But given the ever-irritating obstacles of geography, the free will of others, and the cost of rent, most of us are still tucked away in our home offices. Typical citizens of our era, we turn instead to scattered and/or virtual solutions.

For tedious tasks that bring me unpleasantly back to my years as a word processor in banks, I’ve recently turned to Upwork (despite the ridiculous rates offered by self-styled “translators”). A nice woman in Ukraine fixes my footnotes for me. Administrative headaches I’ve yet to outsource (though I know translators who have bookkeepers). Coffee, yoga, and sushi are, as ever, outsourced to the coffee shop, the yoga studio, and the restaurant.
The biggest allure of the perfect translator co-working space is community, both in terms of plain old good company and for an intellectual putting together of heads. The flip side of being a free and independent worker can be being alone and isolated.

Yet: “I hate team projects!” was one lament on a Facebook group of translators working between Italian and English (one great use of our virtual community is blowing off steam with the only people who can truly understand). Translation, of course, has a technical, exacting side and a creative side that takes writing talent and creativity to solve knotty problems. Team projects can be a pain when aligning technical matters, such as whether the comma should go inside and outside the quotation marks, and terminological consistency, adding extra layers of work (ideally done by a project manager). Others love team projects, especially if they can handpick their team members and the collaboration is well-managed (an experience I’ve yet to have).

On the creative side of the coin, trying to align styles, tastes, and quirks can be as problematic—or downright impossible—as writing a novel as a team might be.

But, when it comes to drawing on the collective intelligence of our far-flung translator community, even my fantasy translator co-working space would be hard-pressed to match the virtual joining of many (brilliant) minds to pick.

In my early years, I was sitting in my little bedroom in Brooklyn, looking out at the fire escape and working on a translation. An annoying phrase came up—punto di riferimento—a common expression in business promotion speak. This was the hundredth time it had come up in my short career, and it has no one-size-fits-all solution. It occurred to me that my more experienced colleagues would have faced the problem umpteen times. A query to a listserv group of Italian/English translators produced 25 brilliant suggestions, from “lodestar” to “standard setter” which led to Pesky Words (https://miriamhurley.com/pesky/), now with dozens of Peskies and solutions to draw on to fit the always-all-important context.

These days, I turn often to a Facebook group, made up of both IT>EN and EN>IT translators, the native English speakers from many Anglophone countries. Every time the final result is better than my single tired brain could summon on its own. Sometimes I have misunderstood the source text or not realized there’s a typo in it muddying the waters. More often than not, I just want inspiration, and I always find it. As we translators know well, it is a fraught path from understanding intent in the source language to bringing it unscathed into our target language.

Just a few examples in which the group put me on the path to a better solution:

A headline in a blog post about the Pope kissing the feet of Sudanese leaders to ask for peace called it “un gesto sconvolgente.” The group gave me a nice selection of solutions—“extraordinary,” “remarkable,” “unexpected,” “astonishing”—from which I chose to best fit the article’s content (“astonishing”).

In the subtitles for a short film, a young man fighting with his sister attacks her as an “inconcludente.” The group shepherded me to “loser.” Recently, in a completely different context, it helped me with the same word applied scathingly to Romanian journalists in the 1930s, and we ended up calling them “shallow.”

In another short film, a 30-year-old Italian man answers the phone when his mother is calling with “Ciao, amore mio bello.” This led to an interesting discussion about terms of endearment men might use (or not) for their mothers around the English-speaking globe and settling on “my darling mother.”

Meeting and networking in flesh and blood—whether at translator events like conferences or a co-working space—offers real-world satisfaction that our virtual community can’t match. Yet, I often think of a friend’s grandfather who worked as a Hungarian translator a century ago, translating from several languages, spending his days in the library, hunting through dictionaries and reference books. He almost certainly would not have had the problems I have, like getting distracted by online videos of sloths eating carrots. But, he also would not have had the wealth of inspiration, humor, research skills, and advice from an international fleet of top-flight translators so generously sharing their knowledge.

Miriam Hurley has been translating from Italian to English since 2000 and earned her ATA certification in 2001. In the years since, she has lived in Oregon, New York, and, mostly, Florence. Combining her fascination with human behavior and language, she most likes translating topics related to social sciences (with tourism and design on the side).


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