Sunday, 4 December 2016

Geen Excuus!

If you’re an outdoorsy type like me, you probably mourn the passing of summer each year. The fine weather and the long days have a mesmerising effect on me, luring me en plein air. By the time the autumn equinox arrives I’ve generally burned off enough calories on long evening walks and cycle rides to offset those that have accumulated in the pub during the halcyon days of summer. September then slips into October and before you know it, the clocks have changed. By the time November kicks in, sunset times have slid from 7.30 pm to just gone 5, helped admittedly by some daylight-saving adjustments, with temperatures plummeting similarly. In my experience the encroaching dark and cold have a numbing impact on the spirit. The lethargy, much like the calorie intake, starts to mount ...

In my younger days it was easier for my mind and body to counteract the darkening mood that descends in November and December, the two months of the year that see an unremitting loss of daylight. As the years go by, my alter ego demands I stay in bed a little while longer, prepare more lavish evening meals washed down with a glass of wine (or two), or curl up on the settee with some comforting tea and biscuits. Leading a sedentary existence as a translator working from home, if I’m not careful, languor can lead introspection and melancholy.

On reaching one's mid-forties, there’s a growing realisation that youth is no longer on your side. Bluntly put, you’re halfway to oblivion. Many will go to great lengths, not entirely in keeping with their character, to retain their sense of youth: plastic surgery, a fast car, an armful of tattoos and a hair transplant are among some of the more clichéd responses to this phenomenon. Myself? I discovered the Winterlauf, the perfect antidote to seasonal gloom and declining years.

The Winterlauf, or ‘winter run’, is an annual race organised by the Aachener Turn-Gemeinde (ATG), an Aachen-based athletics club. With the inaugural run being held in 1963, the Winterlauf follows an 18-kilometre course through the forested Eifel region on the city’s outskirts and takes place on the first or second Sunday of December. You could in fact question the name, since it’s only one week into the meteorological winter and two before the solstice, but one thing’s for sure, with only 8 hours of daylight, the days are dark and the weather all but predictable.

This year's Aachener Winterlauf, the 54th, was held on December 4. Registration to take part in the run opens in mid-September and such is its popularity that the 2,500 places are snapped up within 24 hours. It’s hard to determine quite why demand is so high. Having done multiple runs myself, it’s probably safe to assume that once you’ve completed one, you’ll keep coming back for more, however hard you try to convince yourself otherwise when you cross the finishing line each time.

Each year follows more or less the same pattern and after having now completed 14, I can mentally picture every twist and turn.

On the morning of the race, entrants assemble from 8.30 onwards at the ATG’s clubhouse in one of Aachen’s leafy southern suburbs. From there, a fleet of buses takes the runners on a 30-minute ride to an isolated and invariably muddy car park in the middle of the forest. This, in itself, is a major logistical exercise, with 20 or so buses shuttling back and forth to ferry the 2,500 or so participants to the starting line located on a minor road between the villages of Zweifall and Mulartshütte. The shuttle service continues until just after 10, so the trick is, especially if the weather’s bad, to sit in the warmth of the clubhouse changing room and jump on the final bus.
The mood is one of animated apprehension as the mass of runners funnels out of the car park and is corralled up the road to the starting line. There's much muscle-flexing and nervous banter as people jockey for position ahead of the 11 oclock start. As the pistol-shot sounds, the excitable chatter is replaced by the sound of 5,000 training shoes hitting the tarmac. Unless you’re at the front, the first kilometre is slow, with the pack weaving in and out, everyone trying to find their pace for the gruelling 18 kilometres ahead.
After the first kilometre, a steep 100-metre climb separates the wheat from the chaff. At the top, the runners – not quite so bunched now - are having to find second breath. From Kilometre 2 to Kilometre 6, there’s a slow but pronounced descent before the route picks up the old track bed of the long disused Vennbahn, a former railway line built by the Prussian state railways to carry coal and iron ore. After another slow climb up to the abbey town of Kornelimünster, contestants are at the halfway stage and the route opens out onto Brander Feld, a seemingly never-ending stretch of exposed plateau on the ouskirts of Aachen.
Most runners reach the Aachener Wald, the forest above the city, without having to break their run, but now they are confronted with an unexpectedly stiff and muddy 1.5-kilometre ascent through the woods. Once this has been negotaiated, the finish is within sniffing distance - it’s a question of gritting your teeth and trying to forget the pain. If you’ve got any legs left, it's a quick sprint down the final hill to the finishing line.

