While some translators had jet-setting parents who carted their kids with them across the globe, complete with international schooling, and others grew up amid several languages, surrounded by grandmothers or uncles muttering away in exotic tongues, Élisabeth Fuchs begins her interview by saying “My background’s not very interesting.” Ah, but appearances deceive. It may be true that she has lived her entire life in a 200-km radius, and that the most adventurous move was from Lorraine, in the northeast of France, to Alsace in the…er…northeast of France, when she was still a young child. But when you zoom in and look at the detail, every human story, every background, has its fascination, and Élisabeth’s is no exception.
As a young child, she was both intrigued and frustrated by her mother’s use of “Platt”, the local dialect (heavily influenced by German), of which she understood not a word. And yet nevertheless the instinct for language was there even at an early age, and she launched into creating her own whenever she played with her sisters, babbling away quite merrily in this invented tongue.
The move from Lorraine to neighbouring Alsace came when Élisabeth was 6. At the time, the region was running a pioneering programme of early language learning during the last two years of primary school, with a focus on the language of the nearest neighbour – a project that has since spread throughout the country. Clearly that meant German in this case, but as most of the local kids spoke Alsatian already (another close relative of German), they had a head start. Élisabeth learned virtually nothing and was put off German for many years to come. On the other hand, when she first came across English at secondary school, it was love at first sight… or rather sound.
The German lessons continued in the meantime, but the teachers were terrible, and she had to depend on a good friend to help her study for the baccalaureate. However, being top of the class in English provided at least some compensation. What’s more, her first two trips to England were magical – she remembers every detail, from the red buses to the fish’n’chips to the terrifying torture chamber at the famous Mme Tussauds waxwork museum.
Élisabeth chose to study English and German at university, raising her German to a higher standard in the process, although it was still a long way off her level of proficiency in English. Her dream was to become an interpreter, but like so many aspiring candidates around the world, she received some rather pessimistic advice that somewhat dashed her hopes – German and English were oversubscribed, she was told. Work was almost impossible to find, and anyway you had to be in Paris.
So Élisabeth did what many others had done before her and sought refuge in an alternative career. She studied speech therapy for four years and then worked in that field for a further eight, both in private practices and in special schools for children and teenagers with learning difficulties, as well as autism, Down Syndrome and so on. That, plus the arrival of her own children, led to a lull in her linguistic activities, apart from dipping into English-language magazines on mothering from time to time. But there was little that could be done to change the situation. Or so it seemed…
It was around this time that she took up quilting, which has turned into a life-long passion. She joined Yahoo groups on the subject and subscribed to a British quilting magazine, and suddenly the English language began to play a significant role for her once again. She even started writing for the magazine, and with one connection leading to another, she began translating into English for a French magazine on the same subject, with a British proofreader. Élisabeth’s aim was merely to make the project instructions and articles understandable, and she relied on her reviser to make them sound English – a winning combination.
That period lasted another 8 years, in which she worked from home and got paid for what she did. But she was unaware of CAT tools at the time, and anyone familiar with quilting patterns knows there’s a huge amount of repetition. Boredom began to set in after a few years, and once again Élisabeth began to look around for other sources of intellectual and professional stimulation. She toyed with the idea of interior design, but then wisely opted for a Master’s in audio-visual (AV) translation. The application process involved submitting a large file of past translations, particularly as she wanted to leap straight into the second year, to avoid spending too much time without generating any income.
During the course she discovered a love of medical AV material which would come to form a major part of her future career, especially when an internship offer came from the History department of the Medical Faculty at Strasbourg University. The department has a quite unique collection of old medical films, documentaries and TV programmes stretching back to the silent movie period in the late 19th century. The science is often way off beam from today’s perspective, but that in itself makes the films historically fascinating.
However, the internship came to an end and – as is the way with university budgets – there was no money available to provide an actual job. Undeterred, Élisabeth kept in touch with the department, often popping in on study days, while continuing to work on her quilting translations, which seemed joyfully easy after the difficulty of the AV translations, and other freelance projects.
Less than a year after the Master’s finished, the close contact paid off. The department called Élisabeth and said they now had money, so would she like to work for them? It started out as one day a week, growing at one point to 30 hours a week and it’s currently 20. The downside is that this leaves little time for developing her freelance client base. But on the other hand, she loves her work and gets on very well with all the team around her.
Her multi-tasking role involves working with interns, including those from other universities drawn to the department and the chance of being mentored by Élisabeth herself, whose reputation is growing. What’s more, her German is now far more proficient, and she’s taken on several lengthy reports – recently written but covering the Second World War – working to tight deadlines.
But the work doesn’t stop at the borders of her own two foreign languages either. Collaborations with bright colleagues from around the world have enabled her to oversee translations of medical footage from Italian, Spanish and Russian, and one of her high points to date has been managing a project to translate a 1926 film on syphilis… from the original Icelandic!
Ever curious and driven by questions, Élisabeth seeks out novelty – qualities to which she ascribes her success in her current role. That plus a love of sharing with people – not only the interns under her wing but the ProZ.com Facebook group, where she wrote an excellent series on audio-visual translation packed with useful information. Still a regular contributor, she enjoys the diversity, and would love to hear more stories of specific projects all around the world. Her own personal philosophy is to try to post positively, to avoid ranting when feeling down, and take refuge simply in patient silence when things don’t work out as planned.
And to think none of this would have happened if Élisabeth had followed one of her dreams, to become an opera singer! One thing is certain: the world of opera’s loss has been our gain…
To contact Élisabeth, go to: