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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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  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Conferences are one of my favourite things about the world of freelance translating. There are no hierarchies, no competition, and no office politics. Just pure interaction, enthusiasm and support in a world where most of us work alone. I discovered MET in 2016 and attended my first MET conference in 2017. Here's why I keep going back.

Split, packed with centuries of stories and legends

1. The great content

Last year at METM18 in Girona, I made a tentative comment at the Annual General Meeting that I would have preferred more corporate content, and was told very clearly that content is provided by members, so if I wanted it, I had to bring it. Fair enough.

This year I ran a workshop on how to translate and edit in the wine industry, one of my specialist fields, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Now not only did MET give me the chance to bring something of my own to its programme, but its council had really listened to my corporate content remark, and the keynote presentation on the Friday was given by none other than Swiss bank executive extraordinaire David Jemielity, tenured lecturer at the University of Geneva and all-round brilliant linguist, who gave a fascinating presentation on how he and his team of translators garner ever-greater respect from the Board, and have become an important cog in the BCV (Banque Cantonale Vaudoise) communication machine. His presentation was loaded with examples about how they have gone about tailoring and enhancing the bank’s message, not only in English, but in French too.

What makes effective communication? David Jemielity on asking the right questions

2. The networking

The clue is in the name; MET Meetings are a great way to share stories with others in the field, compare experiences, and simply spend time in the company of people who understand what you do, especially in a business where most of us work alone all day long. I now have a hive mind of colleagues to call upon to help me out with thorny sentences, people to refer my clients to when they are looking for other language combinations, and a huge new circle of friends.

3. The amazing location

Split was stunning. Aside from the university being rather out of town, the Off-METM events in the old quarter were made even more enjoyable by the picturesque winding alleys and ancient stone buildings. And the teal waters of the Adriatic provided the perfect backdrop for the white stone and cloudless blue skies. The conference itself was held in the brand new university classrooms and lecture hall, all kitted out with the latest conferencing facilities. I have it on good faith that San Sebastian has all of the charm of Split, and that the university buildings themselves have the benefit of being just a short walk from the old town. The MET conference is yet to be held anywhere other than a beauty spot, so I'm optimistic that METM20 will have just as much Instagrammable charm as METM19.

Golden Gate in the old town

4. The fantastic opportunities

As the council so rightly told me last year, participants make the conference happen. So why not bring something to the table? Doing my workshop was so enjoyable and I met such wonderful people while there, that I’m already thinking about what I might be able to suggest for the programme next year.

But as personal challenges go, directing the METM pop-up choir has to be my own standout memory. I just can’t describe the rush I felt standing in front of 30 wonderful people and leading them in song, with an audience of 130 others. The joy and feeling of accomplishing something as a group sparked enough adrenaline to last me until Christmas at least. Working alongside Mladen Grgic and Marijo Krnic – local professional musicians – was a dream, and more fun than I could possibly have imagined. If you're so inclined, the whole video can be found here.

5. The discovering of talent

Maeva Cifuentes led an extremely dynamic presentation on content marketing packed with ideas about promoting yourself as a freelance professional, so much so that I started reading her excellent blog about being a content strategist.

Lloyd Bingham ran a fascinating session on pseudo-English, talking about the ways English words can crop up in other languages, but in doing so, lose their original meaning (think faire un footing rather than "going for a jog"). Lloyd is a young and dynamic translator with a knack for business and a bright future.

Lynne Murphy, not a MET conference attendee, but keynote speaker and author of The Prodigal Tongue, which is about the love-hate relationship between British and American English, has single-handedly improved my email writing by covering the overuse of exclamation points in her presentation. That’s right!

I already knew Emma Goldsmith from previous METMs, so I was eager to attend her presentation on improving a source language after years of immersion, and she didn't disappoint. After spending 30 years in Spain and reaching a plateau in her language skills, Emma decided to step up her Spanish by reading fiction (she concluded that this was the richest source of new vocabulary), studying grammar, getting people to correct her, and keeping an impressive spreadsheet up to date with all the new words she was learning, with a view to taking the highly respected European C2 exam. Her presentation was fascinating and I left full of admiration for her diligence.

On returning home to Chablis I scurried to our bookshelves, plucked out Michel Houellebecq's Les particules élémentaires and began my own language improvement project. My spreadsheet already has 10 words that I have learnt since coming back from Split, and my family are delighted that they are now allowed to correct my mistakes!

Lynne Murphy during her fascinating talk on changes in English over the decades

The MET family is large and welcoming and I can’t possibly mention everyone I had the pleasure of talking to over the three days of the conference.

I came back to work on Monday with a spring in my step and a determination to hone my writing skills. I even pitched an article to a translation and interpreting magazine! Watch this space for more...

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