I’m one of five regular running buddies who’ve been taking part in the race for the past 15 years. We go by the unofficial name of Geen Excuus. We differ in age by just 5 years and are all the wrong side of 55, yet most Sundays throughout the year, and often midweek, we toil up hill and down dale, come rain or shine. Family commitments, injury, illness, even the occasional hangover, might sometimes get in the way, but on the first Sunday in Advent there's really 'no excuse' for crying off – the Winterlauf is the one event that no one wants to miss!

The build-up to the race starts in earnest around mid-September when our work-outs – normally an hour - get extended week-by-week. But we’re neither fanatical nor meticulous in our training methods: our one single aim is to increase our distance, whilst minimising the pain. Running is supposed to be fun and our only battle cry is Doorlopen!* If we’ve managed to hit the 18-kilometre mark by mid-November, the Winterlauf will be plain sailing! Well, at least that’s the theory, the point being that by the start of December, most of us are all in reasonable shape and ready for the main event.

In the week leading up to the big day, we're on tenterhooks. What’s the weather forecast? Will I need my rain-gear? Will that niggling twinge go away? Should I stay teetotal the night before? And - I jest not - how will my ‘insides’ behave on the day? Once we’re on the bus to Zweifall, there’s a schoolboy excitement which only dissipates once the race gets underway. Strangely, for a group that runs together every week, as soon as the starting-pistol fires, we’re on our own. Of course, there’s over 2,000 other runners to keep you company, but from here on in there’ll be no mates garrulously urging you on and as you tick off the kilometres, it’s a question of manning up and making the best of it. The Winterlauf can throw anything at you: rain, wind, snow, ice, mud, you name it, we’ve had it. And despite all this, in the 15 years we’ve been running the race, none of us have failed to stagger over the finishing line with competent times. And together, with our almost 300 years, we’ve managed to clock up over a 1,000 kilometres.

There’s a feeling of euphoria once we’ve crossed the line. The organisers dole out mementos each year, always with a running theme, the most prized of which is the buff scarf. The day wouldn’t be complete without the traditional post-race pizza at La Finestra in downtown Aachen, helped down by some well-earned Weizen. Once I’m back home, you can usually find me slumped on the settee like a heavy sack of potatoes for the duration.

Having put the Winterlauf to bed for another year, my aching limbs decide they've deserved a break from exercise for at least a couple of weeks. By that time, we’ve broken the back of winter and - at least as far as daylight hours are concerned - it’s all uphill from here. Not only do I get the satisfaction of having completed yet another Winterlauf, more importantly, all the hard work, and not least of the camaraderie, have helped keep the autumn blues at bay.

Three cheers for the Winterlauf

*doorlopen = keep on running

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Life of Riley?

When I took my first tentative steps in the industry over 25 years ago, I never dreamed I would carve out a long and rewarding career in freelance translation. But neither did I imagine it was going to be so difficult to explain what that livelihood involved, especially to those with no affinity with the profession. Some people are more receptive however: a certain meeting of minds exists with other communication-based self-employed professionals, for example, graphic designers, journalists and photographers. They operate in similar circles and face similar business-related problems. But in terms of understanding the specific skills we need for working in translation, amongst people outside our realm of work there is a marked disconnect between perception and reality. Many visualise translation as being the simple conversion of text from one language into another. In other words, if you've done languages at school, pretty much anyone can do it.

So what is the big deal about translation?
In a recent blog I attempted to put to bed some of the myths surrounding freelance translation, focusing on the range of skills we need. This time, three more bubbles are burst, all of which, I dare say, freelancers in other professions will be able to identify with. 

