Specialist courses improve subject knowledge
I’ve been talking quite a lot on this blog lately about CPD – or Continuing Professional Development for the uninitiated. Recently, rather than translation itself or what are known as the “soft skills” of marketing and business, I’ve been wanting to focus on training that would improve my knowledge of my specialist areas, and for the last three Mondays I’ve been doing just that, for one of them at least.
Getting training in specialist areas is not the easiest thing. After all, what we’re looking for is knowledge subject; we don’t necessarily have the time, the money or the need to become fully qualified professionals in the areas where we translate. For example, I translate sport, but that doesn’t mean I need to be a sportsman or coach, it’s enough for me to be a knowledgable enthusiast, although in that respect there isn’t really any formal training available. All I can demonstrate to clients is that I’ve done a good number of published translations about football, for instance.
There are other subject areas where I don’t really need training. This would apply to history, for example, as I have a degree in the subject and a good knowledge of the countries that speak the languages I translate from: Spain, particularly the history of Catalonia, and France, as well as Latin America. Nor do I need training in translating journalistic texts. I was a journalist for 15 years, I know how journalists write. The challenge here is making sure a translation comes out in my best journalistic English and not in translationese. This can only be done by working hard on revising and editing translation without the source text and prioritising flow about all other factors.
But among my specialist areas, there are some that do lend themselves to learning and study. One such is wine, an interest of mine for some years and an area where I would like to do many more translations. I’ve visited vineyards and I know how wine is made. I’ve tried plenty of wines from around the world and know something of grape varieties and styles. I’ve done plenty of wine translations and I’m reasonably at home in the sometimes fanciful and flowery descriptions of aromas and flavours. I also did a short course in wine translation last year, although that was organised by and for Catalan and Spanish translators and, where I sometimes find myself in difficulty in these translations is knowing exactly the right vocabulary in English. For example, when experts talk about wine, what word do they use to describe the flashes of colour that sometimes appear in addition to the dominant shade? Or do we talk about denominations of origin or designations of origin? So if I was going to study wine, I wanted to do it in English, because this was where I had the doubts, not in my source languages.
Looking at the possibilities, I discovered that the London-based Wine and Spirits Education Trust runs a series of courses and examinations at different levels which I thought might suit my purpose. They even offer some of their courses online, which appealed to me, although the thought of having to travel to London to do the examination did not. I also had to choose my level. Level One appeared too basic, Level Three a little too advanced for the state of my knowledge. Level Two seemed to be the one to go for, and this judgment was backed when I discovered that my fellow translator Alison Hughes, who also specialises in wine, had taken and passed her Level Two exam. I was obviously on the right track.
Doing a little more research, I discovered that it is possible to do exactly the course I wanted, in English, in Barcelona. I duly registered and at the beginning of this month I went off to the first of Sharon Levey’s classes. I’d explained to Sharon, a young Scotswoman with an obvious passion for wine who is carving out a career in the business, about the reason for my interest in the course, but I was intrigued to see what kind of other people would be wanting to spend three Mondays studying wine. It turned out there were three others on the course: Santi, a video producer and hobby winemaker who wanted to boost his knowledge and improve the wine he makes in one of the most sought-after vinegrowing areas of Catalonia: Priorat. Then there was Anita, a doctor who probably deserves the description “Citizen of the World” more than anyone else I’ve ever met – she seemed to have lived or worked everywhere. She wanted to know more about wine because she was thinking of buying her diplomat father’s vineyard in Italy. Finally, there was Vera, a young Finnish woman with an extraordinary nose: she could pin down almost any smell following several years spent working in the perfume industry.
There we were, sitting opposite one another, ready to learn details of vinegrowing conditions, grape varieties and winemaking methods and, of course, to taste some wine. “Taste” rather than “drink” was very much the operative word, as it would have been impossible to swallow the 18 or so wines we had to sample during a day and still walk out of the class, so spitting was a necessary evil (except in one or two cases, such as the truly revolting White Zinfandel we had to try). Mind you, some of the half-full bottles remaining at the end of each day and available to take home were a lot more appetising: my highlights of the course were an excellent white burgundy and a splendid drop of Chateauneuf du Pape.
So was my 650 euros well spent? In terms of enjoyment, certainly. It was good to break routine, get out of the office and learn something entirely new without a huge time commitment. It also didn’t disrupt my work too much and I was able to catch up with few problems. The course itself, really designed for people working in the hotel and catering industry in the UK, was, as you might expect, angled from a very British viewpoint. That meant a strong emphasis on French wines (not necessarily a bad thing for me as I do get some translations from France in this area), more than I would have expected on Germany, a sprinkling of New World examples and very scanty references to anywhere else. Spain, which doesn’t grow much in terms the classic French Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grape varieties, only really gets a look in under “Other red grapes” for the Tempranillo used to make Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines. That, however, didn’t really matter very much as I know about the Spanish wines that are likely to be the main subjects of the translations I do. Meanwhile, I certainly learned or confirmed some English vocabulary. I also have plenty more reference material to consult the next time a wine translation pops into my inbox and I’ll have a lot more confidence that my translations really are using the right kind of language. I also know, and this is an issue I’ve wondered a great deal about in the past, that grape varieties are probably generally best untranslated, even though the British might know a particular one better by its French name than it’s Spanish one. “Garnacha”, for example, is no longer going to be rendered “Grenache”.
Of course, the real test (apart from the examination, which still has to be marked) will be whether I can use the experience of the course to attract new wine-related customers. I’ll certainly be more confident about approaching them and I have some ideas for later in the year, when I know my result, to organise a concerted campaign to approach potential clients. I’ll also be updating my website, of course, and some of my other publicity material. I believe, particularly with the current growth of interest in wine and in wine tourism, that there is potential for this type of translation, and you only have to read the labels of wine bottles from non-English speaking countries to realise there’s plenty of room for improvement.
I find CPD rather like a large meal – very enjoyable, and undoubtedly good for me but requiring time to digest – so I won’t be on the look out for more for a while. When I am, I like the idea of following the wine course model and developing my special subject knowledge. After all, I find I’ve reached a point where I’ve more or less taken as much as I want out of the business and marketing pick and mix for the time being, and, although I concede that it’s always possible to sharpen our hard translation skills, really demanding training in that area is hard to find. I’ll be combing the grammar workshops at this years MET meeting in Tarragona to see what’s on offer in that department. So my next step could be more wine. WSET Level Three courses are also on offer in Barcelona, although I’ll need to see how closely this would suit my purposes, as a law of diminishing returns could apply and the price for a longer course is going to be higher rather than lower. Otherwise it will be a case of looking for something along similar lines in a different subject, although perhaps in online format. I haven’t really explored the possibilities of MOOCs and other free or cheap distance learning courses.
The key, though, will always be relevance and value for effort (time as well as money). Is what I learn going to matter to me? And, more importantly, is it going to matter to the clients I have now and, even more importantly, those I want to have in the future? Maybe if we asked those questions a bit more often, we might not leave room for some of the less substantial offerings that have been bringing CPD for translators something of a bad name in recent months.