I chose the Trieste school because it’s in a region of Italy I hadn’t visited before and I’d heard positive things about the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Due to its location at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, its proximity to Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, and its accessibility by train to many European cities, I really felt at the heart of Europe, at a crossroads of cultures and languages.
Although I've been a translator for a few years now, and rewriting documents in English has become second nature, I still get a little anxious when someone speaks rapid Italian to me over the phone. It’s harder to follow a dialogue when you can’t see someone’s face. This is the main reason I booked an intensive course at the Istituto di Venezia Italian language school, an organisation based in both Venice and the beautiful city of Trieste - where I stayed for a week in July. The school offers Italian classes for beginners and improvers of all levels. It also provides guided excursions and activities, such as cooking lessons, in the late afternoons, and students are encouraged to accept accommodation in an Italian family, to experience full immersion in the language.
I chose the Trieste school because it’s in a region of Italy I hadn’t visited before and I’d heard positive things about the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Due to its location at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, its proximity to Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, and its accessibility by train to many European cities, I really felt at the heart of Europe, at a crossroads of cultures and languages.
My edition of Italian Grammar for Dummies, by Bartolini-Salimbeni, from the Wiley Brand series, calls them “the unruly children in Italian”, being “ever present, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic”. The book goes on to explain that they are “small words with big impact”, and cites one or two examples of this:
In Italian, the word “in” can mean to, at or in. eg “sono in ufficio” (I’m at the office), “lavoro in giardino” (I’m working in the garden) and “vado in Italia” (I’m going to Italy). The author even likens them to chameleons, changing their meaning according to their surroundings. Broadly speaking, their function is to indicate place, eg “sotto” (under, or beneath) and “su” (over, or above), but they also link nouns with adjectives, verbs or other nouns, and they can sometimes give rise to a disconcerting ambiguity.
For those of us who quite enjoy memorising information by rote, almost any other aspect of grammar can be learned by grasping a few rules. Committing verb tables to memory, whether in the past, present, future, conditional tenses etc., can be rewarding, and assimilating them will rapidly expand your versatility when using a language. Similarly, adverbs and adjectives, together with their agreements, follow a few manageable rules. But the logical approach of attempting to decode and utilise a pattern of behaviour will get you nowhere when it comes to these.
I refer, of course, to prepositions, and if anything is going to steer a translator towards a grammatical blunder, it’s these. We can be so focussed on unravelling the meaning of the constituent phrases of a lengthy sentence, we can often miss these tiny pitfalls, with potentially disastrous consequences and even possible mistranslation of the point the writer intended to make.
Thus “una bottiglia da vino rosso” might be hastily read as “a bottle of red wine”, which would have been “una bottiglia di vino rosso”, with the former structure meaning “a red wine bottle”, ie a bottle used to carry red wine. In fact, the word da in Italian, has multiple meanings: it can indicate function “una camera da letto” (bedroom); the word 'from' - “siamo da Londra” (we’re from London); or 'since' - “sono qui da ieri” (I have been here since yesterday); unexpectedly 'to' - “vado dal [= da+il] macellaio” (I’m going to the butcher), and many others, too numerous to list here. A similar array of possible meanings could be assigned to other prepositions, such as di or a. In Italian, there is the added complication that, as in the last example, the preposition often becomes preposition plus article. This clips and tidies up the phrase somewhat, since “in la cucina” (in the kitchen) becomes “nella cucina”, thus avoiding a clumsy consonant clutter.
Then there is the problem of which preposition is the correct one to follow a verb. Eg “ha deciso di proseguire” (he decided to proceed) but “comincio a lavorare” (I start working). These, I’m afraid, you just have to memorise separately. There does not appear to be any logical reason for the choice of one over another.
These problems are not limited to Italian.
…in Spanish, it can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between "por" and "para". Both can mean "for", but also sometimes "by", "through", "to", etc.
"Te di dinero por tu colección"
"Te di dinero para tu colección"
Both can be translated as: "I gave you money for your collection". But they actually have very different meanings.
