Words on a rampage

Words are powerful. As powerful as they were 70 years ago. And this is the era of Facebook quotes and Twitter trends and Whatsapp groups. Words are not only powerful, they travel quicker than ever before.

And two words that have been subtly brandished about over the last few months are refugee and migrant.

Let’s clear this up once and for all with the help of the Oxford Dictionary:

A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”

A migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions”

How could any journalist mix those two up? Meanings matter. These two words shape how we feel about these people. Refugees are people who we have a responsibility to help because they’ve had no option but to flee. A migrant is someone who could have stayed where they were, who has come over to us because things weren’t as nice where they were before, who wanted a pay rise, didn’t like their last job or the weather.

For example – being from England and living in Austria, I’m technically a migrant. Though most people with a Western European background would never be given that label. Far too negative. We get to be expats.

I don’t believe that journalists choose words by chance. I think the media are doing their own bit of manipulating; giving into pressure from someone, they brandish the word migrant about, shaping how we think about the hundreds of thousands of people coming in our direction, giving our governments an excuse not to act.

I just hope us Europeans will never have to flee in our thousands.

Oh wait.

That’s already happened.

And these two words aren’t the only ones running around causing trouble.

Words are being used to spread rumours. That refugees are destroying blankets and coats and trains. That they are walking into supermarkets and stealing food. Information got from a friend of a friend of a colleague at work is repeated with 100% confidence to the next person who will pass it on to the next. The stories grow legs and walk, becoming more embellished as the days pass.

Public attitude shapes political decisions – if the public attitude is one of fear, the policies reflect that.

I think we all have a responsibility to stay away from this fear-and-rumour-mongering machine. How can we assume that things are true when we have heard them fourth hand? We can’t risk the consequences of being wrong. There are lives at stake.

It’s better to admit that you just don’t know.

And maybe stick to Thumper’s Law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”.


Posting this after the attacks in Paris, I think we need to be more careful with words than ever. ISIS is not a state – it is a terrorist group. And refugees are certainly not terrorists.  An attack like this is even more reason to give support to refugees who are coming from countries where this sort of thing is the norm. These people aren’t bringing terrorism to Europe – they are coming here to escape it.


10 things to remember while you’re studying translation

This is the first semester that I really feel that the end of my degree is in sight. The graduation photos on Facebook are multiplying and the amount of people free for a mid afternoon coffee is decreasing. One more exam to do and all I’ll have on my to-do list is my thesis. The work section of my life is becoming larger and the studying section smaller. So I thought this might be a good time to write a list of all the things I wish I’d known 3 years ago.

  1. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, that is what these years are for. You’ll learn a lot more from the pieces returned to you covered in red pen, than those with nothing but ticks. Later, mistakes will matter – you’ll have angry clients coming back to you demanding refunds and a stressful time trying to put things right. For now, you can spend time trying things out.
  1. Look for relevant work experience as early as you can. This is the best way to make sure that you have something to offer employers when you graduate. And who knows, what started off as a part time job or short-term placement could end up as something permanent.
  1. Some teachers have to be ignored. Most university teachers are passionate about what they do and want to help you become the best translator you can be. But not all. Some prejudge you and you can’t change that judgement, whatever you do. Try not to get too annoyed. They might have the power to give you grades but they are also just people – who you’ll probably never see again once you’ve graduated.
  1. Remember what you don’t like. When I started studying here, I only wanted to study translation. However, that turned out not to be an option if you only had one foreign language. So I enrolled for a degree that combined interpreting and translating. For a long time I found interpreting plain stressful, but after a while I got used to it. I started to consider doing it professionally. But during this summer, I realised that just because I had got used to it, this didn’t mean that it was for me. Don’t let yourself get waylaid by other people’s expectations – remember to take time out to listen to your instincts every so often.
  1. And if your instincts tell you that this career really isn’t for you, that’s fine too. It’s never too late to change direction, whatever anyone says. Take a look around and try out the next thing. You can’t learn what you really want to do without doing it. My test is this: am I enjoying this job more than the shop job I had at 16? If not, it’s time to move on.
  1. Use your time at university to think about what you do like. Think about what else really interests you (asylum law? heavy machinery? beauty products? beer?) and take courses in that area. Becoming more specialised means that less and less people can do what you do. And, if you start looking for direct clients later, you’ll know exactly where to start.
  1. Don’t believe the rumours that there are no jobs out there. Of course, there isn’t an unlimited amount of work – but there aren’t many fields were there is. Read blogs and books by people who have made it. It’s hard to succeed if you don’t believe it is possible.
  1. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t great at translating into a foreign language. A lot of translators only translate in one direction. And there is a whole section of the profession that believes that no translator should ever do anything else. Don’t be put off, thinking that this is something that you have to offer. All it means is that you might have to look abroad for clients.
  1. Help other people and ask for help yourself. Make use of Facebook groups to find out things you wouldn’t know otherwise. Ask other people what exactly is required in your courses. Remember, everyone else will be doing the same.
  1. Don’t let yourself be put off by bureaucracy. At least in Austria, things tend to be a lot more flexible than you think.

