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  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

I never thought I’d enjoy a crumble without the apple, but that’s just one of the many things I learned last week at the Mediterranean Editors and Translators conference in Mantua, when I tried sbrisolona. The delicious hybrid of buttery biscuit, crumble and cake is a local delicacy, and as luck would have it, the conference weekend coincided with a festival in its honour. Good news for my sweet tooth, not so good for my peri-menopausal waistline.

Determined as always to make the most of an opportunity to "discover a bit of culture", my great friend and colleague Louise Normandière and I met for a whistlestop tour of Milan and Verona a few days before METM23 kicked off. The sun beat down, we sampled the delights of unbelievably generous Italian aperitivi and revelled in the late-summer holiday atmosphere.

In Verona, we even got to overhear a concert from the Roman arena by Italy’s answer to Phil Collins/Rick Astley/Cliff Richard (references may be slightly off), Ligabue, while we enjoyed a delicious – and gluten-free for Louise – meal in the warm evening air.

Then we sped off to Mantua! As always with MET, the location for the conference was perfect. Mantua is a bite-sized town packed with history and associated with a cast of famous characters including Virgil, Mozart and Rigoletto. It also boasts cheap and excellent ice cream.

But we were there to work, honestly. MET offers a wonderful workshop programme before the conference really gets going, and I'm often running one myself on wine translation. This year I decided to take a break from that and I was very pleased to be an attendee.

It turned out to be one of the highlights of my conference experience. Laura Bennett gave a fascinating session on translating for the art world. I often translate museum brochures and never feel quite as credible as when I'm in my wine/cosmetics comfort zone. I was relieved to hear that many of my colleagues had queries like mine: should I translate the name of that painting? Is it oil or oil paint? How on earth can anyone call that monstrosity art? I came away keen to take on more art translation projects and with a much-needed confidence boost for my work in that field.

I also enjoyed two sessions given by Sarah Bawa-Mason, one on working with translator associations and the other an interactive editing session, in which she was ably assisted by former Chair of MET, Kim Eddy. Both women ensured that the experience was interesting, fun and useful, pacing the session well and providing keen insight into the editing process. We worked in small groups and discussions were lively. It’s so good to spend time with like-minded people mulling over whether there should be a space here or a dot there.

Another chance to geek out on punctuation was provided by the highly experienced and very entertaining Joy Burrough-Boenish, who managed to captivate her audience with examples and explanations of bracket (mis)use. I watched her session from the brilliantly designed Muppet-Show booths around the edge of the auditorium, thinking I’d catch up with some work at the same time, but Joy was such an engaging speaker that my MacBook stayed closed for the entire session.

Two more talented women facilitated an interactive French-to-English snippet slam session, during which we worked in groups to suggest translations for short and thorny French texts. I have the honour of being in a snippet slam group with Aleksandra Chlon and Severine Watson, and was proud to see them take control of the event with such panache.

It was then that I began to wonder: where were all the men? The pre-conference workshops had been facilitated by both men and women, but the conference proper (other than one of the keynotes) was made up entirely of women speakers! I'm a big fan of equal representation, so it would be great to see at least one or two men take the plunge and pitch a talk next year.

The conference’s two keynote speakers could have really brought down the mood with the serious nature of their presentations. Federico M. Federici – Professor of Intercultural Crisis Communication at University College London – spoke about translation in acute crises on Friday afternoon, and Luisa Bentivogli – Senior Researcher in the Machine Translation (MT) Group at Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Povo, Italy – shared research and insight into the influence of artificial intelligence and large language models on the world of translation.

Both speakers brought charisma and energy to the room, and though the issues they covered were serious and thought-provoking, they managed to keep the tone light and retain everyone’s attention right the way through.

The MET Annual General Meeting concluded the conference proper, and some important issues were raised, such as how to make the conference even more sustainable. A huge effort was made this year to avoid unnecessary waste and printed paper, and other conferences of all kinds could definitely learn a lot from MET.

Another suggestion at the AGM was to provide content for a wider audience in languages other than English. Since MET is run entirely by volunteers, everyone is welcome to make content and pitch proposals throughout the year, so the programme for every MET conference is entirely the product of its members' little grey cells.

When I was a fresh-faced METM rookie, I suggested that more corporate content should be offered for translators like myself working with brands in the business world. The council thanked me for the idea and made the firm but fair suggestion that I offer something myself. While I admit to having been taken aback at the time, I've since understood that all the conference content is indeed developed by the organisation's own members. After that meeting, I knuckled down and created a workshop on wine translation, which I have now given at several MET events.