"Por" is used when discussing exchanges - so the first phrase means "I gave you money in exchange for your collection".
"Para" is used to denote destination. So, the second phrase means "I gave you money for/to add to your collection".
Let’s now look at some examples in French sentences.
There is the possibility of an ambiguous use of “pour”:
"Pour elle, il faudrait partir en voiture". This could mean (for her sake, we should go by car), but could equally be interpreted as (in her opinion, we should go by car).
In the following example, “by” could be translated by two different French prepositions, giving rise to two meanings:
Au programme, le concerto pour piano de Tchaikovsky (...written by Tchaikovsky)
Au programme, le concerto pour piano par Alfred Brendel (...played by Brendel)
Now look at this source of confusion when translating “for”:
Il est là depuis une semaine (he arrived a week ago)
Il est là pour une semaine (he will leave in a week)
When translating “with”:
J'ai passé mes vacances chez des amis (I spent my holidays at my friends’ house)
J'ai passé mes vacances avec des amis (I spent my holidays with friends)
And when translating “in”:
Il a fait le travail en deux heures (he did the job in two hours)
Il fera le travail dans deux heures (he will complete the job within two hours)
All this confirms the importance of checking a completed document or story as a whole. Reading it back, ensuring that it makes sense, is essential to avoid misleading readers. Ideally, this would be done by someone else with an outside perspective, but if contracts and non-disclosure agreements will not permit this, then “sleeping” on the problem and returning to it with a fresh view the following day can often provide new insight into intended meaning. This, of course, is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of same-day work. Writing and translation is precarious and delicate work. Rushing is risky. Such a pity that the pressures to work in haste at all costs can result in a potential loss of quality.
After the pre-requisite, peripheral vision test and the one where they fire puffs of air onto the surface of your eyes, my last appointment at Specsavers – an organisation I’ve always admired for its, in my opinion, high standards of customer care, accuracy and value for money – involved the usual questions I’ve never learned the answers to: “What’s the lowest line you can read?”, “Which are clearer, the circles on the red background or the green?”, and my personal favourite - “Are the letters clearer with this lens…..?.. or this one….?.. this lens….?.. or this one….?”. I’m always at a loss, but this time I had no idea what to say to any of these.
The main reason for my uncertainty was that, after days of working at my computer, with stretches of up to 12 hours to complete lengthy projects, the letters were beginning to appear delocalised; words were swimming around the screen instead of remaining in their rightful place within the document. My higher than usual work volume during April was also the reason why there was no blog for that month. The thing is, once I get started, I find it difficult to stop until I’ve completed the amount of work I'm determined to get done for that day, even taking drinks and snacks while typing. This, as well as probably being counterproductive from an ergonomics point of view, is bad news for the eyes.
As the optician moved on to updating my details on the database, there came the inevitable question: “How many hours a day do you spend at the computer?” This varies, but it can be an alarmingly large number.
Of course, this problem is not specific to translators, and anyone working all day at a computer might experience this phenomenon. But if you are using a CAT tool, with the source language displayed on the left and the target language on the right, you are likely to be working in a rather small font size. As my sympathetic optician pointed out, one of the biggest problems for eyes on a computer screen is that straining to concentrate on information often means reading for long periods without blinking, since to do so might mean losing your place in the text. This can result in lack of (or insufficient) irrigation for the eyes. For those of us who wear contact lenses all or some of the time, tired eyes may also exacerbate problems of redness, soreness or itching. According to my optician, lenses with high gas permeability can require more lubrication, so a failure to blink may mean insufficient hydration. The lens can trap a layer of fluid between itself and the eyeball, which sounds helpful, but isn’t actually solving the problem. As well as being necessary for clear vision, one of the functions of tears and the tear film is to wash away foreign matter, so there’s greater susceptibility to infection if the eye is too dry.
As a result of this appointment, I had a fresh new pair of lenses, swiftly delivered, with a new prescription that should have given me better vision and renewed comfort. But I found that distant car number plates were slightly out of focus, close reading was difficult and I was getting dizzy spells and unreal feelings. Only after few days’ rest did my sight return to normal.
