Do you have a skill that you recognize is actually rather difficult but you’re really great at and love doing?
That’s translation for me.
Translation lies at the intersection of foriegn language, culture, and writing. If you don’t know any of the language or culture of the language you’re translating from, you won’t understand the text and its nuances. If you’re not a skilled writer, you won’t be able to localize the text in the best, most colloquial way possible. Translation is a combination of science and art. And I love it.
I was first introduced to the intricacy of translation while studying abroad in Spain. Since we were only there for one month over the summer, most of our classes only met for a couple of sessions. We had one translation class where we visited the place that we would be translating text for, and then the very next class was where we reviewed our work. Each group presented their text on slides of a powerpoint so that we could workshop their translation as a class.
Overall, we were able to confirm everyone’s localizations, more or less. There was one slide that stuck with me long after class was over, however. I couldn’t figure out why, but I could feel in my gut that something was wrong with the translated text. I asked the English major next to me if it seemed wrong to her. No, she thought it was fine. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the error was a preposition. A preposition. One of the smallest, least consequential words that we almost know through intuition better than through grammar rules.
At that moment, I realized that every translation was an intricate puzzle, and the only clue that I would have to solve it was my favorite tool of all: English grammar. It’s giving me butterflies just thinking about it.
After that class, I took every possible opportunity to take translation courses. Since my major was French, that was the only language where I really had the opportunity to take these courses. When I studied abroad in France, I studied translation under a brilliant English professor who loved to use me as an example of American English pronunciation of words. I still remember one class where a student was having trouble pronouncing the word “thought.” She wrote it on the board and repeated it in British English. “Thought.” “Thought.”
Then, without warning, she pointed at me. Oh, did she need me to-? Got it.
“Thought.” And because I’m a child who feels starstruck when a professor (especially a French translation professor!) notices me, I was all kinds of giddy from that brief interaction.
Every course gave such amazing insight into the different ways that we use language. One class, we had an entire discussion about how to translate “we had pancakes for breakfast.” They don’t typically have pancakes for breakfast in France. So do you use crêpes? Well, they don’t really have crêpes for breakfast. So do you use a typical French breakfast? Do you leave it as pancakes and make it clear that the characters are in the US? Do you see how cool this is?!
For my final project for that course, I translated a fable from French to English. I didn’t only want to translate words and meaning, but I also wanted the extra challenge of maintaining a rhyme scheme. It was one of my favorite assignments to do as a student. This helped to cement my love for translation as well. You know, when you want to go above and beyond to challenge yourself when doing something difficult, that it’s what you’re meant to be doing.
When I’m really deep into my fantasies about the future (and not imagining myself playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton or starring in my own romcom), I’m teaching French translation at a college. Like my favorite translation professors, I would run class like a workshop, where we would all bounce ideas off each other. Every class would be a fun time where I’d challenge them with all different kinds of texts and we’d discuss the nuances of English language. Is there anything more fun than exploring language in a collaborative learning environment? Answer: hell no!
Since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve considered going back for my masters in French translation several times. Due to a lack of available online programs and anxiety surrounding school, I haven’t been able to commit to a program. Instead, I am a freelance translator in my spare time. For the most part, I stick to short blog posts since I don’t have too much time for longer projects. I haven’t been able to do much translating recently, but it’s always a treat when I can. There’s nothing like that feeling you get when you figure out the perfect colloquial localization of a passage. I have been known to happy dance and/or squeal and/or call Josh excitedly when this happens. I don’t only enjoy translation, but I feel accomplished when I know that I’ve done an awesome translation. A couple of years ago, I was able to translate a self-help book for a French life coach, and while it was never published, I still consider this to be my greatest professional accomplishment.
I believe that everyone has a talent like this. Everyone has a superpower where they know they can perform above par. Translation is mine. What’s yours?