Kristen Gehrman, Writer

 
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Kristen Gehrman 

Translator | Writer | Editor

French / Dutch / German to English

 
March 15, 2016

Tolk- en Vertaalcongres 2016: Hilversum

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It was nice to meet a few Dutch and Belgian agencies that I didn’t know were out there, but the real highlight of the Tolk- en Vertaalcongres 2016 (Interpretation and Translation Conference 2016) was talking with people who also do what I do, many of whom have been doing it much longer. For those of us who work mostly at our keyboards, meeting up with colleagues in the flesh comes as a great relief. “Oh your Trados crashes all the time too?” “Have you actually tried that voice recognition software?” “Do you know anything about this agency or that agency?” You realize that you are not alone in your translating solitude and that among colleagues, the conference theme really is true, “Samen kom je verder!”  

At one point, a translator took the mic and encouraged the audience not to think of each other as competition, but rather as colleagues – that we are all in this together. I really took this to heart. Not only do I find friends in the people who love languages as much as I do, but I find that I can lean on them for support. We can pass each other projects, share insight, discuss “untranslateables” and roll our eyes at all the nonsense that is bouncing around out there in the translation world.

One of the most interesting moments in the conference (shown in the photo above) was an open discussion on “Is er een toegevoegde waarde van bemiddelaars?”  (or Do middlemen offer added value?). Starting out with a mixed panel of agency reps and professionals and later bringing in translators and interpreters from the audience, the conversation quickly turned into a sort of ping-pong match. When the question was raised as to whether translators and interpreters are really ondernemers (entrepreneurs), things got a little feisty. As independent professionals who spend hours upon hours every week going after new clients, managing projects, negotiating contracts, and marketing services, it seemed ludicrous to many that this question would even be asked! Of course we are…do you have any idea what we actually do?! Yet there were some on stage who preferred to think that their bureau was playing the true “entrepreneur” role by bringing in the clients and that their freelancers merely – they all but said it out loud! - worked for them. Well, this did not sit well.

As multi-lingual professionals, we are constantly fighting the commonly held notion that we are language machines. That somehow, we can easily input a text in one language and output it in another and should therefore be happy to accept a nominal fee for this so-called service. This belief is even stronger toward people who work in minority and non-European languages, the idea that growing up speaking a faraway language makes translating / interpreting it a breeze. It’s not surprising when people outside of the language industry think this, but when an agency that depends on our services seems to think it too, it’s very disappointing. As one panel member proclaimed, “Translation needs to be valued as an intellectual service!”

If we had it our way, I think that most of us would love to work for direct clients only. From a financial point of view, who wouldn’t want to cut out the middlemen? The thing is that big brands tend to hire big brands, and when it’s just you and your computer, it can be hard to access the clients who need your services the most. So yes, we sometimes need the middlemen. But they need us too. And I think, at the heart of it all, what the audience resented most was the underlying implication that language professionals are a dime a dozen. That our skills, diplomas, experience, reliability, availability, flexibility, not to mention knowledge of random topics like watch-making, hydraulic valve systems, international tax legislation (yes, I have translated texts on all of the above) – can all be replaced by the next bilingual person for a few cents less.

Now this is not the case with all agencies. In fact, I work for several on a regular basis that are truly wonderful. My project managers know me, their rate is fair and consistent – I feel valued. I don’t resent the fact that they take a cut for my work, because they are offering me a genuine service too – bringing me clients. And for them, I truly enjoy delivering my best. As the old management saying goes, “People who feel valued will always exceed expectations.” With a good agency and a good project manager, I at least get the sense that we are in this together and I am willing to go above and beyond.

So the question, Do middlemen offer added value? If they are doing their part by bringing us steady clients and offering fair rates and fewer headaches, then I say yes. Just like I don’t mind my accountant taking a cut from my tax return, I don’t mind a few cents per word going to a project manager to handle clients for me. But when it starts coming down to quantity over quality, endless discount requests, fuzzies and half-cents, and the question of who’s working for who, you start to realize that “samen,” only some people are going farther, and those people are not you.

