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The mysterious puzzle behind our English linguist

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

What do an early aptitude for jigsaws, an insatiable appetite for books from an early age and a summer holiday in Wales aged ten have in common? Well, they all helped shape, perhaps even dictate my future career.

In later life, and over 20 years down the translation path, I also see connections between my chosen career and crime drama (and generally foreign language crime dramas) addiction, as well as with the two career routes I sometimes wonder I might have taken instead: archaeology and genealogy.

International food including the French tartine

I was always good at languages at school and simply loved them. With my “formal” learning of French and German at secondary school, came a knowledge and love of the countries, people and cultures. I remember marvelling at the idea of French and German people going about their daily lives in France and Germany, where some things were the same as chez nous in the UK, some not quite the same, but similar, familiar, and some utterly alien, but endlessly fascinating: The tartine (bread and jam) I would have as my goûter (snack) after school in France. The Pausenbrot I would take with me to eat at school in Germany, a sandwich sandwiched in between the early start and early finish to the German school day. The freedom to wear what I liked to school, instead of my staple UK school uniform.

Camera, magnifying glass, glasses and notebook on a map

And I wanted a part of it. I wanted immersion, without even recognising the importance of it at the time. As I got older, I gained penpals in the countries whose languages I was avidly learning (and elsewhere). I wrote to them in French and German, delighted and determined to leverage this opportunity to practice and improve my language skills. I loved sharing stories of our everyday lives as teenagers in our respective countries. Gradually, my knowledge of the countries and cultures grew. Through my new-found foreign friends, I enjoyed access to French and German music and teen mags; commodities far less readily accessible then than in today’s digital age. I worked a Saturday job in a café to help fund school and solo trips to France and Germany, and the experience always lived up to the expectations.

The more I learned, knew, understood and enjoyed about French and France and German and Germany, there was no doubt that languages were and would continue to be a huge part of my life, and that they would have to feature heavily in my career. Certainly, by the time I found myself the talk of the school for having scored full marks on all lower and higher papers in my mock GCSE French in Year 10, before I’d even had the results myself, the ambition of becoming a translator had become firmly rooted.

But that’s only half the story. Now, as a professional translator with the necessary language qualifications, a specific degree in translation and years of experience under my belt, it is clear that not everyone who speaks, or is even good at languages can be a translator.

Yes, you need that passion for languages, as well as for all the social, cultural and other non-linguistic aspects that come with learning and loving a language. Yes, you need a talent for learning languages. But it also takes a certain type of mind.

And this is where the jigsaws, books, Wales, crime drama, archaeology and genealogy come in, and what makes me wonder if my career choice was inevitable.

Firstly, and probably the most closely related to language-learning in general, the books. I was an early reader and devoured books throughout my early childhood, teens and beyond. I loved losing myself in other worlds. I loved words. This was reflected in my vivid imagination and prolific creative writing. An early natural grasp of language that led to my GCSE options and A-level choices at secondary school, and subsequently my first degree in French and German (Language and Linguistics) at the (ever-wonderful) University of York.

I had chosen English Language over English Literature at A-level because although I continued to read (and read and read), aside from the fact that both of my foreign language A-levels would require me to read and study four works of literature each, I felt an intrigue and pull towards delving more into the history and mechanics of my native language. (Also, as it turned out, there was a timetable clash, so English Lit was not an option.)

In any case, it proved a shrewd move. I thoroughly enjoyed the subject and began to understand the value of an understanding of the workings of my own language in my quest to master my foreign languages and, ultimately, become a translator.

Though I had never thought myself a science person, I had discovered a science I both enjoyed and was good at: linguistic science. Hence my choice of degree. Knowing I wanted to read books for pleasure, rather than dissect them, and still keen on a career in translation, I accepted an offer from York, a BA (Hons) degree in both my foreign languages, but with the focus on linguistics, unlike a traditional literature-heavy language degree.

At York, we did linguistic modules in English linguistics and linguistics modules in both foreign languages. I can’t say that my now long-lost ability to phonetically transcribe French has proven all that useful in my career, but, overall, the degree helped make me a linguist, rather than just someone who was good at and enjoyed languages.

My next move was to Edinburgh, where, interestingly, the Masters in Translation was labelled an MSc – Master of Science. Here was the acknowledgement of the crossover between the two worlds of the arts and the sciences. For – and I am getting to the jigsaws, crimes and history in a minute, promise! – translation is both an art and a science.

Hand pushing a piece of a puzzle

All my reading and full-marks language paper successes may have been the catalyst for my chosen career, and there is no doubt that this background played a major role in shaping my career, but, as I often describe my profession to non-translators: “Translating is like doing a jigsaw; taking the text apart and putting it back together again, only in a different language, a different form.” I tell them how I enjoy the puzzling aspect of translation, making the pieces fit together, making a new coherent whole that is understandable to people for whom the original is at best sketchy, if not a complete mystery.

It started with jigsaws – as a toddler, I was apparently very quick to grasp the concept behind them, to figure them out – and then, when I was ten, we went on holiday to Wales.

Looking back, that was my first real experience of “foreign languages” – I had never been abroad – and, unknowingly at the time, my first foray into linguistics and translation. I bought a notebook with some holiday money and when out and about, used it to write down the Welsh and English that appeared on the bilingual road signs, café menus etc. I had no idea how to pronounce the Welsh (still don’t) but was fascinated by it. I remember trying to find the parallels between the two languages, and probably found very few, if any. Having now learned French, studied linguistics and dabbled in Italian and Spanish, I can see more parallels, albeit not many (I have never attempted to learn Welsh, but did live in West Wales for a couple of years).

Nonetheless, I remember enjoying the puzzle and mystery of it and feeling like a whole new world had opened up. I came back from that holiday keen to learn a foreign language. When soon afterwards a teacher from the local secondary school came to my primary school to talk to us about moving up to secondary school and asked us what we were looking forward to most, I replied “Learning French”. The seed had been planted.

Forensic woman working

As an adult, having pursued the path of languages, linguistics and translation through school and university and into my career in the industry, I still enjoy puzzles and mystery. Watching crime dramas appeals to my inquisitive nature and desire to piece things together. From the depths of my binge-watching, has come the realisation that if I hadn’t become a translator, I’d quite fancy the idea of being a forensic scientist. If only I weren’t too squeamish. All the other bits appeal: finding and piecing together evidence, solving the crime. Translation is, in essence, much the same. It involves taking what you have (the source text), finding evidence (the words and meanings, the facts, utilising research and adaptation skills) and piecing this evidence together to make sense of it and come up with the solution (the target text).

In much the same way, the wondering of if I had studied German and History or French and Archaeology, for example, and gone into a career in genealogy or archaeology instead also go back to that same instinct, drive and desire to solve puzzles and mysteries and to make sense of things.

Who knows, maybe there will be a career change for me in the future, but for now, I’m glad that my passions and abilities have helped me achieve my translation career goal and that I’m able to, and understand how to exploit both those passions and abilities and my language and linguistic skills at the intersection of the arts and the sciences.

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