Month: February 2016

Where are you from? De donde eres? Wo kommst du her?


When travelling, or working with people from different countries, this is a question you will be asked a lot. And I mean a lot. In almost every interaction. They even ask you now when entering a museum, where no doubt some kind of statistic is created out of it. Perhaps, if we all started saying “Wales”, all the information panels would be translated into Welsh!


It’s a question that has me puzzled, yet I ask it myself all the time. I never really felt it contributed much to the idea of “who someone is”. Yet not to ask it seemed impossible too. And how to answer?  Where, really, really, do we come from?

As I was walking along the Via Laeitana the other day, a nice dark-haired “Spanish” lady smiled and stopped me and asked if I had ever heard of “doctors without borders”. I said, “Si, pero no hablo Español. She replied in English, “Oh, that’s no problem! Where are you from?” I said “Germany” as that is where I have lived for the past 25 years and I wasn’t sure of the relevance, seeing as she wanted money from me and not a tourist review. She raised her eyebrow rather gallicly and said “You don’t SOUND German!” I almost apologised. Next time I vill speek viz a German akzent. But we had a very interesting conversation (in English) and she told me about doctors without borders and I told her about translators without borders and after parting with some money, on I went. Later, sitting on a bench in the sun I was approached by a young dreadlocked “American” guy for a cigarette. “Sorry, I don’t smoke,” (why do we ex-smokers always feel so damn apologetic about the fact we have given up, or is it a British thing, simply apologising for everything?) but, instead of just wandering off, he said, “Where are you from?” This time I said “England.” And he nodded and walked off, as though his mission were complete. Was it the wrong answer? Or did he feel the interaction had had some degree of success once he had placed me geographically?
Of their very nature, many translators have a geographically chequered past, mixing Spanish, German, French, Welsh and English liberally in their linguistic evolution, yet even we, when first meeting, want to know: “Where are you from?” Convoluted conversations ensue with strings of place names: “From Warrington, but moved away at the age of seven, then spent three years in Malaysia, before moving back to Britain,” or “From Newcastle, but have lived in France for thirty years.”

I was born in Islington, London, but at two weeks I was in Hamburg. At three months in Berlin and at one year back in Southall, where on the streets only Hindi and Punjabi were spoken, and the fashion stores had Indian mannequins sporting saris.


I spent my early years being looked after by a Malaysian nanny, then a German one, spent time in a German kindergarten; London schools followed. I moved to Liverpool, to Manchester, then Berlin. Put me in a pub full of lairy Mancunians and the warm burr will also trip off my tongue; stick me in with a busload of Scousers and I’ll likely be calling you “la” before the trip is over.
We translators have this wonderful spongy tendency to soak up the language soup we find ourselves in. In Barcelona the Catalan “Bon dia” was quickly in my blood, much more than “Buenos dias”. (Even though I can’t say much beyond that!)
In 2014, Taiye Selasi ,the talented Nigerian/Ghanian/American/Italian/German writer, gave a TED talk about this very issue. She spoke eloquently of her feelings of home, the tastes and smells and sounds that denote her feeling of “Heimat” – for which most languages don’t even have a word!  She talked about Afropolitans, making me want to be a Europolitan, and asked, “How can we come from a political concept, a state?”

Of course, when I say Königsberg, it is a concept, it conjures pictures, perhaps smells, perhaps memories, in your mind. The same for South-West Africa or Kovářská. Perhaps even Berlin. The passage of time and the sweep of politics has pushed and pulled borders around like a giant bedsheet being shaken out and rearranged.


Ask my mum. She was born in a place and a country that no longer exists. Even the name of the place has changed. From Schmiedeberg and Šmídeberk to Kovářská. And ask anyone born in the GDR. So what to do with that? When my mother wanted to claim her (West) German passport after reunification, they demanded to know if she did indeed have “German blood”, (as her (East) German passport stated Kovářská as her place of birth, which, in the new making of the postwar bed, had been placed behind the Czech border, despite having had a large German-speaking population). My mother held out her arm, pale side up, and said “I don’t know, why don’t you tell me?”
Taiye Selasi concludes that to a large extent many of us are “multi-local” feeling at home in several places, or indeed none. So surely the question should not be, “Where are you from?” but rather: “Where are you local?”

