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The Story behind the Lucky Translator

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

When thinking of my origin story on how I became a translator, I find myself torn between two images, one of complete certainty about my love of languages and what fed it and one of complete loss as to what to do with it. But even as I was feeling my way in the dark to choose a career path, those passions of mine led me to exactly where I needed to be...

Better late than never...

Clock on a stool

Talking about how I became a translator, I must start by admitting I was a late bloomer and to this day it is unclear to me why it took me so long… from a young age, I have always loved storytelling and writing as well as learning foreign languages, so it is strange to me that, as a teenager on the brisk of entering university, the thought did not cross my mind to combine the two by studying translation.

To be fair, the Internet was still in its infancy and the increased need of localizing online content was not yet obvious. To me, the main industries where translation was required were the legal sector and science, which in my mind did not allow for the creativity I craved. Of course, there was the translation of books and subtitling, but those areas seemed to be reserved for the happy few and the level of competition scared me a little.

And even if I loved languages, it would also be fair to say that this was not my only interest among the various subjects I was being taught at school. To this day, I vividly remember sitting with a teacher of mine to discuss my choice of career. With his usual sense of humour, he started by saying I was causing my teachers a lot of problems because I was good at all subjects (without being excellent), making it hard for them to figure out what I should specialise in. Well, excuse me… So his next question for me was: what do you want to do as a career? And without hesitation, I remember replying I did not have a specific job in mind, but that I had always dreamt of travelling and living abroad. “So languages then?” was his comeback. And that’s how I registered to study English at university.

Rebel with a linguistic cause

Film roll

Besides travelling, cinema is the other realm that kindled my passion for languages. And on that level, I was no late bloomer... I was about 11, in my first year of secondary school and as such had just started to learn English, when I became obsessed with one movie: Rebel Without a Cause. At the time, I did not have cable TV at home and so only had 5 TV terrestrial channels, which also meant that nearly all British/American programs were dubbed. Luckily enough, the culture channel sometimes showed classics in English with French subtitles, and somehow either I or my parents recorded that film. I became obsessed with it, watching it numerous times, until I could understand every single line. And I mean every. single. line. I helped myself with the subtitles and slowly deciphered what the characters were saying.

The subtitles sometimes were a hindrance. Since they were shortened versions of the actual movie lines, but also transcreations of phrases and images, they sometimes (rightfully) deviated from the English. To this day, I remember the very last line I managed to understand: "It's a zoo". Seems easy enough, right? Think again. For one thing, the word "zoo" threw me off: it sounded more like an onomatopoeia than an actual word. Then, the subtitles translated it as "It's a menagerie". Now, the word coming out of James Dean's mouth sounded very different to me, so I went to my English dictionary for help. But from the French "ménagerie" to the English "menagerie", I was none the wiser. Back to the movie, it took me a few more watchings of the early scene below before I suddenly figured it out.

This was my very first experience of the tricks of the translation trade (and also how the English language stole the word "menagerie" from French...).

To this day, I don't know why I was so compelled to watch that movie repeatedly in order to understand all the dialogues. Maybe it was the fact that it was pretty much the only film I could watch in English. Maybe it was the novelty of learning English at school. Maybe it was the challenge I had set myself. Or maybe it was just James Dean... One thing is sure: From that first experience, watching films has greatly helped me in learning languages. Like TV shows and podcasts, it is a great way to get familiar with a large variety of accents and turns of phrases. I have always found it an easier and more effective way to learn vocabulary than memorising lists of words from a textbook. In a film, you have the context of the story, the visual surroundings and the intonations of the actors, which are great cues to understand the words, but also to remember them.

Any passion needs to be fed and practiced in order to remain alive. Through travelling, watching films and TV shows and reading books, I never cease to confront myself with different linguos, phrases and accents, foreign cultures and customs. And in the process, I have developed a new appreciation for my own language and country. The bet I took at 18 in front of my teacher has paid off beyond my wildest childhood dreams.

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