Specsavers lists potential eye strain problems and suggest solutions to these on its website. This advice includes periodically looking away from the computer screen to focus on objects in the distance, in order to relax the muscles responsible for focussing, and taking frequent breaks from the work. There are obvious concentration advantages to doing this, aside from those concerning the eyes. In addition to this, here are a few other tips I received from the member of staff who tested me:
Many self-employed translators will recognise the dilemma: it gets to 6pm on a Friday and the phone rings. An urgent translation deliverable at 9am on Monday morning. I do a quick mental calculation as I go over what I’m already doing that weekend, and try to make a decision. Is it a good excuse not to do the ironing, or will I have to cancel my entire Saturday plans?
For those of us who work for ourselves - or perhaps more accurately, for several clients at once - the business world can feel unpredictable. Projects tend to come in clusters, with slow, sometimes stationary, periods in between. While some deadlines afford a comfortable length of time to work at a moderate pace, very often speed is the priority. Turnaround can be required overnight, or even later that day.
In my most hectic times, when three requests arrive in one afternoon, I often work late into the night. I don’t mind this too much: it’s tranquil, the phone is unlikely to ring and my inbox goes quiet. Working in the evening is peaceful, and I can go at my own pace without interruption. But I sometimes get booked up for lengthy periods, and I don’t like disappointing clients if they want something in a hurry.
While I’m still working out how to tackle the busy times, I can offer a few pointers.
There are also times when the tap is turned off and it all comes to a standstill. This can be a good opportunity to catch up the things that get neglected during the busy times. A chance to:
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I am beginning to notice a pattern emerging over the course of the calendar year. Midsummer tends to be busy, while it can take time to build momentum in the new year, as many companies do not start new projects in December or January. On this basis, I can plan my time effectively, taking care to ensure maximum availability in July and August, and booking holidays in the quieter times. Above all, don't lose heart if two or three days go by and you don't hear anything. There are busy time around the corner.
If you are reading this and have found yourself in a similar position, please do leave a comment or get in touch through my contact form. I would very much like to hear how others go about tackling the feast and famine aspect of the translation workload.
This was one of the questions I was confronted with – and spectacularly unprepared for – during my French oral exam in the final year of my joint honours degree course in Modern Languages. It came after I’d stammered and trembled through the rest of the ordeal, completed my verbal presentation on Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire, and made a supreme effort to disregard the scribblings of my interrogator on the paper on his clipboard, the penetrating stare and the should-have-been-comforting-but-somehow-disconcerting nod of his silent colleague in the corner by the recording device.
I’d seen it before of course, during my many years of teaching. The ghastly white and almost green pallor on the terrified faces of the poor year 11 oral exam candidates waiting for the torture chamber, seated in a corridor as I passed on my way to the stationery cupboard and struggled in vain to squeeze out a reassuring smile, their fists clutching a selection of allowable jottings on pastel revision cards, as if clinging to a lifeline.
It’s not that I was unprepared due to lack of effort or prior knowledge of the format of the trial. I knew vaguely what to expect. I would be shut in a waiting room with a script, asked to digest it, in spite of stomach-churning lack of appetite, then once inside the abattoir, to read it out, or rather read out the sections I could decipher on a piece of paper quivering with anguish, then answer questions on it, proceed with my presentation, then submit to further questioning. The lack of preparedness rather came from the unpredictability. I had no idea what their precise method of slaughter was going to consist of, and this question rather took me by surprise.
It sounded simple and obvious, and I blurted out something to do with a good translation being one that reproduced exactly what had been written in the source language. How naïve I must have sounded. Only later did I come to understand just how much more to this there is.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to providing a succinct answer to this question is the subjective nature of translation work. In their student textbook “Thinking French Translation”, Sándor Harvey and Ian Higgins are keen to emphasise that they are not offering inflexible rules or recipes that apply to all, but that they urge the translator to recognise options and alternatives, take responsibility for identifying target audience needs, requirements of those commissioning the project, genre type, style and register, and use this information to choose a specific strategy. They are right. Thus, attributes that might be regarded as constituting a good translation of a financial document, which would probably include tables of figures necessitating accuracy and presentation, would be important in a literary text, but perhaps not the highest or only priority. Sometimes my customers simply want to understand what is written in a document so they can act on it; others are presenting a translation as a PowerPoint, in which case the formatting and page layout become important. A legal contract, on the other hand, must be unambiguous.