It’s such an easy way to earn money 
If you’re happy having less job security than someone on a zero-hours contract, you don’t mind working long and unsocial hours, and you can cope with the stress of not knowing where the next job’s coming from, being a self-employed translator is the kind of job for you. Whilst businesses, say, in the manufacturing sector can plan ahead on the basis of reasonably stable supply and demand forecasts, no such continuity exists in a service industry at the end of the supply chain like translation. We place complete trust in our customers – direct clients, agencies and colleagues – for giving us a regular supply of work and hope that the gleanings from this will be enough to finance our regular outgoings: hardware and software, office equipment and stationery, telephony, gas, water and electricity, transport, accountant’s fees, mortgage/rent, income tax, social insurance, professional liability insurance, property insurance, sickness and disability insurance and car insurance, professional training and conferences, etc. That has to be accounted for even before we have any money to put in our own pockets.
If you’d rather not work until you drop dead, it’s wise to set aside some savings too, so that you can enjoy a few years’ retirement. Even then, savings plans available to the self-employed compare miserably to the type of ring-fenced pension schemes common in the public or private sector.
And unlike salaried employees, you can forget about fringe benefits like paid leave, never mind a ‘thirteenth month’. Holidays don’t come cheap. Effectively, if you take a fortnight’s break, you’re potentially missing out on two weeks’ earnings.
Believe me, the list of fixed and variable overheads is daunting! It’s not unusual for an experienced freelance translator to have to stump up, on average, fixed monthly costs of between €2,000 and 3,000 even before the work, of which there’s no certainty, comes in. In essence, it’s a business philosophy based on blind faith.
Things can be a lot trickier for those starting out in the industry. Beginners will need to quickly develop a broad client base to avoid being dependent on just one or two customers. Losing one might mean kissing goodbye to a sizable chunk of earnings at the end of the month.
Not all of us are adept at staving off panic when we hit the doldrums, nor for that matter, at dealing with sudden deluges of work, but it’s a talent a seasoned translator will have to learn. Not veering off course and keeping on an even keel, however heavy the weather, is what’s required. 

Freelancing means you can work whenever you want 
Even some of my closest friends seem to think I went into semi-retirement when I gave up paid employment and that was well over 20 years ago. Evidently, having given up a nine-to-five job I had so much more time on my hands, so I guess it was hard for them to imagine what I was doing all day. Indeed, the life of a freelance translator is solitary and follows no fixed regime. For many, this lack of routine is unnerving. To them, the notion of not being accountable to a boss, not having to commute, not being tied to office hours and not needing to observe any particular dress code amounts to pretty much the same thing as not having to work at all. True, there’s no one to tell me when I have to turn up to work every day. My journey to work only involves negotiating a flight of stairs. And if I really wanted to, I could sit at the computer in pyjamas and slippers all day.
Without question, being a self-employed translator means having flexibility, but it comes at a price. Since there’s no one to boss me around, I have to do this myself (and believe me, I’m not naturally gifted at that). Not everyone has the iron discipline to cope with the irregular ebb and flow of work or the ability to adapt to the pace of work when bound by tight schedules. Old-timers like me will have learned intuitively how to judge the time needed for a specific volume of work, taking into account the subject matter and the format. Nevertheless, some evenings and weekends, I can find myself slogging away at the computer playing catch-up after having badly underestimated a project’s time frame. Good forward planning is recommended, but it’s not always an option when several direct clients all arrive with work at the same time. Those same friends who were under the impression you were loafing around all day, will shake their heads with incredulity when you tell them you’ve had to cancel your plans for meeting up with some measly excuse about having to finish a translation.
But its not only during busy spells when discipline and perseverance are needed. During slack periods too, when you emerge from enforced confinement, it’s important to get all the other essential jobs done, such as invoicing, payments, procurement, marketing and all those other things us jack-of-all-trades translators have to do. 

