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Three Days to Translate in Quebec City

By Meaghan Girard, C. Tr.

Having had a particularly hectic spring and summer, and feeling particularly out of the loop as a result, I decided the time had more than come to touch base with the world again. I tore myself away from my work desk, packed my bags and headed east to the three-day Translate in Quebec City conference, praying to the translation gods that no emergencies would arise during my absence.

As the name would suggest, the fourth edition of the yearly “Translate in” conference took place in Quebec City. This conference certainly hones in on the international dimension of translation, inviting and welcoming speakers and participants from all over the world. Moreover, although still in its early years, the conference has already crossed borders: The Catskills (New York) formed the backdrop for the first two editions; the Eastern Townships, the third; and rumour has it that the fifth edition may be in Europe. Another interesting aspect of the conference is there is both a French and an English track, and participants are free to cross from one side to the other. One can easily envisage a third track being added as the word continues to spread about this already popular conference.

It does take that many drafts

A cocktail party kick-started the conference. I had been nervous about the networking aspect of this event, but delicious bites and a room full of interesting, friendly people certainly put me at ease. My goal had been to introduce myself to at least three people, but by the end of the night,
I had met about half the room. Many people shared their impressions of the changing market in the last 20 or 30 years; others, the quirks of their fields. I had opted against signing up for the extra activities—no way I was going to “work” from 8 a.m. to midnight!—but I almost instantly regretted this decision. As it turns out, networking with your fellow translators is not work!

I attended all the workshops in the English track. First up: The Translation Slam. Chris Durban and Ros Schwartz had each prepared a translation of the text in advance, which they shared with the crowd. The pairing was particularly interesting, as the text belonged to Chris’ area of expertise, but Ros brought her literary background into the mix. It’s always nice to be reminded that several translations are possible for the same text. It’s also refreshing to see how humble premium-market translators can be about their craft: Chris and Ros often drew attention to problems with their own translation, or complimented the other on their turn of phrase or unique solution. They also gave us a glimpse into their process. For instance, Chris shared the logic that took her from solution X in her fourth draft to solution Y in her fifth (and in the same breath affirmed that, yes, it does take that many drafts to reach a final, professional translation).

Fine-tuning our style

Grant Hamilton not only organized the conference, but also led three workshops solo (One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Style to the Rescue of Technical Texts, and Spot the Gallicism), as well as a fourth workshop with co-author of Tweet et gazouillis pour des traductions qui chantent and partner in crime, François Lavallée (Two Exercises, Two Languages, Twice as Much to Learn!). These workshops, designed to fine-tune style, tap into the musicality of the English language and stay clear of “knee-jerk translations,” provided us with a wealth of linguistic resources to draw on, including, for those who weren’t in the know, the tweets regularly posted by Grant and François. Grant, a master wordsmith, created a fun, laid-back atmosphere that brought a smile to many of our faces as he revealed his ingenious solutions to words like “pertinent,” “dynamique,” “valoriser
and (something which felt very topical, two months later, on reviewing my notes) “quelques flocons de neige.”

Chris Durban led two complementary workshops: Ringing in the New Year (in Translation), and Working with Constraints: Reconciling Words and Images, during which she demonstrated how holiday greetings were a strategic opportunity for translators to “stretch [their] style muscles” and “prove [their] worth” to clients. Both of her workshops also teemed with valuable business advice for freelancers, from the benefits of working with
a partner to how to present hard truths to clients, distance yourself from doomed, ill-conceived projects (while providing professional support, of course) and how to put thought into the holiday gifts you send to clients.

David Jemielity also led two workshops. The first, Deixis: The Sequel, explored the notion of deixis (essentially, the use of time and space markers in a text) in French-to-English translation. He explained that English translations sometimes feel a little “off” at the macro level because French style and structure often leave some details open to interpretation, whereas English style and structure, to be idiomatic, have to be anchored more firmly in a spatiotemporal context. In other words, for the English translation to sound natural, the translator must add time and space markers (more aggressive or precise use of verb tenses, attention to the use of “this” and “that”) which may only be more or less implied in the source text. For the second workshop, Frequency of Use: Something You Need to Know About, David shared some of the key findings of his frequency studies (comparisons of word use between a corpus of “Anglo” annual reports and a corpus of translated annual reports), which related to the grievous overuse or underuse of specific words in translations as opposed to similar documents written in English. For instance, translations tend to rely almost exclusively on the demonstrative adjective “this,” rather than on the more balanced mix of “this” and “that” found in English texts; similarly, the use of the third person is avoided in translations of annual reports, even though it seems to be the norm in English texts.

