• Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

I wrote this article for the ITI Bulletin earlier this year. See the ITI website for more information.

Wine is often thought to be the domain of the elite. There is a snobbery that persists, despite the very best PR efforts of edgy Californian estates and salt-of-the-earth Australian winemakers in ratty cargo shorts. As a result, wine translation tends to be an area people shy away from, thinking they’re not good enough or not experienced enough to take the plunge into such a premium field. And that’s a real shame, because there is so much to enjoy about the fascinating world of wines.

From cosmetics to Chablis

My own journey towards becoming a wine translator began when I moved to Chablis from Paris with a one-month-old baby in tow. I left the cosmetics business behind and began putting down roots in the vineyards of Burgundy. With a winemaker husband and living in Chablis (France), I almost had a civic duty to make wine my speciality.

I decided not to take an overly linguistic approach to learning more about translating for the wine industry. I thought it would be much more fun and effective to learn about wine along with other native English speakers working in the industry. So I went back to school. I started by signing up for a three-day course (Level 2, Intermediate) at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s head office in London. I then went on to do a week-long course (Level 3, Advanced) with a real tasting exam at the end of it. This spurred me on to eventually sign up for the Level 4 Diploma, which spanned two years and involved four week-long stints in London with back-to-back lessons, tastings, and test preparation, before a series of written and practical exams. It was a huge undertaking – especially while translating full time and with a young child to raise – but I loved every minute.

By the time I had finished my WSET Diploma, the fabulous lecturers had guided our group on its way as we learnt a dizzying amount about how vines grow, the effects of soil types on how a wine tastes, how fermentation works, how spirits are made and marketed, and most importantly how to write an authentic tasting note.

As the years went by, I grew in confidence as a taster and as a translator. Having my husband’s winery literally next door was also very useful, I could see what I had learnt actually happening before my very eyes. I positioned myself as a wine translator and began receiving work from local wineries and estates further afield. When I set up my website I had photos taken in the vineyards and cellars of my husband’s winery, which helped enormously.

It’s now become an area where I can offer training. In 2018 I ran a short session for the Wordfast conference in Cascais. It started out with a brief A to Z of how a wine is made, followed by a guide to tasting with some practical experience thrown in! I developed that into a half-day workshop for the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association, which I ran in Nantes then in Split at the METM19 conference. After the success of both those sessions I developed a day-long workshop covering how wine is made from grape to glass, practical wine translating exercises, aroma identification exercises and a guided tasting of three different wines and I ran that event for ITI in Milton Keynes last February, right before lockdown began.

Like the sound of wine translation? Here’s what I recommend if you’re thinking of moving into this field:

Gen up on your geography, history, biology and chemistry

Wine school, as I’m sure you can guess, really is much more enjoyable than regular school; but some of the things you learned there will be invaluable too. It’s amazing how useful your Year 8 knowledge of V-shaped valleys can be when translating vineyard descriptions.

History is important too, so make sure you’re using ‘19th century’ rather than ‘XIX century’, which is sometimes seen in translations from French and I’d say is far from idiomatic in this context. Place names or parcel names need checking, mostly they’re left in the source language (and if you’re translating from French and don’t forget to include Les if it’s part of the name).

And although your science teacher probably didn’t ferment grape juice into wine during chemistry lessons, there is some benefit in knowing exactly how fermentation works. I once called out a client because they said that after it had finished fermenting, the jus (juice) was then fined and filtered. When juice has finished fermenting it is wine, so the word vin (wine) should have been used instead. He went back and changed the French and was grateful that I had picked up on the error!

Get out of the house

There’s nothing like visiting an authentic, working vineyard and these days there are quite a few in the UK. Admittedly if you’re in Sussex it’s slightly easier to visit an estate than if you’re in Humberside, but there is no need to go abroad to see how quality wine is made.

