Volume 10, No. 3 
July 2006

Emma Wagner


Front Page

Select one of the previous 37 issues.

Index 1997-2006
TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Career in European Translation
by Emma Wagner
Interview with Gabe Bokor
by Verónica Albin

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Power of Saying "No"
by Danilo and Vera Nogueira
Educating the Customer
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

  Translators Around the World
Translating Freud: A Historical Experience
by Leandro Wolfson
Certification Programs in China
by Jianjun Zhang

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages—Voice of Translator
by Ted Crump

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference
by Thanh Ngo
Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation
by Adetola Bankole

  Language & Communication
"Heads I win, Tails You Lose": Logical Fallacies and Ethics in Everyday Language
by Elena Sgarbossa, M.D.

  Book Review
Dictionary Review: Hungarian Practical Dictionary
by Catherine Bokor, Ph.D.
Book Review: Corinne McKay’s How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator
by Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Connotation and Cross-cultural Semantics
by Salah Salim Ali

  Legal Translation
Incongruity of Company Law Terms: Categorization of Polish Business Entities and their English Equivalents
by Łucja Biel, Ph.D.

  The Related Arts
Adding Value to Translation with DTP Partnership
by José Henrique Lamensdorf

Spanglish: To Ser or Not to Be? That is la cuestión!
by Eduardo González, Ph.D.

  Translators Education
Translation As an Aid in Teaching English as a Second Language
by Valeria Petrocchi

  Translators' Tools
Electronic Tools for Translators in the 21st Century
by Pablo Muñoz Sánchez
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Translator Profile


A Career in European Translation

by Emma Wagner


hen editors and conference organisers ask me to provide my 'biographical details,' I usually send them something like this:

Emma Wagner (M.A. Cantab., Diploma in Translation and Interpreting (Bath), FITI) worked for the European Commission in Luxembourg for 30 years, as a translator, reviser, head of English translation unit and finally as the head of a department covering all EU official languages. Among various sidelines, she helped to manage the integration of new Finnish and Swedish translators in 1995, and she coordinated the 'Fight the Fog' campaign launched in 1998 to encourage Commission staff to write more clearly.

She is the co-author of:

Translating for the EU institutions by E. Wagner, S. Bech and J. M. Martínez (Publisher: St Jerome)

Can theory help translators? by A. Chesterman and E. Wagner (Publisher: St Jerome)

Clarifying EC Regulations by M. Cutts and E. Wagner (Publisher: Plain Language Commission)

Emma was on the Council of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) for several years and is now ITI's Education Officer. She lives in Brighton, on the south coast of England, with her husband and children.

So I submit only 164 words to account for 35 years in translation—it's not much! The three book titles point to the three interests that have dominated my career, but there are others too: a flirtation with Systran when it first became a 'promising' future prospect, back in the 1970s, and much more recently, my involvement in continuing professional development (CPD) for translators.

It was an honour to be invited to write a profile which could be autobiographical. Never having written such a thing before, I shall indulge in the luxury of musing about my career, hoping to enliven the minimalist 164-word outline.

Early influences

I often think that being puzzled and trying to make sense of the world is at the root of much translation.
The seed for my career in translation was probably sown when I was seven years old and my best friend returned from a trip to France to announce that her name (Anne), meant "donkey" in French (âne). The two of us were extremely puzzled by this. I often think that being puzzled and trying to make sense of the world is at the root of much translation.

Some enlightenment came when we started to learn French at the age of 11, to be followed by Latin at 12 and German at 14. In the 1960s, that was the normal language-learning pattern in British grammar schools. Sadly, foreign languages are now optional in schools and risk becoming obsolete. But enough of that—let's not go there—I don't want my profile to stray into the wastelands of politics.

One major influence in my secondary school was my Latin teacher, a tough Polish refugee who saw no reason why we post-war softies should have an easy life, and drilled us mercilessly in all aspects of Latin, including much on-sight translation of Virgil, Caesar, Cicero et al.

At the opposite extreme was my French teacher, a recent graduate with the new-fangled idea that we should not translate at all, but should learn French properly before we attempted to translate it into English. Accordingly, translation was banned until the fourth year of learning French. She thus demonstrated three important truths:

  • that translation is a complex intellectual activity and not a prop for language learning;
  • that foreign languages are not coded versions of English, to be deciphered with simple keys;
  • that languages exist and flourish independently of each other...

