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Super translator – super woman
Hilary Robertson

Today, the spotlight is on Hilary Robertson, MBA, C. Tr. She joined Norton Rose Fulbright Canada’s predecessor firm, Ogilvy Renault, in 1986 and has earned a reputation as a reliable source of reference on English translation in Quebec. She and her husband have four children. Although Hilary is a “superwoman,” we know that she would not like us to write that, so let’s say instead that she is a “super woman.”

Interview by Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.

Hilary, could you summarize your academic career / career path for our readers? What led you to choose translation as a profession?

At the age of 14, on a family trip to Paris, I toured the UNESCO building and saw the main conference hall with the interpreters’ cabins. That confirmed for me that I wanted to be an interpreter or a translator at an international organization such as the UN.

Following my M.A. Honours in French and German language and literature at the University of Edinburgh, I completed a one-year postgraduate diploma in translating and interpreting at the University of Bath. The timing was perfect, as Britain had just joined the EU and linguists with English mother tongue were in demand at all the EU institutions. I worked for the Commission in Brussels as a trainee and junior interpreter for the next two years. However, my boyfriend decided to emigrate to Canada after he graduated, so I took a sabbatical for what I intended to be an absence of a few years at most! I quickly discovered that it would be hard to earn a living in Canada doing conference interpreting, which at the time was very seasonal, so I switched to translation. I was also attracted by the opportunity offered by translation to dig deeper into the subject matter than interpreting allows. My first real job as a translator was at a pulp mill in Port-Cartier, on the Quebec North Shore. Later we moved to Montreal, where I worked at Domtar, then Clarkson Gordon (now Ernst & Young) and finally Ogilvy Renault (now Norton Rose Fulbright Canada). Ogilvy Renault was the first place where I was hired exclusively as a French to English translator, but everywhere I worked, I was always the first and mostly the only translator with English as a mother tongue.

This is the question that a lot of people would like to ask you: How were you able to balance your job and family life with four children, particularly when the kids were young?

I don’t think there was much balance in our family life. My husband was self-employed and completing an MBA and a series of advanced finance courses. I was working full-time in jobs which required a lot of overtime and doing an MBA part-time for 8 years, during which time three of our children were born, and also doing freelance translation! Our social life was non-existent. I did a lot less reading for pleasure and neglected my physical fitness. I’m now trying to make up for lost time!

In those years I learned to focus on the present moment. If I was with the children, I tried to be 100% present to them and when I was at work I focused on getting everything done before 5 pm or, if that was not possible, after 9 pm. We tried hard to keep one day a week for family time.

Could you describe some of the challenges faced by legal translators today? What do think Google Translate’s impact will be on our profession?

The same pressures apply in legal translation as in other sectors. We are constantly being asked to produce more pages, more quickly and more cheaply. Clients sometimes tell us that “A rough draft will do. No need for it to be perfect.” Unfortunately, once the translation leaves our desk, we have no idea who the end users will be and they may not know that we were asked to produce a less-than-perfect product, so we usually ignore that instruction.

Many of our clients ask for a cost estimate before giving us work, so we have to be able to quickly assess the number of hours we are likely to spend on a document. Once we give an estimate, we will probably have to justify any significant cost overrun, so we cross our fingers and hope that the document doesn’t contain any terminological or stylistic minefields!

Of course, we use translation aids such as translation memories, but in doing so, I believe there is a risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over again, which ends up giving them credibility, and of not taking the time to improve on past translations.

Probably only a very small percentage of all translations is actually done by professional translators. A lot is done by specialists in other fields who have a good mastery of a second or third language and increasingly also by lay people using gisting software. The results of Google Translate can be quite sufficient for certain very limited uses. Since the competition from these sources will not go away, translators should examine which language combinations are in most demand and which ones are more difficult to process using translation software. We should also focus on documents where clients are willing to pay for high quality and high value added—literary translation, technical translation (including medical, financial and legal translation). In this connection, I am delighted to see the vast improvement in the range of continuing education programs offered by OTTIAQ and other organizations in these fields in the past few years.

Legal translation in Quebec is quite unique because of the fact that we are governed by civil law rather than common law. How do your clients outside Quebec react to Civil Code terminology, e.g., the French term délit is translated by delict (CCQ) in English as opposed to tort (common law)?

Since most of the translation we do is for clients who want to understand documents being used in Quebec, we almost always use civil law terminology. A lot of the work we receive comes to us through the lawyers of our firm, who are better placed to explain the differences between common law and civil law concepts to clients. We should also remember that there are many variations in the terminology used in different common law jurisdictions, so clients who deal frequently with other jurisdictions usually take these differences in their stride. Where we have more difficulty is when translating judgments, which occasionally refer to civil law concepts used by doctrinal writers whose work is not available in English. My preferred resource in those situations is the website containing the judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada.

You served on an OTTIAQ committee for a long time. Could you tell us about your experience? Why is volunteering important for you?

I only served on the certification committee for four years. During that time we had a constant flow of applications to review, and I gained a new understanding of the difficulties faced by new graduates entering the profession and the lack of opportunities for them to work with more experienced colleagues. The other members of the committee were all incredibly dedicated and we should be very grateful for the amount of time they volunteer for our professional order.

I also volunteered as a literacy tutor for several years with Reclaim, which serves the English- speaking community in Montreal by providing adult literacy tutoring. This was an extremely rewarding experience, which I hope to resume when I retire.

Who are your favourite authors, or which are your favourite books, and what are you reading right now?

First, two Ians. I love the twists and turns of Ian McEwan’s novels and for holiday/travel reading I enjoy Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, which is set in Edinburgh. Joseph Boyden is one of my favourite Canadian writers. I thoroughly enjoyed Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road. I have yet to read The Orenda. I recently finished Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I couldn’t put down.

I currently have two books waiting for me: Zadie Smith’s NW and Isabel Allende’s Maya’s Notebook.

Thank you, Hilary!

hilary robertson
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