For more information about the wonderful Tolk- en Vertaalcongres, check out their website. If you have any comments or takeaway points from this year’s conference, I’d love to read them in the comments!

 

 

February 6, 2016

10 Common English Mistakes made by speakers of Dutch

You could say that the Dutch are unabashedly thrifty in all things, including language.  When it comes to English, they are quite handy at “Englishifying” Dutch words. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it just doesn’t. I’ve been teaching and editing English in the Netherlands for a little while now, and here are 10 common mistakes that I’ve noticed that Dutch speakers make when speaking and writing in English.

 

1. Can you explain me please

In English, you generally need a preposition before the indirect object. You explain something to someone or you explain to someone something. 

 

2. Hereby I send you…

I know,  I know, I know… in Dutch, when you send an email with an attachment, you say hierbij. And yes, if you look up the translation of hierbij, you will indeed find hereby in English. Nevertheless, you just don’t send an email attachment stating “hereby the document…”. Trust me, don’t do it. In English, you rarely see “hereby” outside of legal contracts and formal documents. For an email attachment, you say “Please find the document attached…” etc.

 

3. What is your job function?

In Dutch, you may have a functie at work, but in English,  functions are for objects. People have positions.

 

4. I am calling to inform about…

The English verb to inform doesn’t necessarily work the same way as informeren in Dutch. You can inform someone about something, but when you are looking for information about something, you don’t use the verb to inform. Rather, you say I would like to inquire about… or I am looking for more information about…

 

5. The little boy was so brutal today!

Brutal, really?! I don’t think that’s really what you mean. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, brutal (adj.) means “extremely cruel or harsh”. Murderers and animal abusers are brutal. Everyday people are generally just rude or disrespectful. 

 

6. warehouse, fabric, hand shoes, map, receipt, nephew, cooker, rasp

I’m just going to clarify these all at once. Here it goes:

warehouse in English is what you would call a pakhuis in Dutch, and a department store is a warenhuis. 

The place where things are made is called a factory and the stuff your clothes are made of is fabric. 

The things you wear on your hands are gloves (though if everyone just wants to keep calling them hand shoes that is okay with me!).

A map is a something you look at to find your way, but the thing you keep your papers in is called a binder. 

receipt is the little paper you get when you buy something, but the paper you take to the pharmacy is a prescription.

Your nephew is your brother or sister’s son, and your cousin is the child of your aunt or uncle (not the same thing). 

A person who prepares food in a restaurant is a chef or cook, not a cooker. 

And finally, yes, there is an English word for the thing you use to shred cheeseand no, it is not rasp. It is a cheese grater.

 

7. I’ll be there in 10 minutes. Sorry I’m too late.

Don’t worry, you’re not too late, you’re just a little bit late. In English, too late would mean that you missed the event entirely. If you are just behind schedule you are late. 

 

8. unhandy, undeep, unkind, unfriendly

There are actually words that mean the opposite of handy, deep, kind and friendly. You should use them:

handy  clumsy

deep  shallow

kind mean

friendly  rude

 

9. Visitors will have the possibility to see the exhibition.

It’s true, it will indeed be possible to look at the exhibition with their eyes. But what you really mean here is that they will have the opportunity to see it. The exhibition will be open and they can make the choice to visit it or not, therefore it is an opportunity. 

 

10.  We looked at many car’s. 

And last but not least, you never ever ever ever use an apostrophe (‘) to make a noun plural. Never. For possessive nouns (nouns showing ownership), you would use an apostrophe, for example That is my brother’s carbut NOT to say “My brother has two car’s.”

 

Do you have any Dutch mistakes in English that come to mind?

November 23, 2015

Bookish Places Amsterdam

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Back in 2010, before I knew anybody who lived in Amsterdam, I came here with my friend Michelle (pictured above). She was on exchange at the University of Groningen and I was studying in Switzerland. It was an icy January, much icier than any winter the city has seen since. We skated across ice patches in the Vondel Park and wandered from shop to shop to get out the cold. Michelle was on a mission to visit Boekie Woekie, a Nine Streets book store specializing in one-of-a-kind books and zines made by artists. At the time, I was still printing editions of my first zine, Premature in Theory, and the store agreed to sell it. Thus began my first connection with this city that I now call home.

