Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Recap: SAND Journal's Found in Translation Workshop

There once was a guy from Berlin
Who went to a workshop on a whim
He had so much fun
That when it was done
The SAND Journal meant much more to him

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the  Found in Translation workshop run by the SAND Journal, Berlin's English-language literary journal. Because of the support they received from Youth in Action, it was exclusively for translators under the age of 30. This meant that I was joined by a host of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young translat0rs, raring to go. A little nervous about their blossoming or future careers, a little concerned that their work is very niche -- too niche, perhaps -- but brimming with wit and intelligence. We explored Berlin and ate marvelous food, of course, but the forums and workshops that the SAND team organized were the real highlight of the weekend.

In one workshop, we explored what characteristics of written texts could "give them away" as translations, and it was interesting to realize that even as translators ourselves, we have a notion of "bad" or "off" or "unnatural" vocabulary or punctuation as what marks a translation. And it is high praise for a translated text to read like it was originally written in the target language, that it flows well enough to be considered as belonging to that language's literature.

The next morning, we played with language. LimericksOulipo exercises, snowball poemsSpoonerisms, and anagrams were all fair game. Just to prove that yes, translating puns and humor are hard, but doable. We're all creative people.

On Saturday night, we joined Naris at Dialogue Books to introduce the new issue of SAND, and we read a little,
Then had a wandering discussion about the future of translation, ending with one guy who led a riddle

(Spoonerisms are hard.)

In the end, we had a lovely brunch on the last day. Because really, what is a weekend of working without brunch? It was a lovely and delicious brunch.

Most important, though, is the network we created. Literary translators from many different languages, all on the cusp of their careers, all looking for jobs to do and magazines to submit to and new things to write and friends to commiserate with. Our support groups have just exploded exponentially. Such connections are even more important for people like us, who work very solitary jobs. It's reassuring to know that real people are out there on the other side of your Internet connection, who are all going through similar challenges and wonders.

I'm very honored to have been a part of the inaugural year of workshops, and I'm confident they will continue to be an annual event.


(Yeah, okay. Snowball poems are hard, too.)

Sandy offers peace and quiet, if you know where to look...

Some eagle-eyed readers will know that I live on the Eastern Seaboard of the US, just a few short miles away from where the exact center of Hurricane Sandy is scheduled to pass over within the next day or two. I was trained well for emergency situations, and I was in NYC during Hurricane Irene last year, so my preparations for this storm have entailed checking the stock of flashlights and batteries (fine), non-perishable food (one more tin of nuts would be nice, but otherwise fine), water (another couple of gallons bought), and figuring out the safest place to be in the house if trees start coming down (the basement -- no other rooms of this house are windowless). Now, I get to sit back and enjoy the storm.

I would actually be okay if the power went out, which is a pretty likely situation. All the loose ends on my computer have been tied up as of an hour ago. While it would pretty much suck to be without electricity and Internet for a while, not only am I prepared to deal with it, but that kind of situation would greatly diminish the amount of distractions during the workday.

Call it a house-arrest/forced writer's retreat. I could sit down with a good, ol'-fashioned pen and notebook, and really concentrate hard on translating. On the voice, and the rhythm, and the word choice, finding things from my own brain, instead of relying on the crutch of online dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri? whatever).

Maybe it's nostalgia for a simpler time that never existed; maybe it's a burning curiosity to see if I really can be persuaded to work without the onslaught of my usual tools; maybe it's just wishful thinking. Here's the thing -- everyone will be staying home from work tomorrow. Everyone will be here. And bored.

Distractions galore.

Oh well. Maybe I can retreat to a dark corner of the house and blow out my candle. No one will find me then!

Happy International Translators Day!

From Saint Jerome to Chris Durban and all translators in between, thanks for everything you do to bridge cultural gaps, further our noble profession, and bring the corners of the globe a little closer together. (No corners on a round object, I KNOW. Just go with it. It's poetic.)