This year, my corporate translation offering was a presentation on translating in the world of cosmetics, which is another of my specialisms, and I delivered it in the spacious auditorium on the Friday afternoon. I was pleased with the turnout and feedback I received, so thank you to everyone who encouraged me! If you're reading this far I presume you're interested in MET, so please do think about what you could contribute to next year's conference. It's much better to be doing it yourself than sitting back and expecting someone else to come up with the goods.

As always, the Off-METM programme was packed to the gills with networking opportunities and chances to sample the local food and wine. For the Food and Wines of Lombardy dinner group, Michael Farrell had scouted Vino Esclamativo !, an excellent wine store and restaurant, where Karin Rockstad ensured that everyone had a wonderful time. Mantuan specialities were paired with local and not-so-local wines. A standout course for me was the starter: delicious Italian salami with aged parmesan and mostarda, a condiment from Northern Italy made of candied fruit and a mustard-flavoured syrup. It was paired with a delicious sparkling white that was the first in a series of delicious wines. As always, the off-METM events are great for meeting new members and expanding your network.

The closing dinner on the Saturday night was a huge success. With the starters and desserts served outside, I had plenty of opportunities to mingle and catch up with people I hadn’t spoken to during the conference itself, and the warm weather made dancing outside until 1.30am a real joy! Let's hope it's warm enough for a similar set-up next year.

I was hugely proud of the choir’s performance. Michael Farrell had already done an amazing job organizing an arrangement of Seghan de dì, a very funny folk song from Lombardy (think The Two Ronnies but in Italian) but really knocked the ball out of the park in his charming flat cap and cheeky solo. Elina Nocera worked wonders explaining the song in English, and pitched her input brilliantly, keeping the audience in stitches. I was thrilled to be able to join in on my ukulele as well, and it was a breeze to plug into the DJ's sound system.

Our English song was the 1960s favourite, Blue Moon. Again, I couldn’t have been prouder of the people who come to sing in the choir, and every year I’m bowled over just how far we get, from the beginning of the first practice to the performance on the Saturday night, even with just two hours of rehearsal time. On a personal note, I was deeply touched by the number of people who came to see me after the performance and said they would love to join the choir next year. Please do, everyone is more than welcome!

I'd like to thank the MET Council and all the helpers who made the conference happen. As always, the more you put in, the more you get out, so I hope that even more people step up next year. The 2024 conference will be in Carcassonne, so that means a French METM for the very first time. I can’t wait to finally be proficient in the language of the conference country!

A bientôt !

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  • Ruth Simpson

How I created a virtual choir for the METM21 Online translators' and editors' conference

A sigh of collective disappointment echoed around a selection of home offices in Europe and beyond in January 2021, when the members of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association found out that their highly awaited METM21 conference – originally planned to be held in San Sebastián – would take place online. No jolly off-METM dinners, no chatting with colleagues in between presentations, no lingering breakfasts over coffee and local delicacies. And no live choir performance. Having directed the METM choir in 2017, 2018 and 2019, I was eager to keep it going somehow, but an online format would certainly rule out singing together.

I did some research on virtual choirs, got in touch with Emma Goldsmith (Chair of MET) and suggested that we try producing an online choir video. She could not have been more supportive, and even encouraged me to get instrumentalists to join in too.

Here then is how I put together the virtual choir project for METM21 Online.

Step 1 – The right software

I watched three or four YouTube tutorials on how to create a virtual choir, and found out straight away that iMovie wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I was going to need something more sophisticated like Adobe Premier or Final Cut Pro. Being an Apple Macbook user, I downloaded a three-month free trial of FCP and set about learning how to crop, transform, create transitions, and so on.

Step 2 – Practice run

Drawing on the wonders of social media, I put out a call for participants to be guinea pigs in my trial run of a choir collaboration using the song Drunken Sailor. Sea shanties were all the rage in early 2021 and everyone knew the song.

I created a backing track in Garage Band using a basic drum track and some ukulele chords. I then put together a PDF with clear instructions on how people should film themselves and gave them a month to come back to me with their videos.

The project turned out well, but there were plenty of kinks I wanted to iron out for next time! Having learnt a lot about how FCP works, I started thinking about how I could improve on this experience for the upcoming METM21 project.

Step 3 – Choosing the track

Nobody ever feels totally comfortable filming themselves, so Emma and I decided on a track that at least everyone would know. The Beatles were an obvious choice, and Hey Jude has a nice variety of volume and intensity. The opportunity to ask people to dress up in 60s-style costumes couldn’t go to waste, so that was decided too.