When I step out of my  flat in Barcelona to buy samosas from the Pakistani grocer across the way, who speaks with the same cadence as the Pakistanis in Ealing, and buy my bread from the local Panaderia every day,  I almost feel “local”; I feel “known”.
When I am in London and drop by the Chinese takeaway, as I do once a year to order the same familiar food, I feel “home” but I haven’t lived there for 28 years.
When I see the local supermarket in Berlin being demolished for a flashy modern new build in Prenzlauer Berg, where I raised my children and drank my first glass of Sekt, the “local” part of my heart hurts.
So now, when I look at someone and ask them where they are from, I usually know I will be settling in for a loooong tale of migration and flux, a fascinating story of roads less travelled: of places, cultures and languages that form and change us and makes us who we are. It’s something that can’t be answered in just one word, or be vouched for by one passport.


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Which town is this? Answers on a postcard.



And this?

207 bus at Shepherd's Bush

And an easy one to finish…


Here’s a link to Taiye Selasi’s talk. Well worth watching!





MY FIRST TIME: ELIA Together in Barcelona

A translators’ conference by the European Language Industry Association.

There’s a first time for everything. Perhaps it’s a bit late in the day for someone who has been working part and full-time as a translator for the last ten years. But it never occurred to me that a conference for translators might be interesting and, as a rule, I generally try to steer clear of anything boring or tiresome.
For some reason, though, I was attracted to the ELIA event with its ambitious title “Together”, not to mention intrigued by the promised emphasis on collaboration and personal growth and the opportunity to meet like-minded fellow translators, offline and in the flesh.
The two-day get-together, which took place at the visually stunning waterfront World Trade Center in Barcelona, was split helpfully into three categories: Relationships/Growth/Technology.

Although a lot of translators out there find it hard to believe (Yes, looking straight at you Karen Tkaczyk!: “I have heard that they exist, but I’ve never met one”), I enjoy a flourishing career without the use of CAT tools (unless you include Dragon), so the tech talks weren’t really at the top of my must-attend list.

Nevertheless, I did manage to talk to the representatives at a few of the CAT tool stands there, (SDL, MemoQ and Matecat were represented) and not just to swipe the pretty pens!


Is there perhaps a little irony in tech companies handing out free pens while simultaneously suggesting that old-school creative translation will soon be a thing of the past?
Although…after absorbing all of the information and contemplating the options, I am now considering giving the whole tool shebang a go in the spirit of adventure, mainly due to an enthusiastic review from the lovely Claire Cox over a beer in the networking lunch break, I must admit.

The keynote speech was held by Stephen Lank, vice president of translation services at Cesco Linguistic Services, but also a strong advocate for the freelance aspect of business. He gave an upbeat funny and enthusiastic talk, setting the tone for the whole two days. He introduced us to the concept of the BHAG (which stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal). If you don’t have one yet, I highly recommend you get one!


The entire premise of the conference was to provide a forum for translation agencies (they are called LSPs now, another thing learnt!) and freelance translators to come together and share the challenges they face in their work with one another, as well as looking for solutions. Basically a bit like marital guidance counselling for struggling couples. Indeed this was a canny parallel that many speakers picked up and elaborated on. To the point that I occasionally felt I was at a matchmaking do called “Find Your Dream Partner” rather than at a conference to deepen my knowledge of the translation industry. Picture slides of cats and primordial landscapes also abounded, which got my BS antennae twitching slightly.


I am somehow not comfortable with the idea that our professional lives and relationships are akin to a loving human relationship, or that our tiger-fighting fight or flight instincts surface every time we enter into negotiations with agencies, but maybe that’s just me.

Not having had much experience with agencies in general I found it interesting to hear what demands are placed on translators working with output-maximising CAT tools or in the realm of post-editing of machine translation. And also what kind of needs and desires agencies have in general.

My personal highlight was the panel talk with women who have run or are running their own translation agencies: Anja Jones, Heidi Kerschl, Anne-Marie Collander Lind and Anna Pietruska. They provided a fascinating insight into how freelance translators can grow their business into a company (or, indeed, shrink it back down), a route that certainly comes with a completely different set of challenges to the ones we freelancers are usually faced with.

speaks for itself
(Mathilde, Jane and Paula at a fun conference workshop)

I have always had the greatest respect for agency owners (having run a totally different kind of business myself for ten years before segueing into translating, I know how much hard work goes into running any company). But I noticed in the subsequent talks and panels (like the LSP X-Factor panel) that the agency reps failed to talk about one crucial thing: what they bring to the table in terms of services for us translators. In all the criticism of agencies about just creaming profits, pushing prices down, etc. it is often completely overlooked that they are actually providing a service.

