Thoughts on Translation

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.


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).


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?)

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.


*to get a bead on is orni lingo for “see” (beady eye)
Cf. British Woodland stats: London has 8% woodland, and 11,2% in England as a whole.







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 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.


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.



There is even a “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks! Well worth a visit:

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



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.

Books for Translators: What does your bookshelf say about you?


In the digital era we translators can no longer be judged purely on the basis of the stack of specialist dictionaries on our desks. Our tools have become invisible to the inexperienced eye…the dragon icon could be a gardening app, the trados symbol a browser button. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary and are just tabs in our diverse arsenal. Gone are the days when you could tell an expert by the size of his dic…tionary. (sorry, couldn’t resist).
So is your bookshelf a mere vestigial limb, just a distant reminder of when you had to lug that damn Langenscheidt or Larousse to the exams with you? Or is it a vibrant representation of your current high-energy career as a busy translator, replete with examples of your work as well as packed with new additions from the world of linguistics?

Back in the age of paper and ink, my grandmother gave me a great piece of advice: “Before you marry anyone, check their bookshelves carefully. They will resemble the owner’s brain. If they are empty, so too will be their brains.”

Not sure if it is always as clear cut as that, but I followed her advice, only to find out later that the presence of Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, which had assured me I was with the right guy, had been on his school curriculum and he hadn’t even opened it!

But recently I have been beginning to suspect that no one gives a flying synonym anymore about what’s on people’s bookshelves. Because no one looks at bookshelves anymore. Before you meet someone, you can spend hours trawling their instagram/twitter accounts instead. And any self-respecting urban nomad would be crazy to prioritise boxes of books if she can have it all on a Kindle or a Tablet. But what of the haptics, the pleasure of leafing through books, several spread out before you at any one time and, of course, the leisure to do so? I am still instinctively drawn to bookshelves at a party or dinner (yes, possibly sometimes because of the superior pleasures to be found there, but sometimes simply to find old friends, to confirm that my real-life friendships are supported by our inner lives too).

So here is an ode to the well-stocked translator’s bookshelf, and what (in my opinion) should be on it.

  1. Punctuation

When I was starting out as a wee young translator, still wet behind the ears, my mother gave me a little green book, quaintly called Poulsham’s Cloth-Bound Pocket Library: Correct Punctuation and Effective Sentence Construction, published in 1929, which she had bought when she moved to Coventry in the late sixties from the GDR and needed to learn English fast. It helped me enormously when I was trying to get to grips with English punctuation, a subject which had been so sorely lacking in my general education. It also happens to be a quintessentially British work of arrogance and colonial conceit, with highly entertaining examples sourced from H.G. Wells and Dickens, and also boasting unlikely but oh-so-British sentences like:
Mr. Clutterbuck netted a clear profit of seven hundred pounds for his afternoon’s work, and took with his dinner—cocoa ! (sic)
The gloomy gentleman smoothed the nap of his silk hat with a loving hand, stood it carefully upon the floor and—jumped on it.
He crossed the floor (stands England where she did?) and greeted the dago as an equal. (sic)

I kid you not. Photographic proof upon request.

Thank goodness for the advent of Lynne Truss who finally filled the punctuation void with her upbeat and beautifully typeset Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She managed to make me feel passionate about grammar and protective of its (albeit sometimes erratic or illogical) rules too.


  1. Style

As a formerly loyal Grauniad reader it almost goes without saying that I often refer to the Guardian Style Guide (although not nearly comprehensive enough and always outdated within a couple of years) when it comes to questions of style. There are plenty of others out there, but I think every translator should at some point go all out for one style. The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson is a good book for getting the lay of the land, as it clearly differentiates three types of style: book-editing style, (based mainly on The Chicago Manual of Style) and science style and news/media/business style (based mainly on the Associated Press Stylebook). But beware, this is US-English so not everything applies to Brits. I have The Chicago Manual of Style in digital form but I think it makes sense for a translator to decide which style he will mainly be working in and stick to it. That way, when a client asks why you do things a certain way, you always have a reference and explanation. So if you write “good-bye” rather than “goodbye” you can point to your book style or science style guide and explain that only news/media style guides recommend writing it like that. (I admit, I have sometimes used this method retroactively, to defend some style decisions I have made instinctively, largely because German academics certainly like to get their facts straight! That’s how I ended up sticking to the Chicago when translating into US-English, which I am sometimes called on to do.