If you can get first-hand insight into what really goes on in the vineyards and cellars it shines through in your writing. Knowing how winemakers actually talk and what terms they use gives an authenticity to your compositions that just wouldn’t be possible by relying only on glossaries. For example, grapes don’t mature, they ‘ripen’, whereas when a wine is stored in an oak barrel to benefit from its aromas, or simply left alone in a stainless-steel tank, we say it ‘matures’ or ‘ages’. ‘Terroir’ is another word that need hold no fear. It’s used throughout the wine world to describe not only the soil in which a vine grows, but the vineyard’s exposure and general environment as well.

Obviously this year all wine events have been postponed or cancelled, but attending a wine fair is also great way to taste a huge range of offerings from all different countries without breaking the bank or having to travel very far. The London Wine Fair is one of the world’s most highly respected wine events, alongside Vinitaly and VinExpo. These events offer tastings, seminars and masterclasses that are often included in the price of the ticket or can be booked for a small fee. I remember learning a huge amount about Australian Shiraz during a presentation and tasting class given by Sue Hodder from Wynns Coonawarra Estate and being blown away by the impact of the terroir on the different wines in that part of the world. Terroir variation isn’t just a Burgundy phenomenon!

Don’t forget to drink

You can only write believably about a wine’s aromas and flavours if you can imagine how they taste. Acidity descriptors are often challenging, because a wine that is vif in French can be ‘lively’ in English, but one that is nerveux in French certainly wouldn’t be described as ‘nervous’ in English! (I’d suggest ‘refreshing’ or ‘zesty’.) A great word to use to describe a wine at the other end of the acidity spectrum is ‘flabby’, which would simply be pauvre en acidité in French. If you can taste many different styles of wine, your descriptors will come to you more easily and you’ll be more believable when you create your copy in English.

And if all else fails, open a book! Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, and Jamie Goode are just a handful of authors who have produced clear and accessible guidebooks to wine from different angles. They all have websites as well that are packed with reviews and information to guide you through the world of wine. Seeing how the professionals describe wines is a great way to steer your translations in the right direction.

When I met my husband-to-be in 2002 at a party in Paris, I never thought that I would be joining him on a journey into wine, but what a wonderful journey it has been.

Key words in wine translation

Climate – what you expect for a region

Weather – what you actually get

Terroir – soil, exposure, altitude, weather

Variety – the type of grape (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc)

Varietal – a wine made from a single specified grape

Fining – adding a substance to a wine that brings together tiny particles

Filtering – removing particles from a wine

Green harvesting – removing extra grape bunches from a vine to balance leaf area and fruit weight and make sure all the grapes ripen properly

Pumping over – a winery technique used to enhance extraction of aromas. The fermenting must is pumped from the bottom of the tank to the top to keep the cap of grape skins wet

Aroma – how a wine smells

Flavour – how a wine tastes (salty/sweet/bitter/sour/umami) plus its aromas

Tannin – what creates a dryness on the gums, may be soft, grippy, astringent. Derives from the grape skin, pips and stalk, or sometimes from the wooden vessel in which the wine has been stored.

Twitter: @ruthinchablis

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  • Ruth Simpson

My six year-old went to school in a surgical mask this morning. I don't know why that pains me so much. Perhaps it's not the object itself but what it represents. The danger, the need for personal protection. She's fine about it by the way. I'm the one worrying.

We are living in strange times. Looking back not even a year, who could have predicted that the world would be struggling through a pandemic? This time last year I was revelling in the thrill of having played a new instrument in public for the first time (the ukulele, of course it is) at my local bar's open mic jam session, planning to attend a mini-reunion in the UK in December with some of my old university chamber choir people, and looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my parents. I feel blessed to have been able to do all of those, but it's now November 2020 and none is possible this year.

Life has certainly changed. But as a professional translator who can work pretty much anywhere, my actual business environment hasn't seen many transformations. Again, something I certainly don't take for granted. I still get offers of work, even though the source of those offers is quite different from what it was this time last year. My wine translation work is pretty much the same, personal development as well, but requests from the beauty industry have nosedived since March, and I've noticed that cosmetics and fragrance brands are now overhauling their strategies for the post-Covid world, veering away from 'all natural' and moving towards 'antibacterial', certainly at the lower end of the market.

