Author: Galina Green

I am a translator and writer and painter (y'know, the usual Berlin breed) a word-nerd in general, and always seem to have strong opinions on everything.

Birdwatching for Translators

Do you know what a twitcher is? No, I don’t mean a twerker. Or a birder? Or an “orni” as they are known in Germany? (Short for ornithologist)

My dad has always been a bit of a birdman in the sense that, if a black shadow ever passed our path in flight, when we were on a walk in the country, his arm would instinctively fly out, holding me back, making me stop to look and listen. As a kid he would go bird nesting (stealing eggs) and I still enjoy hearing his tales of near brushes with wild bulls and angry farmers.

0212

Boy bird nesting by Eric Ravilious

I started bird watching when I realised my dad wasn’t listening to me chitter on about school and friends, because he would stop dead in his tracks at any given moment. And the enjoyment followed when I realised that whatever was getting me down that particular week, the birds were just going about their business, building nests, feeding their young, learning to fly and hunt insects. And that was rather comforting to know somehow…that life just goes on.
Like any form of low-level concentration activity, it stops your brain from worrying. So the time I spent bird watching was automatically time where I was not worrying.

I started to see the parallels between bird watching and meditating when my friends kept trying to urge me to get up really early to “sit” and try to think of nothing. To me that seemed like a royal waste of time. But ask me to get up at 4:30am to take a kayak to a lake to be on the water by 5:30 to “get a bead”* on a white tailed eagle? Now you’re talking.

But as a bird-watching translator things get doubly interesting. Where you see one bird…I see two – through my binoculars, floating on the thermals of two completely different cultures.
I recently saw my very first male linnet close up. So far, so unspectacular. But a twitcher will tell you that a male linnet, despite its rather boring name, looks like it has blood dripping down its chest. Hence, its name in German: “Bluthänfling”, which roughly translates as “bloody skinny thing” – I imagine because the bird literally looks like he’s had a meal of red beets for breakfast and then wiped some on his head for good measure. It’s also known as Flachshänfling (flaxseed being one of its food sources and the reason why it is called linnet – flax is used to make linen).

Carduelis_cannabina_2

Although German is often considered to be an ugly language (see the Schadenfreude in those videos that went viral recently showing how Germans can manage to make even the most beautiful word sound like a weapon of mass destruction: butterfly = Schmetterling), it is also the language of philosophy, music and poetry. For example, a yellowhammer in England sings “A little bit of butter and no ––– cheese!” whereas in Germany a Goldammer (note the poetic addition of gold in the name…) sings “Wie wie wie wie hab ich dich ––– liieb!” (How how how how I love you). Nuff said.

Germany is a country so deeply connected to its forested landscapes that 38% of Berlin’s surface area is still made up of woodland and water!** German is truly the language of the poets and thinkers and this poetic nature is also expressed in the descriptive names of its birds.
Learning the bird names in German, after I knew the English ones, made something vividly clear to me: where the Germans tended to categorise birds according to their “spirit” and character, with a dash of humour, the English tended to be much more taxonomic, focussing more an appearance and size.

German Literal English Actual English
Buntspecht Colourful pecker Greater spotted woodpecker
Bachstelze One who stalks the stream Wagtail
Mönchsgrasmücke Monks grass midge Blackcap
Neuntöter Killer of nine Red-backed shrike
Dompfaff Cathedral parson Bullfinch
Haubentaucher Hooded diver Great crested grebe
Klappergrassmücke Rattling grass midge Lesser whitethroat
Nebelkrähe Fog crow Hooded crow
Trauerschnepper Mourning flycatcher Pied flycatcher
Trauerseeschwalbe Lake mourning swallow Black tern

Of course, dig a little deeper and the English language also has some lovely unofficial names – the red-backed shrike, one of my favourite birds because it looks like a bandit with its black eye stripe, is also known as the Butcher bird, for its gruesome habit of impaling the insects it catches on thorns to “mature” awhile, before coming back to eat them later.

