Translation Embassy | The meaning of living abroad for a translator
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The meaning of living abroad for a translator/interpreter

12 Dec The meaning of living abroad for a translator/interpreter

When asked for memories from my university years, the first thing I recall is the semester I spent in Strasbourg, where I was sent in the framework of a bilateral agreement. No, it was not a scholarship or a special opportunity. It was something provided to all students on university expenses as an obligatory part of their study programme. Later when applying for my Master’s on Conference Interpreting, one of the prerequisites required for applicants to have spent a period of at least 6 months living abroad either for studies or for work. Translation and interpreting students are usually among the ones who profit most from Erasmus or other Exchange programmes.

Have you ever wondered why these institutions of higher education emphasize so much the fact of living abroad? How is this related to a translator’s or interpreter’s everyday practice and why is it important? The answer is that experiences in foreign places provide you with specialized cultural details, which play a crucial role in your everyday practice. In this article I’ll show how the cultural knowledge gained from such experiences becomes critical for our job and increases a professional’s performance.

What do you learn, when living abroad?

My family does not understand my need to live in another country. As they tell me, “It’s fine to make small trips anytime you want, but why do you need to settle there?”. Well, it’s true, touristic trips do bring you in contact with other cultures, you learn a bit of their history, you see some things, you taste their gastronomy and so on. However, all this is superficial. It cannot replace the deep knowledge you acquire by dealing with several factors of the everyday life when settling at a place. Let’s see with precise examples how the knowledge I acquired in my life abroad had an important impact on my work as a translator and interpreter.

Different perceptions of working discipline when localizing an employee satisfaction survey

So far I have been an in-house employee in 4 countries across Europe and I saw how the notion of working discipline can be differently perceived in each one of them. An authoritative working regime on the one hand considered me obliged to stay at the office until the work is finished no matter how late it was, applied several tricks to reduce taxation and social security costs at the expense of employees, ordered me to work on public holidays and was taking it for granted that I would be available anytime outside working hours, even in weekends, and all this without recognizing the obligation to offer me overtime payment or additional holidays. This was totally in contrast with another case, where additional holidays, extra payment and a taxi paid by my employer to take me to the office increased my motivation to volunteer for working on a public holiday.

My understanding of these differences in working mentality and of the feelings of employees in each case played a crucial role when I was asked to localize an employee satisfaction survey for a market research agency. The survey template was tailored according to US standards and I immediately thought that a purely linguistic approach would not be sufficient. The target audience is always a factor we take into consideration when translating. If a survey is tailored according to the respondents and the questions reflect their personal situation, it is more likely to get a high response rate. Therefore, in order to offer an effective translation result my linguistic choices had to be aligned with the culture of the addressed audience. Formulating questions that make sense for the respondent, adjusting the tone, the style etc. were aspects to take into consideration in order to produce a result that best served the survey’s purpose.

How tendencies in education and employment reflect in a job application platform

Certificates seem to play a central role in the Turkish education system and vocational training. They are somehow considered as crucial proofs of knowledge. Course providers always put emphasis on the ability of granting a certificate when advertising their programmes, especially if this is recognized by the Ministry of Education. Certificates can even be provided for attending a one-off, one-hour presentation of a professional topic, which consists only of an introduction and does not transmit any deep knowledge. Although not widespread in all sectors, certificates are usually crucial in Greece as well, when you need to prove your knowledge of a foreign language in a contest for working positions in the public sector. In contrast to that, the importance of certificates is reduced in other systems, where other factors, such as good references, cooperation with co-workers and practical knowledge (arising from experience rather than formal education) are highlighted instead.

Awareness of such trends played an important role when I worked on the localization of an online job application platform. Relevant details were taken into consideration in several instances, such as the localization of the fields provided in the applicant’s online profile. In another example employment trends in local markets (ex. a particular trait employers tend to ask for in X market) was another factor we took into consideration to localize the template of announcing new openings in the platform. So, we see how apart from linguistic skills translators are often called to provide practical information of the markets they work with as well. Such information is not usually acquired through classes, books or reports. These are practical things you observe around you in your everyday practice, when you need to function within the system of a foreign culture and country.

Translating marketing e-mails for an international insurance company

The way systems deal with social insurance was an important piece of information to take into account when localizing marketing emails of an international insurance company. Social insurance relies basically on the state in Greece and Turkey. My state insurance was usually more than enough in these countries, where I could basically cover all my needs for free in public hospitals or medical centres and a private insurance usually seemed a superfluous luxury. To my surprise though, I realized that this wouldn’t be the case in Ireland, when I got an employment there. Irish state insurance is provided only to the very poor ones, while it covers only very basic emergency situations for the rest of the people. Irish citizens and foreigners employed there depend largely on private insurance policies provided many times through their employer in cooperation with an insurance company.

This was of course important information to take into consideration for the localization of X company’s marketing campaigns, which clearly had a different function and addressed different audiences (employers or private persons) across different countries. As the linguist in charge I had to find the formulations that best addressed the core concerns of each target group, stress the parts that make more sense for each audience and adapt the campaign to local standards and practices.

Translator’s feedback about pricing

Although prices are basically defined by the sales or the management team, as a translator I have also been asked to give some relevant feedback in a couple of instances. It may sound surprising, but it’s actually normal if you think that thanks to my on site experience I was better informed about the consumer habits and the purchase power of the people in market X than the sales team of the customer, who were located miles away and never had a cultural exchange with the market I was working for.

Internal political propaganda and interpreting

Experiencing the local mentality, needs and concerns on site plays a crucial role for interpreters as well.  An interpreter identifies himself/herself with the speaker every time he/she is on duty. In order to best serve the speaker’s message and perspective, it’s important to feel and understand the same pressures, anxieties, demands, challenges, interests etc. as the delegate of the country he/she is interpreting for. Up to a certain extent this is achieved by closely following international news of reliable sources. This is though totally enhanced and perfectionized by feeling the pulse of the society when living in the country of the delegate you are interpreting for. Thus you can for example better interpret the attitude of President Erdogan about the deployment of YPG forces in the fight against ISIS after having experienced the feelings of the local population about the PKK, better convey Prime Minister Tsipras’ message after having personally talked with all those affected by the heavy taxation and unemployment or better give the perspective of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a conference about the integration of refugees after having heard first hand personal stories from all those migrants who contributed to the country’s “economic miracle”…

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