Research Tools

Regarding the researching I mentioned yesterday, here are some of the tools that I've found most useful so far, as a translator, a linguist, and a writer:

WordReference: Congratulations. You now have a basic bilingual dictionary, completely searchable, including both the Oxford bilingual dictionary (usually -- depends on the language combination) and entries on phrases, idioms, and a myriad of other expressions from users all around the world. Yes, the user-defined fields must be taken with a grain of salt, and the forums are sometimes more hindrance than anything else, but it's a good place to start. Of course, it doesn't include an exhaustive list of languages, but they've got most of the major ones.

Linguee: This service is just starting out, and so far, it's just between English and German, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. But what it IS, is a pretty good dictionary combined with a search engine that pulls already-bilingual documents from all around the Internet with your phrase in it, to see how it's been translated elsewhere. Right now, it's a lot of EU and UN documents, as well as some multinational companies, so it's not going to help for non-commerce requests. It's still hit or miss, but it promises so much more as it grows!

Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Thesaurus: Their online databases are a paid service, but I would bet you anything that your library offers a way to login for free (NYPL members, go here). And oh, the rich detail in the entries! The dictionary is the best in the English language. The thesaurus gives you every word that could possibly ever be linked with your chosen word, in a convenient tree form. (According to them, every word in the English language can be filed under three categories: the external world, the mind, and society.)

A monolingual source dictionary: Even as a translator, this is an invaluable resource. When you come across a word you don't know, or aren't quite sure how it works in that particular context, look it up in your source language first. See if you can figure out what it means for yourself, then try to find a good translation on your own, before relying on someone else's ideas.

Listservs/LinkedIn groups/other: These are your personal connections with colleagues when you work from home. Right now, I'm on...five lists? I think? Two French lists, one literature list, one business list, one local translators list. Yes. Five. Invaluable for keeping sanity intact and asking questions that you should know the answer to, but don't, for whatever reason. Also, general commiseration and congratulations, when the time warrants it.


There are more, of course, but more entries of resources will inevitably follow. For now, I'm off to use my own list!

Universal business advice, expanded upon from a brief phone conversation with a fellow translating stranger

- Be wary of entering into agreements if you are already busy; or, alternatively, desperate.  Too busy, and you may renege on your end of the bargain.  Too desperate for work, and you can be taken advantage of. - Find a personal contact within a large company that you're working for.  Make sure they can rely on you for honest communication and prompt fulfillment of your promises.  Then, you can rely on them for flexibility, good projects, and dealings with Accounting (read: getting paid).

- Figure out how best you negotiate rates as a contractor.  If the other party is being difficult, you have two options to protect yourself: either be firm for the initial talks and give discounts as you see fit, or compromise at first and be firm on that compromise.


Huh.  I know more than I think I know.  Talk and practice are different animals, though.  It's tough work working for yourself!

From out of the blue

Sometimes, people call you from out of the blue.  Completely.    There's absolutely no connection to an existing client, or personal friend, or cousin's ex-husband's business partner's mother's sister-in-law's lawyer*, or anyone else.  

I just finalized a small job for a woman who I cannot for the life of me figure out how she knows I exist. But as I thought about it, there are actually many ways she could have found me.  Maybe she was directed to my website by someone.  Maybe she looked up the ATA database, or the NYCT database, and just started down the list.  Maybe she saw an article I wrote for one of the ATA division newsletters.  She could have even Googled "French translator Brooklyn", although I'm not entirely sure where I pop up on that list.  Maybe someone threw one of my business cards away and the trash can fell over and my card happened to catch her eye.  Who knows, really?

The point is, those are only a few ways that she could have found me.  All of them are valid, and all of them are useful (except for maybe that last one with the garbage).  I personally don't use every service available to me (I've almost given up on Twitter, I only spend limited time on LinkedIn, etc.), but apparently, all those avenues of promotion pay off.  It's a nice ego boost to know you're doing something right.


*I will bake you cookies if you figure out who this person is in your life.

