Berlin life

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.


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…


(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.


  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.


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.



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.


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:


Than this:


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.


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!)*


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.



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:, 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 *

The Glamorous Life of a Fashion Translator

Part One:
I’d like to begin by telling you I am writing this from a sleek office in the same block in Lower Manhattan as Vogue HQ, wearing a Sessun wrap dress and leather espadrilles (high heels are so eighties). But as you can probably tell by the title, this blog post is slightly tongue-in-cheek.
I’m actually sporting denim shorts (Boden) and a fair-trade, organic red and black striped T-shirt (ThokkThokk) as I sit typing this by a lake (digital nomad, bien sûr) around 30 km east of anywhere fashion-relevant. Since you asked.

You don’t need to be a fashion obsessive, mulling over whether Martin Margiela or Ann Demeulemeester is the better designer, to do good fashion translations, but it certainly helps if you can understand how people can splash out £2500 on a Chanel handbag or £900 on a Kaviar Gauche wedding dress.


Fashionista bookshelf

And even though the translation of a 3000-word interview with the CEO of a major denim brand or a press release showcasing the latest shoe trends might sound glam, the truth is that we’re usually at our desks in jeans and sweatshirt, with sweat bands on our wrists and only our latest caffeine boost to keep us going. Someone call the fashion police!

This post is more about describing the nitty gritty of the job of a freelance fashion translator, how we ended up here and what to expect if you feel like going down the same route.

As every British-born person living in mainland Europe knows, Europeans tend to be disconcertingly good at speaking English. To the point that it is actually quite hard for us to even master a foreign language the “au naturel” way, because everyone speaks English better than we do French/Spanish/German.

The positive side effect for us translators, however, is that, in a healthy economic climate, it makes sense for European companies and brands to want to access a larger market by supplying articulately-written English language content.

So during the economically robust late-nineties in Germany, most internationally-minded magazines chose to publish in both languages. Others switched to English only, but still wrote the content in German, simply because the German editors and people in the know were the ones creating the content.

I have always had a love of languages as well as art and design, and sidestepped into my specialty by studying textile design in Germany (my source language) and learning all about weaving techniques, different fabrics and manufacturing technology. This knowledge has stood me in good stead when having to tell the difference between a standard twill or herringbone or when spelling fashion terminology like jacquard and plissé.

My partner-in-crime Paula Hedley studied German with business and marketing at Northumbria University, but came to fashion through a genuine love of new trends and a stint working at a PR agency for fashion and advertising photography in Cologne. She’s in the know about the latest labels taking the fashion world by storm and can help me out with fashion merchandising abbreviations like NOS and QR or if I need an idea for a snappy hashtag or title. And of course it’s also great having an enthusiastic, like-minded plus one for Fashion Week parties. Mixing business with pleasure at its best!


Paula’s beautiful office

Early on in our translation careers we were asked if we could collaborate on a new specialist fashion magazine (J’N’C Magazine) that was launched back in the early 2000s. The rest, as they say, is history: the magazine was a success, and on the back of that we worked for tradeshows like Bread & Butter and Bright and other magazine editors who liked our style of writing.

But our day to day is usually dotted with small jobs for PR agencies who come to us for their daily needs. That covers everything from short but urgent emails to clients (“Where is the collection we wanted shipped last week?”) to press releases for the foreign press that have to be word perfect and strike a chord with the target group. We also often translate press clippings for international brands so they know what the German press is writing about them.

So obviously it’s important to keep bang up to date with trends and designers.

The best way to make sure you know what’s going on is to visit some of the major tradeshows (which, of course, applies to you whatever your speciality subject is). Berlin, where I’m based, has two Fashion Weeks a year, where all of the major shows play host to an incredibly wide range of labels and brands. Each trade fair has its own particular emphasis, and over the years I have found my favourites. I always enjoy the ethical trade fair “Green Showroom” because it’s small and you get to talk to the designers in an intimate setting. The first few years it was hosted at the luxurious Hotel Adlon Kempinski and each designer had their own suite where they welcomed the buyers, sitting on the Egyptian-cotton-clad beds, which was slightly odd, but in a good way.