Many translators stick to what they do best and become specialised in one particular type of text: legal, business, journalistic, film subtitling, medical, technical and literature, to name a few. Each would have its own definition of what is meant by good translation.
In “The Right Angle”, Barron, Cockerham, Dawson and Smith write of “sharing what the author saw when writing the passage” and “detecting the niceties of expression”. They go on to state that a translator needs to be as good a writer in both languages as the authors whose work is being translated, before finally admitting that “the task is an impossible one”. Later in the same chapter they talk about how there will always be a hidden part of the author’s vision that we cannot share, or communicate in the target language. We can, as they correctly claim, only aspire.
And in her publication “In Other Words”, included on the recommended reading list for both my BA and translation training courses, Mona Baker explores the claim made by some that translation is an impossible task, “doomed to failure” due to lack of similarity between languages and the concept that reality doesn’t exist outside language. She also reminds us that, despite this, translation has “built bridges of understanding... among different societies”, that it is a necessary process bringing different cultural and linguistic backgrounds closer together.
Back to the original question. It is easy to see why there is a temptation to define translation quality in terms of its problems, or at least the ways in which they are overcome. If I were faced with this question again I would have both a long and a short answer. The longer one would involve bullet-pointing the essential qualities of the end product. This, after all, is what is seen:
I agree with what Bill Zart writes in the language blog: “It is an intricate and often subjective process that goes far beyond a simplistic word-for-word exchange.”
I often find that, when customers have attempted their own translation and want it checked, they can be surprised to learn that simply choosing the English word that sounds the closest to the one in their language will not do. Thus, in Italian, the word “attuale”, which means “current”, “present”, or “ongoing”, cannot be translated by “actual”.
Even here, with this checklist of impossible dreams (I wonder how many translations actually tick all those boxes), I am being too formulaic. Translation isn’t mechanistic.
My short answer would be “the work of Lucia Graves”. I have just finished reading “The Angel’s Game”, translated from the original Spanish novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, having read “The Shadow of the Wind” and “The Prince of Mist” last year. Despite starting the first page while relaxing on a beach under an intense East African sun, I was plunged, within two paragraphs, into mid-winter in an industrial, early twentieth century Barcelona, amid the factories and chimneys that the author tells us cast a permanent darkness and redness over the city, so compelling and vivid is the text and imagery. Rarely have I been happy to sacrifice so much sleep over a book, and rarely have I felt more concern for the fate of a central character. Rarely have I read until the early hours, gripped by the horror of rapidly-moving events, periodically lowering my book to check that the eyes of the villain were not peering at me through the gloom of my own bedroom. I won’t quote the breath-taking, beautiful descriptions and dialogues that fill this outstanding book, doubling my reading speed and awakening a spectrum of emotions: fear, anxiety, sorrow, momentary relief, hope, despair. It must be sampled first hand. But it raises another question in my mind: does a truly great translation arise, initially, from a truly well-written source? There is no doubt that Zafón has achieved worldwide, and much deserved, success, and there is no doubt that it is easier to work from a good quality source text, and surely it can be argued that an excellent source text is one component in the production of a great product. Translating his books must have been fascinating work.
I need to stress, however, that I am in no way failing to acknowledge the obvious skill and dedication of Lucia Graves, and no amount of quality in the original could compensate for a poor translation. I am moved by her achievements. The daughter of the English poet and novelist, Robert Graves, Lucia Graves has translated and written numerous books, working in Spanish, Catalan and English. I feel that her work comes as close to meeting all of the criteria I’ve seen about what makes a good translation as anything I’ve ever read. I don’t translate literature, as my specialism is scientific, medical and pharmaceutical work, but to anyone aspiring to be a translator of literary text, I’d say that hers is the standard to aspire to. To go back to Mona Baker’s bridge of understanding, how wonderful that someone is talented enough to enable us to share the mood of so great an author. If bridges are being built, Lucia Graves’s bridge must be among the strongest.