I suppose you take your laptop out into the garden and work there in the summer 
Whenever self-styled digital nomads post pictures of themselves or their laptops on social media against the backdrop of a palm-shaded beach or a sweeping mountain vista with a long, cool drink at arm’s length, boldly claiming they are ‘at the office’, I can’t help thinking, who are they trying to kid? Are they seriously trying to tell us that they can work AND relax at the same time?
Now don’t get the idea that I’ve never succumbed to an overwhelming desire for idleness. I sometimes think ‘Lethargy’ is my middle name. In fact, I subscribed to the work/relaxation theory for a while when I moved into my present house about 15 years ago. At the time, I was still in the habit of printing out my translations and proofreading the hard copy. The long, hot summer and the lure of a lounger on a shady veranda proved irresistible. But no sooner had I finished my first page of annotations when another irrepressible urge would come over me and half an hour later I’d find myself slumped on the lounger woken by the rhythm of my own snoring. So, I learned my lesson.
Let’s face it, the work/relaxation thing isn‘t going to succeed in many lines of business. A train driver, a production-line operator or even a professional footballer needs absolute concentration if they are to please their employer/customer and deliver a top-class performance. That’s no less true in the freelance translation business: the last thing I need when I’m trying to drum up motivation is the distraction of a swimming pool or cocktail bar. Shirking on the job is simply counter-productive.
There might be much to complain about in the translation world, but undeniably the laptop, smartphone and Wi-Fi have helped revolutionise and emancipate our profession. Without too much trouble, it’s now possible to work away from the office at a location on the other side of the globe. In an airport lounge, on a train, at a hotel and, yes, even from a holiday home - as long as we can maintain access to our resources and remain in contact with customers, we can choose to work anywhere. But we should never lose sight of the fact that concentration is what we need most of all to deliver quality work. That necessitates closing ourselves off from the disruptive influences around us. Working on a train, for example, isn’t going to happen if there’s a constant stream of announcements within earshot.
My first experience of working ‘away’ from the office was when my late father was suddenly taken into hospital with a life-threatening illness about ten years ago. It meant dashing back to England and spending weeks near his side. In the years that followed I would spend weeks at a time in my parental home combining care with work. Having a laptop and access to Wi-Fi were lifesavers, much more for my dad, but also for me. It was convenient, but hardly ideal.
Wi-Fi, mobile telephony and laptops have allowed us to cut the umbilical cord we once had with our offices and, perhaps more than most, I have taken advantage of location-independent working in recent years. Nevertheless, to feel happy about producing work which is up to scratch, I still need a place which allows me the space for total immersion (work, not the swimming pool, you understand).
When all is said and done, I tend to perform best when I’m shut off in my own private space, seated in a comfortable, ergonomically designed office chair surrounded by my things - peripherals, books and other resources (including essential tea and coffee-making facilities) - where I have maximum control over potential distractions. In short, my own office.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

I want my identity back!

I guess I’m not the only one going through an existential crisis at the moment. I’ve spent the last fortnight pondering on where the last 30 years of my life have gone and where the rest of them are going, rather like staring out of the window of a railway carriage watching the landscape outside unfold. The analogy is not without relevance: last weekend I spent some time travelling on the inter-city between Milan and Venice, across la Pianura Padana, a part of Italy that I got to know well soon after I started working in my first job following my move to the Continent in 1984.

I grew up in post-colonial Britain, a country whose school atlases continued to wistfully colour its former possessions in pink and whose history books hankered back to the bygone days of Empire. With its loss however, came the need to seek out new partnerships. Following the ravages of the Second World War – the worst of which had evaded Britain - our closest European neighbours, in the spirit of reconciliation, were forging new alliances in what we knew as the Common Market, a free trade area from which Britain was initially excluded.
In 1973, after years of negotiations, the UK eventually joined the club officially known as the European Economic Community (EEC). I was at secondary school and the years that followed were exciting times. The subjects I most liked and at which I excelled were French, German and Geography, all three of which I took at A-level, and the latter which I went on to study at university. I was fascinated by language and culture and eager to take advantage of the opportunities which this realignment with our European neighbours was opening up.
During the harsh years of living in England under Margaret Thatcher, it was perhaps an opportune time to move abroad. I could never quite come to terms with the resurgence of jingoism she managed to engender on the back of the Falklands crisis in 1982. And when she wasn’t Argie-bashing, she set out about making short shrift of the “enemy within”, the striking mineworkers. It seemed Thatcher, in rekindling a sense of Empire and inflicting class revenge, was taking us backwards rather than forwards.