Just Say No

Drugs are harmful to your body.  Just say "no" when offered them.  It's as simple as that.  Or so all elementary-aged American children were told in the 80s and 90s.  Simple?  Maybe.  Peer pressure builds up, though. Now, we're older.  Some of us are freelancers.  Sometimes, we get offered jobs -- or offered the possibility of jobs -- that we know we shouldn't take.  Why?  We'll have to deal with demeaning project managers.  The work is mindless.  We'd be translating very poorly written copy from the source language.  We'll lose an entire night's sleep to get the job done.  It's harmful to our bodies, and to our sanity, and especially to our happiness.

Even so, when a new agency approached me with the offer of possibly working together, we haggled on rates a bit, I listed my specializations (at their request, which is important for later), and I agreed to do a small test for them.  I stipulated that, since the test would be unpaid, I'd only do a small one, less than 250 words.  A reasonable amount of work for a test.

They then sent me three tests to choose from (nice!).  But wait...all the tests were over 500 words, and none of them fell even remotely within my specializations.

Enter the psychological pressure: "I'd really like the work."  The brain rushes through countless excuses for why I should just buckle down and slog through the test, but they all boil down to "I'd really like the work."

Let's be clear.  I don't know if I'd get any work, or if I'd be at all qualified for the work I'd receive (based on these tests), or if I'd enjoy the work that I was qualified for.  But still, brain goes, "I'd really like the work."

Fortunately, I have an Other Half.  He reminds me that I can, in fact, overrule my worried brain with logic.  What's the point of doing a long, unpaid test that may lead to work that's most likely not in my area that I probably wouldn't enjoy for a lower rate than I normally charge?  None.  There's no point at all.

Just say no.

(Do so respectfully, of course.  But just say no.)

Putting it together

And now, a message from the man who I would choose as my favorite Broadway composer if you put a gun to my head:

The last few days and weeks have been accidentally dedicated to making connections and crafting some foundations to build upon as I work towards what I really want to do.  My agenda said benign things like "lunch seminar with CL" or "DN after work" or "NYCT Holiday Brunch".  Benign scribbles become major opportunities, though:

Lunch seminar with CL = Meet the person who does exactly what you want to do; talk as best you can without stumbling over words too many times; she lives six blocks from you? great. get lunch sometime; get contacts; try not to drool

DN after work = Talk for an hour about nothing and everything with colleague of a colleague, then have her ask "What can I do to help you?"...try not to admit that just hearing her talk about the industry was enough, but now she'll reread your cover letter/marketing pitch

NYCT Holiday Brunch = Network, network, network; volunteer for things you didn't know existed or were available; now I'm probably the assistant editor of the association's newsletter? wait, how did that happen? That'

Putting it all together will take time, marinating, and a dash of luck.  Possibly a whole cup.  Maybe more.  I just have to make the right preparations to be ready for when that perfect opportunity falls into my lap.  There seems to be little other way to do it.

Very few people can make their living doing literary translation.  Even fewer who are not in academia.  But they do exist.  Would that I should be one someday.

My First ATA Conference

Like a baby's first word, or the first day of school: such is the importance of attending one's first major industry conference. It provides a huge (and needed) boost in the attempt to form a full-time career out of a part-time passion.

For three days at the end of October, I went to Boston to see what I could learn, who I could meet, what connections I could forge. And I have to say, it was a rousing success. I've been so busy taking action based on what happened at the conference that I've only now been able to put my thoughts down in the ether ("on paper" being a bit of a misnomer...).

So, here follows, in tidbit/interview form, a general conference review, from the highly biased opinion of a starry-eyed first-timer:

Scariest/best decision: skipping the first-time-attendee orientation session in favor of a seminar on "Translating for Quebec," given by Grant Hamilton. He knows his stuff. I know Québecois is a bit different (so is Canadian English), but he pointed out so many things you must know. Geography. Politics. News. "La fleuve" is not "the river," but the St. Lawrence River. Obviously...