The recently released science fiction film Arrival got me thinking. The protagonist, linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, attempts to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth. She strives to decode the smoky, circular symbols they write on a screen, and finds that as her understanding grows, the structure of this new language alters her perception of the concept of time.
This is, of course, fiction. But there are very real theories – referenced in Arrival – about how learning a new language can re-wire your way of thinking and make you see things differently.
According to Medical Daily, learning a language can build new neural pathways inside the brain. A study carried out in Switzerland, meanwhile, measured the thickness of the cerebral cortex before and after three months of intensive foreign language training on the part of interpreters. The cortex contains a layer of neurons that deal with memory and thought, and thus the learning of language. The researchers discovered an increase in cortical thickness in some parts of the brain, as well as an increase in the volume of the hypothalamus – the section of the brain responsible for hormone production. It is believed that an increase in cortex thickness can improve memory and may even result in clearer thinking in old age.
But can learning a new language change the way we see the world? There is evidence to suggest that it can. Psycholinguists at the University of Lancaster have documented research into the linguistic differences that affect the way English and German speakers – and bilinguals – interpret events. They point out that English grammar provides a means of locating occurrences within a particular timeframe, while the German language makes less provision for this. The result is that someone speaking in German might specify a start, middle and end to an event, which is not necessary in English. One might simply say “a woman was walking along a busy road, when...”.
The researchers theorise that this may affect the way in which the event itself is interpreted. Their research suggests that German speakers focus more on possible outcomes, while English speakers focus more on actions. What's more, the researchers found that the perspectives of bilingual people involved in the same experiment appeared to change depending on the language in which they were being tested.
This could mean that our interpretation of what's around us depends on the linguistic tools we use to describe and record observation. This is certainly my experience when it comes to speaking Italian, where sentences often run backwards relative to English ones, and with much less punctuation. For me, this results in conscious thought about what the key object or message is, since this must often come at the end of the sentence.
Federico Prandi, writing on the language learning site Babbel, takes this a stage further, claiming, and even complaining, that being bilingual has caused him to develop two differing personalities.
Prandi explains that his Italian-speaking and English-speaking selves are two very different individuals. One example he gives to illustrate this involves the way he behaves at parties: sociable, funny and “close to having sober fun” at an English-speaking party, but “careful not to make eye contact with strangers” at an Italian-speaking gathering. He says his words sound “tremendously heavy and strangely out of place”, despite having grown up in Italy.
Prandi also shares details of an experiment carried out on Japanese women living in the US in the 1960s. Asked the same questions in both languages, most of the subjects responded with far more openness and confidence when speaking English, whilst their answers were more cautious and guarded when replying in Japanese.
I can fully understand this. When speaking French in France, or Italian in Italy, I feel a sense of freedom and expansiveness that I rarely experience in my native English, despite the greater restriction on choice of vocabulary that is inevitable when using a second language. I enjoy focusing on the choice of words and sentence construction as ends in themselves, rather than how my intended meaning is going to be perceived or accepted by others. I am less concerned with what others are thinking of me, less self-conscious and infinitely more at ease.
This is the blog post I’ve been putting off. The one suggested to me well over a year ago when I handed in my notice at my last school and first had this website created. It’s a deeply personal blog, not easy to write. It makes sense to have waited all this time, to have had the chance to reflect on the answer to this question, and whether I made the right choice.
First, I need to say that I loved teaching. Oh, not the phone calls and emails, the endless documentation, the meetings for the sake of meetings, the initiatives carved out to provide someone with CV material that dragged everyone else on board at the same time. Not that part, but being in the classroom, participating in someone else’s progress and development, being there to share the moment when someone first grasps something new, or something complex, sharing time with youngsters who are genuinely interested, or passionate about achieving good results. Teaching is a profoundly collaborative process, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding job. For many years, I woke up eager to get to work.
