#3 Off To A Shaky Start

My approach to imparting wisdom relies heavily on presenting information to give you the opportunity to draw conclusions of your own rather than simply telling you what to do. That is why I have chosen to start this blog by recounting my personal experiences. My last post left off at the beginning to possibly the lowest, most stressful period of my life so far, but ultimately providing me with the tools to surpass my every expectation. And so, I set off on my second French Adventure, fresh out of university and eager to immerse myself once more in the French language.

Grenoble would not have been my first choice, but I was drawn there for personal reasons. With around 30 translation agencies and other companies in the region potentially requiring translators, there was at least a glimmer of hope for my in-house translator dream to come true, but until it did, the plan was to find any work available that would both be beneficial to my linguistic development and fund my stay, further enhancing my knowledge of all things French and giving me the one thing everyone puts up on a towering pedestal: Experience.

The overall plan was to gain as much experience as possible and get some money together to later do a Master’s in Translation. At the time, from what I’d read in forums and the like, I was under the impression that this post-graduate qualification would be absolutely necessary if I wanted to get anywhere in the translation industry. However, if I were to do it in the UK, I wouldn’t do it anywhere but at Exeter University. Aside from liking the sound of the course, the university also represents some of the best years of my life. Originally, back in sixth form, I never wanted to even go to university, much to the horror of my family and my teachers. Left, right and centre, people were trying to coax me into considering a change of heart, but, always having been somewhat resistant to change and convinced that I wouldn’t fit in as a tee-totaller with the British binge-drinking scene, I remained steadfastly defiant.

However, a combination of encouragement from my parents, the pleas of Hemel School’s favourite history teacher and the influence of my academically driven sister eventually caused me to agree to attend a late open day for stragglers organised at the University of Exeter. I was greeted personally by the then French language module convenor – a kind, dedicated man and excellent professor who would play a vital role in my continuing education. After a discussion with him, a tour of the campus and a few speeches from current students, I had fallen in love with the place. It was settled, Exeter was the place for me, to the extent that I made it both my first and my second choice. Jumping forward to having spent four outstanding years as an Exeter student, I had made more friends than I could ever have imagined, many of whom I consider family, and felt a strong connection to the university. The excellent quality of education, my sense of loyalty and the life-changing moments that I had enjoyed there are what made me sure that I wouldn’t want to enrol in a Master’s course anywhere else in the UK.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t sitting on a mountain of gold at the time. While I had fairly impressive savings for a student thanks to various loans, grants, a Parisian internship and the fact that, as they say in Portuguese, I had the ‘hand of a cow’ when it came to spending money, I didn’t have enough to pursue post-graduate education anywhere in the UK and remain alive. My attention thus turned to horizons yonder, which brings us back to my aventure grenobloise. With a savings pot of euros, forced optimism and a feeling of helplessness, I began my epic journey from Bristol airport, waving farewell to my parents at some ungodly hour of the morning. The cheapest route to Grenoble was via Switzerland, so off I went to Geneva.

After eventually reaching the right train station, I found French border control, which was empty, but I had around eight hours to wait so I wasn’t too worried. As the hours passed, I managed to help various lost foreigners find where they were going, despite not having a clue where I was myself. A lost Brazilian family showed up and, ever eager to practice Portuguese, I jumped in to save the day, which caught the attention of a small man from Lyon and a Franco-Portuguese trainee nurse in the waiting room. The little chap was extremely enthusiastic about discovering an Englishman who spoke not one but five languages and quickly made the girl, until that moment happily reading her book, wish she hadn’t joined in. I boarded the TGV with my new travelling companions, grateful to have someone to talk to, but hoping to get some rest. Little did I know, the small talkative man was a former pilot extraordinaire and walking encyclopaedia whose speech quickened with the speed of the moving train. Three hours of français à grande vitesse and two drawings of a jet engine later, along with the advice that I probably shouldn’t even bother looking for work in Grenoble, I arrived at my destination. After an hour spent lost in an industrial park, I found the hotel I’d booked for the night before moving into my new abode.