I moved to the Netherlands in 1984 and though I’d always harboured a wish to live in mainland Europe, I had to readjust, learn a new language and settle down in Limburg, a region at the crossroads of three linguistic cultures, Dutch, French and German. After a year acclimatising, I was offered a job working on an EC-funded disability project which took me all over Europe to places like Milan, Mulhouse, Heidelberg, Madrid, Leuven, Luxembourg, Dublin and London (yes, London too was in Europe!) This first-hand experience of working on European projects told me that although a lot of time got bogged down in red tape and protocol, these programmes were beneficial – not only for disabled persons, but for cultural exchange and understanding as well. Our main partners had offices in Milan and it was during my many stays there that I spent many happy trips exploring northern Italy by train.
By 1994 I had started out on a new career path. I was already earning money from translating from Dutch into English and decided to go full-time. Writing and languages were in my DNA and having the flexibility of being self-employed enabled me to be a hands-on dad for my son Raph who was growing up in the 90s.
My freelance existence also allowed me to follow another of my passions, photography and I enrolled on a six-year evening course at the art academy in Hasselt, Belgium. It meant notching up many miles – a round-trip of 110 kilometres twice a week - and long hours spent in the darkroom with chemicals, but it was hugely rewarding and brought me into contact with the Flemish, whose most enduring quality has to be that they are so unlike the Dutch. Thumbs up Belgium!
Meanwhile back in the Netherlands ...
As if one six-year course wasn’t enough I embarked on another punishing long-term study, this time a teaching degree which had the ultimate aim of me combining translation work with teaching. Although I got my BEd qualifications, my teaching English at secondary schools here never quite worked out. Eventually I found my feet teaching adults two evenings a week at the Volkshochschule in Aachen in Germany, a 40-minute bus journey across the border.

Now you might think that after clocking up all this European mileage, I was slowly morphing into a foreigner, but nothing could really be further from the truth. I may have left England in 1984, but I never cast myself adrift. I’ve always tried to retain ties with friends and family in all the places I lived and worked during my formative years in Britain – my home city of Manchester first and foremost. As a well-known geographer and outdoorsy type, of all the landscapes I know, the one that sets my pulse racing the most are the heather-clad moorlands of Northern England.
From afar – and often close up - I’ve continued to follow the fortunes of my home-town club as best as I can: watching Manchester United walk away with the treble at Camp Nou in 1999 will be an enduring memory. Another of my childhood passions was cricket, perhaps the sport I missed most of all when I left England behind in the 80s. That all changed however, when with other ex-pats, I helped start a cricket club in Heerlen that still flourishes today.
In fact, embracing both a British and European identity has never presented a hindrance. On the contrary, it has been instrumental in helping me accomplish much on a personal and professional level. I’m incredibly lucky to have a bilingual son who shows a strong allegiance to his father’s country of birth and who is likewise making his way in the world of languages and translation. Thankfully, his horizons too stretch a long way further than the confines of his own national frontiers.
As far as translation is concerned, my years of living on the Continent and my own cultural and linguistic background have given me a distinct insight into the subtle differences between source and target cultures so that I am uniquely placed to take advantage of the profession. Likewise my teaching: I like to think I have dispelled many of the stereotypes and contributed in a positive way to an understanding of British and English-speaking cultures.

In short, I feel as much European as I do British. Up until now, I’ve never questioned the fact that the two might be incompatible. Without a doubt, the driving force behind that sense of duality has been the political alliance forged between the nation states of Europe, the erstwhile Common Market, now the European Union. After the outcome of the EU referendum that balance has been irrevocably upset.

