Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pending translation

This week marks the beginning of the my tenth year working for an American company in France and now, for almost the first time, I'm finding my status as a native English speaker is coming in handy.

The French division of my company was born of a friendly takeover by a large American firm, and for years we've had a "petit village gaulois" à la Asterix kind of vibe.  At work I've spoken in French, argued in French, written many detailed technical documents in French -- albeit with an inimitable style, according to my boss -- and learned quite a few domain-specific business terms exclusively in French.  I've hard-coded my share of cryptic application error messages in French, too.  In email, my French grammar is supposedly better than that of many of my native-born colleagues, a fact of which I'm inordinately proud.

Enter large multinational project.  Designed in the UK.  Developed in India.  Customized and deployed across the globe, in countries as diverse as Brazil and China.  As well as France, my new home.  Clearly there's no cultural complexity here, right?

My colleagues all understand some English and deciphering written text for them is no problem, but when they have to speak or, worse, understand some of the more obscure British accents over a poor conference call line, they're clearly uncomfortable.  Some are frankly lost.  When basic comprehension is so painful, the will to collaborate wanes, and pretty soon everyone on both sides is hiding behind walls of But They Just Don't Understand Over There that are so much easier to construct when there's a language/cultural barrier.  

Plus, I've been told, there are just some, err, issues between the French and the British. Ententes cordiales are not automatic.

So I get pulled in for a small part of this multinational project, and then for a larger piece when they realize that I can cover a lot of ground quickly when I'm serving as a technical and cultural translator.  Aside from the business terms that I only know in French and where I look like an idiot as I scramble for a translation, this is going smoothly.  I love it.  I feel useful.  And though it may simply be an accident of my personal and professional trajectory, for the first time I'm bringing something to the table to no one else can bring.

After pinch-hitting as a translator on a conference call a couple of weeks ago, I came home from work in an unusually good mood.  I picked up Le Petit at After Care and on our walk back tried to share some of my enthusiasm with him.  (I'm always looking for ways to motivate him to speak more English, but thus far nothing works nearly as well as  I launched into a cute "Mommy helped her colleagues and she's really proud" speech which Le Petit interrupted.

"I could do that, too, maman," he announced.

"I bet you could," I concurred proudly, "Because you speak English and French."

"...And if it were me, I'd explain to them the difference between American English and British English, too!"  he went on.

This puzzled me.  "Oh?"

"Yes.  I'd explain that in England they say 'trousers' and in America... in America, they say 'pants'!"

He's mastering cultural differences already, you see.  

I don't know if I'm going to make a big difference on this project ultimately, but there is something at about the whole thing that is exhilarating at the moment.  For the first time, too, I understand why the linguistic stakes here in France are so high, and why Le Petit's nursery school starts English instruction at age four.  Being bilingual isn't simply a skill that's nice to have, it is critical.  This is not only something I never learned in the US, but something it took me almost a decade of living overseas to fully understand.  


Lisa F. said...

That sounds awesome! I love it when seemingly random things from our lives become great gifts. And I just loved hearing how your understanding of cultural/historical/psychological things come into play in this situation. I used to love translating when I took French, & Latin, and (v. briefly) Russian, and always wanted to do French immersion when I was in my teens & twenties.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Lisa F.: "random things from our lives become great gifts." Yeah, that's completely it! The funny thing is, I never studied French before I met my husband. I studied Spanish and Japanese. Growing up in Seattle, they seemed much more likely to be useful. "Comme quoi," as they say.

hush said...

"Being bilingual isn't simply a skill that's nice to have, it is critical."

That's exactly how I feel about making sure my kids here in the rural US are bilingual in English and Spanish. My DH and I work in totally different industries but we both are so glad we can also speak Spanish - gives us a huge competitive and time-saving advantage.

I wish I had never taken French - LOL!

Lisa F. said...

I grew up in Maine, which has a fairly good sized Franco demographic, so French was big, but I didn't take until high school. I started an Intro Spanish class as an adult in the Southeast & the teacher could tell my background from the first class, I could understand a lot, but my pronunciation defaulted to French! Want to get some CDs to listen to & see if I can change it. But I still love French even if it's not practical.