Fortunately my (free) school education laid down excellent foundations in French, German and Latin. At university, I encountered a rather different attitude to language learning. "If you want to speak French well," the University seemed to be saying, "don't come to Cambridge—go to France." Rather bizarrely, the exams to test our spoken language skills were held in the week before the course started. We soon realised why. It was because there was a serious risk that they might deteriorate while we were at Cambridge. Some lecturers made no attempt to speak foreign languages well, and one world-famous expert on Baudelaire even spoke French with a strong Australian accent.

Serious commitment

The paucity of official language teaching at university was remedied, however, by life ... or fate ... or was it the benign influence of St Jerome, patron saint of translators? I made many friends of many nationalities, the best of all being Hans, who is German and is now my husband. My knowledge of German improved greatly, surpassed only by his knowledge of English. It hardly needs saying—but I will say it anyway—that living with a person of another nationality and language gives the best possible insight into another language and culture—as well as a more objective view of one's own culture, seen through someone else's eyes. The next best form of insight is living and working abroad—and we did that too. Later on in our relationship, when we both worked for the European Commission, we lived in another European country, Luxembourg, and all our three children were born there. Life in Luxembourg gave us the valuable experience of being foreigners in yet another culture.

Towards the end of my first degree course, job-hunting became essential. Having grown up in a large family with little money, I was determined to earn a decent salary of my own. Teaching seemed the only option for linguists, but I knew I was too impatient to teach—apart from which, it didn't pay enough to match my ambitions. Further research at the Careers Centre revealed that translation and interpreting for international organisations like the United Nations commanded high salaries, so I applied for the Bath University postgraduate course in translation and interpreting. Little did I realise that I would be one of 120 applicants for 8 places, and that there was an entrance exam. To my surprise I was offered a place on the course, but decided to keep it in reserve in case I didn't get a 'proper job'. I blagged interviews with various big companies that paid good salaries for personnel officers to look after their international staff, and was even offered a job—but before accepting, I asked the grandfatherly interviewer what he would advise—should I accept the job, or do the postgraduate course? I shall be eternally grateful to him for replying: 'You'll be bored with this job in two years—get a postgraduate degree'.

That left the problem of paying for the course. My parents couldn't help, so I financed my studies by working in the summer vacations as a travel courier, taking groups of British tourists to the Austrian Tyrol, Northern Italy and the Black Forest in Germany. It was much more enjoyable than working in a shop or an office, and even quite lucrative once I had picked up the tricks of the trade from the older couriers (the first trick being to ply them with enough alcohol to elicit the secrets of their success).

Back then in 1971, the Bath course was one of only two or three postgraduate courses in translation and interpreting in Britain. Now they are offered by at least 24 universities. It was an excellent preparation for a career and included two one-month placements, at CERN, the nuclear research centre in Geneva, and at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. It was thanks to this grounding and the practical advice of the Bath lecturers and professor that I finally achieved my ambition to work for an international organisation.

Thirty years at the European Commission

Large international organisations attract a great deal of criticism, and the European Commission is no exception. But in my 30 years at the Commission I found that many of the criticisms made by national politicians, the press and the public were misplaced—though others might have been deserved. As a result, the so-called reforms imposed at frequent intervals by new brooms, to correct supposed faults, were often pointless and wasteful. A wise colleague told me early on in my career at the Commission that the great achievement of the European institutions is not what they do, but the fact that they manage to function at all. With staff from so many cultures, speaking so many languages, from countries that were at war with each other only a generation ago—how can that be expected to work? And yet it does, and it is inspiring to be part of it, especially if you are a linguist and your attitude to 'foreigners' is one of interest and appreciation, rather than the superiority and suspicion which seem to underlie much Euroscepticism here in Britain.

When I started work at the European Commission in 1972, the team of English translators in Luxembourg was very small. I was the fourth or fifth to join, and the least experienced too. But they took me in hand. In my third week the boss informed me that he had a Dutch text that needed to be translated and "since you know German, Emma, you might have a bash at Dutch...." (Whatever would my French teacher have said, with her ban on translating languages that you don't really understand?)

