Breaking the silence with a video

21 Apr

My blog has been dormant for several months. Thankfully this is because business has been busy lately. But I am breaking the silence with a 28 minute video of a recent talk I gave at the Glendon School of Translation Alumni Night. Yes, 28 minutes. About 15 minutes too long perhaps. Lesson number one: editing is as important in speaking as it is in writing. I eschewed a written script in favour of a less formal presentation and I blame the cold I was fighting for my rather lengthy speech.

It’s hard to keep track of time when your head is congested, I discovered. The fact that, at the beginning, I make a joke about having too much to say is more than a little ironic in hindsight.

It’s been almost a year since I formally established my translation business. At first I had reservations about speaking to a room full of seasoned translators and students eager for real-world advice. After all, a business usually takes a full year or more to become truly established. But the seeds I’ve been sowing over the past few months are now sprouting, so I figured I might have a couple of useful things to say. If I had only said a bit less it might have been more effective. 🙂

By the way, I sometimes refer to a slide presentation that the video doesn’t show. But the images were meant to just underline my points, so they’re not essential. Maybe some of what I said rings true or maybe you disagree with my observations. Feel free to let me know.

[Edited to add: the loud explosion at 10:28 is one of the decorative balloons popping – at that point the buffet heaters for the reception had warmed the room by several degrees!]


Halloween Carnage

3 Nov

So how was your All Hallows’ Eve? I went in costume for the first time in years and I had a blast! Every October 31st, Church Street in Toronto becomes Halloween ground zero, with thousands of ghouls, goblins, and sexy zombies rubbing shoulders and latex prosthetics. It’s one of the biggest street parties in the city, and it grows bigger every year. The fact that Halloween fell on a Monday seemed to have no effect on the turnout. I guess this city will take any excuse to party in anonymity!

My husband put the usual effort into his own costume (“hmm…what’s in the closet…?”). And in the end, his “guy wearing a Canadiens jersey and French fur hat” was no match for El Chupacabra!

El Chupacabra has met his matchYou can see the look of terror in his eyes. Really — zoom in, it’s there.

We actually managed to pack a lot into this weekend. In addition to a couple of Halloween outings, we caught Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by Yasmina Reza, currently on at the Théâtre Français de Toronto until November 5. This play won several Tony Awards for its English-language version on Broadway, and the Roman Polanski film is coming out later this year.

Two Parisian couples meet to discuss a recent fight between their sons, and the ensuing arguments (both in the squabbling and the philosophical sense) quickly expose the baser instincts beneath the pairs’ urbane veneer. The TFT production is excellent. Diana Leblanc’s direction is straightforward and effective — the play’s tension simmers deliciously before being brought to a hysterical boil. The actors are all Québécois, but their pitch-perfect Parisian accents had us double-checking their biographies. All four players are up to the not-insignificant physical demands of the show and they deliver superbly crafted performances.

The Théâtre Français offers surtitles for the Francophonially challenged on a few select evenings. I’m used to seeing them at the opera (and as a singer, I know what it’s like to have an audience react to what they read before I get a chance to sing it!). But in opera, where it sometimes takes five minutes to get through three lines of dialogue, surtitles can be fairly unobtrusive. I was wondering what it would be like to experience them in a play context, and a fast-paced French comedy to boot! I needn’t have worried. The small size of the stage (the Berkeley Street’s Upstairs Theatre only seats 167) made it fairly easy to cast my gaze upward every other line. And I was especially impressed with how well the projected text was co-ordinated with the spoken word. As a translator, I couldn’t help but follow along to see how certain expressions were rendered in English (watch for the creative way they deal with an argument involving a “grenade launcher”). During the curtain call, part of me definitely was applauding for the projectionist, who executed this daunting task perfectly. It’s not a job for the faint of heart: imagine losing your place in the middle of a fast-paced war of words!

Only three days left to catch this show (Friday and Saturday’s shows are surtitled). À ne pas manquer!

What makes a typical Franco-Ontarian?

25 Sep


Here we are – Franco-Ontarian Day again! Not that it’s exactly a long tradition — it was only in 2010 that the Ontario Government declared September 25 the day the province celebrates its Francophone community. Nevertheless, Franco pride has been around for a while, and today marks the 36th anniversary that the green and white flag was first raised in 1975.

Technically, I’m not a true Francophone — my mother tongue is English, though French has been kicking around in my head since I was a five-year-old French Immersion brat. But in 2009, Ontario broadened its definition of Francophones:

“Francophones were previously defined as those whose mother tongue is French….

The new Inclusive Definition of Francophone (IDF) is based on three questions in the census concerning mother tongue, the language spoken at home, and knowledge of official languages.”

Happily, it now looks like I actually qualify for my membership card. Ontario boasts over 600,000 Francophones, the largest French-speaking community in Canada outside Quebec. But we’re a pretty diverse group: here in Toronto, almost half of the Francophone population was born outside of Canada.

The Ontario Francophonie is far from homogenous (this might explain the lack of any real French quartier in Canada’s largest city — although the movement to create a one-stop-shopping place for foie gras and Côtes du Rhone is building).

