What makes a translator?

What makes a translator?

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Our stories may hold the answer

What makes a translator? It’s a question that has more than one answer. In reply, I might mention a gift for languages, writing skills, training, initiative and a touch of curiosity. Just over a week ago, at the annual Mediterranean Editors and Translators conference in Coimbra, Portugal, I had plenty of opportunity to think about the stuff translators are made of as I met and chatted to colleagues on the excellent “off-METM” social scene.

From my unofficial and utterly unscientific survey, it seems there are two groups. Firstly, there are those who have taken the “direct” route into translation, studying languages at university and then perhaps taking a master’s degree in translation and/or interpreting, or perhaps living abroad for a time. In general, I found them to be young, ambitious and often extremely impressive.

At various times I found myself talking to an English translator who had followed this route and set herself up as a commercial translator in Kent, with a smart website and a sharp line in marketing; another young English translator specialising in international development and ethical trading from her base in Bristol, and a Portuguese woman in the process of starting a cooperative translation venture to specialise in the fruit industry after spotting a gap in the market related to a business she knew well from family connections. At an earlier stage in her career than my other two examples, she was determined to do everything the right way, and was attending her sixth conference of the year in an attempt to gain as much knowledge as she could before starting.


The other tendency in translators is represented by people who, like myself, came to the profession much later, after studying something completely unrelated and working in another industry. A high-profile example might be one of the conference’s leading speakers, Laurence Anthony, who began by studying science and ended up helping lecturers to write better English at a Japanese university. Or a British translator living in Italy with whom I spent a fascinating lunchtime discussing tourism translation.

I spent an entire evening with five other “late starters” in translation at one of the “Off-MET” themed dinners, a wonderful means making sure that no-one who doesn’t want to has to eat alone while they’re at the conference. The idea is that you sign up in advance to eat in a particular restaurant with the intention of discussing a certain topic. Sometimes these discussions are work-focused, like the lunch I hosted on marketing; other times they are purely social, like a dinner I went to at a wonderful restaurant offering food from all Portugal’s former colonies, which turned out to be run by the boyfriend of our hostess for the evening and fount of Coimbra-related knowledge, Phillippa Bennett. This particular evening, however, I had arranged to go to a dinner entitled “Life’s funny that way” where we were all due to discuss the influence of our past professions on our current careers in translation or editing. The result was six translators taking it in turns to tell our own intriguing and sometimes dramatic stories.


Over some excellent Portuguese tapas, we heard from a woman who had dropped out of university and gone to live a hippy life in Holland before eventually becoming a legal translator based in Spain. We listened to another who wanted to see the world beyond the north Canadian farm where she grew up and ended up first becoming an artist, and then a translator and editor in Spain. There was also the Chinese doctor who had gone into the profession under family pressure, hated the job, and eventually became a translator after moving to the United States. I also told my story (recounted in a previous blog post accidentally deleted) of how a chance meeting in Rome with the woman who is now my wife led me to move from England to Barcelona and eventually swap journalism for translation.

But the story that held us all enthralled came from an American who had followed his restless spirit to Paris and then to Israel after an interlude working on Wall Street. There, he fell in love and lived happily in Jerusalem, trying to help along the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians before that failed and the Second Intifada made the city simply too dangerous to live in. All of us sitting round the table knew what it was to change career and we all probably knew what it was to fall in love, but we could only imagine how it was possible to go on with life every day knowing that there was likely to be a suicide bombing outside your home. A narrow escape for the American’s pregnant partner was the final straw, and they left Jerusalem for a new home in her native Finland, where he began a new career as a translator. His range of spoken languages – Arabic, Hebrew and Finnish as well as his native English – was probably the most exotic at the whole conference and his story may well have been the most dramatic.

Listening to the others speak, I began to think there was a hidden ingredient that goes into the make-up of a translator that is perhaps neither the origin of all the qualities I suggested at the beginning of this post, nor the result of them. It’s hard to define, but it involves a degree of openness and acceptance of different cultures, alternative ways of life and other people that affects the way we live, love and work. It may not be unique to translators, but I can think of very few who don’t have it. Nor would I claim that it makes translators better people than the rest of humanity. I would venture to say, though, that it may be what makes most of them such great company.

The photo, by Virve Juhola of Cape Context and Nordic Editors and Translators, is of the conference closing dinner, which I missed this year and last year. Here’s to getting there next time in Tarragona!





  1. Kelly Dickeson

    Great description of the Off-METM scene, Simon! I’m glad to hear it went so well for you. And really, you must come to the closing dinner in Tarragona. No excuses! 😉

    P.S. Aren’t you going to post a link to this review on the METM15 FB page? Or did I just miss it somehow?

    • simonberrill@sjbtranslations.com

      Thanks for your comment, Kelly. And yes I will post a link on the METM15 page today, I just haven’t got round to it yet.

  2. Oliver Lawrence

    Hello Simon, I’ve enjoyed your posts on #METM15, especially this one. It was grand to meet you in Coimbra; sounds like you found it all as conducive and enriching as I did.
    Part of that must be down to the general atmosphere of the event, and probably of MET in general, a group with a blend of high-powered experts and up-and-coming relative newcomers in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere.
    And yes, missing the closing dinner does seem to have been a tactical error on my part, as well :).

    • simonberrill@sjbtranslations.com

      Thanks for your comment, Oliver. I certainly enjoyed the event and it’s proving a great source of inspiration for this blog. I’ve got two or three more posts in the pipeline that aren’t so much about the conference itself but about issues raised at or on the way to Coimbra.

  3. silvia manganelli

    Great post! I Am also a "late starter" and this is the first time I read stories I can truly identify with :). Thanks a lot!

  4. Birgit Bonde Jensen

    "Love and translation look alike in their grammar. To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together." РAndr̩s Neuman, Traveller of the Century
    Merry Christmas to everyone from another late starter


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