Boekie Woekie is celebrating 30 years this winter! After five years of carrying my zines, they are letting me do a little reading on Nov. 28 at 5 pm.

My new collection of very short stories, Amsterdam Shorts, features six stories set in bookish places around the city. Send me an email if you’d like to buy one (PayPal, 8€) or join us at the reading! You can also watch via Live Stream at this LINK.

In the meantime, here is my list of my favorite bookish nooks in the book-loving city of Amsterdam.

The Obenbare Bibliotheek (OBA)

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The OBA is way more than a library. It’s more of an extraordinary public building that just happens to be full of reading, listening and watching material that you can borrow. Instead of griping about how nobody reads books anymore, the OBA has expanded its services to keep in step with the times. Now patrons pay a nominal fee to check out books and use wifi if they must and the money supports the collections as well as workshops and lectures. Oh and there’s a bar upstairs. Just saying.

The Rijksmuseum Library

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Most visitors take a quick peek at the beautiful Rijksmuseum Library from the upper balcony, but you can actually use it as a reading room. In addition to old leather-bound tomes from the collection, there’s a nice assortment of art magazines, wide black working tables and cozy light. If you have a Museum Year Card, you can go anytime you like.

De Boekenmarkt op het Spui

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I once had a conversation with a bookseller here about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and how when he finished reading it for the first time, he threw a box of his ex-wife’s things into the fireplace and never called her again, which was why it was his favorite book of all time. Open on Fridays, it’s a great nice place to browse before a borrel.

Athenaeum Book Store and Nieuws Centrum
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Athenaeum’s magazine collection is toppie top top, full of magazines from small presses around the world. You can follow them on Instagram and find out what’s good. They also sell books of course, offering well-curated collections in French and German in addition to Dutch and English.

American Book Center
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It goes without saying that the ABC is as good as any indie bookstore you’ll find Stateside, maybe even better. Unabashedly American in its collection, it still offers a wide range of world literature in English and a nice magazine collection, where you can buy one of my all-time favorites from back home, The Sun. They also host events with big name writers, most recently Patti Smith.

The John Adams Institute

A center for “American culture in the Netherlands”, the JAI brings people like Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Fareed Zakaria and T.C. Boyle to Amsterdam. I recently volunteered at an event with Robert Putnam, where he reminded us all that America has significantly more serious social problems than the Netherlands. Nice for the Dutch to hear, but for the other half of the audience, kind of embarrassing.

Versal: Literary Arts Journal from Amsterdam

I first heard about Versal from a friend who edits Structo Magazine and happens to live in the Netherlands. When I mentioned it to Sara, my old Charleston roommate, we realized that they had in fact published some of her poetry a few years ago. Small world! Versal is Amsterdam’s only literary magazine published in English (as far as I know) and they host monthly gatherings. At last month’s event, I had a nice chat with Isabel Fargo Cole, translator of Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

Het Fort van Sjakoo

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My heart has a soft spot for anarchist book shops and this is one of the best that I know. The first zine I ever read was an anarchist manifesto calling people to put their work out into the world by whatever means they could. It was written in the 90s before blogging was a told stories of these underground bandwagons that peddled handwritten magazines and self-drawn maps of squats and train-jumping networks. My own zines are nothing of the sort, but the medium still fascinates me.

Evenaar Travel Books

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A whole shop devoted to travel books, and I’m not just talking about Lonely Planets– but travelogues and travel writing by journalists and journeyers traversing every region on the globe. In addition to the classics, they also offer a number of self-published and small batch travel diaries from people who’ve taken long trips by bike, foot, container ship, you name it. The back room is full of antique magazines like Life and Paris Match and 20th Century newspapers with famous headlines.

So those are a few of my favorite places to browse for books in Amsterdam. If you’re in town, come to Boekie Woekie this Saturday, Nov. 28 at 5 for a little reading!