There’s nothing more annoying for a literary birdwatcher than to read a sentence like “and a bird flew overhead” or “a bird called in the distance” in the middle of a halfway decent thriller. Even more annoying is Leonard Cohen with his “Bird on a Wire”. I mean, what’s wrong with “sparrow on a wire”. And don’t get me started on Hitchcock’s The Birds. At least the Beatles had the decency to be a bit more specific with Blackbird. Even though I do wonder which blackbird really sings in the dead of night. (Or hark, was it a nightingale?)
The_Birds_original_poster

You see these are the important issues literary birdwatchers have to deal with. And being a translator only makes things worse. I find it really hard to leave well alone and not add a flourish or two, transforming “a bird flew overhead” into “the velvet rook flew overhead”. Not true to the original, as my teacher would say. Good thing I am usually translating press releases or academic tracts on museum artefacts.

But learning bird names in two languages has given me a new window onto the differences in motivation of the act of naming. Having grown up with both languages I never realised to the full extent “why” different nations write and name. It seems to me, that Italians write simply because they love words. The more the better. Germans write to prove how intelligent they are. The more abstruse the better. The English write to prove how funny they are. The dryer the better. But when it comes to naming birds, Germans reveal their deeply romantic poetical side. Well, at least until we come to the topic of insults!

Time for another chart I think:

German insult Literal translation Bird name
Schnepfe unpleasant unlikeable woman snipe
Blödes Huhn Stupid woman chicken
Dumme Pute Dumb woman turkey
Dumme Gans Dumb woman goose
Rabenmutter Bad mother crow
Eitler Gockel Vain man rooster
Du hast ein Vogel! You’re nuts! “You have a bird!”
Ein schräger Vogel! An eccentric A lopsided bird
Spaßvogel Joker Fun bird
Schnappdrossel Heavy drinking woman liqueur thrush

But whichever language you use, the act of naming is a powerful thing. It usually has two aims: to assert power (naming of chattel and slaves, for example) or to get closer to knowing and loving (trying to describe and identify).

Everyone who has the privilege of speaking more than one language or dialect will know the joy of comparing and “doubly knowing” the nature that surrounds us. Robert MacFarlane, the inspired author of Landmarks and an expert in “knowing and naming”, writes of the deep connection people in Britain had to the natural landscape that surrounded them by way of naming. We can only protect and love what we know. And naming is an intrinsic part of that.

Footnotes

*to get a bead on is orni lingo for “see” (beady eye)
** http://www.bund-berlin.de/bund_berlinde/home/naturschutz/baeume_erhalten/wald_in_berlin.html
Cf. British Woodland stats: London has 8% woodland, and 11,2% in England as a whole.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/8039667/Forest-levels-booming-as-UK-woodland-returns-to-highest-level-in-more-than-250-years.html

5164_120230094923_7818317_n

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

TOP TEN TIPS FOR WOULD-BE SPEAKERS

Having taken my own advice and really moving out of my comfort zone to give my first ever talk in front of a large number of my peers and colleagues at a conference last week, I’ve put together a tongue-in-cheek list for anyone thinking about stepping up to the stage, mic in hand…

As I was talking about cooperation in the translation world, I was joined by my Trend Translations business partner Paula Hedley, which made things a lot more fun and slightly less scary. But if we are ever tempted to sign ourselves up for another instalment, we promised to remind each other about all the prep work and panic that precedes the actual fun part of getting up there and connecting with the audience. The entire process involves a lot of work and stress for the more introverted among us, but on the whole it was a really rewarding experience and definitely one to tick off the bucket list!elaine-dont-talk

My top ten tips for would-be speakers

  1. Have something to say.

This might sound obvious, but it really isn’t. A glimpse at the emotional actors receiving their golden statues at the Academy Awards or even a peek into a lecture hall full of students discussing Nietzsche will show you that plenty of people are happy to take to the stage and witter away simply because they can. Make sure you have a concise message you want to convey.

  1. Take your audience on a journey.

It took you time (possibly years!) and a measure of experience to come to the conclusions you have drawn, so take your audience with you on that journey, because that will be of  interest to them if they want to follow a similar path. Start from the very beginning and wrap things up with a solid conclusion.

  1. Don’t use photos of cats or dogs (or lions or any other animal) to illustrate your points.

Please. Just don’t.

  1. You got a mic? USE it!

Oh, and it won’t work if you wave it away from you to point at your pie chart.*

  1. Tell it to me like I’m five years old.

Things that seem completely obvious to you may be deeply mysterious and arcane to others, so break it down into bitesize chunks.

