I’ve spoken a lot in my blog about the personal circumstances and coincidences that led me into my career as a translator. But I couldn’t have become one without knowledge of my working languages, and that’s what I want to talk about in this series of posts.
As an English schoolboy, the foreign language I first came into contact with was French. No English person reading this will be surprised to hear that, although perhaps we should be. Over the years I’ve often wondered why French is the default first foreign language in English schools, given the arguments for the greater usefulness of Spanish, Chinese or Arabic, for example. Partly, of course, it is because France is the UK’s nearest neighbour. My theory, though, is simply that it is self-sustaining: the more children who study French, the more French graduates there are, and the more French graduates there are, the more potential French teachers Britain produces, to teach more children French, and so on.
Whatever the truth of it, at the age of ten or eleven I found myself starting French in Mrs. Drinkwater’s class. She was a rather fearsome character who provided us with little rhymes to help us remember the pronouns (je, tu, il/elle – he climbed the stairs but down he fell; nous, vous, ils/elles – the last two have an ‘s’ as well). I suppose the fact that I still remember them proves her methods must have been effective.
Fortunately, I seemed to take to languages, particularly enjoying translations, which should have told me something, and I carried on studying French for the rest of my time at school, to the age of 18. I had some strange teachers, including one who used to burst in the classroom loudly singing opera and throw all the windows open, even in the middle of winter. He was the one who told me my “chocolatey” r was a southern French sound, rather than standard pronunciation. In my later years at school I studied literature, and enjoyed Camus, Anouilh and a little Molière. At the end of it all, I came out with an O level, an AO level, an A level and an S level from the old English exam system.
Had I been thinking of a career in translation, or indeed of any career at all, I might have carried on with languages at university. But I had fallen in love with history and decided to study that instead, although I did spend quite a lot of time studying the history of France. As I left university and went to work in journalism, my continuing use of the language came largely on holiday, with a bit of reading thrown in. There were good moments, such as on one trip to Brittany, when I managed to find the words to explain to a startled restaurant owner that “my mother-in-law’s locked in the lavatory”. And bad ones, such as the time I was sold a metro ticket to the wrong airport in Paris and left wondering how anyone, in any language could mistake “Orly” for “Charles de Gaulle”.
This was one of the few examples I encountered of the legendary awkwardness of French people (and especially Parisians) towards tourists. Often I have a great deal of sympathy with them. Why should they be expected to switch into a foreign language in their own country just because most tourists are reluctant to even try to use theirs? But nowadays I find things are changing, even in Paris, and it is becoming more and more difficult to speak French to local people who, as soon as they realise you are a foreigner, have an increasing tendency to switch to English.
For many years, then, my French was just a matter of education and personal satisfaction. It wasn’t until I started translating from Spanish and Catalan that I began to realise that, if I dusted it down, my French it could be useful to me again. I worked on improving it and began accepting French-English translations, growing in confidence all the time. I found that being able offer French-English was a good way into working with new Spanish agencies, simply because they didn’t have many translators to choose from in that combination. My proudest moment came perhaps at the beginning of this year, when I completed an important UNESCO-funded tourism translation for the Park of the Catalan Pyrenees, leaving the customer so delighted that he gave me a glowing reference.
In recent years I’ve made many more visits to France (Provence, Lyon, Paris, the Perigord, Toulouse…), although my spoken French has suffered badly from the fact that I speak so much Catalan and Spanish, and unless I end up living in France at some stage, I doubt its capacity to recover. A long-term aim of mine is still to obtain some sort of qualification in French-English translation, along the lines of the Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma I have for Spanish-English, but the examination is a serious challenge and for the moment I have other priorities. Meanwhile, my daughter has become a much more accomplished French scholar that I ever was, gaining first-class degree from Cambridge, a master’s from Oxford and now returning to Cambridge to embark on a PhD.
If my relationship with French over the years has taught me anything it is that you never know what’s going to come in useful. At the age of 16 or 18, as much as I liked the subject, I had no idea the language was going to help me earn my living more than twenty years later. And that must be an argument for encouraging the studying of foreign languages in schools, a lesson the British government, for one, would do well to learn.
If you’d like to see the French version of this website, an excellent translation from the English by my colleague Martine Fernández, either click where you see the small French flag or go here.
In the next post in this series, I’ll be talking about Catalan.