  1. Semantics

Sometimes, when I was arguing with my dad about something (aka trying to wriggle out of doing my jobs around the house) he would say in exasperation, “Well that’s just semantics!” or “That’s a tautological argument!” (which was worse than being told something was codswallop in my family). Ushering in a brief study of semantics and semiotics. There was Saussure with his arbitrary signifiers and signifieds, Steven Pinker with The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, and  Chomsky, who writes powerfully on the idea of how language can create reality, taking the American press as a case in point in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which made me realise how language can also be a weapon as well as a tool. I understood how language, and the vocabulary we use, is comprised of signs. Each sign carries so much more than just its literal meaning. I realised that as a translator I can transport not only literal meaning, but values, aspirations. So describing something as frivolous as a skirt by Coco Chanel, I could choose to describe it as “swishy,” “capacious,” “operatic” or “post-Utilitarian”, each in turn transporting different meanings, to those who know how to read the signifiers. Calling something “rad” is a completely different kettle of fish to calling something “revolutionary” or “innovative” or “new and different”. Each choice carries with it centuries of connotations, politics, class and stylistic preferences that your target group may be aware of, consciously or subconsciously, or not at all. So it is not only about the meaning of the original text, it is also about your audience. You could be the best translator in the world, but if you’re using Oxford English to translate a German poem for school kids in East LA, you might as well be using Farsi.


  1. Etymology

It’s always good to know your roots. This applies to your personal life, as well as for the language you use. Knowing the fascinating history behind the vocabulary and terminology of any language not only gives you a sense of history, engendering almost an automatic affection for the language you use, but it also helps make sense of words that are unfamiliar.

Melvyn Bragg’s book on the evolution of the British language entitled The Adventure of English is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in etymology or indeed in the rich history of the British Isles. I have read it twice, because I truly have the brain of a goldfish and while reading all those fascinating facts about how our language was shaped by over-zealous monks, or medieval Highland housewives, I forget it all immediately. Needless to say it is one I go back to again and again, like a goldfish revisiting that faux stone arch in its bowl.


  1. Monolingual Dictionaries
    (One at least for each language you work from and into.)
    As soon as you have progressed from basic level in a language, monolingual dictionaries are a must. They provide so much more detail and background information than bilingual ones.
    When I was studying German at Liverpool Uni, the Wahrig was prescribed. And there it still squats, with its fat sans-serif font in its bright red jacket. It led a sad and useless life, initially because of my heightened need for partying, and later, when I realised it didn’t even contain words like “Schlaumeier” or “Handy,” because it was so old. But, thinking that any self-respecting translator should at least make a gesture towards having a dictionary in hard copy (just imagine if the internet broke!) I chose to go with the Duden because, as well as the heft and haptics, the fact that you automatically scan and come across other words while you search is an added bonus. The Collins I invested in for the same reason, however it only comes off the shelf when my dad is visiting to trounce me at scrabble.
  1. Thesauri (Usually, however, one will suffice.)
    Roget’s Thesaurus used to be a source of great enjoyment when I was a teenager writing lovelorn poetry and trying to find words to rhyme with “Depeche Mode” or “depressed”. Or when translating German music lyrics for friends who expected them to miraculously rhyme and sound like Rolling Stones hits. But these days I use, because it is faster and you can more easily play “word tag” – you know, where you are searching for a word in your mind and you click on a similar word to find the one that eluded you.
  2. Grammar
    Reference books once fulfilled a purpose that has perhaps now largely been replaced by the internet, but the individual history of certain reference books is still fascinating.
    For example my stepmother recently gave me a doorstop of a book, which, considering my normal suitcase situation when I return from London (think Angel Delight, teabags, Branston Pickle and Paxo), I was initially reticent to accept.
    But I am glad I managed to squeeze it in, as I now use it on a weekly basis when proofing German texts.
    It’s a lovely turquoise-coloured Deutsche Grammatik by Gerhard Helbig. My stepmother told me how academic colleagues of hers and many dedicated West German language students would cross the border into the East especially to buy it, because it was such a definitive and well-written grammar, rivalling any produced in the West. I have to admit, even now, thirty years on, it is incredibly accessible and easy to navigate, and useful despite subsequent reforms in the German language. It also has such choice nuggets as these for my enjoyment:

“Ein Komma steht dagegen nicht, wenn das Verhältnis der Satzglieder zueinander nicht adversativ sondern kopulativ ist.” (Beispiel: Das Wetter war stürmisch und kalt.”


  1. Translators’ Continuing Professional Development
    These days there are quite a few resources out there for translators or those planning to become one. I don’t think I really even thought of it as a “thing” when I started out, assuming it was something people did in addition to a “proper” job.
    The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban really changed that for me. I vividly remember not wanting to read it, having an instinctive aversion to books that seem to be telling me what to think or “how to…xyz.” I had a deep-seated belief that if you did what you were passionate about, the rest would follow, or not. The idea that as an individual you have quite a lot of control over your career trajectory and financial situation was new to me and made me somewhat nervous. I think it is something many translators feel. If we were hewing ice blocks we’d feel fine about charging a decent rate, but because it’s something we often feel passionate about, it somehow feels immoral. Which is indeed why housewives are still not paid and why we raise kids thinking it is a privilege rather than seeing it for what it is: a contribution to society. Just because something is fun (at least most of the time), it doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to earn a living wage!
    In a similar vein, Corinne McKay’s Thoughts on Translation and How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and a more recent addition, Andrew Morris’s book, Standing Out, offer broader motivational tips and strategies on how to approach our work and clients in general. They are all well worth reading, especially if you are struggling with your position in the realm of translation, financially, or personally. Not every translator-related problem can be solved by changing your attitude (I still think there are certain language pairs or areas of the industry that make it very hard to feel “abundance” no matter how good your contacts and skill set), but no harm has ever come from being “can-do” and friendly in your approach and going that extra mile for a client.
  2. Use and Abusage
    There is a whole series of wonderful guides called Penguin Reference that I find very useful. I am especially fond of Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge, because it has a witty, light touch. It has been updated several times since he wrote it and is easy to use: basically, it’s an alphabetical list of the problems and pitfalls in our language. I guarantee you will be a better writer and translator for it. And for some light reading at bedtime, may I recommend Bill Bryson’s chuckle-filled Troublesome Words (the ideal stocking filler for any language buff)?
  3. Translation and Linguistics
    I was full of anticipation when I was given the promisingly entitled: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos for Christmas a few years ago. Expecting humour on a par with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy combined with linguistic bonmots, I was initially disappointed. This book is really dense, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t raise false expectations with a title or a cover…because I almost put it in the Oxfam pile. But after I was over my disappointment at not being entertained, it turned out that this book was actually a mine of information. For example, did you know that 75% of ALL literary translations are either into or from English? (Source: UNESCO) Also, surprisingly, that this is followed by French, German and Russian, with Spanish coming in at only 5th! No wonder EN–SP translators are sometimes struggling in the market, grappling with low prices. Fascinating also, the fact that German often serves as a “pivotal” language, with many books being translated first into German before they catch the attention of other nations and markets and are then in turn translated into other languages (sometimes, from the German translation). (Thank you to the healthy and protected German literary market! No three-for-twos here, thank you very much!) There are also chapters on machine translation, interpreting and literary translation as well as on human rights, and even on translating humour. Truly something in here for everyone, even if I don’t agree with everything and hope that some of it isn’t true, such as this quote:

“In the English-speaking world, there are no job postings for literary translators and few openings for beginners. Insofar as it is renumerated at all, literary translation is paid at piece rates equivalent to a babysitter’s hourly charge. It is pursued mainly by people who have other sources of incomes to pay the rent and the grocer. There are a few exceptions, but literary translation into English is for the most part done by amateurs.”

  1. And if you want to beat me to it, read Spell it Out, The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal, a no-nonsense brisk walk through all the vagaries of English spelling, because I think I’ll pass, after reading the intro. He seems a bit peeved that anyone (like Bernard Shaw) could ever accuse English spelling of being “chaotic, inconsistent or unpredictable” and goes on to disprove anyone who dares to say so. But I quite like the fact that our language is so wonderfully impossible. Why do we need to prove that there is method to the madness, when the vagaries of history and various conquering nations are to thank for our rich and crazy lingo?

And so I will leave you with:
“Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.”

So, tell me, fellow translators, which books do you have on your bookshelf that you simply couldn’t do without?