So why did I quit? It's actually because I felt I wasn’t making full use of my own training and development. Although I enjoyed teaching science, and all the other things I did as part of working in a school (French exchanges, activity weeks, fundraising activities, directing or co-directing the school play), I reached a stage where I needed a fresh challenge. I began to reflect on what I would study if I were young again: it was, without a doubt, French and Italian. I had already begun to take evening classes in beginners and then intermediate Italian, and after a while, due to the lack of available teachers, I found that the only way to continue studying that beautiful language was to start a distance learning course with a college in Edinburgh. This led to my taking Scottish Highers in the two languages, and eventually a full BA course with Royal Holloway, University of London.
With a full time job and three kids, my friends thought I was mad. But it wasn’t like work. I read the books for the literature part of the course in bed at night, wrote essays and did the reading comprehensions and translations during school holidays, or while on holiday, and, little by little, over a six-year period, I completed the degree.
The problem with that was I then felt the urge to use it. I wanted to teach French or Italian, and did, several classes a week, for a few years. Young people are remarkably adaptable and resilient, and none of my pupils found it particularly odd that someone who had taught them French in year 9 was now standing at the front of the A Level Chemistry lab. If they did, they were at least too polite to say so. But schools need science teachers, and my rainbow timetable (of, at one point, Chemistry, Physics, French and Italian) was short-lived.
Unable to settle back into teaching purely science, I spent a year and a half giving serious thought to how I could use the learning I had acquired over the previous decade. No matter how much I enjoyed working with my students, I grew restless.
I hit upon translation. I find this kind of work fascinating, and love solving the puzzle of working out how a message can be restated in another language. I am always delighted to receive and set to work on a new translation, and equally pleased to be able to deliver it on time. But the main benefit is that I am now finally using each part of my background. Much of my work is medical and pharmaceutical, although documents relating to manufacturing, scientific research or tourist information come up quite often too. I am using both language and scientific knowledge, which is very satisfying.
A student I taught in my final year of teaching sent me an email recently, to tell me his exam results. He added that he hoped my new work would “be the change I was looking for”. I seriously hope none of my ex-students felt I needed a change from them. I miss being in the classroom very much. In fact, from January 2017 I will be spending one day a week teaching children who are absent from school due to long-term illness, in addition to my translation work.
So to anyone who asks me if I made the right choice, the answer is yes. I am very happy working as a translator of scientific material. But if I’m asked if I miss teaching then I must be honest. I miss it terribly, and can’t allow myself to think about it for too long. As for the hundreds and hundreds of pupils I taught over the years, how I wish I could tell them that they were a true pleasure to work with, and wish them every success.
I was recently asked by a former colleague, who’d spent time teaching English in China, why I was bothering to work with European languages. He pointed out, correctly, that Chinese was the most widely spoken first language in the world, being spoken by roughly one fifth of the world’s inhabitants. China’s role on the world stage is clearly expanding, with the country functioning as a major international business and economic partner for both the US and the EU. Learning European languages, in my colleague’s opinion, is becoming unnecessary for Brits.
“And why Italian, of all the possibilities?” he added. “It’s only used on that one Mediterranean peninsula.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, because Italian has always meant so much to me and I want to be able to defend it.
Italian is spoken by 55 million people in Italy and 62 million worldwide. It is only spoken in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, and some regions of Slovenia and Croatia. But what a beautiful sound the Italian language makes; in some part of central Italy it sounds almost like singing. I confess that my reasons for learning the language were largely due to overhearing Italians at my local sports centre. I find the sound of the vowel-rich syllables uplifting and soothing.
After a year of evening classes I went to Italy for the first time in 1999. When I spoke to shop assistants, bar staff and pharmacists, they understood and answered me, and my sense of euphoria was profound. The Italians I met seemed surprised and delighted by my efforts – rare as it is, I’m told, to encounter an English person attempting to speak their language. This seems odd, given the number of British people who retire to the Tuscan or Umbrian countryside.