  1. Don’t rant or diss.

You feel like humanity is heading to hell in a handcart? Feel free to go and vent down your local pub or to your BFF, but don’t think ranting is going to change anything. Least of all on stage, in front of hundreds of people. Don’t just add to the noise.

babu

  1. Laugh at yourself.

We are all human. We forget to switch mics on, we mix up the slides. Everyone does that, but if you accept it with humour and grace it adds to the appeal of the fascinating talk your audience will get to hear, rather than destroying the mood. Perfection is boring.

  1. Keep it short.

Don’t drag it out unnecessarily. Apparently 18 minutes is our critical attention span, but however long you’re speaking for, make sure to repeat the message. And repeat it again. And again. Most audiences have the memory retention of a toddler and it might not sink in the first time, especially when they’re trying to simultaneously tweet about you.

  1. Don’t assume everyone thinks you’re stupid or boring.

If you are especially nervous, you might be worried that 65% of your audience seems to be busy texting their best friend. But don’t let that distract you. They’re most likely posting on social media about how awesome your talk is!

  1. Connect with your audience after the talk too.

If you get the chance afterwards, chat to the people who attended your presentation and answer any questions they may have. Ask them questions too. Find out what they thought and what they took away from your presentation. You’ll soon find out that they didn’t notice your knees shaking or that you were reading a bit too much from your notes. Ask them for feedback. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Now breathe and have a drink to celebrate. You did it!

elaine-vodka

*And remember to switch your mic off at the end too – I spent a good ten minutes exchanging pleasantries with members of the audience before I realised my comments were still coming loud and clear from 20 different loudspeakers throughout the room. *blush*

images

 

The (Dis)Comfort Zone II

In an earlier post I talked about how, if you want to produce optimal work or push yourself to be that bit better, faster, sharper, the optimal place to be is outside your comfort zone. It’s where the zingy ideas happen.

But I also know how hard it is to leave the comfort zone, especially if you’re not the most daring person. But the only difference between you, and the slouch on the couch, is that one of you just gets up and does it anyway.

screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-17-05-27

One of the things that I used to be uncomfortable with was travelling. The absence of control over where you are going to get food, or a decent night’s sleep, or whether the Muezzin is going to lead his call to prayers at 6am, just freaked me out. But having forced myself to do it, and realising I was actually OK, I now also know that it helps me to prioritise better, to value my work, my free time, my friends. Travelling has direct knock-on effects on so many aspects of your life, as I mentioned in my last post, which make it an absolute must for anyone wanting to remain open to the world, especially for us translators.

So, without further ado, my travel tips on turning the fear into the fearless.

  1. Buddha nature

Cultivating your sense of childish wonder at each new situation is a great way of calming yourself. Instead of thinking “What if I miss my flight/train/don’t find my hotel…” take a look around and ground yourself in the details. It also helps to check out what children near you are doing. (Well, if they’re not in the middle of a tantrum or staring into a “device”.) Years ago, my children would be so busy figuring out and marvelling at the fold-down tables in the plane (or the ones stowed in the armrest), they didn’t have time to worry about “What if the plane crashes?” At least for the first five minutes…

p1020925

(This was taken by my ten-year-old daughter, proving that her experience of Barcelona was utterly different from mine. Her photos were often shot from a worm’s eye view, and were often close-ups. They made me think about how everyone sees the world very differently.)

  1. Having a reason

I’m not very good at doing things that don’t have a palpable result. I’m a utilitarian kind of girl and perhaps I’m also a little scared of “free-form time”, worried it will swallow me up.

So when it comes to travel, one way of providing structure and results is going to language school or taking some kind of course. Not only does it mean you are learning something, it also means you have a daily rhythm and you’ll make friends without even trying. And if something better comes up, you can always pretend you’re 14 again and bunk off!