The Ethical Fashion Show at the city’s Postbahnhof venue is also laid-back and enjoyable. And the now infamous Bread & Butter (recently bought by Zalando), which was enormous in its scope, was held in the dramatic Tempelhof Airport. They really knew how to throw a great opening party. I vividly remember Paula and I enjoying a balmy summer evening of hard toil, involving bumper cars, DJ sets and caipirinhas on the hot tarmac of the former airport as we mingled, I mean networked, with the fashion crowd. So yes, it does get glamorous occasionally…


The front rowers or “frowers” as we call them in the trade

Working for PR agencies, it’s important to keep abreast of their clients’ latest work, because that’s what you’ll be translating. They will all have Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts so that’s the best way to follow and like what’s going on, although it can be very distracting! After all, you’re not getting paid for reading stuff on Facebook, but it helps if you know when your clients are planning a major event, launching a new product or taking part in the Press Days or Fashion Week.

If we ever feel like visiting fashion shows, then our clients, mostly PR agencies, are happy to provide us with a seat in the third row (!) But don’t expect champagne treatment. You’re not Chloë Sevigny, you’re just there to inform yourself and keep up to date, not to hobnob with the models and designers. Part of our job description is to be the invisible link in the chain that ensures the language of fabric and colour used by designers can be translated into words that convey the vision behind their creations.

If we’re lucky, we can take our raw material – well-written copy – and transform it into something that will be worthy of the flowing garments and intricate flounces of Germany’s best designers.
And if we’re luckier still, we’ll be holding the glossy fruits of our labours in our hands two weeks later, and not even find a typo!*



*Actually, I try not to look too closely, because there is ALWAYS something I feel we could have improved on, but with tight deadlines and a busy schedule, at some point you need to let go.

Next week: I give you a run down of the scheduling and the working process of translating for magazines and working with editors and graphic designers.

Conflict… Negotiation… Resolution: Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s Eve, and every one of us has at least toyed with the idea of making a New Year’s resolution at one time or another in our lives. My in-depth research down the local bar has revealed that there are two very clearly defined camps: those who resolve to do something and do… and those who don’t.

There are those who make a plan, and stick to it, building something patiently in increments. And there are those who have taken out a gym membership, determined to go twice a week, yet not made it past February, or tried to kick a filthy habit or two and not even made it through next Saturday night on the tiles.

It’s disappointing for everyone, but most of all for the resolutionists themselves. Some people keep their resolutions secret for fear of appearing a loser, some shout them from the rooftops, forgetting them later anyway.

But why do we even feel the need to self improve? In the animal kingdom, beasts of any ilk are happy to keep on living the way they do, year after year. Aside from the occasional antler-clattering challenge to determine who is top of the pile for the next few seasons, stags seem quite happy to keep eating grass to the end of their days, and monkeys seem quite content, swinging from the same tree, eating fruit.
So why do we always strive toward perceived perfection, to be fitter, richer, more successful?

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There are people who claim to have never made a resolution in their lives and are perfectly happy that way, but chances are, even if they are not aware of it, they have been consistently working towards a goal, honed a skill over a longer period or accepted some form of hardship in exchange for a long-term reward.
Whether it happens tonight, or in the middle of March, setting and realising goals and ambitions, no matter how small, does contribute to a happier fulfilled life, and, most importantly, to the feeling that you are master of your own destiny. Self determination: my favourite thing in the whole world, second only to cycling no-hands down a tree-lined boulevard in autumn.

According to some advice columns, writing resolutions down helps to cement them and make you more likely to succeed. Anecdotal evidence from my life and those of my peers, however, suggests this might be completely irrelevant. I remember getting together with my three best friends a few years ago to write down our resolutions together.
Mine was to write a cookbook, an idea that had been brewing in scribbled recipe form for years.


One of us resolved to be married before the year was out; another wanted to retrain as a midwife; and the last wanted to start her own business. Suffice it to say you will have to do without my amazing secret cookie recipes for a few more years while I get on with the million-and-one other things that somehow seem more important to me now. The bride-to-be decided she didn’t want to be married to that guy after all, and babies yet unborn are still waiting on some hands to catch them. Life happens. So don’t forget to be prepared for the fact that those things that seem so important now, might be just a giggle away from irrelevant this time next year. (But, champagne-cork-pop, the girlfriend who wanted to start a business actually did so, and has a whole set of new challenges to negotiate and resolve.)

We are told that multiple resolutions are also a surefire way of failing, so best stick to one, or two if they apply to different areas of your life (say, running twice a week and reading three pages of War & Peace a day).
Of course it’s also easier to stick to your goals if you formulate them positively: “I will send one friendly introductory email to a new company every week,” rather than “I will stop being crap about acquisitions”.