Italy is a popular tourist destination. And yet for someone wishing to learn beyond the basics to use on holiday, finding a teacher based in the UK does not seem to be easy. I tutor in Italian, and some of my students travel 40 minutes to visit me, having not found anyone more local. Some even come from Italian families and want to be able to communicate with relatives living in Italy.
There are also many reasons for studying Italian at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Many UK and US based companies trade with Italy and thus need to employ Italian speakers. Several of my Italian into English translations have been concerned with the luxury furniture industry, for example.
As for culture and history, I cannot imagine a richer source. Italian influence dates back to the ancient world, with the work of such prominent individuals as Archimedes and Virgil. Italy boasts household names when it comes to contributions to music, literature, science, food, fashion, and art (according to Unesco more than 60% of global art treasures are housed within the borders of Italy). The composer Puccini was Italian, as was the painter Michelangelo, famous writers such as Verga and Dante, and scientists Galileo and Avogadro, whose ground-breaking contributions to science are still relevant today. Italian cinema dates back to the early 1900s, with actors such as Sophia Loren, directors like Fellini and Sergio Leone, and such iconic films as “Cinema Paradiso” and later - with the development of the spaghetti western theme - “A Fistful of Dollars”.
When it comes to actually learning the language, Italian provides good brain exercise. Personally, I enjoy the logic of Italian grammar, with its rigid rules regarding verbs and pronouns. While the French language, for example, can be very idiomatic and wordy, Italian has a certain undisguised clarity about it, I feel. This can make it easier for language learners.
While I would wholeheartedly encourage people to learn Chinese – or indeed any language with global significance – the next time someone asks me why I bother to work with Italian, I’ll know what to say.
After hearing the result of the EU referendum on the morning of 24 June, I contacted all the people in Italy, France and Belgium I had recently worked with, to express my disappointment. I wanted them to know that I hadn't supported the decision to leave, which came across to some as a rejection of our European neighbours.
Working as a translator, I continually feel the benefits of collaborating with a team of people based overseas with different mother-tongues. Everyone contributes different skills, knowledge, and reference points, and the results are good. The whole is greater than the individual components and the work is rewarding. We’re stronger together.
But Britain's decision to leave the European Union does make me worry. A survey of the UK's translation services highlighted by Stirling-based translation company Global Voices, found that about a third of income in this field comes from within the EU. Global Voices goes on to point out that there are at least 23 recognised languages in the EU, with English, French and German being the three leading business languages. If Brexit has a negative impact on trade, or leads to an increase in border tariffs, the incentive to do business with the UK may fall. It's even possible that one day English will no longer be recognised as a major European language, which would decrease demand for translation into English.
It's also possible - if free movement into and out of the UK is undermined - that translators from overseas will find it more difficult to live and work in the UK. They make a strong contribution to the translation industry, especially as translation should always be in one direction: into one’s mother tongue. This makes employment of non-UK translators essential, since we obviously need people to translate out of English. It is also unclear whether English-speaking translators based overseas will be able to stay and work abroad. I have long dreamed of working as a translator in Italy, but am no longer certain it will be possible.
There is a silver lining – for translators working with clients in other continents. Empowerlingua, which offers translation and interpretation services, predicts that fresh business in the form of trade agreements from outside Europe may, for those with the appropriate skills, generate translation work on a more global scale.
Much of my work as a scientific translator is concerned with the pharmaceutical and medical sectors. The future of projects in these fields is difficult to predict. According to Signs and symptoms of translation, a blog by a Spanish to English medical translator, Brexit will coincide with a period of change in EU legislation surrounding clinical trials for new drugs for use on humans. New regulations are set to arrive in 2017 or 2018. It looks certain that the European Medical Agency will move its headquarters out of London and into Europe. Extra translation work could be created by agreements with pharmaceutical companies carrying out clinical trials overseas, and from import, export, manufacture, storage and distribution of medicinal products and devices. However, this is by no means certain. If the UK become more dependent upon UK or US-based drug testing and manufacture, demand for pharmaceutical and medical translation will fall.
