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Published on September 30, 2020

On May 24, 2017 the United Nations General Assembly declared September 30 International Translation Day. An important opportunity to pay tribute to the language professionals whose work plays an important role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, and finally…diplomacy! The Embassy of France is pleased to highlight two key staffers at the Embassy whose roles are pivotal to our diplomatic operations in the U.S. and abroad. Because without them... we’d be lost in translation!

Read below the written interview conducted by the host of the Embassy’s FrancoFiles podcast*.

* Please note that to respect the privacy of our translators we will not be using their full names.

What does your day-to-day look like? What’s the most amusing thing about your job?

DP - Every day is different. We translate the daily press briefings from the Quai d’Orsay every day, but other than that requests can vary. We translate and correct speeches and letters for the ambassador and other departments at the embassy. Subject matter can vary greatly. We’re also asked to translate presidential speeches, which is often very challenging!

MO - Our day-to-day is always different, but I always compare translation to restaurant work: you can be sure that everyone’s going to arrive at the same time and want everything all at once. If deadlines stress you out, this isn’t the job for you.

One amusing career highlight was translating a letter to Jerry Lewis from the French president at the time announcing that he was going to receive the Legion of Honor. It was confirmation from the top that the stereotype about France’s enthusiasm for Lewis’s brand of comedy - a kind of humor that people back home often found cringeworthy - was actually true!

What does your background look like & what kind of training did you partake in?

MO - I have a B.A. in French from UCLA and an M.A. in Translation and Interpretation - just to clarify, translation is written while interpretation is oral - from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, since renamed the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. If I may put in a shameless plug here, it’s the best and pretty much only graduate school of its kind in the U.S. for translation and interpretation. Before doing that program, I lived and studied in France for a couple of years, in Paris and in Pau, near the Pyrenees. The language became a passion for me early on.

DP - I have a degree in French and German and a diploma in translation from the UK. I studied in Angers in France for a year and also spent time in Rouen and Toulouse.

DP, you are English and MO, you are American… does this play a part when translating from French? Can we say there are some disagreements on language?

MO - Never. We have the same approach to translation and have worked together in total harmony from Day 1.

DP - It’s never an issue since we always translate for an American audience. And there’s spellcheck of course!

So, is lost in translation a thing? Tell us about the mishaps, the faux-pas, the blunders, misunderstandings...all that juicy translation gossip! What are the mistakes the French commonly do that bother you or make you laugh?

MO - It’s definitely a thing, but we have to tread carefully here! French tends to be a lot more flowery than English, and that can be a challenge and source of frustration when we’re trying to puzzle out what something actually means beneath the layers of style. I will say that when a French person writes in English, we can always tell when they’ve used Google Translate!

One “yikes” moment was when somebody was about to send a card to an American acquaintance who was sick. The aspiring sender wanted to express feelings of sympathy without realizing that the card they had purchased was a condolence card. Fortunately, we got there in time.

DP - I think the hardest thing for French speakers when writing in English is to get the tenses right. Using the -ing form always causes a problem! And it’s pretty obvious when the author has used Google Translate. In those cases, I find I have to back translate to figure out what they are trying to say.

Is it hard to take off your translator cap at the end of the day? Do you ever find yourself thinking “wow, I would not choose that word!” while watching a subtitled movie or reading a book?

MO - Constantly. It’s an occupational hazard.

DP - When I watch films in French (or German) I’m always interested to see how the dialogue is translated into English in the subtitles.

On that subject, I’m sure there are a few readers who are trying to learn a new language, most likely French, who would love to become fluent someday. Do you have any advice for someone who wishes not only to speak the language but to have a deep understanding of tone, connotation, and mood?

MO - Live abroad if you can, have foreign friends (and significant others!), read, watch movies, familiarize yourself deeply with the culture.

DP - The best way to really understand the language is to really immerse yourself in it.

What is your favorite French word/expression and why?

DP - Favorite expression: I’ve always liked “va te faire cuire un oeuf” (go jump in the lake!)

MO - One somewhat disgusting expression that has always made me laugh is “tirer les vers du nez.” It means “to drag something out of someone,” to make them talk, but it translates literally as “to pull the worms out of somebody’s nose.”

Do you agree to translate this written interview after it’s done?

DP - Er, no, professional translators only ever translate into their native language!

MO - You know us better than that!

Alright, I tried...

If you enjoyed this interview, hear more about the Embassy’s background and French-American topics on the Embassy podcast, FrancoFiles. Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, and most affiliated podcast platforms.

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