There can be no resolution without a prior conflict, so it is often when you are conflicted in life that you are going to be looking to change things. I have the luxurious problem of having so many things I would love to be doing, some of which pay the rent and others which emphatically do not. So I have to negotiate terms by which I can allow each pursuit a certain space in my life without a) risking the roof over our heads and b) without leaving out something that I consider to be essential to my well-being (writing or running).
Being a curmudgeon in general when it comes to NYE parties, for me New Year’s Eve is a time to take stock, to review what worked and felt good in the past year and what I would like to do differently in the future.
I’d like to spend more time writing and being creative so I need to have a game plan for how I can make that happen, else the day to day stuff will just happen and before I know it another year will have slipped by. Hence sitting here and writing this!

Naturally, I’d also like to read more, paint again, learn Spanish, lose some weight and do more sports. But as the Germans so charmingly put it “Wir sind hier nicht bei wünsch-dir-was” (roughly translated as: “If wishes were horses…beggars would ride).
I think staying realistic is a key factor here: there are only 24 hours in a day, and if your goals number more than the days of the week you may not have time to do the shopping or shower in the mornings.
So when you sit down to write your New Year’s resolutions (or alternatively drunkenly shout them across the bar counter tonight), remember to congratulate yourself on how far you have come (preferably in good health, with a decent career you enjoy and some genuine friends who make you laugh). That is a rich harvest indeed, and more than any stag or cheeky monkey can hope for.

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Happy New Year! Guten Rutsch!

Office Parties for Introverts: Translators in the House

It’s that time of year again. Where schools hold concerts daily, presents are handed to all and sundry and we freelance parents are expected to bake cookies every day and magically appear at absurd times of the day to watch our children blunder through Christmas performances and plays.


It’s a frighteningly social time for us translators, who spend most of our time closeted away, protected by a screen with just the occasional wave out of the window to the neighbours and a chat to the postman. Yes, the Yuletide spirit is here, and suddenly I am being invited to office parties. And I don’t even have an office.

The average freelance translator has around 10 to 15 regular clients; I have seven based in Berlin, where I live. That’s a lot of standing around leaning on the printer with a glass of bubbly in hand. No matter how much you love your work.

But being a bit of an introvert, the idea of walking into a room filled with people who all know each other, but don’t know me from Sally, fills me with dread to the point that I sit on the sofa at home beforehand weighing my odds in terms of embarrassment and career damage if I simply don’t go. (I once toyed with the idea of just saying I was there, along the lines of “Really? You didn’t see me? Yeah, I was there! Great punch, by the way?!” until I realised that that would only work if I were Doug from King of Queens. Oh, wait, it didn’t even work for him.

The Germans have a good word for us translator types, or part-time introverts: “Einzelgänger” which I like because it is an active word…“one-who-walks-alone”, rather than the passive depressing “loner” that conjures images of serial killers and misfits.

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Of course there is plenty of advice to be had on how to survive parties etc. There has even been quite a spate of introvert-related books out recently, ranging from “Suck it up you guys, I don’t like hanging out with you” type manifestos like Party for One by Anneli S. Rufus, to deep ruminations on the essence of self (Rebecca Solnit; Wanderings, A Field Guide to Getting Lost). But even self-knowledge and top ten tips don’t really help with the nitty gritty of getting the balance right between things you really ought to do simply to be a card-carrying member of society (like the occasional office party or community clean up) and things you can strike off your to-do list without regret (like going to raves, gathering in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve and group therapy).

I like being part of my community; I know everyone on my street and everyone knows me, to the point where I need to plan in an extra half hour if I go to the supermarket because of all the chatting to be done along the way.
But what many people don’t realise, is that there is a flip side to that: intense social activity uses up a lot of energy, and to feel balanced again I sometimes need days, preferably several at a time, spent in solitude to “recharge”. This is the time when I can become creative and think, mull, and wander in my mind. Only when I am on my own do I dream up new ideas, whether it’s projects to raise money for the local playground, pie-in-the-sky ideas, or writing, reading and honing my business.