In praise of lay interpreters

For some people there is canyon-sized divide between “qualified” interpreters and “lay” interpreters. And these same people seem to love jumping on any mistakes made – pointing out that they were only laypeople, that this would never have happened if a qualified interpreter has been appointed. Where does this prejudice come from? An inferiority complex? Defensiveness? This age-old worry that those people out there are stealing all our jobs? Who knows. Only one thing is certain – lay interpreters are here to stay.

When I started to think about this topic, I started to wonder what exactly a layperson is. Usually, anyone who did not study interpreting is seen as being a lay interpreter. But a quick Oxford English Dictionary check reveals that a layperson is “A person without professional or specialized knowledge in a particular subject”. No mentions of titles or qualifications. If someone had worked as an interpreter for 20 years, no one would say that they lack professional or specialised knowledge.

Common sense says that someone without experience will make more mistakes. But is a university graduate really less likely to make mistakes than a layperson who has been interpreting for a couple of years? Interpreting is something that you learn through practice – learning by doing cannot be avoided, whether this process takes place at a university or in the world of work. It is senseless to assume that someone whose learning took place outside of a university will be less skilled than someone who took this more traditional route into the profession. Of course if you study you have an initial advantage – you learn techniques that it would otherwise take a long time to acquire and you can practice interpreting without the worry of causing any real life disasters. But this doesn’t mean that people who don’t hold a degree can’t reach the same level.

Who decides where the boundary lies between being a lay interpreter, and simply being an interpreter who came to the profession by an unusual route? And how many years does it take until people acknowledge that the transition has been made.

And another side to the story: if you move to a different country – for whatever reason – you are confronted with a multitude of disadvantages in the workplace. You are unlikely to speak the local language as well as a native; perhaps you have only just started learning. Regulations may mean that a company needs to prove that no one from the country you are living in can do the job before offering it to you. Maybe your qualifications won’t be recognised, making your hard fought for degree worthless. Jobs in interpreting open up a world of work for people who, through no fault of their own, would otherwise be confronted with nothing but disadvantages.

Then there are the languages that people just don’t study here. And yet there is still a need for community interpreting – it would be simply impossible to get hold of an interpreter if we were to rely only on people with a degree in the right subject.

If a layperson has the skills and the knowledge needed, they have just as much right to work as an interpreter as anyone else. After all, clients pay for the service, not for the number of letters next to your name. The division between lay interpreters and interpreters with traditional qualifications means that neither side can learn from the other.

Lay interpreters usually grew up in a different country – and many lived there until very recently, which means that an interpreter with traditional qualifications can learn as much about cultural aspects from them as the lay interpreter can about techniques. We need courses and meet ups that are open to all interpreters, whatever their background. The more interpreters from all walks of life work together, the better the service clients receive. This is what would improve the profession’s reputation – not trying to ignore a development that is here to stay.