  1. Controlling the chaos

When I went abroad alone for the first time, my biggest fear was losing my key or having it stolen while I was wandering the streets. I didn’t know a soul in the city and preferred to leave my mobile phone at the apartment so that it wouldn’t get stolen. So I knew that if my key was stolen I would have absolutely no way of getting in touch with anyone (because the only phone number I knew off by heart was the one belonging to my best friend at primary school, Helen Bothleswick, and she might possibly have moved house since the seventies). Obviously, it is slightly irrational to worry about someone stealing a key (what would they do with it?) but regardless, my solution was to hide the second key in a plant pot on the roof. You will not believe how calm and safe this made me feel.

img_3320

  1. Associations

You know the best thing about being a translator? They are EVERYWHERE. I don’t know if people have this with every profession, you know, secret little car mechanic clubs dotted all over the globe, where you get to talk about carburettors and turtle wax, or European hairdressing clans where they exchange favourite scissor-sharpening secrets and discuss and compare tipping rates in different European cities….but wherever you go, yes, even in South Dakota, you will find there are meet ups for translators. I joined a gang of about twenty very welcoming translators in a lovely little bistro in Barcelona where I ate the best pastrami sandwich this side of New York and got to talk shop and find out what it was like to live and work in the beautiful city. It’s nice to know you are never truly a stranger, wherever you go in the world. Especially as a translator.screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-21-29-07

  1. Getting lost doesn’t mean you’re going to die

Another concern I had was getting lost. Especially in the first few days with my children where I realised that maybe I am just not a map person. Initially I tried to navigate by the street names and avoided getting lost by poring over the map and boring my kids to tears. But thanks to them, I discovered that sometimes it really isn’t that important to know which street you’re on. And once you let go, it’s so much more fun. Barcelona’s old town is perhaps one square kilometre, so we’re not exactly talking Welsh hills in November. In fact, now I actually relish wandering around without knowing exactly where I am, as long as there are enough tapas bars along the way.

  1. The internet can be your friend

If, after taking yourself out of the comfort zone, you feel the need for a bit of company, it’s nice to know you can meet like-minded people anywhere in the world if you want to.

Back in the day, the only way to make friends in a strange place was by simply sitting at a random bar, preferably the same one night after night, or striking up a conversation with a stranger on a park bench. But these things happen less these days because everyone is of the “bowed head tribe”, engrossed in their mobile phones. If it doesn’t strike you as pseudo-modernist to be using social media to actually meet people IRL, then this is for you. There are a bunch of mobile apps beyond social tinder and bumble, like MeetUp, peoplehunt, and ATLETO if you’re looking for people who share your passion for wine or food, or for some sports buddies to go for a run with when you’re a stranger in town.

images

When it comes down to it, the desire for safety and security and instincts like fear are generally a good thing – they keep you from doing stupid things like jumping off cliffs and going home with strangers. But it’s knowing when the time has come to say “thank you primeval cavewoman brain, for worrying about me, but I think I’ll take it from here,” that keeps life special and exciting.

THE (DIS)COMFORT ZONE

There is lots of talk about the comfort zone and about how moving out of it is a good thing. Lying on my sofa with my laptop balanced on a pillow, my hot water bottle tucked under my knees, Berlin 2015, I knew I was in it. Deep in it. The comfort zone.

biedermeier-sofa-berlin-biedermeier-sofa-berlin-mit-einem-scho%cc%88nen-modell

Not many people know this about me and it’s slightly embarrassing to admit:
I am not that keen on travelling.

When people talk about their travel plans or experiences my first instinct is: “Blimey, I’m glad I didn’t have to do that!” (whether it’s standing on the side of a red road in the hot Colombian sun waiting for the bus to be repaired, or scuba-diving down potholes off the coast of Thailand) rather than “Wow, I wish I could try that.”

Maybe I can blame it on my parents, who travelled for a living, tucking me under one arm and their cameras under the other from Havana to Hamburg, from Lisbon to Rio, Berlin, Coventry and back again.

It was definitely more this:

1324691501709466948

Than this:

images

So once I had figured out where I wanted to be, I was staying put.

But there is a genuine reason why your comfort zone is not a good place to be if you want to keep growing and learning, if you want to stay open and engaged with the world.

It comes down to the brain and our wiring again…the comfort zone is a state that produces negligibly amazing results. That means: your work is ok…but not great. Your creative capacities are fair to middling, your innovations are on hold.

Our cortisol levels (stress) need to be slightly elevated to maximize performance.

This is called the “optimal anxiety zone”. Too much anxiety and we’re stressed out and making bad decisions, or none at all, too hyped to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. But a slight shaking up of our preconceptions, a new way of seeing things, new smells, tastes, colours…now we’re talking.

img_4728_corinpratt-comlogo_resize40-1024x682

I know that if I stay in my cosy flat, door shut, curtains drawn, temperature regulated, onesie on…I will stagnate and my brain will shrivel and die (to be slightly melodramatic about it). And after all, how can I not love travel while being a translator? How can I continue to be open to the world and different cultures if I just stick to my William Morris wallpaper and Biedermeier sofa?