But I also know that after three days of working on a high-pressure translation project all by my lonesome I tend to get a little angsty about even the prospect of having to say “Drei Brötchen, bitte” at the baker’s, just in case my voice cracks with disuse. So this year I am making myself go to a few office parties. To help overcome my fraidy-cat-ness I remind myself how completely irrelevant my behaviour is in the big scheme of things. As long as I don’t slip and fall onto the buffet, or photocopy a moony at midnight with Clive from bookkeeping, I have a pretty good chance of getting through this without people snickering at my memory, right? Right?

This year I was invited to the “wrap” Christmas celebration of a three-year fixed project that I had been involved in as their main translator for the past 18 months. I had exchanged emails sometimes twenty times a day with these people, had grown fond of some, and felt I would like to go and actually meet up in person and thank them for the nice collaborative spirit that was present 99% of the time.


So off I trotted into the Berlin night, and after standing in the stairwell for a minute, willing myself to go in, I decided to be really ninja and just put myself out there. After hanging up my coat, I introduced myself to two friendly looking women standing close by and said “Hi! I actually don’t know a single person here, other than by email, I’m Galina the translator!” To which one of them replied, “Yes, you do! I know you! We met two months ago, remember at the opening?” Of course I had to pretend I remembered and so couldn’t ask her name, or what she did. BLUSH. And moving on swiftly to the buffet…

Later on, after having navigated the drinks and downed a glass of red, I accidentally started talking politics with one of the editors on the team. The sentence “Well, I suppose we’d better change the topic before we stab each other with these cake forks,” may have been uttered. And not by me. Moving on swiftly back to the buffet…


I did finally hit pay dirt at the cheese-cake-end of the buffet. A lovely woman working for a publishing house, whose main interests I shared: grammar and the etymology of obscure words. We hobnobbed over the history of words like “mole” and “Maulwurf” (yes! The same root!!!”)* and I shamelessly picked her brain on how to hyphenate foreign words in German (Pink-farbene Flip-flop-artige Pumps) for godssakes. Add the cheesecake to the mix and I was in nerd-heaven. We exchanged cards and I managed to get out in one piece, feeling rather proud of myself. It stands to reason that people are more likely to do business with people they know, like and trust. So, as long as you’re not like me, and can avoid getting stabbed by a cake fork at the buffet, you really should go to that office party this year!


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Ethics and Translation: Do Translators Have a Choice?

I have always been a very political person. It’s in my blood you could say. And I am not very good at shutting up when I see something happening that offends my personal ethical code of conduct. Some people call it “having a big mouth”. Whether it’s tragic suicide bomb attacks in Paris, or children dying in Gaza because medical supplies are being stopped by Israeli border controls, it makes my blood boil.
So “How the hell does that work out for someone who is paid to translate someone else’s opinion and basically “shut the f*** up” or at least take a back seat with her own thoughts?” I hear you wondering very loudly.


In my experience, in person, translators are just as opinionated as anyone else on all the touchy subjects: gender equality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the refugee crisis, Adidas or Puma, the Oxford comma, all those niggly difficult issues we all struggle with daily.
But, yes, as translators we have to learn to switch off our own opinions to a certain extent if we are going to do a good job.
Obviously, if you are translating instructions for the latest blendtec blender you aren’t going to feel too torn ethically speaking. Even though you might feel a jolt of “capitalism gone crazy” after watching the ad.* And with my chosen subjects, I certainly don’t run the risk of being asked to translate anything involving fossil fuel extraction, car engines or armaments. But even I have come up with the odd twinge of conscience, whether translating for the textile industry, fashion magazines or for plain old marketing texts.

Casual sexism is an issue I come across regularly. It’s insidious because it is often in small details and undermines confidence without you even noticing if you don’t watch out. (Anyone who has a daughter who says, “But am I even allowed to have the blue jumper, it’s in the boys’ section?” will know what I am talking about.) So as a translator and copy editor I do feel a responsibility to point it out to my clients.


I just translated a piece for a communications company with interviews of CEOs in various positions within the company. All the women were referred to (after the initial complete name and title) by their first names (Kathrin, Hanni etc.), while the men continued to be referred to as “Schmidt” and “Peterson”. Mere detail, but immediately conjuring the image of seniority and expertise (in the men) in contrast to the young-sounding women’s names. A short note is all it takes, you don’t have to lecture the client. “It would be stylistically more consistent to stick to all surnames or first names throughout, with both men and women.”