The next day, I set off on the tram to find the foyer de jeunes travailleurs where I had reserved a studio apartment. After a wrong turn and a brief foray into gang territory, I found a map and turned around to trundle back past the rows of knife-concealing hoodies with my 20 kg suitcase and 8-ton backpack. Eventually, I arrived at the residence, greeted by a topless, ganja-plant-wielding man spitting on the floor in front of me from his third floor window. I remained positive that the situation would improve, but it seems ignorance is not always bliss…

As with many people in the current economic climate, I quickly fell ill with a case of chronic unemployment. In my case, unemployed and surrounded by criminals, ex-cons and burning vehicles. Some would call me biased against the place, but the man in his underpants dragging a kitchen knife along the reception window, the proud prostitutes, pimps and the flagrant drug deals going down in the car park, along with the burnt-out, gutted shells of what were once cars and the groups of hoodies staring at you can tend to have that effect. Going to the supermarket and wondering if you’ll make it back alive is not something that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling. My job search eventually got me a week as a kitchen salesman at IKEA, swiftly followed by the information that, due to a clerical error on the part of my residence, I was in debt by €1,000 and in fact should not have re-budgeted to stay longer after all. It took me six months, but I eventually got my case reviewed and won the battle. I also discovered the hard way that my employer in Paris had never declared me, so there was no record of me ever having worked in France or paid into the social security system.

In the meantime, having almost run out of money and with a very spasmodic internet connection and general lack of replies from the hundreds of CVs sent out to temp agencies and anyone who might listen, things weren’t looking up. It had become clear that I wouldn’t be an in-house translator at least for a few years, with most agencies in the area requiring a Master’s and two years’ experience or a language degree and five to three million years in the field. That was when my father discovered the Auto-Entrepreneur scheme from research on the internet about being a freelancer. I cannot emphasise highly enough the importance and the merits of the Auto-Entrepreneur status in France as a way to become a self-employed translator. Given my situation, the fact that the only advice I got from the resident social worker was to get a job at McDonald’s and my burning desire to right the wrongs of bad translation and poorly written websites, it was the first sign of progress. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, I registered online, filled in the forms and handed them in at my local URSSAF office, where I was also offered a free meeting with an accountant. Within about a week, I had my SIRET number and was officially able to operate as a sole trader.

Quietly confident in my abilities as a translator but rather clueless about business and finding clients, the first few months were marked by elevated stress levels and intense fear. Add to that a first job with an agency that paid me three months late and I’m sure you can appreciate that it wasn’t exactly easy. On top of suddenly becoming responsible for an entire business that represents the only way to put food on the table, it can also be quite a shock when those you hope to count on the most in times of crisis either explicitly or implicitly show little respect for what you’re doing and ask questions such as, “Yes, but you’re still looking for a proper job, aren’t you?” Fortunately, I am lucky enough to have very supportive parents, but beyond them, I soon discovered that the words ‘self-employed’ and ‘freelance’ were dirty, if not taboo.

While you should be prepared to deal with many unforeseen negative experiences, it is important to say at this point that I also discovered a lot about myself and that there are many paths leading to the translation industry. As a young child, I didn’t have many friends and would rather observe other humans, noting in my mental logbook how they interacted with each other. Problem solving comes to me naturally, analysing a situation from several hundred points of view and scenarios, based on what I have seen or heard before, to predict the most likely outcome. I think very pragmatically and observe the world around me in a way that most people perhaps would not. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that our purpose in life is to adapt our approach in the face of obstacles, rather than give up, try to smash our way through with no consideration for the cost or simply sit and whine about it. Much like a chameleon, we must adapt to our environment, or at least try to. It’s important to look past the face of an object to examine what comprises it and how it got there. Don’t look at a light bulb and see a convenient source of light, instead consider the processes involved in heating a tiny filament to fill an entire room with a warm glow; look at a computer monitor and see more than just a screen but a complex array of pixels grouping together to form an image and marvel at such feats of science; look at a text and appreciate how different languages represent the same concepts, think about how and why their sentences are constructed in such a way. This sort of observational approach and analytical thinking not only constitutes an interesting way to look at life, but a vital factor in producing high-quality translations. The principles behind everyday skills such as reading body language and picking up on signs can be applied to ensure that a text fulfils its purpose. All of this happens in a matter of seconds, with neurons firing in quick succession. All of these qualities have played essential roles in my acquisition of foreign languages and in becoming a better translator.

