top of page
  • 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.

Watch the Drunken Sailor video here

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!

Click here to watch the final video

73 views1 comment
  • 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

152 views0 comments
  • 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.

179 views0 comments
bottom of page