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King's College

Just over a week ago, I attended this year’s version of the “Translate in..” series of workshops in beautiful King’s College, Cambridge. I’d ummed and aahed about attending last year’s event in Chantilly and then spent the whole duration being deeply envious as the tweets flooded in! When it was announced that it was to come to the UK this year, courtesy of the ITI, and to the stunning university city of Cambridge to boot, I really didn’t need too much persuading…

You may think, as I did initially, that the cost is steep – just shy of £700 for an ITI member at the early-bird rate, but when you consider the calibre of the trainers, the venue and the content, you realise that it’s actually well worth its weight in gold. In fact, the event is deliberately priced to deter casual attendees and encourage translators willing to make a serious commitment to further professional development. By the time you’ve factored in transport (and bear in mind that some attendees came from as far away as California!) and accommodation, even if you chose an AirBnB or a less exalted college than King’s itself, the expenditure was well over £1000 – but most definitely money well spent!

So why was it so good? If I tell you that I’ve been able to put the things we learned to use straightaway on getting back to work, that it has changed my whole perspective on work, perhaps that will offer a glimpse into the attractions of the course. I’ve always considered myself to be a good translator, checking my work several times, doing a final stand-alone English read-through, and always trying to produce prose that sounds like fluent and natural English, but this took the process several steps further. Rather than merely thinking about the meaning and sense of the written words, we were encouraged to think about the purpose of the words from the client’s perspective – and engineering the best possible outcome for the client by the effect of what we write. Heady stuff!

St Catharine's College

We started with a French > English translation slam, comparing the translations of a particularly obnoxious text on urban development by Ros Schwarz and Grant Hamilton, with invited contributions from the audience. As ever, this is a fascinating exercise and I can only admire the courage of the presenters in putting their work before the most critical audience, a group of fellow translators! Far too many takeaways from this to list here, but one point I did relate to was Grant’s comment that you can be “too smart for your pants” – sometimes we try too hard to find an alternative to the source word when it works perfectly well in English. Likewise, changing the word order for the sake of it, or straying off into flights of fantasy, do not always have their place – they do, at times, but sometimes keeping it simple is equally effective.Equally, there are occasions when you may need to make wholesale changes to the structure and order of the text for it to work in the source language – and have the confidence to do so!

The following day we had a translation slam in the opposite direction, which I expected to be less useful from an into English translator’s viewpoint, but it was extremely valuable. Here were those words we find so tricky to translate in the other direction – aménagement, pérennité, réflexion, rigoureux – actually being used by into French translators to convey concepts in English: quite eye-opening!

For the rest of the sessions, I tended, rather predictably, to stick to the sessions aimed at FR>EN translators, although I would have loved to attend the reverse sessions too. The two and a half days took the form of parallel FR>EN / EN>FR sessions with an extra third track for literary translators on Tuesday – just to make the decision-making process even harder! From Peter Prowse’s session on translating flowery “envolées lyriques” into down-to-earth English, to Grant Hamilton’s guide to turning abstract French into hands-on English, each bite-size module made you re-assess the way you think and work. Grant’s suggestion of trying to use English words that convey an image rather than wishy-washy French abstract nouns was particularly apt: thus, “mobiliser les acteurs dans un esprit de concertation” becomes “get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet”. Neat, but effective – and instantly more Anglosaxon!

I think my favourite sessions had to be Chris Durban’s. I love her no-nonsense approach and her ability to instil the belief that we can all achieve great things if we but try! Her first session was on “The perils of pecking order” – an outwardly dry presentation on translating job titles, but actually fascinating when you realise that people are defined by their job descriptions and as such these few-word titles are small, but extremely important to get right! Chris suggested taking the time to create translations of organisation charts for clients – valuable interaction with the client, with repercussions throughout the company, and leading to an understanding, for future reference, of who does what and reports to whom. It comes down to offering added value – and making yourself the language service provider they turn to time and time again.

This point cropped up again in Chris’s second session on “Subheads that sparkle” – not an easy subject for this primarily technical translator, but an excellent and challenging exercise, nonetheless. Interesting too, this week, to find myself applying the principles we’d discussed in an otherwise deadly boring business presentation translation I would otherwise have left equally dry and boring as the original… By going that extra mile, you do stand out from the pack – and it actually makes our job much more interesting too!

What it all boils down to, of course is becoming a better translator. Attending conferences and business/general CPD is all well and good, and I’d be the first to sing the praises of networking with colleagues in our often isolated profession, but ultimately our craft lies in what we do. If we can re-examine how we translate, even after 30+ years in the profession, as in my case, and continue to improve, that has to be for the good. Attending courses like this instils not only a renewed love of what we do, but also increased confidence in our ability to do it well.

Anthea Bell signing

One final gem on the Tuesday afternoon was an enchanting glimpse into the mind of Anthea Bell, renowned translator of the Astérix books. Her breadth of knowledge from classical references to everyday humour, Twitter and the latest politics was truly awe-inspiring – and you could have heard a pin drop in the room throughout the hour or so of the presentation. Quite magical. I particularly loved her glee at finally getting in a pun she had been looking to use for years, following on from the names of two Roman gladiators “Sendervictorius and Appianglorius” – which harks back to the British national anthem, of course. The latest addition was “Confoundtheirpolitix” – which appears in verse 2 of the national anthem! (With grateful thanks to Gillian Hargreaves for the correction…)


With our brains buzzing from all the unaccustomed exercise, it was just as well that we were wonderfully sustained by the catering team at King’s College. Delicious nibbles at coffee and tea breaks (those chocolate brownies!) – if you could find time to stop talking for long enough to eat! -, superb buffet lunches in the magnificent grand hall and an excellent conference dinner on the Tuesday evening, with drinks on the hallowed lawn beforehand, spine-tingling music from the Lucy Cavendish singers, an excellent after-dinner speaker, heavenly fine-dining cuisine and convivial company, bien sûr. Huge thanks to Anne de Freyman and her team for organising everything so beautifully, even down to an impromptu trip to a performance of “As You Like It” in the Fellows’ Garden of King’s on Monday evening – very special indeed.

Drinks on the lawn

I know I’m not alone in saying that it’s taken a long time to come down to earth after Cambridge. I know, too, that I’ve been applying the lessons we learned from the minute I started work again. There aren’t many CPD events that have quite such an immediate and radical effect. Networking with like-minded and committed individuals was another huge plus. Next year’s event looks set to be on Broadway. Tempted?!

Gala dinner window