As translators we virtually have an obligation to travel, to connect with other cultures to help us solve the all-consuming problems of communication.

So that rainy afternoon in Berlin, I sent out a few emails, enquiries to language schools, flat rentals etc., and before I knew it,  I had committed to moving out…of my comfort zone.

After all, ours is that amazing unique wonderful career choice that your college career advisor says doesn’t exist…YOU CAN WORK ANYWHERE (that has WiFi).

But how do you deal with moving out of your comfort zone when the idea of just randomly travelling completely freaks you out?

I’ve figured out ways of creating structured environments wherever I go and schedules that help me to be “brave” while also being a chicken.

More on that next week…

 

Embrace your Evolution

There was a time, I am told, when you trained in a trade or studied for a career and you worked in the same job till your first retirement cheque was in the post.

But that concept died for us when Maggie closed down the entire industrial base of Great Britain back in the late seventies. The whole concept of “career” and “job” was dramatically transformed. 46% of the workforce now retrains completely at some point in their lives; 45% are made redundant and on average every worker has six different jobs or roles during their lifetime. (They also make an estimated 29,328 cups of tea at work over the same period apparently, so if you were looking for a safe job, I reckon teabag distribution would be a sure thing!)*

255px-charles_darwin_by_julia_margaret_cameron_2

We learn to adapt. I am certainly no slouch when it comes to embracing different jobs and careers. From sculpting astrologically themed goddesses to sell at the Manchester Corn Exchange as a student (before it burnt down, nothing to do with me) to soul-destroying stints at call centres, painting pottery in Kreuzberg and teaching English to German toddlers (“woof woof, says the dog”) I have done it all to get by.

We are complex beings. Our life trajectories sometimes resemble bowls of spaghetti rather than a Roman road. Every aspect of our past informs our future. Every new experience, even if it ends up being a major fail, contributes to the richness of our lives, our levels of empathy, our points of view.

547cbd1a-2e2f-11e4-_758150b

 

I started a personal blog a few years ago which aimed to cover everything I cared about: my career as a translator, my eclectic tastes in politics and art, having fun as a single woman beyond the age of forty (a state that remains largely undocumented), raising children while being a working mum. I think quite a few people were taken aback, a few friends temporarily withheld or suspended friendship but mostly it went unnoticed. In hindsight it was probably a bit much for one blog to cover in terms of material though.

Nevertheless, for me it was an incredibly useful exercise in honing my writing skills (rather important if you are translating and copywriting for a living) as well as a way to express myself and clarify my thoughts. It helped me to figure out what I wanted to write about, where my priorities lay, and what powerful reactions my written thoughts could sometimes elicit.

I learnt a lot. About myself, about the people around me.

And isn’t that the great thing about life? You get to grow, evolve, change your mind. You get to learn from mistakes, faux pas and experiences.

My “jeu d’esprit”, the BritBitchBerlin blog, now has a new name: Trendslators.com, to reflect the greater focus on my work, and because, really, I never was that bitchy, just rather honest.

But I believe we should wear our evolutionary past — our vestigial tails — with pride. (Unless you are a certain breed of politician, in which case, run and delete those tweets now!) We may still have quite a few career changes ahead of us, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next project. Come 50, I may finally get round to my career as an artist, Paula Rego-style. Watch this space!

Sources *https://www.aat.org.uk/about-aat/press-releases/britains-workers-value-companionship-recognition-over-big-salary

Translation Blues

Yes, we all have bad days. Even translators. We may well have the best job in the world, helping people to communicate across the globe using the tools we love, words. And if we are good, after a few years, we can work wherever we want, whenever we want, experiencing the digital nomad life that everyone seems to covet.

blues-brothers1

But the truth is, we often work alone, sometimes completely isolated from the outside world. Some days, my only face to face contact is with the DHL delivery guy who drops off packages for the whole neighbourhood with me because he knows I’m always home. He gives me updates on the weather, as clearly I am not in touch with how warm or cold it is outside, either swaddled in thick jumpers on a summer’s day, or wearing a T-shirt when it’s snowing out.