October 4, 2015

Notes from International Translation Day 2015 at The British Library

wpid-2015-10-04-13.45.36.jpg.jpegOh what a day Friday was! What a day. I hopped a 45 minute flight across the Channel from Amsterdam for the annual International Translation Day conference at The British Library hosted by FreeWord, English Pen and my new favorite online circle, the Emerging Translator’s Network.  All about translating literature, the conference brought together a small crowd of literary translators, booksellers, publishers, editors and writers to talk frankly about translating books: what it means, how it happens and why it matters. I can only comment on the panels that I was able to attend, so any feedback from the other ones would be greatly appreciated in the comments!

Opening session: The Rise of the Reader

A stimulating conversation about what it means to be a “reader” in 2015– it turns out, despite all our tsk-tsking over the “digital native” generation, we are still growing up to be pretty good readers. And the thirst for high-quality literary content, not only from our own backyard, but also from faraway places is on the rise. For me, the most interesting part of the talk was not necessarily that the number of readers is climbing, but rather the evolution of what a “reading” actually is. The founder of The Pigeonhole online book club, made an excellent point when she said that yeah, sure you see people playing Candy Crush in the Tube, but if there are people who like playing phone games, there are also people who like books. If we can give those people a digital platform to interact with literary material online, we are essentially giving books, particularly lesser-known and translated works, a chance to go viral. Indeed, the digital rise of the reader is an incredibly GOOD thing for translated literature– people have more access than ever before to events around the world, fueling a curiosity for foreign literature. I also appreciated the tone set by an audience member who emphasized to great applause that literary translators ARE also writers. Maybe we don’t claim the story as our own, but we have the words and bi-cultural knowledge to tell it to a new audience. And a “story” isn’t a story if there are no words to tell it– literary translation is by nature “(re)writing.”

Session 1: Selling Translated Literature

It may be news to some (though certainly not to any of us) that people DO read books. After working for a few years at a small bookstore, I got used to customers patting themselves on the back for supporting the poor ole’ indie bookshop, as if they were the sole remaining member of a dying intellectual elite that still reads REAL books. Ha! Such is not the case–since moving to Amsterdam, I am overwhelmed by the bookstores in every language and the sheer number of people reading in public! This panel considered the fact that such a small percentage of books on the UK market (and US market, for that matter) are translated, so how do we promote and sell “foreign” literature? The message that I walked away with was that readers just like to read good books, and if a reader only reads in one language, they can only judge which books are good in that language. Same goes for publishers and editors. The question is not how do we sell translated literature, but how do we get good literature translated? In this sense, translators play a huge role in informing the industry which foreign books will sell to the target market.

Session 2: “Translator-Speak”: Literary Difference or Bad English?

This session was excellent, a major highlight in the conference for me. It began with a look at five passages from literary texts with the question, which ones are translated and which are originally written in English? The panelists, which included a publisher at Peirene Press, the editorial director at Granta (!!) and a well-established literary translator, were also in the dark over which were translated and which were not. It was enlightening to see how they thought through their guesses. For example, maybe a text reads like “bad English” on purpose in order to preserve a tone conveyed in the original version, or maybe an overly smooth text is a sign of a “normalized” translation that glosses over the beauty of the original. If a Turkish writer uses painfully long sentences, what is lost by chopping them up for the English reader? What is gained? There was a somewhat tense moment in the talk when an older audience member asserted that if a translator wants to be called a translator, than he or she must be 100% “faithful” to the original text, suggesting that anything else was sacrilege. One of the panelists countered by saying that a good translation is like a piece of glass that allows readers to peer into the story, even if they can’t walk right through the front door. As editors, they try to wipe away any smudges on that glass to give the clearest view to what’s inside. But this idea of being “faithful” to the original text in the word-by-word sense is not only impossible, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the writer’s wishes. The greatest takeaway from this talk was that editors can be a translator’s greatest ally.