Such diversity creates interesting challenges for translators like myself. Translating requires more than the ability to write well and speak a second language. It also takes a subtle understanding of cultural differences. Language and culture are intrinsically linked, and the way a person strings words together is determined as much by their background as by the structure of their grammar.

It’s true that the French language, especially in its written form, is highly codified. The French Academy’s immortels, with their habits verts and ceremonial swords, maintain a strict, internationally recognized standard of French. But such rules don’t always apply when it comes to advertising copy, personal letters, literature, and other less codified forms of communication.

The fact that language is so mutable is part of what I love about translating. And here in Ontario, the mix of cultures that make up our immigrant Francophone population (African 26.4%, Caribbean 7.1%, European 36.7%, Asian 12.4%, Middle-Eastern 11.1%, Central/South American 4%, and U.S.A. 2.3%) makes for a rich and varied Franco-Ontarian identity. When I sit down to translate a text written by a Haitian-Canadian, or by someone from Congo-Kinshasa, I’m translating not just their French, but their world-view. Being a translator in Toronto means I’m constantly seeing the world through new eyes.

Franco-Ontarian day is more of an international celebration that you might think. So when planning your festivities, remember that Côtes du Rhone also goes pretty well with akkra or tagine.

Stalin and JFK walk into a bar…

22 Sep

A friend of mine recently shared this image on Facebook, and I couldn’t resist reposting. I acknowledge the sexist overtones (‘strippers’ is one of those English words that assumes a female gender unless prefaced by the modifier ‘male’ – like male nurse or male cleaning lady), but it does drive the point home.

I used to be a defender of the Oxford comma, but I eventually gave in to evolving trends. Now, any writer worth his or her salt will reconstruct a sentence rather than use the gauche Oxford comma to eliminate confusing (and amusing) ambiguities.

It could be that with the world economy in the tank, people are looking to reduce their punctuation consumption overall. One example of this is, ironically, the term copy editor. From its elegant two-word form, it gradually evolved through the hyphenated, rushed-looking copy-editor, to the modern, robust and completely self-contained copyeditor.

However, you’ll still find all three versions in use, which is enough to drive any proof reader proof-reader proofreader bananas.

Huffing and puffing

14 Aug

Huffington Post




I’m pleased to announce the debut of a new Huffington Post contributor: my hubby and partner in crime, Alexandre Brassard.

When I started translating his blog a few months ago, it was in the hopes that Alex’s posts would attract a wider (i.e. English) readership. But with The Mark News and now Huffpost picking up his our work, it’s gratifying to see just how wide that readership has become.

Speaking of readers…today I’m hosting the first Toronto chapter meet-up of the Leadnow Social Change Book Club. Our first book is Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, and our participants are a lively and diverse bunch of smarty-pants(es?). I’m looking forward to some spirited discussion, not to mention the snacks my gastronomically-gifted husband has prepared. After all, what’s a social revolution without munchies?

There are similar book clubs popping up across the country – Vancouver and Ottawa have already convened their first meetings, and I believe there are plans for a club in Edmonton. If you’re interested in joining an existing book club or if you’d like to start your own, sign up to the facebook group and say hello!

Steeltown Carmen

6 Aug


Tonight we open Bizet’s Carmen in Hamilton, Ontario, under the baton of Boris Brott and led by an impressive cast of Canadian singers. We’ve had a great time putting this together, guided by Italian director Giandomenico Vaccari (more on that later!).

This is a semi-staged concert version, but while the set is minimal, Carmen’s gypsy spirit is there in spades. The National Academy Orchestra is sounding amazing. Made up of seasoned players and emerging professional musicians, the band has all the finesse of established performers combined with the enthusiasm and energy of young pros. It’s been a real pleasure to work with them. And with the fabulous Arcady Singers giving their all in the famous chorus numbers, the audience is in for a real treat.

The rehearsal process has been short (we only started a week ago!) but it’s been a blast.

First, all of the cast have been great to work with and many are old friends. We’ve worked hard, but we’ve laughed a lot and I think the fun we’re having comes through on stage. Yes, I know Carmen’s a tragedy, but as an old acting teacher of mine once said, even in the throes of angst, you need to be having serious fun up there!

Second, we’re very lucky to have had the chance to work with Signor Vaccari. He’d led or worked at some of the biggest opera houses in Italy, including the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari, the San Carlo in Naples, and the Giuseppe Verdi Theatre in Trieste. We knew going in that we’d have to dust off our conversational Italian, and I’m proud to say we’ve been pretty good at understanding his direction and communicating our questions (Maestro Brott is an able interpreter when push comes to shove!).

But the translator in me was most intrigued by how the mood of rehearsals took on a distinctly Italian flavour right from the start. The energy level was turbo-charged, and Signor Vaccari’s passion for his craft was contagious. It’s always fascinating to see how working in another language shifts the tone. The result is a production with an intense and spirited vibe!

An opera sung in French, set in Spain and directed by an Italian. There’s going to be more passion up on that stage than Hamilton has seen in a loooong time.

In boca al lupo!

Second City, first impressions.