Yes, business is different, but humming along. It's in the extracurricular sphere where things have really taken a hit. Being a translator is a rather lonely life, and in addition to the precious time I spend with my wonderful friends here in Chablis, I depend on regular translation conferences like Wordfast Forward and METM for interaction with like-minded - and not so like-minded - colleagues who share expertise and experience. Returning to those conferences year after year is even more rewarding, because not only do I benefit from the beautifully curated content, I also get to catch up with the familiar faces I've had the joy of meeting - and eating, drinking, dancing and even singing with - in the past.

So when I received an email from the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association (MET) earlier this year confirming my fear that October's MET meeting for 2020 due to take place in San Sebastian wasn't going ahead, it was yet another reminder of just what a complete and utter pain in the unmentionables 2020 has turned out to be. The reliably fantastic Wordfast Forward conference in Montenegro planned for May 2020 had already been cancelled, and that had been disappointing enough.

But MET is a formidable beast, and the incredibly energetic and highly professional council were not to be discouraged. The association's dream team put together an entirely online conference programme worthy of any huge corporation (and better than some), to take place over three days. There was even online yoga by the enviably cool and collected Francesca Matteoda as part of the off-METM programme.

Initially I must admit that I had rolled my eyes at the prospect of spending hours in neverending Zoom sessions, but as the agenda began firming up, I realised that the exceptionally talented and organised people in charge could actually make the idea into a success after all. But what about the singing? I have helped out with the pop-up METM choir for three years now, and I was determined to bring music into the online event somehow.

Despite my eye-rolling, I do admit that Zoom is a wonderful tool for bringing people together. But one thing it still can't quite manage is allow a group of people to sing together. The MET council eventually asked me to compose an instrumental track that could be used while attendees were waiting for the online event to begin. I set about putting some sounds together on Garage Band and recorded myself playing my beloved ukulele and a smattering of other instruments.

The conference programme kicked off with a very inspiring presentation by former Chair of MET, Anne Murray. She talked about how she uses Sketch Engine to create corpora and I was delighted when at the end of the presentation I had at long last understood what a corpus was, and how it could be useful to me and my business.

Highly professional Oliver Lawrence gave a fascinating talk on ambiguity in language, and that really got me thinking about how I write and how I could be getting better at it. One memorable nugget was "more lies ahead" and how that fragment of language could have two different meanings.

Unsurprisingly amusing was multi-talented guitarist, singer and Italian to English translator Michael Farrell, who took us on a journey across Europe while telling the fascinating tale of Vin Santo and Popelini/Poppelini cakes, skilfully weaving in the importance of research and an open conversation with your client.

Due to childcare constraints I wasn't able to catch the other sessions, but I have it on good authority that they were equally interesting and packed with useful information.

For the Off-METM programme, the ever-enthusiastic Kit Cree organised a series of hands-on language sessions as well as the yoga provided by Francesca. Louise Normandière and I were asked to host the French to English translation breakout group and after many hours scratching our heads and worrying if the snippets we had earmarked for on-the-spot translation were good enough, we were thrilled with the enthusiasm and camaraderie that came out of our session. Louise has a sparkling energy that really drove the group and it was a joy to work with her.

The final session (the association's annual general meeting) took place on the Saturday morning, and I have to admit it's the first time I've been moved to tears by an AGM. The organisation's volunteer council is a group of people who astound me year after year with their dedication, enthusiasm and drive. I've come to know some of them quite well, and it was a very emotional experience seeing how strongly affected they were by the lack of in-person contact for the event. Covid-19 cannot pass through a screen, but the emotion of all the council members was infectious, and I found myself welling up alongside them. Passing the baton usually happens at a conference after two or three days of interaction and enjoyment, and right before a delicious buffet is served. There are hugs all round and opportunities to thank people for their service. This time, we simply had to click out of the session and were jolted back to real life.