At the session Literary Translation: A Hands-on Workshop Translating Two Stories by Quebec Author Gilles Pellerin), Ros Schwartz afforded us the incredible opportunity of working directly with author Gilles Pellerin. We tried our hand at translating two of his stories, which were rife with Quebec imagery, culture, and references. Ros provided us with her first draft of the short stories, which we could choose to use as a springboard, and we attempted to tease out and convey the many layers of meaning in groups of three or four. Pellerin wrapped up the workshop by giving us his experience of being on the “source” side of the fence. Interestingly, he mentioned that we often found “double meanings” where he had not intended any; sometimes a cross is simply a cross... even in Quebec!

Great words of advice

On Saturday, with the workshops coming to a close, I expected the panel discussion to consist of some run-of-the-mill Q&As. I couldn’t imagine anything spectacular coming on the heels of new, paradigm-shifting approaches to translation. I was wrong: The speakers had yet another treat in store. They were asked to give three pieces of advice, which they wrote out on pieces of cardboard and presented one by one. It was brilliant. Here are a few on my favourites:

“Get out of your office and spend time with people” (Chris Durban)
Otherwise, you lose your social skills and start barking at people. Spend time with clients. Even if you don’t say anything, just listen, and you’ll gradually develop the social skills that are absolutely essential to working with good clients.

Ne jamais paniquer(Réal Paquette)
If you feel panic setting in, then give the file to someone else. If you reach this point, you’re not going to do a good job.

“Immerse yourself in language” (Ros Schwartz)
Don’t simply read voraciously in the source and target texts; be active in that process. Just like musicians warm up doing scales, warm up by doing crosswords. Eavesdrop on the bus... and do it shamelessly. When you hear someone use the word that you’ve been searching for these last three weeks, interrupt them in mid-conversation to thank them!

Faire le premier jet d’un seul coup(Réal Paquette)
Your first, quick draft will give you a first reading, and will result in a more idiomatic translation. You can tell when a translator stopped his or her word flow to look something up. Just plow on.

“Meeting skills are also part of the job” (David Jemielity)
When you get face time with people, you want that time to be effective. You want to be invited back. You also have to listen and show clients that you care about their line of work. Project your expertise [...] and hold the conversation in your “A” language, so you can politely intimidate the hell out of them. The difference between a qualified language professional and a bilingual person is like the difference between being a cardiologist and having a pulse.

“Read, read, read, write, write, write, translate, translate, translate” (Chris Durban)
To be a good translator, you need to translate one million words… and that’s just to get started. You gotta have your head in the game at all times. To become an expert in something, you need to invest 10,000 hours of focused energy on it.

I set about changing my habits that very next Monday. Following David Jemielity’s lecture, I began to lessen my reliance on mirror sites for terminology research and to broaden my list of favourite resources to include unilingual English sites and publications. Moreover, once I became aware of issues of frequency of use, it was impossible not to make changes to my style... although, full disclosure, I needed to take a deep breath before throwing my first “we” in there. After hearing the unanimous call of the speakers to “specialize, specialize, specialize,” I started taking better advantage of the library (gold mine!) to keep current with some of the areas I’d like to groom into expertise. Finally, for the first time, a very good client of mine has asked me to contribute to the organization’s Christmas party, and I now have ample food for thought in finding the perfect, meaningful token. Rather than send a tacky promotional item or boring old gift card, I plan to follow Chris’ example and send a translated novel from one of the many award-winning works crafted by the talented people in our community (and maybe slip in a gift card as well, just for good measure!).

Meaghan Girard is a freelance translator.

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