Closing Session: From Page to Stage

The conference closed with a WONDERFUL live-reading of scenes from two translated plays. The translators joined the actors on stage to talk about the translation process and take questions after the performance. The first scene, translated from Belarusian, depicted a triangle between two teenage girls and their P.E. teacher with whom they were both sleeping. It was a scenario that may translate as “unacceptable” in Western culture, but played out on stage, it seemed like a strikingly normal teenage experience. Given the mic, my question to the translator was about her choice of profanity (there was a lot!) in the English translation, particularly the frequent use of “wanker,” a word that definitely localized the scene in Britain. What other word could she have used? Did she try other ones? She stated that she chose the word that she did for the sake of rhythm, two-syllables suiting the dialogue better than one. The second scene was translated from French-Canadian, depicting an opposite trio of a woman and two men, one of whom was her husband and the other her neighbor who shows up to “console” her when her husband isn’t home. When the husband does come, a sort of mirroring dialogue takes place and the two men ending up switching roles, the husband heading back to the neighbor’s house to “get some peace” and the neighbor heading upstairs to the woman’s bed. The translator talked about translating, especially in Canada, as a political act, and one that can not be taken lightly. A good reminder that translation is more than converting language itself–like it or not, you take the whole culture, its history and representations, with it.

All in all, I was so impressed with the conference, which was definitely worth the flight (and 2 hour bus ride to and from Gatwick!). It was flawlessly organized, deliciously catered and completely inspiring. I look forward to attending again next year and keeping in touch with those I met this year.

September 23, 2015

Top 10 Common Language Mistakes in Academic Papers by ESL writers

I’ve corrected a lot of academic papers, like a lot. Sometimes it can be tedious, but I like correcting them actually, you get to learn about things you would otherwise probably never encounter. I’ve edited papers on Turkish environmental policy, teenage weight-loss, Sub-Saharan literature, valuing social media stocks, nuclear waste deposits, cement mixing, US lobbying network theory, crime and juvenile happiness, deciphering medieval codexes, the toddler’s brain on music, international migration policy, the list goes on…  I’ve also come to appreciate working with people in their most fragile state. At the end of a thesis, people are tired, stressed out and full of self-doubt. And on top of everything, they think their English is terrible and they are going to fail. With or without my help, this is probably not true, but I like knowing that my corrections are putting their mind at ease. After working months, sometimes years on a paper, it would be such a waste to hand it in with language mistakes!

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Here is my list of the Top 10 Most Common Language Mistakes that I find in academic papers written by non-native English-speakers. I’ll try to explain them without sounding like a grammar book.

 

1. the + plural noun (-s) vs. the + plural noun (no -s)

 Climate change is a source of anxiety, however the studies suggest that many of the facts are misconstrued. 

This is tricky. Basically, if the noun is plural and refers to a general group of things (i.e. “all studies in general”) then you don’t need “the.” If the plural noun implies something specific (i.e. “the facts specifically relating to climate change), then you use “the.”

2. adding plural (-s) when it’s not necessary

informations, datas, precipitations, phenomenas, researches, hairs – NO!

Look, I know it might seem plural. Obviously you are analyzing more than one piece of data and we know that in many languages (ahem, French), you have les informations, les recherches and les cheveux. But in English, these words are just understood to be plural. You don’t need the (-s). Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

3. verb + preposition confusion
increase/decrease in, adapted to, adopted by, related to, corresponds to, etc.

Think of English as a “directional” language, meaning that not only the verbs but also the direction they “move” in is very important, prepositions are important. The trouble is when they are arbitrary or abstract– why do “check on” and “check for” mean different things? Beats me. But here is a good dictionary of phrasal verbs.  Good luck :/

4. permit / allow + infinitive verb– NO!

a.) This permits to see the end result. NO!
This permits one to see the end result. YES.
b.) The examples allow to understand the data. NO!
The examples allow an understanding of the data. YES.

For some reason that I can’t explain, you just can’t follow permit and allow with an infinitive verb (to+verb). You always need a direct object! I’m looking at you Francophones, no you can’t say “permettre de comprendre” in English.
But if you really want to, here are two easy options a.) use “one” after the verb, this is a non-personal answer to the question “WHO is permitted/allowed?” or b.) nominalize the infinitive verb you want to use, “to understand” becomes “an understanding.”