Why Facebook isn’t enough

Translation is often not the most social of professions. Many translators are self-employed, some sharing coworking spaces, but a lot simply working from home. And I don’t have any statistics but I’m betting that almost all newbies belong to the last group. Some translators will be working in small companies, perhaps with only a couple of co-workers, whereas others will be a small cog in a big company’s wheel. Whichever situation you’re in, there will probably be a limited number of translators who you come into contact with on a regular basis.

It is important to meet other people from the same profession, working in different environments and with different backgrounds. Only then can you really see what options are out there. Your workplace is always a microcosm, wherever it is. If you want to get an overview of the whole situation you need to take a break from it, take a step back – and talk.

This is just as important for interpreters. Whether you freelance and spend a lot of time travelling, working for a variety of clients, or whether you are employed at a company, you will probably know only a limited number of interpreters (or translators). When you do get the chance to get to know people, it’ll probably be a situation where everyone is under pressure – in the booth for example. Or when the priority is the job in hand, not getting to know new people.

I think we need a meet up for translators and interpreters in every city, one that everyone can attend, regardless of their background and regardless of any memberships or qualifications they may or may not have. We need a neutral platform, not influenced by the opinions of an association. Somewhere where people have the chance to just chat, network and help each other out. Somewhere where you’ll meet a wider variety of people, not just those who choose to become part of official organisations. Which are also important – but they play a different role.

A lot of people worry that others will take advantage of information or steal their clients. But maybe trust is more lucrative than silence. You can learn so much from other people working in the same field – whichever stage you are at. And, who knows, there might even be the odd commission up for grabs.

There are several Facebook groups that offer a platform for discussion, but this can never beat meeting people in real life. And a translator’s day in particular consists of a huge amount of screen and desk time, something which certainly isn’t healthy in the long-term. Socialising needs to happen somewhere else.

Why I’m glad I bit the conference bullet

Last weekend I went to the Translation and Localisation Conference in Warsaw. It was my first conference – and I loved it.

I learnt a huge amount. I went to two intense sessions on MemoQ and pdf formatting. I can’t remember the last time I went to a talk where I had to concentrate so hard or take so many notes. I went to some great sessions on finding direct clients, mindfulness, time saving apps and marketing translation. There were some talks that I didn’t find as useful but, overall, I got a huge amount out of the sessions – most of the topics were never even mentioned at university, never mind discussed in detail. For any first time conference attendees, I would definitely recommend going to as many sessions as you can. Try and choose one for every time slot – even if it’s not something that you would necessarily read up on at home. It’s difficult to know exactly what the talk is about from a short description and you might end up missing something really useful – there were a couple of talks that I almost left out but which ended up being real gems.

I discovered that there really is a translation community. I had noticed that a lot of the translators and interpreters that I’ve subscribed to on Facebook seemed to be in contact with each other but it was a bit of a mystery how they had got to know each other. At the conference, I found out that many of them knew each other from social media – from twitter or from different Facebook groups or blogs. Or they’d met at previous conferences or at tweet ups. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet anyone based in Austria, so I’m still not sure if there is an equivalent community here. But getting to know people in Warsaw has motivated me to try and find it – and maybe even try and get one together if nothing exists at the moment.

I had a guilt-free holiday in a luxury hotel. Because going to a conference definitely counts as work, right? Of course, it would have been possible to find somewhere cheaper to stay but, as the rooms cost less than the average hotel price in the UK or Austria, I decided in favour of the relaxed option and stayed in a room in the conference hotel. Which ended up having a gorgeous bathroom with a rain shower, a huge bed and around 10 buttons for controlling the light and blinds. Yep, I could get used to that. This meant that I could disappear up to my room for a bit between the end of the sessions and dinner, something that I would really recommend. I think you need somewhere where you can just go and relax for a bit – otherwise the whole thing could easily end up being stressful and tiring rather than fun.

