English, my beloved second language


By Marie Lebert, 1st May 2023.

This is Labour Day in many countries, and the right time to reflect on the past and to hope for the future. Here is a personal essay about (slowly) becoming bilingual French-English over the years, and becoming a professional translator along the way.

[same essay with a drawing by Denis Renard]

My mother tongue is French and I love my native language. As a citizen of the world, English has become my beloved second language. The English language is a bridge between all of us in our global world. It helps us to communicate with each other and to better understand one another.

Reading in English, listening in English, speaking in English, writing in English, working in English, cataloguing in English, researching in English, interviewing in English, and *of course* translating from English to French, this has been quite a ride so far.

I tried to learn English at school but at the time most English teachers were not native English speakers. The courses were so packed with students that we mostly listened and hardly ever uttered a word, except for whispering a joke in French to the student sitting next to us.

After several years, I could remember a few verses of Shakespeare but I was unable to order a sandwich. When I was 15 years old, I went on a school trip to England. I visited London to know Paris’ sister city, and Stratford-upon-Avon to have a glimpse of Shakespeare’s birthplace. But the trip was too short to boost my English skills.

My first conversation in English as an adult was painful.

I was a librarian in a small harbour in Normandy to self-fund my master’s degree at the University of Caen. The public library was the last one in France with no lending library. After cleaning 10,000 books to get rid of mice, (dead) snakes, (living) spiders and tons of dust, I created a lending library for adults and children, and a reference library for everyone.

The reference library hosted a collection of maritime books. An Englishman crossed the Channel to see the collection. My few sentences in English were barely understandable. I was appalled at myself, and sadly realised that all these English lessons at school had been a total waste.

The next day, I hurried to the local chamber of commerce to subscribe to an English course. The experience was short lived because I have never been good at learning in a formal setting.

In the pub next to the library, I met with a native English teacher who was there for one year. We decided to team up once a week over cider, beer or wine. He would speak French half of the time to improve his French, and I would speak English half of the time to improve my English. The experience was successful this time and we both made significant progress.

After five years as a librarian 24/7 — I was also in charge of exhibitions, conferences and concerts — I went to London for three months to regain my sanity before going back to Normandy to participate in regional projects.

Then I went to Jerusalem as a librarian and cataloguer. I worked with everyone — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Armenians, and more. I learned some Hebrew and some Arabic, but I mostly worked in English and in French. When I was working in English, I found it easier to understand non-native English speakers than native English speakers.

Back in Europe, I worked for international organisations, where English is the lingua franca. My spoken English improved. I catalogued international publications, and occasionally translated web pages and working papers, which helped to improve my written English.

After a number of cataloguing assignments, I couldn’t see a pile of printed books any more. To cut a long story short, I got an overdose of printed books. I was saved by electronic books (ebooks) that became a passion, and the subject of a PhD later on.

From 1995 onwards, I tried to spend a few months per year in San Francisco, California, a mythical city for us Europeans. My spoken English improved drastically while sharing life with my housemates in the Mission District. My spoken Spanish improved too.

I became a professional translator from English to French so that I could work flexibly, and wrote a PhD thesis for the Sorbonne on ebooks around the world, based on many email interviews.

As a number of people I interviewed didn’t speak French, I offered an English version of my thesis (also here) to thank them for their time. To self-translate more than 100 pages from French to English was a difficult and exciting experience.

I never attended university classes in person for my BA, my master’s degree and my PhD (granted in 2000). I worked full time all along to pay the bills, and studied full time all along with a thirst for knowledge. Nights were short.

Twenty years later, this is still what I do — I am a translator to pay the bills while pursuing my true passion: researching and writing on topics I am interested in, first on ebooks around the world, and then on translation and translators. I also translate my own writings along the way.

My research was first published by the NEF (Net of French Studies) at the University of Toronto, Canada, before being available in three languages (English, French, Spanish) in Project Gutenberg and in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive. Everything is freely available to all with a Creative Commons licence. My French articles are published in the online journal ActuaLitté.

Despite being granted two US green cards for “extraordinary ability” in 2006 and 2016, I was not able to secure a good job or a fellowship in a major university or research centre, although I tried hard for several years.

From what I understood, what seems important is to have a strong record of publication in high-quality academic outlets, and to have (or to be able to attract) significant external funding. I had none of those. I could only offer a meaningful research project having an impact on many people, first a research project on ebooks around the world, and then a research project on the working conditions of professional translators.

I tried my luck in Silicon Valley, but the good jobs are only for computational linguists. All of us — renamed language specialists, linguistic specialists, translation specialists, localisation specialists, editing specialists, content reviewers or linguistic testers — are offered short temporary assignments paid US$20+ an hour.

We are asked to localise software or video games, to translate or transcreate marketing or creative content, and to work on voice recognition projects. The money goes to the language service providers that employ us, and to the project managers who check on us. We — the people who actually do the work — can barely earn a living but no one seems to care. I learned a lot about the gig economy in the field of languages.

I have now moved to Australia, and was recently granted a global talent visa and permanent residence. I look forward to working as a translator and/or a librarian in the Asia Pacific.

Copyright © 2021-23 Marie Lebert

Written by marielebert

2020-12-19 at 13:12

Posted in Uncategorized