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An interview with German-French translator Aurélie Fagot

What does it take to become a professional German-French translator? That’s exactly what we asked Aurélie Fagot, who graduated from the ESTRI school for translation and international relations in Lyon, France.

This month marks her 10-year anniversary working in translation – and we didn’t want to miss this opportunity to take walk down memory lane with her to the early beginnings of her career.  

Aurélie, you’re a certified German-French translator. What influenced your decision to choose translation as your profession?

It all happened by chance. When I was in high school, I had been studying English, German and Spanish for several years and I wanted to use those languages in my professional career, but didn’t want to become a teacher. During my last year, most of my English exams contained some element of translation work, and it was then that I knew I had found the perfect job for my skills: it required good proficiency in English and native-level expertise in French, especially with regard to grammar and expressions.

I then decided to attend ESTRI, a school for translation and international relations in Lyon, France, and never looked back! As a French native speaker, I really enjoyed the various internships I did during my 5-year degree: I spent 8 months in England, 7 months in Germany and 3 months in Spain before I started working as a freelance translator. September 2023 marks my 10-year anniversary as a professional translator.

What does a regular day at work as a translator look like for you?

I usually sit at my desk from 8:00-8:30 am and browse through my emails. I then start working on my “productive” tasks. The bulk of my work generally involves translation and proofreading. As a freelance translator, I also dedicate one afternoon per month to going over all my administrative and invoicing tasks. I make sure to be available for my clients throughout the day to answer their translation requests whilst making sure I stay on track with my current projects. I usually finish work between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm.

What are some of the particular linguistic features of a German-to-French translation? What special characteristics do each of these two languages have?

German often welds common nouns together to create a whole new (and rather long) word. These words often have a very specific translation in French. For instance, “Korngrösse” could be literally translated as “taille de grain” (grain size) but in a professional context should be translated as “granulométrie” (granulometry). “Taille de grain” is not a wrong translation per se, as it is easy to understand and could be useful in terms of making a text more accessible for laypeople. However, a professional translator must always check whether a specific word already exists for a particular concept, and make sure that the context allows the use of this term.

Translating German into French can also prove a bit challenging in terms of their different syntaxes. It is easy to “get lost” when looking for terms that refer to each other within a single sentence in German – when looking for a verb, for instance – and it sometimes requires a bit of mental gymnastics when reorganising it in French. French tends to prefer shorter and more direct sentences. Being alert and creative is a must in order not to miss any details.

What are your views on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Translation (MT) as a professional translator?

It is normal for jobs to evolve, especially when they are linked to digital tools and technological developments. I have been hearing about these new technologies since I started studying, and I often work on post-editing texts – correcting them after they have been pre-translated with a machine translation engine. I want to point out that people used to say these technologies would overtake us in no time. That was ten years ago, and while post-editing has very much become part of the job, translators have not been replaced by machines. Contrary to initial predictions, machine translation on its own is only useful in rare cases, such as understanding the general meaning of an informal document. It is still not suitable for use for professional specialised translations. Some of my clients have been developing their own engines, which can give rather good results when used for certain types of documents, such as instruction booklets. However, I still try to keep a critical mind when it comes to the pros and cons of these technologies. I also stay wary of the bias that may come with them: a pre-translated sentence may appear grammatically and syntactically correct on the surface but be totally out of place when put back in context. Context, to this day, remains something only a human translator can correctly understand.

What piece of advice would you give a young translator starting out in the language industry?

Remember to have a business-oriented mind! Apart from enjoying working with languages, a translator must also have business acumen in order to promote their work and build up a client portfolio. It does not stop once you have several regular clients either: you will still need those skills in the future to make your company grow, update your prices, hone your skills, and so on. I would probably have given it more thought before choosing this career path had I been told it would mean running a business. I do not regret it at all, but I probably would have worked on my marketing skills to gain in confidence. So, my advice would be: don’t be shy! If you are doing a good job, you deserve to be paid accordingly!

Of course, there is also the option to work as an in-house translator for a company if running your own business as a freelancer does not sound right for you. In this case, you’ll work as an employee with a regular income, but the projects you translate may not be as diverse, since you will be working for your employer only.

Some translators also work in a hybrid model of being employed part-time and freelancing a bit on the side as well.

One huge benefit of being a translator is that it definitely allows for many different modes of employment. You can even work remotely, too, if that’s what you’re looking for.