5. that vs. which
a.) The results which that we see here are very interesting.
b.) The formulas, that which are based on trigonometric functions, are seen below.

Okay, here’s the easiest way to remember the difference: “that” = dependent information, meaning that you CAN’T remove from the sentence without changing its structure (no comma!), “which” = independent information, meaning that you CAN remove it from the sentence and you would still have a complete sentence (insert comma!).

6. Avoiding the apostrophe + S

a.) The research of Smith states that… (not wrong, but clumsy!)

b.) Smith’s research states that… (BETTER!)

c.) There is a difference between the opinion of Hess and this result. (clumsy!)

d.) Hess’s opinion differs from this result. (BETTER!)

e.) The problem of teenagers is marked by impulsivity. (clumsy!)

f.) The teenagers’ problem is marked by impulsivity. (YAY!)

People tend to avoid English genitive (‘s) like the plague, which is strange because it’s a really efficient little tool.  It’s easy to use and gives your sentences that English “to-the-point-ness” that everyone is always talking about.  Two rules: 1.) add an (‘s) to the end of the singular possessive noun (i.e. Smith’s), even if it ends in (s) already (i.e. Jones’s) and 2.) if the possessive noun is plural ending with an (s), put the apostrophe on the outside of the word (i.e. teenagers’)… I know it looks weird, just do it.

7. What’s with all the “HENCE”?

It’s a nice word I guess, but not all the time! There is something very formal and old-fashioned about it that rubs me the wrong way. Mix it up with some other connecting words like “therefore”, “thus”, and “consequently.”

While we’re on the topic, try starting sentences with connectors like “Furthermore, …” “In addition, …” “However, …” “In contrast,…” “As a result,…” “Nevertheless,…” and “Regardless,…” They are all very nice and want to be in your paper too!

8. Flat syntax, dependent vs. independent clauses

a.) We see that there is no change looking at the model. (not wrong, but kinda flat)

b.) Looking at the model, we see that there is no change. (Better, draws attention directly to the model).

c.) There was no evidence of change given the timeframe(not wrong, but kinda flat)

d.) Given the timeframe, there was no evidence of change (Better, draws attention directly to the timeframe).

Beginning a sentence with a dependent clause (a.k.a the non-main part of the sentence) followed by a comma, makes it more dynamic. It draws attention to the focus of the sentence and makes your ideas flow more clearly.

9. Unclear pronouns –  HE/SHE/THEY/IT 

a.) We notice that these results correspond to the previously suggested hypothesis, where he states that …” (Who exactly is HE? Better to state his name to avoid confusion)

b.) The direction of the wind indicate certain weather conditions it is going to be forecast.  (What is IT exactly? the wind, the weather conditions… not clear) 

I write this comment all the time– “What is IT?” “Who is HE?” “Who are THEY?”…. If you are going to replace a noun with he/she/they/it,  you must be 100% clear on the noun that you are referring to. On a side note, I know you know this already, but in English, inanimate objects can’t be a HE or SHE, objects are always IT.

10. Adverb placement

a.) There have been recorded occurrences of this case never. (not wrong, but clumsy)

b.) There have never been recorded occurrences of this case. (YES)

c.) It is not known yet how long it will take. (not wrong, but clumsy)

d.) It is not yet known how long it will take. (YES)

e.) The data is inconsistent with the former result curiously. (awkward.)

f.) The data is curiously inconsistent with the former result. (BETTER)

OR

g.) Curiously, the data is inconsistent with the former result. (you can put the -ly adverb at the front of the sentence with a comma if you want to emphasize it).

As a general rule, adverbs follow the conjugated verb. Oops, I sound like a grammar book. Okay, how to say this…What I mean is that words that describe the verb (never, always, yet, often, etc.) are placed directly after the verb they describe… not after the whole verb phrase, but after the conjugated piece (i.e.  they have never been NOT have been never). Same goes for adverbs ending in -ly (occasionally, simply, basically, interestingly).