More than anything the moment is symbolic, the culmination of many years in which much of the British public – spoon-fed on a diet of falsehoods by a pernicious press – fell into believing that its hardships and failings had been caused by Europe and not by the failures of successive governments at home. It was all about emphasising the differences, not the commonalities, an us-versus-them politics, let’s blame it on Johnny Foreigner. Pragmatism, common sense, open-mindedness, fair-play and a healthy dose of self-deprecation - the very fundamentals of what people believed Britain to be - have gone out of the window, replaced by delusions of grandeur, irrationality, insularity, intolerance and anger. Britain has never been so divided. It certainly wasn’t the country I grew up in.     
The European Union is no paradigm of democracy, but neither is Britain, with its unelected upper chamber and an electoral system that allows one party to govern by itself with just 37 percent of the popular vote. For all the flaws the European Union may have, undisputedly its most noble achievement has been to help keep the peace for more than 60 years on a continent that for centuries was perennially embroiled in conflict. One country’s leaving of the EU does not necessarily put that peace at risk, but the symbolic act of slamming the door shut and turning one’s back on one’s closest neighbours and allies sends out a warning.

But to return to the railway analogy: it’s as if I’ve now arrived at the station to find a through train leaving soon on the main line, whilst another is stuck in a siding waiting for the whistle to blow and signal its departure onto the branch line, destination unknown. Let’s hope I don’t jump on the wrong train.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Les ascensions oubliées: another curious tale of triangulation

There is no town in Italy which commands so magnificent a panorama of the chain of Alps as Turin. The wide plain on which it stands, with its sea-like surface broken into undulations by ranges of low hills, crested with copses and sparkling villas, rolls many a league around, until it is suddenly interrupted by the mighty rampart which encircles it in a horseshoe curve 250 miles in length. Many noble peaks rise at intervals along the ridge; northwards of the dazzling snows of Monte Rosa and the Lyskamm, and in the S.W., where the great chain approaches nearer than elsewhere, it towers up into the rugged pinnacle of Monte Viso, one of the most precipitous and striking mountains in Europe. The streets in Turin are straight, and cross each other at right angles; stand where are you will, and look in any direction excepting eastward, and some portion of the Alps closes in the vista. In one of the quarters of the city half of the streets open out towards Monte Viso, so that it is almost constantly in view, and stands like a giant sentinel, sleepless, immortal, keeping guard over the kingdom at its feet.

For anyone standing on Monte dei Cappuccini today, a small hill overlooking the River Po in Turin, these words are no less true than they were when they were penned 155 years ago. On a clear day, the pyramidal outline of Monviso (Monte Viso in French) to the south-west of the city is unmistakeable and dominates the skyline in this quadrant.
The passage of text is taken from the opening paragraph of an account of the first recorded ascent of the 3,841-metre peak on 30 August 1861 by two British climbers, William Matthews and Frederick Jacomb, together with their French guides, Jean-Baptiste Croz and Michael Croz. Known attempts had been made on Monviso before, the first serious one of which had been made in 1834 by Domenico Ansaldi, a local surveyor, but because of insurmountable obstacles and dense mist, his group had to give up and turn back at a height of around 3,700 metres. In 1839, the British physicist and glaciologist, James David Forbes, reconnoitred the mountain and was the first to make a circular tour of the massif.
Matthews’ ascent took place during the golden age of mountaineering, a period between around 1854 and 1865 when most of the major peaks of the Alps were summitted for the first time. It was dominated by British alpinists and their Swiss and French guides and culminated rather poignantly in the fateful first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. For many alpinists at the time mountaineering was primarily a sport, but more often than not there was a scientific objective to the climbs and, as well as carrying a variety of instruments up the mountain with them, they also made detailed descriptions of their adventures. No surprise then that a full account (including the introductory passage above) appeared in Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, one of the leading journals of the time, which eventually became the Alpine Journal.