Staying an extra day also meant that I could take part in the sightseeing tour organised by the conference, which was brilliant. Up until Sunday, I hadn’t really left the hotel – it was on the outskirts of the city so it was generally easier to eat in the hotel restaurant and there were no sight nearby to encourage me to venture further afield. I imagine that a lot of conferences take place in a similar setting. You could easily travel to a lot of different countries without seeing anything of the city you’re in, which would be a real shame. So, if you can find the time, take an extra day to experience a bit more of the city where the conference takes place. There aren’t many opportunities for combining work and holiday in one weekend!

Whatever your area of work, if there’s a conference that you’re thinking about attending, I’d say – go for it. It’s a brilliant opportunity to meet new people – and you’ll probably get on with them, after all you’ll have a lot in common –, to go to interesting talks, see a new place, and chat to people who’ve only been names and faces on social media up until now.

Standing at the language buffet

A few years ago, I set myself the goal of learning another two languages. So, I had a look at the language courses on offer and chose Polish. A few months later, I decided that French would be a much more practical language to learn. I’d always loved the sound of it and even though I’d had French classes at school, I’d never taken it any further. So, I spent three weeks learning French in Lyon. Fast forward a year and a half and I’d discovered Arabic. 8 months later, I’d booked a holiday to China. And so I started taking Chinese classes.

Each time I started a new language, I fell in love. I was certain this would be the one. But then, for different reasons, something else would catch my attention. And without going over the vocabulary and alphabets I’d learnt over the past couple of years, the information gradually disappeared from my memory, leaving me with not much more than a general sense of how the languages work.

So I started to think about why this kept happening.

One thing is that there is simply so much choice out there. It is like standing in front of an amazing food buffet, where everything looks equally good and you just have to try a bit of everything. I’m faced with the most difficult type of choice of all – choosing from a set of equally good options.

I don’t need to learn the language. I would like to be able to translate from the next language that I learn one day but, at the moment, language learning is a hobby – and therefore also a luxury that I don’t need to stick with.

The choice isn’t being made for me. At school you have to choose a language. At mine, there were three languages to choose from and I based my choice on which of the teachers organised fun lessons. And once the choice was made, there was no backing out – I would be taking an exam in two years time.

I also don’t have a specific emotional connection to the languages – the decision to learn the language is a (relatively) rational one. Without an emotional link to the language, it’s harder to keep motivated, especially when this is combined with the classic problem of…

Stuff. Other distracting, time-limiting Stuff (which I obviously also want to do). Work, interpreting courses, master’s thesis, meeting friends… There are only so many things that you can focus your energy on without spreading yourself so thin that you don’t get much out of anything.

Perhaps, though, there is nothing bad about trying out different languages, like there is nothing bad with trying a bit of everything from the buffet, before deciding what you want to fill your next plate with. Out of the four that I’ve dabbled in, I know which two that I’d like to go back to. And, apart from anything else, I want language learning to be fun. So, if it’s starting to be stressful rather than fun, I think it’s worth leaving things for a bit. The last thing I would want would be to end up not wanting to learn languages at all.

10 reasons to learn German

1) You can create your own words. Add 2 or 3 words together to express the sentiment of your choice. Mostly, no one will find the result odd – or even better, you’ll probably find out that the word you just created actually exists.

2) People are usually pretty surprised to find that you’re leaning German. So, as long as you can persuade them not to practice their English with you, you’ll have some very forgiving and enthusiastic listeners, even when you’re still a bit on the rusty side.

3)When writing in German you can stick a huge amount of information into a sentence without it sounding strange. This allows you to write amazing sentences along the lines of: she met the 40-year-old-dressed-in-jeans-and-t-shirt-but-nevertheless-briefcase-carrying-man walking along the street. Which is a pretty efficient way of going about things if you think about it. Just think of all the “whos” and full stops you save.

