Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

A Thing I Did Not Know Until Today

Or: France has fewer sexual taboos than the US does

Today, I perused Wikipedia in French, to help with some quick research about Lolo Ferrari (English page here), the woman who holds the world record for largest artificially augmented breasts. I swear this was relevant to my work. Promise.

Anyway, you know that box on the right that lists a summary of basic info, usually biographical for entries on people? It includes things like birth date, marital status, place of residence, most well-known works, and the like.

Well. Apparently, for French actors and actresses who sometimes act in more adult films, there is even more information listed for general consumption on Wikipedia.

Height Weight Hair color Eye color Measurements (side note: how the frick does a 54F exist??)


Sexual orientation

Yep. I'm such an American to even be taking notice of this.

(Also, there's a topless picture of said Lolo Ferrari on the French Wikipedia page, from a film she did that was shown at Cannes. Go France.)


Pirates are infinitely more interesting than common sailors. Society supports this as fact. We have "Talk Like a Pirate Day" (last Wednesday, for those playing at home), not "Talk Like a Sailor Day."


Not really. You see, I'm doing research on 18th century nautical terms, in both French and English. There are a few glossaries and dictionaries out there, as well as meticulously labeled diagrams, but it's easier to learn and understand the terms in a context.

Looking for such historical context, one can turn to a few different places. Textbooks (can be dull), ship's logs from the era and other primary sources (excellent, but the old-style spelling can be hard to wade through), or historical fiction and non-fiction stories. Interest-peaking AND historically accurate!

After all, pirates sailed on the same ships as everyone else.

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!

Things I've Learned: Research Early, Research Often

Seriously. Just do it.

Oh, more information? Right.

I thought I was being very smart, researching all the vocabulary I needed as I went along, as well as most of the historical references. (Did you know, for example, that Nadar was a pioneer in both photography and hot air ballooning, making him the first aerial photographer?)

But as it turns out, I had always left a few terms in each chapter to look up later. To check with other sources, other people. And then there was the pesky little problem of primary source translations. Some of a famous French author's work would undoubtedly be translated into English, no? So those translations should probably be the ones cited in my work, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and do them all myself.

All this work kept piling up, and suddenly, I was three weeks from deadline with only enough time budgeted to finish a few last translations and re-edit everything. This, folks, is what you call a time crunch. And I got it done, because that's what you do.

But there is much more to translation than just translating. There is searching, and researching, and re-searching, and re-researching. There is asking around, and begging, and digging, and hunting. There is editing, and proofing, and rereading, and storming around the house because you can't find that one perfect word. Then, when you find what you were looking for, you realize it doesn't actually work.

Oh, and translating also includes the mountain of daily emails, and marketing yourself, and doing samples, and looking for new clients, and keeping existing clients happy. Literary translators usually have other work to keep themselves afloat.

It's a delicate balancing act, keeping all of that up in the air. But it's doable. And kinda fun.

"And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn't known before..." - Little Red, Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods"