The Glamorous Life of a Fashion Translator Part II

(Boredom alert! For fashionista word nerds and wannabes only!)

IMG_20160603_124131Having established in Part One that translating fashion texts isn’t quite as glamorous as you might think and that fashion translators aren’t necessarily always sitting in the front row in Milano or being showered with gifts from designer labels, it’s time to run through the real nitty-gritty, the actual working process. Or at least the one that works for us, and by us I mean Trend Translations (, my long-standing partnership with my translation colleague and proofreading sidekick Paula Hedley.

We translate everything from press releases for designers and collection descriptions for websites to invitations to Fashion Week parties but one of our favourite fashion clients is a specialist magazine for the fashion biz. It’s an invaluable source for the latest in jeans and contemporary trends and is published four times a year. Here’s how we tackle this particular job:

  1. We start off by being sent a rundown of the coming issue (“Ausgabenplan” in German) from the editor-in-chief, stating the various deadlines for delivery of text for the journalists and our translations, and also the time slots allocated for the correction period, layout etc. For deadline read “Time from which the editor will start hassling everyone and getting frantic.” Inevitably the whole process is stretched out over a few weeks so it’s best not to book our holidays until the issue is flying off the printing press and our job is officially done. Sometimes the contributors send their texts directly, but mostly they are sent by the editor after being tweaked and fact-checked.
  1. It’s always a bit like Christmas when we start receiving the texts from the various editors and contributors because the magazines we work for are usually packed with interesting interviews and articles about leading designers and manufacturers and brands, which are a real pleasure to read and of course to translate. There are also some witty puff pieces or lengthier in-depth articles and essays, as well as a city guide in each issue.
  1. Paula or I compile an Excel chart of the texts to be translated, which we upload to OneDrive in a file we are both authorised to update and read. We update as we go along, sharing out the texts between us as equally as possible. Then basically we get on with translating, using whichever method suits us best. Until now we’ve been very old-school – not quite paper and plume, but without the whole CAT tool shebang. However, we’re currently working on sharing termbases and translation memories and dipping our toes in the ocean that is Memsource and memoQ. And we find that Dragon (speech-recognition software) is very useful when translating interviews as it helps to capture the laid-back flow of the speakers, and of course speeds things up immensely.
  1. We upload all documents to Google Drive or OneDrive to make sure everyone in the team has access to them, even if one of us is working at an airport or sitting in a kayak in the middle of a lake, the digital nomads that we are! We send each other everything for proofing, sometimes bouncing a particularly tricky piece back and forth four or five times.
  1. There’s always lots of research to be done, the names and spellings of every brand name, manufacturer and store as well as their website URLs have to be checked and double checked, and I try not to get side-tracked by browsing Drykorn’s website or held up reading interviews with designers I admire. You have to be au fait with the latest terminology: what used to be a jumpsuit or a boiler suit is now referred to as “onesie” and what was known as a leotard in my day is now a “body”, for example. Heels are now sometimes referred to as “pumps” which reminds me more of stinky black rubber plimsolls from school sports than sexy stiletto heels.

Although major German newspapers have their own style guides, of course no German-produced magazine has a dedicated English style guide, so it’s up to us to be consistent, even if only galão-sipping transatlantic Parisians are reading us. So if we spell Cracow without an accent once we have to make sure we do it throughout the entire issue. That’s Paula’s specialty. And of course it helps that we both enjoy leafing through the latest issue of British Vogue and The Business of Fashion and checking out the reviews of Fashion Weeks in the New York Times and Harpers Bazaar, for a feel of the kind of language used.

  1. Once we’ve sent all our finished translations off to the graphic designer for layout, the editorial team will often come back at us with last-minute changes, urgent new texts or headings that might need translating etc. That might mean a phone call while we’re navigating the supermarket aisles with our trolley or a late-night one-liner on WhatsApp. We often work evenings when the deadline is nearing. It’s simply part of the job, and one we both take in our stride, trying to make sure we balance things out with a Thai massage, enough sport and some digital detoxing when the magazine is hot off the press. But you do need nerves of steel sometimes when fielding the increasingly plaintive demands of the graphic designer waiting to be “fed” with new texts and the in-transit messages from the editor who is already halfway around the globe at her next destination or interview for the next issue and doesn’t have the foggiest where the final version of the intro for the fashion tradeshow text might be.
  2. Paula, who is geographically nearer to the editorial team for our main magazine client, has the highly responsible and difficult job of checking the final proofs by hand with the graphic designer at his office. That’s why she is always a real stickler about removing any unnecessary mistakes ahead of time and has a pet hate of stray “straight” apostrophes that Dragon sneaks in. She’s the one who saves the magazine the embarrassment of printing the wrong year on the cover and can always be relied upon when it comes to spelling difficult designer names like Proenza Schouler and Walter Van Beirendonck.vogue_pool_2

Now for the pros and cons…


  1. Freebies: I’m really bad at this, but I have streetwise colleagues who are always bagging themselves freebies and goodie bags like the cute monthly My Little Box subscriptions – as well as commanding top rates!
  2. Decent pay: Working for PR companies, as well as agencies who cater to big brands means they are willing to pay higher rates for your additional skills, which will include excellent copywriting, as well as ensuring you’re clued-up on all the terminology. They sometimes simply pass the cost on to their clients so they are looking for quality rather than a cheap rush job. I love these clients because they really value your language skills and know that one spelling faux pas (Columbia instead of Colombia for example) can ruin a whole advertising campaign. Fashion magazines and tradeshow guides generally pay less, but the upside is that it’s regular work and a large chunk in one go. So although it’s stressful, you can allow yourself a luxury break afterwards.
  3. Second-hand glamour: You can certainly ask your clients to get you into fashion shows, and some may even offer you clothing in lieu of payment. A colleague I know receives cool streetwear in return for proofreading texts for the label’s catalogues. Obviously that’s not going to pay the rent but it’s a very nice bonus.
  4. Being in the know: You will be one of the first people in town to know about new trends and upcoming collections. If you want to be an “early adopter” and wear culottes and blousons before they hit the high street, then this is the job for you!IMG_1969
    Another day at the office…


  1. Online distractions: When researching whether that buckskin waistcoat has a vertical or a horizontal mid-seam, it is easy to suddenly find yourself filling up your shopping cart on ASOS or, heaven forbid, Maison Margiela, and spending every cent you earned that day in the process.
  2. Raison d’être: It’s hard to convince yourself you are truly making a difference when you translate fashion. If you are planning to bag a Nobel Peace Prize you need to look elsewhere, and translation-wise you should probably also find a balance by doing stuff that makes the grey matter cry ouch every once in a while. But we shouldn’t have to live under a bridge just to translate or write that world-shattering opus. Personally I love writing my own stuff, translating texts for documentary film narration or the odd stint for an art book or museum catalogue. But I also love the airy lightness and joy of fashion work.
  3. You will be asked to work for free a lot…whether it’s “just three Instagram hashtags” or “two Facebook posts, daahhling!” So you need to practice saying no and choose carefully when to say yes.
  4. Stress: Magazine deadlines, tradeshows, Press Days and the week preceding Fashion Week. Basically your yearly calendar has its stress curves already drawn in for you. That’s when everyone is scrambling to get their press releases written and sent out. Even if I am not planning any visits to fashion events I make sure I keep the week beforehand light in terms of social activities as that’s usually when emergency work comes flooding in. In the commercial world in general, where time is money, fast turnarounds are often a must. But especially in the fashion industry, where the large chain stores are taking inspiration from the catwalks and transforming them into off-the-peg cheap fashion within six weeks, every second counts.

So, if all this sounds like it would float your boat, and you are already an experienced translator with a penchant for creative texts, you will need to get out there and network with people from the fashion sector, meet young up-and-coming designers (offer to translate their “About us” page for free, for example,) attend tradeshows, or even study a particular aspect of the trade you find interesting (design, marketing, textiles etc.). Glass of champagne at Berlin Fashion Week anyone?vogue pool

*Photo credits Paula Hedley.



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?



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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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Which town is this? Answers on a postcard.



And this?

207 bus at Shepherd's Bush

And an easy one to finish…


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




MY FIRST TIME: ELIA Together in Barcelona

A translators’ conference by the European Language Industry Association.

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Putting the “Free” Back into Freelancing

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

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

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

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

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

It was less this:

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

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

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

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


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

We need to RELAX!

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

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

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

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

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

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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!