But now, astonishingly, new evidence has come to light which casts doubt on the record claimed by Matthews in 1861. The findings of this new research contend that there was a real possibility that Monviso was first ascended 110 years previously in 1751. French and Italian historians working in collaboration stumbled across early maps of the region which suggest that the mountains had been accurately surveyed by means of triangulation in the 18th century. In their research paper, Une autre histoire des Alpes. Les ascensions oubliées des officiers géographes et des habitants des Alpes du Sud (1750-1850), Oliver Joseph and Paul Billon-Grand (historians based in Vallouise, France), Eugenio Garoglio (researcher at the University of Turin) and Alexandre Nicolas (cartographer) argue that in order to achieve the accuracy of measurements to produce such detailed maps, using the principles of triangulation, engineers must have had access to the highest points in the district, including Monviso.

Despite being mountainous and largely inaccessible, in the 18th century the territory in the surroundings of the Cottian Alps, of which Monviso is the highest peak, was heavily contested by France and Savoy, so it was important for military strategists of the day to have detailed knowledge of the terrain. Between 1749 and 1754, Pierre-Joseph Bourcet (1700 – 1780), a French military engineer and cartographer, was commissioned to map the borders in this part of the Alps. By then, triangulation had become the most accurate method of mapping, already having a long history in France. The theory of triangulation, based on the principles of trigonometry, has been described elsewhere in these columns, but measurements in the field would have involved the accurate calculation of distances between the highest points in the vicinity, such as towers and hilltops, with the aid of surveying equipment. As visible poles would have had to be used, this would have meant accessing these points to obtain precise measurements.

The researchers have compared the observations on the old maps with modern cartography and discovered that the heights of mountains and the distances between summits differ by only a few metres, measured over distances of 15 to 20 kilometres. According to the researchers, this level of accuracy – around 1% out - could have only been possible if the highest points, including that of Monviso, had been climbed. Documents archived in the records office of the Hautes-Alpes département reveal that military surveyors officers would have been accompanied in these ascents by local villagers who would carry the equipment as well as act as guides. They would have been employed to place ranging rods (tree trunks) with flags on the summits which would have been visible for miles around. At this stage no one knows for sure whether Monviso was indeed scaled during this period, but maps made at the time include topographic icons pinpointing the exact locations used in the triangulation process (in much as the same way the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain use trig-point symbols on its maps today).

Of course, there are counterhypotheses too, which argue that given the known technology and mountaineering skills available in the 1750s, it would have been nigh impossible to reach the top of Monviso, In fact, the first documentary evidence of an attempt on Monviso by the surveyor Domenico Ansaldi in 1834 - by which time cartographic technology had advanced considerably - shows that his team of staff were beaten back fairly convincingly by the elements.

Whilst the researchers are confident about their initial findings, they concede that more documentary evidence will have to be uncovered before it is known whether the mapmakers beat the mountaineers to the top of one of the Alps’ most iconic peaks. Aficionados of epic tales of exploration and cartography like myself await their findings with interest, but it would not be the first time that mapmakers, rather than alpinists, made mountaineering history.


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

So, you translate into Dutch?

I must confess, I really can’t complain: when it comes to careers, life hasn’t dealt me a bad hand. My background and my range of skills have allowed me to make a decent living out of my chosen profession. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a self-employed translator working from Dutch into English. Because I work from home much of what I do is solitary, so my day-to-day regime remains largely hidden from view. Freelance translators like myself lead a ‘secluded’ existence, which means that our work is perceived to be cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Yet in many respects, the tasks my colleagues and I perform can be as humdrum (or as stimulating) as those in any other job: it is the invisibility of these activities that leads to fundamental misconceptions being made on the part of others. When translators do eventually venture outside the confines of their offices and communicate face-to-face with the outside world, it can result in some bewildering misunderstandings. The difference between what we do and what people think we do is often a world apart. 

Small talk - for example, at parties - invariably leads to conversations about work. So, over the years I have subconsciously developed a mental checklist of questions I’m likely to be asked every time I strike up a conversation with a stranger. Here are just a few of the those questions (with answers). If fact, there are plenty more, these are just for starters. 