As a freelance translator you don’t have to go down that route: you can do the legwork yourself to get direct clients, which is what I did, simply by good networking, talking to the people I wanted to work with and by being recommended. But in their defence, the agencies are the ones taking the stress out of the whole process for us, leaving us to do what we do best: translating. They take care of acquisition, marketing, coordination of larger projects and teams, quality control, customer services, pricing and quotes. Anyone who has ever worked with direct clients knows that the actual translation (i.e. billable hours) can sometimes be the least bit of the work. So, a word in the ear of the LSPs at the conference: you guys need to tell us more about what you do. Less defensiveness, more detail. If you do, we might even forget to ask you about rates!

There was also a fun talk by Anna Sanner about Aikido and Zen practice of all things, and how to apply the lessons learnt there in your professional life. I paraphrase: When an attacker rushes at you (i.e. anything negative like a difficult client etc.) it is a powerful force that you can absorb and transform into power for yourself (i.e. learn from it).

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I scarpered before getting coerced into the “blind drawing” networking activity, diving straight from the break into Karen Tkaczyk’s talk, in which she delivered a highly entertaining and honest-to-goodness roasting of LSPs’ sometimes off-point methodologies, and elaborating on what freelance translators want from their agencies in terms of instructions, format, respect and honesty.

Another highlight was Lloyd Bingham’s and Andrew Morris’ speech entitled: “Mind the Gap: Overcoming Strife in the Translation Industry.” Andrew Morris is the founder of Standing Out®, and Lloyd Bingham is an active member.
I admit I had been blissfully unaware of any “strife in the industry”, beavering away in my tiny little niche, only looking up occasionally to see that the world was moving on quickly toward MT etc. but I never had enough time to worry about it, until I was prodded into joining a few closed Facebook groups for translators by my business partner Paula Hedley, encouraging me to join the party and partake in some online networking. I quickly dismissed most of them, as I had better things to do with my time than read through long threads of people complaining about some client or other, or posting pictures of their cats or hobbies, but Standing Out® was different. It was a breath of cheerfully fresh air. Finally a place where I didn’t have to mutually shake my head about poor rates or crappy jobs. Finally a place where I could actually admit to enjoying my job and living just fine on what I earned.
And, as a bonus, we could share relevant information, get and give great tips, find short and to-the-point reviews on new software, webinars, courses, books, blogs, even endless puns: in short, everything my little translator heart desires.

Lloyd and Andrew outlined their approach and their belief that this kind of a space and outlook is much needed. Along with Standing Out®, ELIA is most certainly another valuable contribution to the trend that is bringing us, as translators, out into the sunlight, with increased transparency, for clients, agencies and everyone else involved in the industry.

Of course the very best thing about the conference was meeting so many colleagues. We are a pretty isolated bunch, living out in the sticks in far-flung corners of the world like Cardiff, Cologne and Czestochowa and not many of us have co-working spaces (or indeed want them) so it was lovely to realise that we are all quite similar in a way, not only in our dry humour and desire to make the world a linguistically more beautiful place, but also in our hunger to learn new things.

The next ELIA Together event will be held in Berlin in February 2017 and I highly recommend it! (And no, I was not paid to say that, although I did have a lovely chat with the director, Arancha Caballero, in the ladies loos, where, as you know, all the best deals are made…)

Oh, and here are some acronyms that kept cropping up during the event and may be useful to any newbies out there:

PEMT = Post-Edited Machine Translation
TMS = Translation Management Software
LSP = Language Service Provider
CPD = Continuing Professional Development
NDA = Non-Disclosure Agreement
MT = Machine Translation
PM = Project Manager
PTM = Post-Translational Modification (please invent your own definition for this one…it is actually something to do with proteins and enzymes!)
PMT = Premenstrual Tension




Putting the “Free” Back into Freelancing

Most people know that the term “freelancer” dates back to the days of chivalry and knights, when the “free” lances were basically guns for hire, medieval mercenaries with no allegiance to any king or queen. Sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it? A bit Lancelot and Lady Guinevere. But of course guns for hire are also lances to be broken. “To break a lance for someone” is now a little-used idiom, expressing a willingness to go all in for a person or a cause. In German we have the same idiom “Eine Lanze brechen für…”.Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.38.13

I am certainly willing to break a lance for self-determination aka freelancing. For the idea of being able to decide for yourself where you draw the line. When to say yes, and when to say no.