26 Jul

Second City

I just finished a week of improv classes at the Second City training centre here in Toronto. Led by the redoubtable Marjorie Malpass, I and 17 other willing victims laughed our way through an exhilarating 20 hours of theatre games, wordplay and improvised scenes.

I’ve always thought singing and translating have a lot in common. You take something that’s already been created and interpret it for a new audience. You need to pay attention to the style and tone of the original, and you have to keep in mind the needs and expectations of your public. In both disciplines, you become known for a particular specialization, and you build your career around that area of expertise.

When translating, I write my first draft fairly quickly to avoid being bogged down by details that often iron themselves out later. But it takes effort to ignore the voice of doubt that whispers in my ear, the one that makes me question myself and stifles creativity. You know that voice. Everyone has it. It’s annoying, it’s persistent, and it’s responsible for the success of Facebook as the world’s most popular procrastinator time-suck.

But with improv, you get to shut that voice up. Improv forces you to work on skills that are crucial to writers and performers: spontaneity, attentiveness, focus, acceptance, and the willingness to trust your instincts. This week, I learned some tried-and-true techniques that improv performers use every time they’re on stage. Watch for these tactics the next time you see a great comedy — they’re pretty universal. And I think they’re very useful for writers, too.

Mirroring. We’ve all played that “lame mirror game” in drama class. You know, the one where your partner contorts his body into ridiculous poses and you’re forced to mimic him. Well there’s an important point to this very basic exercise. When you’re on stage with someone, the best way to connect with him is simply to pay attention to what he’s doing. When you pick up on your partner’s behaviour, you can either chose to imitate and magnify it (very funny) or go the opposite way and create a foil for whatever character he’s creating in front of your eyes. It’s the simplest improv technique there is, and it’s easy to grasp because we do it In Real Life all the time. When you meet new people, you unconsciously echo their body language to set them (and yourself) at ease in social situations. Don’t believe me? Next time you meet someone new, see how quickly you start using a common body-language lexicon.

Yes, let’s! Improv is all about accepting everything and running with it, no matter how unexpected. If you enter the stage, and your scene partner tells you she’s preparing dinner for your mother-in-law, she’s offering you a location (kitchen) and a relationship (married couple) that you have to agree to. It’s incredible how tempting it is to say no and impose your own clever idea — “what do you mean, my mother-in-law? I’m a police officer and I’m here to arrest you!” This evil twin of acceptance is called blocking. It’s guaranteed to kill the scene and leaves your partner hanging. Shame!

Point of focus. What can you focus on to help advance the narrative? Is it an object? Is it an argument? Is it the alien growing out of your chest? Too many points of focus and the scene can dissolve into a soup of unrelated events and characters. This happens when actors stop paying attention to their partners and instead try to drive the scene all by themselves. Guaranteed awkwardness.

Punning. In one of my favourite exercises, we were made to come up with ridiculous and outrageous (and often eyeball-rolling) plays-on-words. “What kind of music does a cat like?” “Meow-sic.” I hear you groaning already. It may not be worthy of a Stephen Fry twitter post, but the guy who came up with that answer actually got a big laugh because it was so impulsive. You could see the word forming in his mouth even before his brain knew it was being said. No matter how corny, a pun will make us laugh because it forces us to go from A (different people like different music) to C (cats make a meowing sound) while skipping over B (cats don’t listen to music!). In other words, it gives our brain a vacation from linear thinking. This is really refreshing, and takes us to far-off, magical improv lands full of wonder and amazement.

The tilt. Related to the pun, the tilt takes a situation and heightens it with an unexpected twist. “I’m preparing dinner for your mother-in-law” takes on new meaning when you respond that your mother-in-law was a victim of the zombie apocalypse and now only feasts on brains. That’s not a block — you still accept the offer that you have a mother-in-law. But you throw it back in a fun and unexpected way. This is actually a generous gesture that takes the narrative to a great place with lots of potential (your flesh-eating mother-in-law is still likely to criticize your wife’s cooking, after all). Is there a “mother-in-law” waiting to come onstage? You’ve just handed her a winning performance on a silver platter. You will be much loved by audience and performers alike.

So how do these improv techniques relate to translating a 2,000-word press release? Well, writing certainly requires the ability to trust your instincts. When you say yes to a new client, you need to have faith that your skills will carry you through the next assignment. It also takes guts to sit down at a blank screen and just start typing (at least writers don’t have to do it in front of an audience). Acceptance teaches you not to worry if the first thing you put down on the page isn’t Pulitzer-worthy, or even if it makes any sense. Mirroring reminds you to remain faithful to the original author’s message, but to make it your own and to be creative without straying from what’s been offered. Point of focus is also something every writer needs to keep in mind. If you lose track of  your message you can also quickly lose your reader (you’re still here, so I guess I did something right). Finally, improv helps you develop a knack for non-linear thinking, for knowing when to drop in an unexpected tilt that catches your reader off-guard and wins them over with a smile.

That little annoying voice in my ear got a lot quieter this week. It also became easier for me to squelch it whenever it starts whining. When that voice is silent, you’re free to play. That’s when you really start cooking. And this leaves room for those flashes of genius that come when you’re not even looking.

Wow, see how that rhymed? Felt good. And I didn’t even plan it.