So, without the constant camaraderie of office colleagues, after-work drinks in the pub or morning breaks spent gossiping around the coffee machine, it’s not really surprising that, as freelancers, we sometimes find ourselves in the doldrums.

lost_in_translation_by_yinetyang-d5kce49

There are so many things that can kick it off: a random remark by a frenemy, bad feedback on a job, no feedback on a job, that sickly feeling in your stomach that you might have sent that document to the wrong person late at night, or a misunderstanding with a client…

I’ve been at the terminological coalface for a long time now, but I still get wordsmith burnout every once in a while. Days where you doubt your own skills, and wonder if it is even worth it. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work that – how can I put it – ain’t exactly saving any lives. After translating brochure after brochure on how to look younger and banish wrinkles or keep fit with the help of various expensive items of sports equipment and makeup, I have had a few “put a paper bag over my head” moments.

And then, to top it all off, I had the frenemy experience: while out for a drinks I was discussing the debts being racked up by a mutual friend. I hated the fact that despite being a trained engineer our friend couldn’t get out of his cycle of debt because he simply wasn’t earning enough. Unprompted, a snarky comment followed about “people like me” (read freelancers in creative industries) earning “shedloads” translating “stuff no one needs or reads”.

I know I should have just walked away, and I generally don’t feel the need to explain or defend my work to anyone, but some days your bitch-shield isn’t as impervious as you’d like. And I suspect all translators have these days too sometimes. So here are my tips on how to deal with the translator blues.

1. Watch the world go by

Venture out into the world again for a couple of hours. Even if it’s just to sit on the next street corner, watching people bustling by, going about their daily business. Last week I observed some road workers from a café window and I found it strangely soothing to see them painting white stripes on the road and worrying about which sign to put where, ensuring our road safety. I wonder if they also sometimes keep themselves up at night, worrying they put that “Give Way” sign up upside down …

images-1

  1. Get in touch with nature

If I’m feeling really out of sorts, the only cure is to head out to the countryside and rustle up a good fire by the lake. I like to do this alone, crack open a beer and chew the cud for a while. Plants, animals, lakes, rivers and sky all have a way of tweaking everything back into perspective. Suddenly that press release doesn’t seem as “pressing”. After all, if the woodpecker is still pecking away and the ants are still busy, all will be well with the world.

img_2924

  1. Recheck your values

It’s not always a bad thing to have frenemies to “poke your bear”, so to speak. It often helps us question things we have taken for granted. In fact, everyone should have a bear poker in their lives. Maybe you’re a little bit too comfortable in your rut or perhaps it’s time to branch out and find a new client whose content challenges you more, or do some pro bono work.

4. Reach out to your peers

This, for me, is when social media comes into its own. Whether it’s through blogging or just taking part in online discussions, it’s nice to know you are not alone and that your experiences, whatever they may be, are often universal, or at least more widespread than you may think. Yes, even if you’re a plant-loving, budgerigar-breeding translator, you too have your tribe!*

For me, the Facebook forum Standing Out has been a game-changer, as a place I can go for advice, support or mostly just a little virtual chat over coffee. It’s like having your very own gang at work.

But basically, what I’m saying is – a bad day can also lead to a productive rethink. In the middle of such a day last week I got a lovely comment on my blog from someone who had noticed I hadn’t written for a while, which, apart from comforting me and cheering me up, led to me writing this post! Someone took time out of their busy day to let me know that, in my own small way, I do make a difference.

So instead of hating yourself for being weak and having a bad day, despite having the best job in the universe, see it as a much-needed break, pull the blankets back over your head and go wallow. And as for tomorrow: them words ain’t gonna translate themselves!
Happy translating to you all!

 

images-3

*Shout out to a translator colleague in Syria who I “met” on Standing Out, a wonderfully upbeat, generous-hearted Facebook forum for translators all over the world, who gave me invaluable advice about buying budgies for my daughter. You never know where you will find support and friendship.

 

 

The Short and Curlies

As translators, we all know that it isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks to transform words, along with their sentiment, feel and timbre, into a completely different language. But it complicates matters further when the actual tools we use (glyphs and punctuation marks) are different too. Luckily I work in languages where 95% of the alphabet is the same, and the punctuation is more or less similar. But there is one little mark that for some reason is so obstinate that it has a different look, use and name in almost every language.