Step 4 – Backup

While I wanted as much of the music in the video as possible to be played by MET members, I needed a full backing track so that people could sing and film themselves without worrying about going out of tune. So I invested in a professionally produced instrumental track and the sheet music to go with it. I chose an arrangement by Mark Brymer in three parts (soprano, alto and baritone) because we usually get plenty of women but only a few men.

In the end, I used the instrumental track in the final video too, after the first verse; only the introduction has us playing alone: Tim and Simon on piano, Emma on violin and Melissa and I on ukulele.

Step 5 – Synching

I needed to get everyone in synch too, so I recorded some instructions on the backing track: participants had to clap twice at a specific point so that I could line up their videos using the spectrogram created by their audio. No matter where a certain singer or instrument joined in, their two claps stood out clearly, so I could line everything up relatively easily.

Step 6 – Going live

METM21 attendees received their invitation to join the choir when they registered for the conference in July, and 15 September was the cutoff date for video submissions. The incoming flow was sluggish at first, with most sliding in right under the deadline. It was such a joy to see everyone and the effort they had made dressing up and singing into their phones or computers. It’s not easy to have the courage to do that, and I was amazed by their commitment to the theme! Karin and Francesca – who didn’t sing in their submissions – provided plenty of visual interest with dancing and yoga, right on theme!

Step 6 – Highlight search

When all the videos had come in and I had closed the Google Form for submissions, I shared the videos with choir member Melissa Ratti, who watched each one and sent me timestamps with highlights, places where people sang particularly well or acted/smiled/danced in a fun way.

Step 7 – Audio

I opened up Final Cut after that, brought in all the videos and then separated the audio from each video. Before I got cracking on the visuals, I uploaded all the audio tracks into Apple’s music editing software program, Garage Band. I synched them together with the backing track and the METM21 Online choir was born!

After listening to each audio part, I realized that some light editing and precise volume control would be needed, as well as some reverb and echo effects. The section with “Better, better, better, better” was the most difficult to edit, because the rhythm was extremely challenging and there was a huge variety of different interpretations!

Phrase endings were also tricky. As we were singing individually when we recorded our videos, we all ended our phrases at different times. The next time I do a virtual choir project, I'll make a video for participants to watch, so I can bring everyone off at the right time. As you'll see from the photo below, I cut each audio track in the same place to make sure that all the endings cut off together. Sometimes this involved slight fade-out of individual volume controls to avoid harsh sound cut-offs.

After about 6 or 7 hours of fine-tuning, adjusting and fiddling, I finally had my audio track. I ran it past Melissa and she OK-ed it too. At that point I never wanted to hear the song again, but I wasn't about to escape from it any time soon.

Step 8 – Designing the visuals

Going back to Final Cut Pro with my newly minted audio track, I set about making sure that everyone's mouths were synched. Then I needed to decide on how the visual should look. Black and white seemed to be a good idea to start with, to build interest and create some contrast with the really colourful ending I wanted to produce.

I also wanted to highlight individual people in turn, while keeping interest high. I had already picked out some singers for the solo parts at the beginning based on the quality of their voices, but those are the only videos used individually, all the other scenes feature at least two people. Obviously, it was important that the soloists were on screen while their voice part was being heard, so I made sure that each solo voice matched each individual face!

I brought colour into the video using the “Colorize” feature, creating a rainbow effect to transition from B&W to full colour. I also put a “Ken Burns” moving crop effect on this section, starting on one square and panning over until all the squares on the grid can be seen.

Step 9 – The green screens

Paul Appleyard and I both used green screens when creating our videos. That meant that I could use a “Keyer” effect in FCP and remove any background, a bit like a weather forecaster. Before the keyer effect, the green screen videos looked like this:

Step 10 – Fine tuning

This bit was by far the longest, and while I had a rudimentary structure for the video after about 15 hours of editing, the fine-tuning part (including the credits section) took at least that same time again. Sometimes people disappeared from the frame right at the end of the section, and I couldn’t work out why, but realized that it was because I’d had to re-synch slightly and one frame had been dropped. I had to zoom in on the video frame by frame to get each clip aligned absolutely perfectly. It was very painstaking work, but the eye catches so many slight differences that it needed to be done!

Step 11 – Reveal

I sent the video to Melissa and Emma for approval and after another few rounds of fine-tuning, it was ready to go.

Thank you so much to everyone who spent time finding 60s fancy dress, practising, and recording themselves. It wouldn't be the same without you!

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  • 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.

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