Here's hoping that the preventive measures we're taking and the sacrifices we're all making will eventually lead to a resumption of normal activities. When things do return to a semblance of normality, let's pledge to take no freedom for granted.

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  • Ruth Simpson

Freelance life is often a constant tension between doing the things you know well, and taking on new challenges. This is an article I wrote for the ITI Bulletin that the editor has kindly allowed me to publish here.

‘Thanks for coming to the first of our two practices for the pop-up conference choir. Now, this year we don’t have a director, so is there anyone who might be able to wave their arms

around and keep us in time?’ My hands shake, my heart races, my stomach twists

into a knot. I know I want to do this, but I’ve never tried. A year ago I would have

been looking around waiting for the most confident person in the room to take control,

but I come to realise that, this time, that person might be me.

‘I’ll give it a try.’

Cheers and applause from everyone else… I just hope their expectations aren’t too high.

Stepping up to direct a pop-up choir at a conference for translators and editors wasn’t something I had ever dreamed of doing. But as soon as that first rehearsal got under way

I knew instantly that I wanted to do it again, and then again. I left the conference buoyed by the professional content, of course; but it was the off-conference events that really made me hurry back to my desk and start honing my website, thinking about how I could enhance

my work and be more active in the translation community.

The continual balancing act

Everywhere you look it’s about striking the right balance. Be careful not to burn out, but make sure your career is on the right track. Be there for your children, but find time for yourself. Have interests outside the home, but keep things ticking over within it. And while it can be difficult for many people, freelancers can find it even harder to lay down boundaries between home and work – especially when the office is at home and home is at the office.

There are plenty of places to find tips on striking that balance, but what I want to look at here is motivation, and how challenging yourself – or in my case stepping up to an unexpected challenge – can be beneficial in all kinds of ways.

Making the decision to do anything new can be incredibly daunting, especially when it’s a

performance of some kind. When I took the snap decision to have a go at directing the choir, impostor syndrome crept up on me the instant the adrenaline had subsided, and the fear of not delivering the goods gripped me throughout the rest of the conference, lasting right through until the Saturday evening performance. I needn’t have worried. I wasn’t alone, and my fellow translators and interpreters who sang at the METM17 dinner in Brescia gave a lively performance that was greeted with riotous – and well-deserved – applause.

Conducting the fantastic choirs at Brescia METM17 and Girona METM18.

I hadn’t set myself the challenge of directing the choir, but I enjoyed it so much I did it again at the following year’s conference, then again in 2019, and have been encouraged to do it again this year. It has motivated me to look up conducting courses and consider setting up a choir in my home town. But perhaps most importantly, it has motivated me to become a better translator and to work hard on growing my business.

Two types of reward

Freelance translators and interpreters are certainly a varied bunch, but one thing we have in common is that at some point in the past, we have had the courage to put ourselves out

there and sell our grey matter. We all know, though, that opening a project and getting down to some hard graft isn’t always easy. Finding motivation takes work, practice, and a conscious shift in attitude. It’s about changing your inner voice from ‘this is boring’ to ‘how can I make this interesting?’.

I don’t have any magic pills to sell, but here’s what I’ve found from my investigations into the topic: first of all, motivation comes in two main forms. One is intrinsic, and the other, not terribly surprisingly, is extrinsic. In lay terms, that means some things motivate you from the

inside, and some sources of motivation come from the world around you.

Intrinsic motivation is what you feel when you are moved to do something for the purposes of natural satisfaction. You love your children, so you book a doctor’s appointment for them when they are sick. You volunteer at your local soup kitchen because helping those in need brings a sense of meaning to your life.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation is what you feel when you do something for a specific external gain. The gain might be intangible (an athlete trains hard for hours so that she can perform well in a sporting event) or tangible (I translate this file in order to be paid, so that I can eat, and I can pay my rent).

