The story of a U.S. Intern in France

By Kimberley Hunt

Paris stamp for Kim postI’m Kimberley, currently living in Paris as an intern at a translation agency. I’m also a French translation student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In Paris, I translate and proofread for the company’s finance division, which means I spend a lot of time reading annual reports and frantically searching glossaries for investment fund terminology with my colleagues. While translation remains my favorite task, it is always fascinating to proofread an excellent translator and see exactly how a tricky turn of phrase was expertly transformed into English.

My roommates, two other Middlebury Institute students, and I have a rule: speak only French. Why? Because at the moment, we are in France, and we can always speak English when we go back to the US. Speaking only French at home has quickly become second nature, and everyone at work is always surprised to learn that we really do speak French with each other. A scribbled list of new words and expressions is tacked up in the kitchen, covered in post-it notes. I do find it difficult to hold a breakfast conversation en français, sleepily sipping coffee and staring into my cereal bowl, but I’m a terrible early morning conversationalist in English, too.

Plus, speaking only French is a wonderful excuse to watch really terrible French reality TV for the sake of “language learning.” For one, we are instantly connected to French people discussing it on the metro, in cafés, and at dinner parties. Integrating into a foreign culture can be a tricky business, but it is made much simpler when I can chime in, “Did you see last night’s episode?” and poke fun at the contestants. We also learn myriads of new vocabulary, including words that don’t come up at work or in a language textbook, and some that maybe shouldn’t be repeated in polite company.

I could write an entire blog about French reality TV, but back to work, where our apartment rules no longer apply. At work, I never know what language I should be speaking. Sometimes I feel like I can’t speak any language anymore – French and English have both flown out the window and into the Seine and the only thing I have left is a whimsical mélange of invented words, ridiculous portmanteaux of French and English. I am constantly applying Helen Eby’s wisdom from her post a few months ago, especially given that once, I invented a fourteen-letter word in French during a sight translation class (récompensation, in case anyone’s curious).

I can say without a doubt that language switching is definitely heightened while working in France. As a member of the team that translates into English, so I speak English with my colleagues every day. This goes beyond shoptalk; we often play the game “Bizarre or British?” to determine whether a word is an unfamiliar but common British English term, or is it just a bad translation?

I am constantly going back and forth between French, American English and British English, and my brain is in overdrive to keep up. But unlike me, all the project managers at my company have no problem juggling many things at once. They are masters at their jobs, expertly balancing deadlines and clients and translators without breaking a sweat. I, however, sweat profusely.

Where I really panic is every time the phone rings at my desk at work. The phone ringing could mean a multitude of things, and all of them challenging.

  1. “For some reason, the translator couldn’t get Trados to work, so you can just figure that out for her, right? Perfect, thanks!” Cue the hour-long battle trying to generate target files and decode error messages written in part English, part French, part long strings of error codes that I Google desperately hoping to find a solution before the deadline.
  2. “The translator said whatever he had trouble understanding, he left in French and marked in red.” Naively, I open the document with optimism, only to be greeted with something far more similar to a Picasso painting—highlights in every color of the rainbow, formatting all over the place—than a translated document.
  3. “Do you have time to translate this teeny tiny text in the next twenty minutes? It’s only a few lines… and by a few I mean a few hundred…”

(Disclaimer: these three scenarios usually happen to me at least once a day, and sometimes all before lunch.)

While I am trying to understand the project manager’s requests and deciding how to respond, things only get worse when I answer in French and they respond in English with “Okay, thanks, bye!” It throws me for a loop every time. Once I spent five minutes trying to figure out why a project manager sent me a one word email— “Nice!” —Fancy city in the south of France? Subject of a new translation? Upcoming vacation destination? Or is that where I’m going to end up if I don’t meet this deadline? Doesn’t seem too terrible to me, unless he’s going to throw me in the Mediterranean… until I realize that he wrote to me in English. Whoops.

Working in an environment where language is fluid and always changing can be a challenge, but the linguistic gymnastics gives me an entirely new perspective on translation. Making judgment calls is much more natural because I make them all day, playing with both languages on an intrinsic level in everyday communication rather than just in translation.  But possibly the most important thing I’ve learned while my brain is humming away in both languages is that meaning and clarity can always be gleaned from even the most linguistically complicated, confusing beginning.