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Found in Translation

Naomi Klimaszewska studied in Paris for a full year on the Sweet Briar College Junior Year in France program.


While attending public high school in southern California, I was often asked why I took French. When are you going to use it, my peers constantly pestered. Probably when I go live in France, I'd shoot back. There was no indication of my flying over the Atlantic any time soon, but this girl dreams big.

When the bus rolled into town that drizzly gray autumn afternoon, the drops of rain on the windows mirrored the silent tears I couldn’t hold back. I'd arrived in Paris—and I was scared. I was afraid of not being able to communicate. I was terrified that I might not learn anything. Naturally some language barriers are to be expected when moving abroad, but I was too painfully self-conscious to be able to see beyond my complex.

My first semester was difficult, with unrealistic expectations mostly conjured within the confines of my mind. I plugged myself into my surroundings as I did in the US, but it didn't seem to be enough. I felt I needed to try something new in a different environment, so I looked into internship options. Though I still had very little confidence in my French, I thought there might be a chance to learn something related to my studies. With my convoluted background in French and struggles in language acquisition, of course I ended up in the field of translation.

I'd heard mixed reviews about interning at the film arching company; it was supposed to be very laid-back, partially directed, and with nice people, at that. But my first night at the office was alarming. I'd postponed several times due to a hectic course-shopping period, and my schedule permitted me to slip in only at the very end of a very long day. My supervisor gave me my assignments, and I was introduced to the program the office used to record descriptions of short films that researchers would access through a database. On the screen, the left-hand text box featured French, and on the right was the computer-generated translation of what was supposed to be English. I quickly saw that it would be easier for me to translate directly from the French rather than edit the madcap English, and thus began my regular French reading exercise. Up until this point, I didn't have confidence in my ability to read French, so I avoided it. Now I had to.

At first I'd second- (and third-) guess my understanding of the French and spent lots of time rechecking. Not only were the grammar and diction unnatural like typical automatic translations, but the contents were completely unhinged as well. The text read: “Un lapin qui joue de la clarinette, se fait avaler sa clarinette par un canard.” That's “A rabbit playing the clarinet is made to swallow his clarinet by a duck.” A hesitant question garnered the confirmation that yes, a duck makes a rabbit swallow a clarinet. O-kay.

I hated having to speak in French because I was afraid of how dumb I thought I sounded, but I felt uncomfortable sitting in silence in a room in plain view of others. When one kind lady offered to get me coffee, I took the opportunity to continue the conversation. I didn't get that much work done that night, but I got quite a bit of French practice, and a much-needed boost in my self-confidence.

This small victory of learning to use my voice then extended to the practice of asking questions. My supervisor intimidated me at first, but it turned out that she was very kind and understanding. Although she was busy juggling a multitude of things, she was never too busy to answer a question or re-explain something I wasn't sure I understood. When I asked her about the loony descriptions I was translating, she reminded me that the earlier cartoons were often faster-paced than modern ones, and suggested I take a look at what I was writing about. I then spent time watching the archived footage, and things began to make sense. I knew that I was working with old animation, but had forgotten their frenetic pace; now I was reminded that the large number of repetitions in the text were actually accurate. It was a blast; I hadn't watched cartoons in a long time. So there I was, discovering American animation in Paris.

From time to time I worked on other projects, website announcements for upcoming events, texts to accompany a design exhibit, and online user interface text. Each task I completed gave me a sense of progress, presenting various challenges for me: ideas that were hard to put into words, ideas I wasn't sure I understood, and phrases that just didn't translate. I was happy to discover that I was pretty good at finding phrases in the garbled text. I made a habit of writing down the new things I learned and quickly re-found the words being used around me elsewhere in town.

As I began to get more comfortable in my work, I found myself making decisions to convey meaning rather than transliterate word for word. There were instances when I saw that a word wouldn't have the same effect in English, so I replaced it with better substitutes. When more than one word could be helpful, I put in a couple options. The fragments and clusters of synonyms made the blurbs sound like a catalogue rather than a reader-friendly description, but I stopped worrying about the literary quality of my translations when I accepted that this was how researchers found what they looked for, through details. I wasn’t completely happy with my translations because they weren’t stylistically pleasing, but I was content with the fact that it they were coherent, they contained what they needed to, and they functioned.

Thus I began approaching my task from the perspective of the people who would receive the information and let go of my need to present a polished masterpiece in every little thing I wrote, because that's not what was being asked of me anyway. It's a shame I didn't think to apply this approach to my own use of French in everyday life. During a particularly bleak streak when I felt my progress had reached a plateau, I found some studies on language acquisition and read these texts during the long commute on the metro. It was eye-opening to see myself described on paper, to see the very mistakes I had been making in not only the way I used language, but even in my mindset. It was difficult to shake off my old habits, but being aware of my perfectionist curse helped me to make some small but important steps towards change.

My internship was a valuable growth experience. I explored a foreign work environment, met new people, and honed my aptitudes as well as areas I can improve. When I began getting to know the people around me, I learned more about Paris, discovered new music, and found that people are more forgiving than I feared they would be. When it was time for me to plan my vacation, I got advice on what to see and do in various places. My diminishing phobia of French allowed me to use the language throughout my travels.

It took time for me to truly appreciate my internship experience. I was immersed in an authentic work environment and worked with kind Parisians who were so accommodating to an awkward, awkward intern. Even though I sometimes misinterpreted things in ways only a self-condemning pessimist could, I began to find different ways to look at meaning-—interpretation!—and see the value of good will and humor. I may have done better in different circumstances, perhaps with a lighter course load and a less taxing commute, but the fact is I pushed open the flat, round brass handle on the heavy glass door to step inside onto the bristly brown doormat of the office and announced, Bonjour, even when I didn't feel like it. Now I can better spot expressions and even errors in French. I'm developing a sharp eye, determining what is necessary, what is optional, when certain details are and aren't helpful. I probably won't become a professional translator (I'm too drawn by the allures of pastry-making), but I know that I am capable of working in such an environment, applying and developing my abilities.

Most importantly, I learned first-hand that translation is not the same thing as transliteration, not only in the realm of language, but also in the way I tried to transfer my life, habits, and way of thinking, to France. Looking back, particularly after the language acquisition studies I read, I see that the fact that my life does not translate word for word, detail for detail, into French and French culture does not negate my awkward existence there. And it's okay; it's not the goal to reconstruct myself and my thoughts identically in another language and culture. I'm bound to be interpreted differently anyway, and it's a privilege to be able to explore the different ways in which I can reinvent myself. I’m more comfortable making decisions, taking risks—being an artist—in the way I shape my life in settings other than in ones where I can take communication for granted.

I laugh about it now, to say I worked in translation in Paris. The clause "in Paris" adds glamour to everything, even for people who've called Paris home for a year. C’est comme ça. So many incredible things happened this year that if something seems too good to be true, then it's just probably just another part of my story, the adventures of the girl who dreamed big dreams, set out to realize them, and learned a thing or two along the way.