Motivation beyond money

For most freelancers, that tangible gain of money isn’t negotiable. We have to work and pay our bills. But money itself isn’t actually the primary source of motivation for human activity, as American-Israeli professor and economist Dan Ariely demonstrated during a study he ran

to see how people completed tasks with varying financial rewards. Ariely is a wonderful writer, and his findings make a fascinating read.

I would definitely encourage everyone to look at his website for more insight into motivation and what he creatively calls ‘advanced hindsight’. Without going into excessive detail, his study shows that people aren’t motivated by money alone, and that higher financial rewards don’t necessarily mean increased motivation. He concluded that intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic. Our personal values are stronger than our desire to acquire more stuff. Refreshing news, isn’t it?

If you can pitch it just right, the holy grail of motivation is when intrinsic meets extrinsic. In 2018, I translated the economist Eric Singler’s Nudge Management, about tweaking environments to change behaviour. In one passage, Singler gives an example of a lowly

stonemason who is happy with his lot, chiselling stone blocks day in, day out. When an onlooker asks how he finds the motivation to get up and do the same work every day, the stonemason replies, ‘Look at the cathedral I am building.’ Being a part of something that is bigger than you is an extraordinary source of motivation.

Chiselling stone blocks, or building a cathedral?

Don’t give up the day job

But where can you get your hands on some of that juicy intrinsic motivation? In short, by first identifying what is important to you, and then creating a personal challenge out of it.

As I started thinking more about how personal challenges can spark intrinsic motivation, I began to notice it all around me, especially in people I admire. And while some of them have made dramatic lifestyle changes, they certainly don’t have to.

In fact your ‘day job’ can be a great place to start. Emma Goldsmith, MITI, gave a fascinating presentation at the METM19 conference in Split on how, after three decades in Madrid, she decided to ramp up her already enviable Spanish skills over an intense six months of self-learning. Nobody had asked her to improve her source language: she did it for herself. I was blown away by the list of fiction books she had devoured, and her multi-tab, multi-column spreadsheet of new vocabulary was a joy for any language nerd to behold. Emma assured us that the prospect of presenting her findings to an eager audience was pretty motivating in itself, and I bet stepping up her already impressive Spanish has done no harm at all to her performance as a translator.

Looking back over my life (so far) I can pinpoint four or five personal challenges that have required energy, certainly, but have been hugely beneficial. The first was signing up to do a wine diploma after meeting my winemaker husband and taking a personal interest in the subject 15 years ago. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually be running professional workshops for other translators in the field. Another was setting up an association for my daughter’s school when the principal decided they wouldn’t run any more family events without one. Dusting off my violin after 20 years of neglect was another, and now learning the ukulele is my most recent personal challenge. Every single one of these challenges has brought immeasurable joy to my life. Some have benefited my work, and others have simply given me a fun reason to get up in the morning.

Some sources of joy in my life!

Start from where you are

Obviously, one issue I kept coming back to time and time again when I was researching the whole issue of motivation was cost. It simply isn’t possible for everyone to take on a personal challenge just for the fun of it; you need a comfortable income and a certain amount of freedom. But intrinsic motivation really does cost nothing – look at the stonemason. Transferring your personal values to your attitude about work means looking at the bigger picture, thinking about the people who are going to read your writing, and taking pride in how your input is going to make their lives better. And that costs nothing.

My advice for taking on a personal challenge would be to look at what you love, and think how you can take that to the next level. If you’re arty why not join a class in your area or challenge yourself to enter an illustration competition? If you’re athletic why not try a new

sport or join a local team that you thought was out of your proverbial league? If you enjoy writing why not approach a publication with an idea for an article? The only way to shake

off the impostor syndrome (the feeling that someone else would be a better choice than you) is by getting out and being that person yourself. I can’t stress this enough.

Aside from boosting your overall motivation, taking on a personal challenge has plenty of benefits that can easily be applied to working as a freelancer. In a risk-free context, it

hones your ability to accept failure when things don’t work out as you’d hoped; it improves your determination to succeed; and it also opens doors to new speciality areas.

And it’s fun. Isn’t that enough?

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