We get to set the terms, and as long as we are supplying something that is in demand (freelance whingers are out of luck) we can (within the confines of market forces) set down our rules. So, if you are an urban nomad or want to work out of a backpack (with good hotspot facilities nearby) or in a wooden hut (ditto) or only at night, or only for Russian poets, or automobile PR companies, then go ahead. You got the skills, then you get the thrills.

But I had a few years where I forgot about the free in freelance. And I am pretty sure many of you will recognise yourselves in this scenario:

It was going to be a short break with the kids and friends. I had planned to hang out in the hammock, drink beer and shoot the breeze every evening, with days spent lazily watching the kids jump around in the lake. What actually happened was that I ended up bent over my computer in a shady corner of the garden (sometimes with a towel over my head to aid visibility!) where the internet was just about viable (I needed half an hour sweating bullets to send one document) for the entire three days of the “break” because I got a last-minute job that paid enough to cover my entire month of living costs. I almost got a stomach ulcer from the stress of it (it was also a field I wasn’t completely au fait with but when I had voiced doubts they were brushed away by the company, who were simply desperate to get the job done) and spent much of my free time apologising to my hosts (who possibly didn’t care that much, and certainly didn’t understand, because they all had regular nine-fives.) I would say the word “freelancer”, shrugging, as if that magical word was reason enough for me to forgo my holiday, because after all, I did get to drink coffees in the sun at random times of the day and pick my kids up from school myself.

It was less this:

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And more this: Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 21.40.47

It was that moment: where anxiety gnaws at your stomach, you realise you bit off more than you can chew, and yeah, the money is great, but this voice in your head is asking “When does it stop being worth it?”

I delivered the final docs to the client (who, when I spoke to him on the phone to clarify some terminology, was on a mountaintop in Oregon, skiing with his two children, and spent half the conversation shouting at them to be quiet. He didn’t really seem to care which words I used anyway) and I remember thinking, “So this guy is rich enough to go skiing with his kids in June, but isn’t rich enough to be able to switch off his phone?” So, a week later, when he confirmed everything was fine, I said “And by the way, please do not plan me in for any future jobs. The job is more suited to someone using CAT tools and would work out much cheaper for you that way too.” A consternated silence at the other end, and then “Really?” To his credit, he never called again.

And I remembered then, that the whole point about being a freelancer are the four letters at the front of the word.


When did the world of work get to be so omnipotent that getting a couple of days’ worth of work or winning a new client makes us want to break out the champagne? It’s great to love your job, and I mostly do, but nevertheless it is something I do mainly to pay the rent. Otherwise I would spend my time translating biographies for free. As freelancers we pay for our own healthcare, we forgo many benefits and safety nets that your classic employee enjoys (calling in sick anyone?) and for me the trade-off is clear. It means we should at least get to decide when and how. Of course nothing is going to protect you if you are not good at your job. But that holds true for any line of work. (Well, unless you’re a banker or a politician…sorry, couldn’t resist.) You need to get training, get qualified, go get. But for all others:

We need to RELAX!

We paid our rent, we will most probably continue to do so. And if we have a dry spell, we will figure things out. Which we have been doing all our lives. Barring major health issues, are our kids actively inhaling illicit substances as we speak? No? OK then.

No client is going to ask you if you are nearing breakdown when they request a quote. And they aren’t ever going to ask you when your last free weekend was. Why should they? That, as a freelancer, is your job too!

And because you shoulder all these extra responsibilities, it is also OK to charge more than your local barista. But above all, it’s about claiming the freedom that only you can claim. Going on proper holidays, writing an automatic reply that says “I won’t be in my office during this period. In the case of urgent translations feel free to contact Wilbur Wordsmith or Anna Apostrophe, my trusty colleagues.”

So….I am currently renting a pretty flat in the old town of Barcelona for a month. I have no phone and am only available via email or whatsapp. It is scary and new. But until now, my clients are still with me. I told them I was taking a holiday, and that I’d be back to work for the last two weeks, but Catalan-chola style. I want to wander around a strange town with my daughters without having to raise my forefinger at them when the phone rings, signaling that I need to concentrate on the call for a minute, even if one of them is about to do “the best handstand evah!”

It feels thrilling, exhilarating. And yes, I am grateful to be FREElance!

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