21 March 2019

Full circle

After completing a BSc in physics and maths in Australia and extended travels in Africa I found a job in Paris that left me with considerable free time. I began to buzz with the thrill of total immersion in French and the speed at which I gained fluency. Months later I began a sort of apprenticeship in the art of technical translation with a chap named Werner Kowarsch. Later still, I set up in Paris as a freelance French-to-English translator.

The BSc quickly proved useful as most translators in Paris in those days had degrees in literature and languages and very little knowledge of matters more scientific or technical.

I met French engineers who had tried unsuccessfully to work with translators from purely literary backgrounds who were no match for their technical documents. They greatly appreciated my understanding of their subject matter and terminology while, unbeknown to them, I was busy working hard on my French, my written English and my technical writing skills.

A chance encounter in the mid-1970s with an engineer who worked at CNES, the still young French space agency, led to a friendship and many years of work. Claude Gourdet had just been appointed to lead Prospace, CNES's first initiative to promote the country's budding space industry, and promotion naturally meant producing documents in English.

This enabled me to move from Paris to a rural setting in south-west France within striking distance of Toulouse – where the Toulouse Space Centre, or CST, was expanding rapidly. I worked from home, received most jobs by overnight mail from Paris or Toulouse and delivered them in the same way. I owed a great deal to Claude and to the efficiency and reliability (How things have changed!) of La Poste, the French postal service.

Among my many contacts at the CST was a Monsieur Saint-Etienne with whom I got on very well indeed. One of M Saint-Etienne's responsibilities was to produce CNES's first bilingual thesaurus on spacecraft. He was also the agency's delegate to the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, where he was involved in drafting standards on space telecommunications with me providing input in English. This was my first experience in formal terminology, and I found it fascinating.

By the early 1980s I was working less for CNES and more for Spot Image, a spin-off set up to develop and launch Spot remote sensing satellites and to promote and market the resulting imagery. From my earliest apprenticeship with Werner Kowarsch I had learned how to make and organise notes on problem terms and equivalents that needed to be recorded (at first using just pencil and paper) to ensure consistency when other jobs came in on similar subjects. By the eighties, I was working on a Macintosh computer and compiling a lot of terminology.

In 1986 I published the first edition of my French-English glossary on Spot, remote sensing and their applications. Between 1986 and 1999 I published ten editions of this glossary with modest sales success, the last one comprising some 8,000 terms. The production process involved printing my Microsoft Word files on A4 paper, then taking this output to a shop to be photocopied and bound. Distribution was by hand delivery or book post.

A handful of Toulouse-based translators became aware of my glossary, including Marie-Jeanne Jarry, a full-time Russian-French translator and interpreter at the CST until 2013) (LinkedIn page). This led to my appointment as an invitation lecturer for a 20-hour terminology module that was part of the first diploma course in technical translation to be offered at a Toulouse university. My title was chargé de cours, module Terminologie, DESS en Techniques de la Traduction. The course was run by the LEA (langues étrangères appliquées) department at Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail. I gave the course from 1994/95 to 2005/06.

Fast-forward to January 2019. I was in Toulouse for the day and decided to call on Ian Margo who had set up and was still associated with Coup de Puce Expansion, aka CPE*, a Toulouse-based language service provider. In the 1990s, Coup de Puce had won a contract to provide translation services to my former client, the CST. (I held a similar contract for French-to-English translation services in the early 1980s.) I mentioned that I am now semi-retired, but sometimes found myself under-employed and was thus looking for translation or terminology work but wanted to avoid working to tight deadlines or with translation memory tools (aka translation environment tools, or TenTs).

I did well to mention this because it turned out that Coup de Puce has a contract with the CST to add content to and resolve non-conformities in a vast terminology database shared by all its language service suppliers. The database uses a web-based application called Aplikaterm developed by Joliciel Informatique. Ian had to consult his team but felt confident that Coup de Puce would be happy to have me work on the database.

What a great arc these decades of work have cast! After a first encounter with formal space industry terminology at the CST in the late 1970s, the publication of a glossary on a satellite-based remote sensing system, and several years teaching a short course on terminology and terminology management, I now find myself working with Coup de Puce on the CST terminology database. I have challenging work ahead of me and feel – I think it's fair to say – that this aspect of my career has come full circle.

* CPE is an a private company (an SARL under French law) comprising ten partners, all professional translators.

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