So, you translate into Dutch? 
The short but very simple is: no, never. 
For some reason, perhaps because I’m good at Dutch, it’s assumed I translate into that language. Good translators however, follow a simple, but golden rule: we translate only into our native language! It’s not without reason we call it the ‘mother tongue’: the first words I heard and used were acquired while I was still being cradled in my mother’s arms. In later years, I would pick up the language from my older brothers, the kids next door and on the school playground. Then, in the classroom, I learned English in a more structured and complex way. Through constant exposure to the language and culture, often through trial and error, I came to understand its subtleties. 
By the time we were offered foreign languages at school - aged 12 - it was already too late to learn them though natural acquisition, unless perhaps English had disappeared from the face of the earth and I had suddenly been immersed in an alien culture. When I finally moved to the Netherlands at the age of 26, plunging myself headlong into Dutch culture and language learning, it soon became clear that I would never equal the ability of a native Dutch speaker: 30 years later, I may be a proficient speaker and user of this language, but I do not ‘possess’ it in the same way as my mother tongue, nor do I hold any pretensions of doing so. 
My contention is that anyone who claims that they can translate professionally into a language which is not their own is deluding themselves. Those who can do this faultlessly – perhaps only true bilinguals, brought up speaking two languages – are few and far between. Rarely in my 20 years as a full-time professional translator have I come across anyone who – even after decades of immersion - has acquired an ability to communicate flawlessly at all levels in a non-native language
So, no. I would be doing the translation industry a great disservice if I were to translate into Dutch, as well as damaging my professional reputation along the way. 

My daughter's unemployed. She speaks good English, do you think you could find her work in translation?
The great thing is about translation is that you don’t need any qualifications to start up professionally. But simply being able to read and write doesn’t mean any old Tom, Dick and Harry can translate. In the first place, you need a full command of your native language, and a proficiency, preferably C2, in your second, that is, the language you translate out of. Even then, that’s not enough: being word-perfect is all well and good, but you must also use a register and style that most closely reflects the specific subject matter of the source text, which may be legal, journalese or perhaps even one which contains obscene language or slang. And, at the back of your mind, you must always be aware of the subtle differences between your source and target cultures. So, linguistic adaptability and flexibility are essential requirements for success. 
A translation degree – on top of your language proficiencies – can help you learn these skills, many others – like myself – have a background working in industry as a copywriter or communicator which stands them in good stead. If you can find a job as a paid employee working in a translation agency, you will learn as you go. On-the-job training is a boon, but sooner or later most of us have taken the bold step of going self-employed, at which point you need a whole new gamut of skills. Don’t underestimate the paperwork that comes with being self-employed: you will have to send out invoices, file VAT returns, fill in annual accounts, take out various insurance policies and arrange a pension plan – at least if you want to make a career of it. And on top of that you will have to learn to deal with customers on a daily basis, either existing or new ones, with whom you will have to negotiate rates and deadlines. 
Oh, and I’ve not even mentioned the unsocial hours ... 
So, if you think your daughter’s up to it, tell her to give it a try. 

I imagine you translate a lot of literature? 
No, I do NOT translate books (by which most people tend to mean novels). The bulk of work in the translation industry is commercial in nature – for example, business correspondence, business plans and proposals, commercial literature, communication strategies, exhibition catalogues, legal contracts and documents, marketing plans, mission statements, and newsletters & magazine articles, to name but a few. However, there are several specialised genres which for one reason or another I steer clear of, including medical and overly technical translations. After all, I do not have a background in engineering or medicine.
Book translation accounts for a very small share of the translation market, especially in the language pair I work, Dutch to English. Literary translation is a niche-market, usually cornered by a specialised group of literary translators who do little else. 
Even if I were offered the chance to translate a book, there are several other good reasons why I would probably turn it down. There are exceptions, but if I were to quote my rates for commercial translation to a bog-standard publisher, they would probably trash my email without giving it a second look. Even if they were to accede, there are plenty of other grounds for not accepting the work, not least that taking on a large project where tight deadlines are involved would preclude me from handling the steady inflow of bread-and-butter work I get from my regular clients. Last but not least, literary translation is a genre in its own right requiring a painstaking, often monastic devotion to creative re-writing which only a few colleagues possess. 

To be continued ...