Worst decision: not bringing a winter hat, gloves, and snowboots.  Oh, Nor'easters, how you make life more interesting!

Proudest moment: reading poetry I had translated while living in France, from a dear friend of mine's collection.  And having people give genuine compliments on both the translation and my stage presence.  Thank you, choir/theatre training.

Strangest connection: meeting a French>English translator who lives just across the river in New Jersey, and finding out we had the same professor at NYU -- eccentric Anne-Marie.  She had her in New York, but by the time I came along, Anne-Marie had been politely shuttled to the Paris campus, to finish her dissertation.  25 years in the making.

Best celebrity sighting: Chris Durban. No, no, this isn't your normal star, but a very highly respected French>English translator who is renowned and revered among most in this profession. She is smart, sharp as a whip, and takes no nonsense from whiners. I want to be like her when I grow up.

Most interesting audience member moment: watching the discussion go way off its rails at the Arabic session on theory and framework.  I think it's a cultural thing that makes people who have grown up in Arabic-speaking countries less tactful when butting into a presentation intended to give them useful information.  The presenter, a native-English-speaking professor of Islamic Studies who learned Arabic along the way, was trying to give the by-necessity-generally-amateur Arabic translators a bit of theoretical framework, and they pushed back the whole while.  Not because they didn't think his ideas were useful, but because it just seems to be in their nature.  And at the end, most of them congratulated the presenter on surviving his trial by fire and said they would be taking some of the techniques into account while translating.  Interesting.

First moment I thought "hey, I actually belong here": Friday lunch with some of the French translators I had met the prior evening at the French Language Division dinner.  The dinner had been lovely, fun, and informative, and I had met some great people.  The next day, finding some of those people for lunch, was proof that they weren't just humoring me.  (Some people could have probably realized that during the FLD dinner.  I am, occasionally, harder to convince.)

And now, for the list of awesome things that came from the conference: - personal contacts - an invitation to write a review for the Slavic Language Division's newsletter on a session on translating Rachmaninov's art songs (seems random, but isn't: the request came from the woman who ran the literary readings After Hours Cafe) - the initiative to get involved with my local chapter, the NY Circle of Translators - two possible job offers! - a strong desire to go to next year's conference in San Diego (starting to save money now...) - the knowledge that yes, I can do this

Excellent?  Yes, I would definitely say so.

Here we go again!

New adventure: translation.

I took a course in translation as an undergrad at NYU, and immediately was hooked.  I spent a couple psych lectures that semester working on a particularly finicky translation.  (It's not the lecture's fault that it directly followed my translation class!)  Ever since then, I've been translating something, at least once every week or two.  But it's always been on the side.  And I've never gotten paid for a single word.

Now it's career-building time.  Back in Brooklyn, ready to learn a ton and figure this out.  How does one build a freelance translation career, anyway?  I've hit the blogs, the American Translators Association website, the monthly meetings of the New York Circle of Translators.  I've started talking to people who do this for a living.  I took a job as a proofreader (and occasional project manager) at one of the largest translation agencies in the world, to get experience from the other side.

But the biggest "first" step I'm about to take?  I'll be attending the ATA's Annual Conference at the end of the month.  What a learning experience I will have, if I can overcome the learning curve.

My fears (of course they exist, and they are indeed plentiful) for the moment center on the conference.  What if, what if, what if?  What if nobody talks to me?  What if I don't learn a single thing?  What if this is just too hard?  It's like the first day of school all over again.

But any hurdle demands pogo stick, or a horse, or possibly a helicopter.  My current pogo sticks include:

  • creating a modest website
  • ordering business cards
  • sprucing up my resume
  • physically writing out a list of questions to ask people while chatting or networking
And my helicopter?  I'll be staying with a good friend of mine from high school who lives in Boston now.  Lifeline: procured.
(To be fair, I was considering staying in the conference hotel, which would have been a better professional option.  At the moment, though, my income is a bit too modest to warrant such extravagance.)