The English team in Brussels was much larger, but I had opted to work in Luxembourg because it was closer to Germany, where Hans was re-doing his degree. Those were the days before mutual recognition of European diplomas, so his Cambridge M.A. did not qualify him to undertake a PhD in Germany.

Having 'had a bash' at Dutch—with unfortunate results—I started to learn the language properly. Language training is greatly encouraged for English translators at the Commission, and in the course of my career I took lessons in Dutch, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Finnish. Unfortunately I never went beyond a passive knowledge of those languages—and in some cases not even that.

The great advantage of working as a translator at the Commission is that help is always at hand. You are surrounded by well-educated and intelligent colleagues (the entrance examinations are very selective) and if you are puzzled by an expression in, say, Italian, you can nip down the corridor and find an Italian who will be able to explain. Of course not all translation problems are easily solved, but another advantage of a large organisation is that you can gain access to subject specialists—mining engineers and nuclear physicists, for example. In Luxembourg, where much of our work was technical (coal and steel industry, nuclear energy, public health, environmental issues, etc) this was a great advantage, especially back in those days before on-line databases, e-mail and the Internet.

Computers to the rescue

I have always been interested in computer assistance for translation and found it tiresome to leaf through traditional dictionaries and dusty paper archives. I knew it would be more efficient and less time-consuming if we had electronic archives and automatic dictionaries of some kind—as indeed we now have, of several kinds. In the 1970s I was involved tangentially in the Systran computer translation project at the European Commission. To me, it soon became clear that a system based on grammatical analysis would not work very well. Post-editing was needed to make the raw translations comprehensible—but as an experiment, and to meet the real need for rapid but imperfect translations for certain purposes, we developed procedures for rapid post-editing using the latest word processors (a good ploy to get some new equipment installed in the department). We instructed translators to post-edit the text at a rate of 4 pages an hour. They did. But I think I lost faith in the project when a post-editor pointed out that she could produce imperfect translations at that speed anyway, without the assistance of Systran!

Theory and practice

The Systran computer translation project gave us Commission translators our first encounter with an exotic an elusive breed: the translation theorist. It is no exaggeration to say that the most difficult texts I have ever attempted to translate were produced by academics involved with Systran. Some of us also started to think about translation in more abstract terms and to question whether translation theory could be of any use to translators in their work. This questioning culminated, for me, in the book Can theory help translators?, a dialogue between Andrew Chesterman of Helsinki University, presenting the academic view, and me, speaking on behalf of practitioners. It is an exploration of recent theoretical approaches to translation.

Fighting the Fog

After 20 years as a translator and reviser I moved into a management role, and became aware that a major source of translation difficulty for non-English translators was the quality of the English texts they had to translate. These badly-written texts were also giving our organisation an incompetent and unfriendly image. So together with some colleagues I started the 'Fight the Fog' campaign to encourage clear writing at the Commission. The campaign obviously met a real need and the booklet we wrote (based on several authoritative works, duly acknowledged) is still available on-line. 'Fight the Fog' included lectures by experts, practical seminars for staff, and much else besides. And although some of the material produced by the European Union institutions is still tainted by Euro-jargon, there have also been improvements, particularly in public information material and websites. The Commission now has an in-house editing service and plans to introduce citizen-friendly summaries of legislation.

My career post-Commission

In 2002 my husband Hans moved to a new job at the European Medicines Agency in London, and having worked at the Commission in Luxembourg for 30 years, I decided to take unpaid leave and re-acquaint myself with Britain, my home country. To keep up with translation, I had a go at working freelance, but I am no good at translating alone. A truly professional job requires a team, in my humble opinion. So instead I have served on the Council of our British professional association, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), and I am now working as a part-time member of the ITI staff. As education officer, my role is to encourage continuing professional development and to arrange courses and training events for ITI members. Most UK-based freelancers work in isolation, so these training courses provide a much-needed opportunity for them to meet up with other professional linguists and discuss their experiences and problems.

Recently I have found that I miss actual translation work. Sitting in on all those ITI professional development courses has given me an insight into the British translation scene, opportunities for networking, and tempting glimpses of state-of-the-art translation aids. Translation memory software looks interesting—much better than Systran anyway—so maybe I won't close down the translation part of my brain just yet!