4) Although there are a lot of complicated German words, much of the vocabulary that you start off with is really similar to the English translation – Bier, Schule, Banane, Personen, Name, Wetter… etc etc ect!

5) German is one of the top business languages – and more people than you’d expect are happy not to have to rely on their English to negotiate.

6) German is the second most used language on the internet. Think of all the amazing memes you’ll have access to when you can decipher Deutsch.

7) Words are spelled as they are pronounced. Unlike some other languages, where the spelling barely seems to resemble the word itself and native speakers spend as much time guessing as everyone else, German spelling is 100% logical.

8) If you’re interested in studying abroad and avoiding paying high tuition fees, a German speaking country could be the way to go. Particularly if you’re interested in studying languages, heading to Austria or Germany might be a pretty good decision – the classes may be quite full but standards are high.

9) German is an official language in 6 different countries – Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. So, you can practice your language skills on over 100 million people.

10) You can make your sentences almost as long as you want – and you don’t come across as confused or as a bad writer like you would in English. The rule is this: the more confused your reader is, the more intelligent you must be.


When I first started writing this, I thought it would be difficult to get to ten – but it ended up being difficult to stop! There are many other points that I could add – but a lot of these actually apply to all languages. For example, I really believe that learning a foreign language allows you to communicate with the people and the culture from that country in a way that you never could otherwise.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, who put it better than I ever could…

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”


3 hazards of industry interpreting

When I said yes to my first interpreting job a couple of months ago, I wasn’t at all sure how it would go. Would I have the right vocabulary? Would I understand the dialects? Would I even enjoy it?

I soon learnt that there were entirely different things to worry about!

  1. Boredom. I learnt how to cope with hour-long stretches of doing absolutely nothing. Working in industry, people don’t just sit around and discuss. There might be a tour, a meeting or two over the course of the week, discussions with inspectors and then there will be instructions. And then the workers are going to get on with the work. Sometimes I was interpreting for a large part of the day. But other times, I was just dodging flying sparks and trying not to stand in the way. So it’s important to develop strategies for dealing with periods of nothingness. I revised vocabulary. I talked to the workers if they had time and tried to learn more about the processes. I set myself other tasks like learning vocabulary for university. Interpreting is a service that you’re providing – you are there to help when needed, you can’t force it on anyone. So, if you’re not needed, you have to find a not too noticeable way to occupy yourself and stop yourself going crazy.
  1. Sexism. Although apprenticeships in this area have been open to women since 2008, I was still working in a male-dominated field. This means that sexism is rife. And all it makes sense to do is laugh along or smile politely. The men do not mean it badly – they are genuinely just having fun. And as an interpreter, you would only make your own life more difficult if you were to try and fight against this sexism. It is impossible to change company culture over a few days. So, the best thing to do is to try and see the funny side and not let it get to you. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
  1. Politics. I quickly realised that I wasn’t just bridging gaps between cultures, but also between levels in company hierarchy – and, of course, different personalities. As an interpreter, it is important to be able to deal with people from all walks of life and smooth out the communication process. And to be able to deal with company politics. You have to be tactful and you have to remember that everyone is under pressure – if someone is acting strangely, there will be something behind it. As an outsider, you will never really understand the company politics. There is no point in getting irritated – the best thing to do is to neutralise what has been said as far as possible and move on.

Despite these challenges, I’m more motivated to work as an interpreter than ever. Real life interpreting is a world away from role plays, however well planned they might be.  At university, the assessment process means that you are always being evaluated – teachers are constantly watching out for mistakes. This has always stressed me out and taken a lot of the fun out of interpreting. In the real world, there is no one taking notes, comparing or allocating grades. Interpreting makes the client’s life easier, meaning that (as far as I have experienced so far!) they are happy to have you there. In fact, it was the people I was interpreting for that made the job fun. If you do realise that you’ve made a mistake, you just correct it – the main thing is that they get the information. You just provide the best interpretation you can – and usually your best is enough.