Over the years I have translated from warp to weft throughout the textile and fashion industry, from jeans dyeing techniques to press releases for couture wedding gowns: I know where the dress is made, who the target group is and at which fashion weeks it is presented. I sometimes even know the factory guidelines on toilet breaks for the ladies who make the dress. Naturally I don’t have to agree or disagree, I have to eat, and my opinion is not desired, and my expertise would be lacking anyway. (Hey, try using crêpe de chine instead of polyester? No, I don’t think so.)

But when translating “…our company believes in sustainable and fair factory conditions,” (in Bangladesh) isn’t it my job to point out weaknesses in the source text, and to suggest to the client that more information is needed, if the company in question isn’t to be accused of “green and whitewashing” with such glib generalisations? (I mean, some people believe in the Loch Ness Monster, but that won’t make the world a better place.) By pointing things out, I get to keep my integrity, and the client has an improved text while avoiding potential embarrassment or the ire of some NGO or PC watchdog.

A special skill translators are gifted with, is the ability to see the world from (at least) two different perspectives. If we are really good at our jobs, we can go “undercover” and pass for native speakers of whatever language we have chosen as our target language. At least until the third beer, which is luckily something my clients rarely get to see. So most translators can empathise with feelings of “otherness”, and also have an instinctive tolerance for cultural differences.


The writer Charlotte Otter wrote in a recent blog post “Radical Acts of Empathy” about the role of the writer in providing an insight that is obscured for many: seeing the humanity of others – “in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own. We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.”**

Beautiful words that apply to the role of the translator perhaps to an even greater extent, because we deal, not in our own insights, but in those of others.
In times of war and strife especially, it seems that our vocation as translators means one thing above all: a quest to foster further understanding, rather than fuelling distrust or misunderstanding. Doctors have their Hippocratic oath, but we have St. Jerome, who, as a Christian, was known foremost for a) translating the bible and b) his writings on moral life in the urban hubs of the first century. (Apparently he was also very fond of telling women how to live their lives but that’s another story…)

Recently there was a petition going round on Facebook urging the UN to prioritise the safety of translators and interpreters in war zones all over the world. Then the Paris attacks jolted me out of my complacent “I love my job, I get to sit in my peaceful flat, in my peaceful part of town all day” mood. Here in central Europe, we imagine ourselves safe from these threats, but how much imagination do we need, to imagine that other translators, with whom we share chatrooms and “talk to” via online translator groups, are living with that kind of threat every day. There are military translators, and interpreters out in the field, translators in Gaza working on medical aid lists, there are people just like you and me who just happen to work in Syria, some of whom, like Alya Abadi, a translator based in Latakia, have nothing to do with the conflict that rages around her. I asked her whether or not people working in her field are left out of the conflict:

“No one here is particularly respected, not even reporters or medical teams, that goes for all sides. In the conflict everyone is questioned and is often a target, and any worker from one side is an enemy, whatever their mission or role (even rescuers). Armed entities (of all sides – we have more than two sides battling!) have the upper hand everywhere and there is no law to follow if they decide otherwise.”

In the past there was always an international unspoken rule that medical staff, press and associated jobs like translators and interpreters were exempt from intentional violence. After all, these were people without any vested interest in the conflict, simply people helping to promote communication or save lives.

When it comes down to it, choosing to be a translator has something to do with a desire to make understood and to understand. A longing to clarify or avoid misunderstandings caused by different languages and ethnicities.

So, surely we have the right to speak out, to have an ethical code? I think it is our vocation to have one and to use it.

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(For those too young to know, this is Spock from Star Trek showcasing an “intergalactic translation machine”… I think.

There are plenty of translators out there who are comfortable going with the “If I don’t do it, there are thousands who will,” attitude when it comes to jobs, and many more may feel uncomfortable, but simply need to make rent. I have been there too, and I am not here to judge. But allow me the luxury of dreaming the world where we translators dedicate our lives to furthering knowledge of other cultures, deepening connections and building bridges of peace.

And yes, I am fully aware it is a pipe dream. Or should I trouble Brecht for his “quotable” again?
“Erst das Fressen, dann die Moral.”

Nevertheless, we should be proud to be working to promote understanding, whether it is about tourist spots, medical supplies, new research on fungi or textiles. Having an ethical standpoint however, and knowing where our “line” is drawn, defines who we are and helps us to feel more comfortable with ourselves and our roles in this sometimes terrible, but overwhelmingly beautiful world. No one said we have to accept the world as we find it!

Lest we forget: The pen is so much mightier than the gun.




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