In a translation, or indeed any text, each word must be carefully selected to serve the correct purpose. The original meaning must be conveyed effectively and in a way that is accessible to its target audience, thus meaning a path must be carved through the maze of words, repositioning or entirely restructuring parts of the sentence and making sure that it sounds like something a native would expect to read or find familiar. Sometimes, a more literal approach is appropriate, particularly in legal texts, but it is important to assess when and how this is implemented. Nobody can be expected to know everything in the whole wide world, so a great deal of research is also required to make sure that the client and the reader are getting the best-adapted solution. There is no shame in admitting when we don’t know something, even in our own native languages. If unfamiliar with a concept, a piece of technology or marketing jargon, I must first research it to understand what it is or how it works in order to feel satisfied that I have translated the text correctly as a whole. We must check constantly that words are used correctly in the context, dictionaries must be implemented, glossaries must be followed, style guides must be heeded and clients can be consulted – no matter how much we might like it to be true, simply being a native speaker and holding a qualification does not mean we know all there is to know about the languages we work with. It does mean we are virtually the only ones who can ultimately make sure a text is correctly represented and sounds natural, but we must still occasionally double check our usage of certain terms.

I soon learned that there is a deeply psychological element to marketing, quickly making marketing and advertising my favourite types of document to work with. Not only do I have slightly more freedom to be creative with my language and style of writing, I revel in choosing certain words or constructs to better reflect the product being described or attract the reader on a more sub-conscious level. It isn’t just about writing something that I personally find appealing, it’s about writing something that will help my client and engage my target audience in a way that is accessible to everyone.

Before I wander too far off the beaten track, my aim is to illustrate to non-linguists and aspiring or even existing translators alike, that it is essential to take much more into account than just a language barrier and your personal preferences on how to approach it. Do not make the mistake of relying on the idea that by being a translator, you know everything. For too long has the image prevailed that we are socially awkward elitists with a superiority complex because we have a particular set of skills that other people don’t. The ability to write like a stuffy old history professor and quote the Oxford English Dictionary by heart is all well and good, but in today’s rapidly evolving society, a fresh approach must be incorporated to help readers relate to a text. Not only from the point of view of our reputations, but out of respect and due to a responsibility to clean up the mess left behind by poorly translated material, we must provide the utmost quality. By this, I mean we must be truly honest with ourselves and consider our audience’s point of view – in my opinion, it is simply unacceptable to be so arrogant as to decide our personal views are absolute. It is our responsibility to actively help our clients reach their objectives rather than just hand them back a translated document without consideration for its purpose or with a stamp of approval that says “Because I say so”.

So, to sum up, I didn’t enjoy living in Grenoble, I originally wanted to do a Master’s and, instead, ended up establishing a business to advocate the merits of translation with surgical precision. But why am I telling you this? In a roundabout way, my hope is to illustrate that there is more than one way into the industry and, especially, to prepare others for the obstacles that may be thrown their way. While I’m not suggesting everyone will have the same experience, I feel it’s important to at least be prepared for the things you would never have considered when thinking of setting up shop. My most basic wish is simply to help others avoid the same stress and the uphill battle that I fought. I hope to demonstrate that, even in the face of such glaring difficulties and daunting prospects, it has been an unbelievably rewarding experience and I would never turn back. I learn something new every day, I have found uses for my skills and been able to turn what was previously weakness into strength. If I can help you to do the same, whatever your situation or profession, I will be deliriously content.

Until next time,

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