And then there's the exchange rate. Some translation agencies, acting as the go-between for a translator and a client, pay in pounds but are paid in euros. With a weak pound, it's much more expensive for them to do this than it used to be.
So a number of uncertainties cloud the future of post-Brexit Britain, and language services are no exception.
A few months ago I decided to move to Brussels.
It’s a fascinating city, not least because the European Union institutions make it so multilingual. I’ll walk into a cafe and the barista will start a sentence in Dutch, note the confusion on my face and plump for French but switch to English by the end of the second clause.
It is possibly one of the easiest European cities to get by in without a smattering of the local language.
That is, of course, not the right attitude. Britain’s decision to leave the EU, coming just a month before I was due to up sticks and lodge myself in its heart, strengthened my resolve to learn another language. I was determined to prove that I wasn’t lazy, didn’t expect everyone to speak English and had no disdain for my European neighbours.
But what’s the best way to learn? I had an A Level in Spanish but could barely string two words together in French, let alone Dutch. Brits are notoriously bad at learning languages, and possibly getting worse. In 1998, 86% of students took a GCSE in a foreign language, but by 2015, this had fallen to just 48%. There are now concerns that leaving the EU might have implications for school exchange programmes or the supply of native language teachers.
I also had a full-time job, and not too much free time to dedicate to language learning.
Then I discovered language learning apps. Smartphones are among the most ubiquitous items on the planet so these - largely free-of-charge - apps are a real game-changer, making foreign language learning easier than ever. Learners can learn little and often, and in their free time.
Duolingo, the most popular free language learning app, has 120 million users spanning every country on the planet. Users can pick from more than 20 languages on offer, do a short test to assess their level and then start learning new words. They are tested regularly on the vocabulary, with words they get wrong coming up more often.
Some of the phrases are a little odd, and won’t necessarily be directly relevant to a holiday in Spain (“the bear cannot fit through the door”, for example), but I can’t deny that they keep you on your toes.
Other apps include Livemocha, which allows you to interact with native speakers, and my personal favourite Memrise, which features user-generated flashcards. When a new word is introduced, the app allows you to select another word, phrase or image that helps you anchor it to something memorable.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about many of these apps is the gamification. Replacing rote learning of verb tables with points, leaderboards, daily goals and virtual rewards, they really are a fun way to learn. They even send out push notifications if you haven’t logged in for a while.
But do they work? These apps, researchers from the university of Bath explain, encourage users to learn a lot of words and practice constantly - both vital for foreign language learning. However they also say that they’re no substitute for classroom learning, immersion and speaking practice.
I set myself the task of taking an exam in A1 French - which is for beginners and takes 60 hours to learn - with just Duolingo and Memrise to guide me. It was a success. Being continuously tested, against the clock, and getting instant gratification when you get something right or reach the next level, felt to me like one of the best ways to commit tons of vocab to memory quickly.
Of course, when I arrived in Brussels I soon realised my speaking and listening skills left much to be desired. I took an intensive language course in a classroom setting, in which I learned the basics of grammar and built up my confidence for real life conversations.
But it did set me back almost €500. The great thing about technological advances is that they’ve caused a shift in the demographic of language learners: once a preserve of elites, poorer people have access to foreign language learning materials for the first time. Which is great for economic migrants, for example.
For Luis von Ahn, Duolingo’s founder, that was the whole point: "There's an irony that the people who need to learn a language the most don't have much money, but learning a language costs a lot,” he told the Guardian in 2014, two years after the launch of his app.
Language learners should definitely use as many sources as possible. It was great having a teacher to pick up on my mistakes, and I’ve started tuning in to French radio and buying French comic books. But I still maintain that foreign language apps are one of the best tools at my disposal.
Guest blog by Tamsin Rutter, journalist
I am a French-to-English and Italian-to-English translator. This blog is inspired by my experiences translating and my passion for science, languages, education and fundraising for charities.