Everyone has someone who makes a difference to their life – someone who gives them a vital piece of help or advice, maybe, or some welcome and unexpected finance. But I don’t think many people have had their life quite so radically changed as mine was by my wife, Marta Membrives, who died suddenly last month. This article is a tribute to Marta inspired by the time I’ve spent looking back on the huge effect she had on my life, both personally and professionally, over the 23 years since I met her, completely by chance, in the Vatican Museum, Rome, in 1998.
It was more or less love at first sight and we began making plans to live together almost indecently quickly. And this is where it began to become apparent that my life was going to change. At that time, I was a journalist living in Ipswich, UK. Marta, also a journalist, was a Catalan living in Badalona, near Barcelona. If we were to be together, one of us was going to have to move and, considering that, as with many Mediterranean people, just three days without sun would make Marta start to feel depressed, it soon became clear that person was going to have to be me. Not that it was any great hardship moving to such an exciting place with such good food and weather on offer.
As soon as I got home from Rome after meeting Marta, I went out and bought a teach-yourself-Catalan book. In fact, this had more to do with my feelings for her than anything else. Particularly as her English was more than good enough for us to communicate in those early days, I felt I owed it to her to try to learn her language. Had I been thinking more about moving to Barcelona than about her, I’d have probably started with Spanish, which would have been both a sensible move and a mistake, considering that many people who learn Spanish first end up never learning Catalan at all.
Over the weeks since Marta’s death, I’ve been reading the letters we wrote to one another while our relationship remained a long-distance one. In English at first, Catalan gradually begins to creep in, first in Marta’s letters and then, timidly and haltingly, in mine. Language was a subject of a good deal of our correspondence. She was delighted that I’d chosen to start learning Catalan so quickly and soon sent me a much better Catalan course than the one I had, complete with tapes so I could start learning some pronunciation. I can remember sitting in my small house in Ipswich on cold winter evenings doing Catalan lessons and writing all those letters.
Later, when I was teaching English in Catalonia, students often used to ask me for the secret of language-learning. What was it that made a person able to learn a language quickly? I was in no doubt: motivation. Because without the motivation of my love for Marta and my keenness to live with her in Catalonia I think it is unlikely I would have been able to learn both Catalan and Spanish – languages I had never studied before – in little more than six months.
When I arrived in Catalonia, of course, I was still not very proficient in either language and I was in the unusual position of speaking Catalan better than I did Spanish. This made things very awkward because when people here come across a foreigner speaking in halting Catalan they think they are doing them a favour switching to Spanish. Suffice it to say that they are not, and that quite often found myself in those days babbling an incoherent muddle of Spanish and Catalan because of someone’s best intentions when I could have made a much better fist of things just staying in the language I started speaking in.
But plenty of practice, exposure to native speakers, TV and films (Marta loved going to the cinema and we often used to see films two or three times a week), and an intensive Spanish course soon brought my languages up to scratch. My idea of continuing in journalism as a freelance soon foundered against the reality that the only stories English newspapers wanted out of Barcelona were ones that would show up the locals in a bad light, and I became an English teacher. This wasn’t something I enjoyed very much, but it brought in a little cash and got me thinking a great deal about language and the differences and similarities between the various languages I now knew. It also led me into writing teaching materials for language schools and that, indirectly, led me into translation.
Through all this, Marta encouraged me. She helped me improve my language skills, correcting me gently but always keeping in mind that we wanted to use language – whichever one we were speaking – to communicate, not as some kind of educational exercise. She was, however, a great enthusiast for her language. As a journalist, she wrote in it every day and as a Catalan she wanted to be able to use it in her everyday life without having to switch unnecessarily into Spanish. Through her, I learned how important it is for a minority language to be supported and nurtured – something not every foreigner in Catalonia realises in their natural desire to minimise the “inconveniences” of living abroad.
One day, I went to a meeting about a textbook writing project I was involved in and there I met an American called Pat Bones, who explained to me that his main job was as a translator and interpreter and offered to pass me some contacts. And that was how I became a translator, starting slowly, building up my translation work and gradually phasing out the teaching hours. Within two or three years, I was translating full time, earning more than I’d ever done in my life. Marta didn’t make me a translator, of course, but she created the conditions for me to become one because without her I’d never have learned Spanish or Catalan or felt the need for a new career. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Learning Catalan first and understanding its importance in this part of the world also helped me to fit in with a group of clients and colleagues who felt the same about the language and appreciated a foreigner who respected it and was able to translate directly from it, without the need to go through Spanish. I can confidently say that they make up a good portion of my clients today.
Marta also had another gift to give me, this time more because of what she didn’t want me to do than what she did. By 2011, I’d been translating for quite a long time, but always in my own little bubble. I got on with doing what I did and I didn’t have much to do with other translators. Around that time, Marta seemed quite likely to lose her job. Spain was in economic crisis and her newspaper – like newspapers everywhere – was suffering. Redundancies were going to be made.
My response was to tell Marta it would all be OK. If the worst happened, she could come and work with me. We’d turn my solo translation business into a company and expand it with her help, offering a complete range of language services and perhaps linking up with a website designer to offer multilingual websites. Had the idea succeeded, we’d have become something like a translation and copywriting agency. I thought it might even be worth Marta taking the voluntary redundancy package on offer so we could start to get on with it.
But instead of being relieved that I had a plan to help, she was horrified. She didn’t want to do translations and she didn’t want us to start a company. She just wanted to keep her job. I felt hurt at first, but then I came to realise that there are some people who really prefer being employees. In fact, it’s a common mindset in Catalonia and in Spain – “Entrepreneurship is all very well, but it’s not for me”. I couldn’t blame her for feeling like that.
So, after taking a little time to digest what I saw as a setback, I thought to myself that if we weren’t going to go in that direction, I’m going to put everything into translation and into becoming a better translator. I joined associations and started going on CPD courses and conferences. And, once again, Marta gave me all the support she could. Her theory was that translator conferences were less about learning and more about translators going away on their own “school trips”, an opinion probably not so wide of the mark, but if I wanted to go to one she was delighted for me to be able to do it. And when I started speaking at conferences and helping other translators, it was clear that she was proud of me for what I was doing.
When I look at my life now, I see Marta has left me quite a legacy. Apart from the personal joy she brought me, I would not live where I do or speak the languages I speak or do the job I do or earn the money I can earn without her. And I haven’t even mentioned her own professional merits. She was a fine journalist, and, although her style was quite different from my own, it suited the Catalan newspaper she worked for, El Punt Avui. She was good at dealing with people and always full of ideas for stories – the kind of reporter I’d have loved to have working for me when I was a local paper news editor. She was also much appreciated by current and former colleagues who turned out in amazing numbers at her funeral. I think she’d have been amazed and humbled to see it. I won’t be the only one who will miss her terribly.
Dedicated to Marta Membrives Bel (20 May 1971-18 March 2022).