Go for it.

I acquired my language combination entirely by chance. So much by chance that I wouldn’t even say that it was a choice. Like a lot of people’s career-based decisions, the journey started at school – I chose German over French because the teachers were nicer and the lessons were more fun. I liked the idea of earning my living by writing but I never dreamed that I’d be working as a translator one day.

I’ve sometimes regretted choosing German – not because I don’t like the language or the countries where it is spoken. Simply because everyone in Germany and Austria seems to speak English. I wondered how it could ever be possible to make a living with this language combination. Or how I would ever be needed as an interpreter when everyone seems to be able to communicate. And surely we’ll soon all be replaced by Google Translate anyway? This feeling was made even stronger by the general sense at my university that there are simply no jobs out there. That we’d be lucky to find any work even vaguely connected to our languages.

Then I made the step myself. And there is translation work out there. Of course, work isn’t unlimited, but there are very few areas where it is. You just have to be one of the people who gets what is out there. There might not be 500 jobs to choose from. But you don’t need 500, you only need one.

And this month I made my first foray into interpreting – and discovered that it is possible to help. To make sure that the client really does get the information he needs. To bridge the gap between two people without a language in common.

There is work out there – even if you think your language combination maybe isn’t the best. Of course chances of getting work depend on experience/skill/luck/contacts – but I doubt there are many areas of work where this isn’t the case.

If it is what you want to do, go for it. Think who you want your clients to be, look for areas where language really matters, market your skills and gain as much experience as you can. There are companies wanting to employ translators – and there are other options too. You can set up a business with a couple of others or go it alone. The important thing is not to forget what you originally dreamed of doing. And not to listen to those people who stand on the sidelines, telling you that what you want is impossible. Maybe they are the ones who never tried.

Banana skins

German is a dangerous language. There are words that look the same as their English equivalent but mean something entirely different. There are loan words that seem like they should be English words, but have acquired a totally different meaning. And, just when you start to think that you can’t trust any cognates at all, a bunch of words pop up that do have the same meaning in both languages.

For my last post of 2015, I thought I’d talk about my five favourite linguistic landmines.

1) Messy. Initially, I was entirely unaware of the German meaning of this word and assumed that people were just using the English adjective as a noun. I was pretty confused as the conversation progressed and it became clear that being a Messy was something terrible. A person who’s flat must be avoided at all costs. But what could be so terrible about being a bit untidy? I then found out that a Messy was a compulsive hoarder, who fills their flat with mountains of junk and never throws anything away.

2) Freund. This doesn’t just mean friend, but also boyfriend, making it quite possible to go through a whole conversation without knowing how two people are connected. Something that causes more problems than you would expect.

3) Notebook. Meaning laptop. For me, a notebook is made out of paper. So when I am told to remove my notebook from my bag and place it in a separate tray at the airport, I can’t help but find it just a tiny bit funny.

4) Gift. Gift doesn’t mean present but rather poison. So it would be the last thing that you would want to bring to somebody’s wedding (hopefully!).

5) Wie geht es dir = how are you. This is not a linguistic false friend but rather a cultural one. The difference is particularly obvious in Germany. In England, “how are you” is basically a longer version of “hello”. If you actually answered with an explanation of your feelings the person who asked would be pretty surprised. If someone from Germany asks you how you are, they actually want to know. If you try to fob them off with “yeah good, how are you”, they’ll probably just ask you to repeat the question until they get an informative answer. This also means you wouldn’t ask just anyone how they are – it is far more of a personal question than in English because you are expected to give a personal answer.

Like any language, German is full of trip wires and banana skins that send you flying. But what I find particularly fascinating is how convincing its Anglicisms are. Living in a German-speaking country, it is easy to convince yourself that a word does exist in English, particularly if the topic is something you don’t know much about. I was, for example, utterly convinced that old timer was a recognised term used to refer to old cars. No, just another bit of Denglish slipping in there!