[Interview] A French to English translator speaks!

Meet Caroline, one of our most trusted French to English translators!

Hello Caroline. Could you give us your job title?

I’m a freelance translator. I’m British, and I work from French into English, specialising in marketing, corporate communication and contracts, mainly for the food industry.

What qualifications do you have? Why did you study French?

1I’ll start by telling you why I learnt French, because that’s where it all started! I started learning French at school when I was 11, but I was already very interested in the language. I spent all my childhood summer holidays in the Channel Islands where my grandparents lived. French used to be spoken in the islands, and although mainly English is spoken these days, there is still a strong French influence, in the surnames and place names in particular.
When I was 12, I went to Boulogne-sur-Mer for the day with my Guide company and I managed to order an ice cream in a bakers all by myself. That was it – I was hooked!
Later, I wanted to study French at university. My careers teacher suggested I choose a combined degree, so off I went to Bath to study international management and French. The aim of the course was to learn business studies and acquire a near-native level of French in the process. We were warned from the start that if our French wasn’t up to scratch we wouldn’t pass the course. Spending my year abroad as a PA in a company in Paris soon sorted that out though!

Why did you decide to become a freelance translator?

Ever since I spent that first year in Paris, I have worked exclusively in bilingual environments, and translation has always been a part of that. Initially, I translated for colleagues, and I later spent 10 years working for a British company that runs holiday centres for British youngsters in France. All the guests and staff were English-speaking, so I spent the majority of my time translating and interpreting. I was called on for all contact with the “outside world” – the authorities, the council, the doctor, A&E – the list goes on. Setting up as a freelance translator was a logical next step, so I took a correspondence course in translation alongside my job, which helped me prepare to set up on my own.

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Who are your clients (business sector)?

I spend about 60% of my time translating for the food industry and 20% on documents relating to property sales. The remaining 20% is commercial documents across a wide range of sectors.

Can you tell us about the translation process?

Firstly, before I accept a project, I check that I’m the right person to take it on – do I have the subject knowledge and terminology I need? Then, I start by reading the document, or at least a part of each segment if it’s very long. Then, I look around online (what did translators do before the internet!) for similar documents written in the UK for an English audience, so that I can soak up the style and distance myself from the French document. So that might mean a website, a press release or a report, for example. If I’m not completely sure of the terminology, I do some research on that too.
Then I begin the actual translation process, researching online as I go through. Once I’ve finished my first draft, I read my translation and the original side by side and make any changes I feel are required. Does the translation convey the message of the French text? Have I forgotten anything? Have I accidentally added or implied anything that isn’t in the French text? Have I taken the cultural context into account?
Then I print out my English version of the text (as ecologically as possible – I always print on both sides of the paper, and I shrink the size of the text wherever possible). Depending on the delivery date agreed with the client, I put my translation aside at least overnight so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. When I read it for the last time, I try to get away from the French text and ask myself whether the text sounds natural in English. I make any necessary changes, check the spelling, and then read it through. If I’ve made any changes – even one tiny change – I read through again. And again. And again. Until I can’t find anything more to change. (Yes, I’m a bit obsessive about that!)
Then just before I send my translation to the client, once it’s attached to the email, I open it again. I check that I’ve attached the right document, and I look through it quickly to make sure nothing jumps out at me. And then I press “Send”!
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Do the cultural differences between French people and British people make life difficult for translators?

Yes, they do sometimes. I mainly work for the food industry. Obviously, food is one of those areas where culture has a strong influence, and that can affect translations. For example, goûter (a snack meal given to children around 4pm) is an institution in France, but it doesn’t exist as such in the UK. Starters are another thing. Obviously, British people do eat starters, but they’re not eaten at every meal like they are in France. So, if a product is being marketed for one of those occasions, we’ll need to suggest an alternative positioning to the client and adapt the text appropriately.
There are also plenty of differences in the way Christmas and New Year are celebrated. In France, celebrations begin on the evening of 24 December with a big meal, whereas in the UK children are pack off to bed early so that Father Christmas will come, and the adults spend the evening either frantically wrapping presents or in the pub. So, when a text talks about the big meal on 24 December, I have to adapt it so that it can be understood by a British audience.

Have the projects your clients send you changed over the years?

Yes. I’m working more and more on texts relating to my specialisations, and I handle very few “general” texts these days. That suits me perfectly! I spend a lot of time reading up on my specialisations, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to put my knowledge to good use so that my clients know they can depend on me for accurate and natural translations.

What’s difficult about your job, and what do you enjoy most?

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Time management is definitely the most difficult thing. I could work 26 hours a day! As a freelance translator, you’re running a business. As well as translating, you have to look after accounting, marketing, strategy, paperwork and IT systems, not to mention keeping your knowledge up to date and watching what’s going on in the industry!
Strangely enough, running a business is actually what I enjoy the most too! I love taking responsibility for the success of my business. It’s all down to me. I’m also grateful that I can organise myself as I want to and live where I like (thanks to the internet).
Translation is also “thinking work” – it involves a lot of research. You’re learning every day, every minute even and that’s fabulous.

Do you think translation has a future?

Yes, absolutely. There is more and more global trade, and at the same time less people are studying modern languages (in the UK at least), so the managers of tomorrow are going to need translators. Obviously, non-commercial machine translation is there when you need to get a vague idea of the sense of a text in a language you don’t speak very well, but it’s nowhere near ready to replace translators yet. It can’t really grasp nuances, style or the culture of a target country.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a freelance translator?

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Start by studying something else alongside languages, and grab every opportunity you can to write and get feedback on your writing in your native language. Then go abroad, and do a job relating to your qualification. Then train as a translator, and set up knowing exactly what your specialisation is going to be!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. I love my job, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to talk about it.

Caroline L.

A big thanks from the TradOnline team for accepting the interview, Caroline!

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