Quotation marks, double inverted commas, speech marks, guillemets, goose feet, citation marks, duck feet, smart quotes, curly quotes, dumb quotes, whatever you want to call them, we really have to master them in the languages we work in – there’s no goose stepping around it. Oh and then there are the scare quotes and – my favourites – air quotes.

tumblr_m02jpm4BPw1qzydh2o6_r1_250

Inverted commas are the kind of thing you just USE, you don’t really spend much time thinking about them, a bit like tin openers or toilet brushes. It’s only when you get up close to one that suddenly the details seem to matter.

Did you know that unicode offers twenty-nine ways to represent inverted commas: multilingual variants like the guillemet as well as minor visual differences including primes (to indicate feet and inches as well as measures of time) straight quotes (also known as dumb quotes) and curly quotes (which your computer does automatically if you have “smart quotes” enabled to save you the hassle).

I just spent a day checking the final proofs for a lengthy brochure for a global real estate company. The translation had been carried out by someone else – excellently, I should say – and all I had to do was look for typos and….wait, what’s that, those curly things, aren’t they kind of— the – wrong  – way  – round? “”„“”
Somehow the graphic designer had tried-and-tested his way through just about every variety of speech mark going, and three hours in I was questioning my sanity and had to print out this image to save myself from going mad:

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 18.42.00

I was sorely tempted to use dumb quotes as an easy solution (come on, gimme a break, I was sitting next to a graphic designer who looked not a day over 12, in a sweltering office with no air conditioning). But I pulled myself together. Just for the record, the only place you should be using dumb quotes is when you’re coding. Which is probably never.)

So, in the process of explaining to the young whippersnapper why English inverted commas were used completely differently, I did a bit of research that I want to share with you word nerds and punctuation punks out there:

  • Inverted commas are different in pretty much every language:
    « » French/Spanish
    「 」Japanese
    ”A” Finnish/Swedish
    »A« Hungarian
    ― A Greek
    »A» Finnish/Swedish
    „A” Polish (known as split-level quotation marks)
    „A“ German/Icelandic (ditto above)
  • The French brackets are called guillemets (I always thought they were called guillemots, like the bird, because they look rather like flying birds…but apparently not. Colloquially they are called duck feet, so I was not too far off the mark.)
  • The German curlies are also called “Gänsefüsschen” or “little goosefeet”.
Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 18.44.32

A pair of guillemots

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 19.25.53

A quartet of Guillemots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 19.24.27

 

 

 

 

 

And a pair of guillemets en français.

  • The earliest record of inverted commas can be found in  “De Vitis Sophistarum” by Flavius Philostratus, which was printed in Strasbourg, Alsace (and, in 1516, was still part of Germany, so I am going to claim it for my gang.) There you see a pair of commas to the left of each line.

The book has been digitised by the MDZ (Münchener Digitale Bibliothek) and thanks to creative commons is available under this link (well worth a look for the interesting layout too).

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 14.52.36

  •  Scholars generally agree that the method of marking out quoted text with quotation marks first gained traction with the invention of the printing press.
  • In Ancient Greece a “diple” (double) sign was used to attract attention to pretty much anything noteworthy in a text, and this mark was then developed in a wide variety of shapes, ranging from squiggles to arrow heads to bird’s wing Vs.
  • Apparently block quotation (indenting the quote) comes from the convention of putting quote marks to the left of every line in the Baroque and Renaissance periods. The marks were then omitted at some point, but the space remained.
  • For some reason Germans like to enclose all kinds of things in inverted commas (store names, foreign words, words with particular emphasis). Which is perhaps a throwback to the Ancient Greek habit of marking out noteworthy words and passages, also reflected in the modern-day “highlight” function on a Kindle.
    It is vital as DE>EN translators to reminded ourselves that, sure, we could just turn them round the right way. But we could also – just. leave. them. out.

 

MORE FUN STUFF

There is even a “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks! Well worth a visit:
http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/

Commonplace Markers and Quotation Marks Laura Estill
Published March 7, 2014, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/quotation_marks.html

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3018353/be-smart-dont-use-dumb-quote-marks

http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/ausgaben/thumbnailseite.html?fip=193.174.98.30&id=00002081&seite=14