Iris Heres is a German native speaker, but has been living and working in Lyon/France for over 25 years, in the past 12 years as a specialized generalist freelance translator. She translates from English, French and Spanish into German, and in certain subject areas, from German and English into French.
Iris is very active on several translator forums. In fact, solving her colleagues’ term queries has become quite a hobby.
In her spare time, she travels between France and the UK to visit her daughter, moderates the Lyon Freecycle Network and takes dance classes in Cuban salsa and West Coast Swing.
J1: What exactly are specialized generalist translators?
I: They are somewhere between generalist translators and specialized translators. They have acquired a certain expertise in several areas, due to their professional experience as a salaried translator in various industries, or from working for the same direct clients for a long time. Ten years ago, I heard a talk about different categories of translators and discovered that I fit the description of a specialized generalist.
J2: How did you end up in that category?
My first translation studies in Germany focused
more on commercial translating and interpreting. However, I had a wonderful
opportunity in 1982 to join the translation department of the German National Central Bureau of Interpol, which is a component of the
Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany. When you work for law enforcement,
you get to translate a great variety of messages and texts, from extradition
requests, scientific articles on drugs, detailed descriptions of firearms,
descriptions of stolen objects such as cars, jewels or artwork, to documents on
terrorist operating modes. Each translator worked from multiple source
languages, as well as into several target languages. This is standard procedure
for German federal agencies.
J3: The work sounds interesting. So why did you leave?
I: While still at my post, I was temporarily assigned to the General Secretariat of Interpol in Paris. I moved to France and ended up marrying a colleague. But because married couples are not allowed to work together at Interpol, I quit and completely changed orientation. At first, I worked for several years for a big German household appliances company near Paris. In 1989, we moved to Lyon where I found a job at the German Consulate General. In 1994, I joined an accounting firm which was looking for a quadrilingual translator.
At the same time, I decided to complete my studies, since my German degree was not fully recognized in France. I ended up graduating with two degrees in modern applied languages, one for translating English and German into French and the second for Spanish into French. I went freelance while continuing translation for the accounting firm.
J4: Why not specialize in one of your subject areas?
I: I am curious about many things and would not
have liked to be confined to a single subject area. Working for translation
agencies also led me to further explore other fields, such as information technology. I had translated
a user manual for an early version of the antivirus software Avast while I was still at the
university. This translation actually served as a basis for different parts of
my studies –a bilingual glossary about computer viruses and my final dissertation.
J5: Do you prefer technical translation?
I: Technical translations can be easier to handle if the texts are well written. Researching technical terms can be more straightforward. But creativity is not often required for a user manual.
The developer of the antivirus software recommended me to a company specializing in intrusion detectors. I’ve been translating in that field for over 10 years now. This experience led to a manufacturer of wind energy converters needing translations of a full range of technical documentation. A large part of their work also consists in negotiating contracts with farmers who sublet their land for wind farm projects, leading to legal documents needing translation.
I have also explored the medical field via proofreading and harmonizing quality of life questionnaires. First the questionnaires are translated in each country, into their respective target languages. Then a gathered team of proofreaders compares the different versions during an all-day linguistic harmonization marathon, ensuring that each sentence will be clear, simple and understandable for patients, whatever their educational level and social background. Discussions take place primarily in English: it’s imperative to speak it fluently. I’ve now been part of the company’s proofreading team for seven years, and also work for them as an external project manager.
J6: What field of translation have you most enjoyed?
I: Enology is a fascinating subject. I translated for an online wine club and learned a lot about wine. Wine tasting notes call for poetic and descriptive language. I translated several hundreds of them – as well as notes about whisky. Later I translated recipes and articles on pairing wine and food for a wine magazine. Winegrowers’ websites sometimes reveal very technical aspects of integrated farming and of machines used for harvesting or wine making.
A short anecdote: I once won a blind tasting
contest. Not because I recognized the wines by flavor alone, but also because
the accompanying wine tasting notes provided clues. My wine-loving friends
couldn’t get over me winning.
J7: What do you like the most about being a generalist translator?
I: I love research, discovering new terminology, and comparing texts in various languages while familiarizing myself with a new field. I have a library that is well endowed with dictionaries and other specialized works in my four working languages.
I also enjoy personal interaction with clients. When I translate software or machine manuals for Lyon-based clients, I usually try to see the products onsite.
J8: Is being a “jack of all trades” not a risk in this profession? There are fields that can only be handled by a specialist.
I: I agree completely. The generalist translators could be compared to generalist doctors; they are often who you consult first. They refer you to a specialist if they can’t solve your problem. We generalist translators do the same thing. I have a network of specialized colleagues who I refer the client to if I feel I’m not sufficiently qualified to handle the translation.
J9: Are there other fields you would like to explore?
I: I’d like to do more literary translation. Apart from a few exhibition catalogues for museums, I have also translated a book about Greenland, thoroughly enjoying exploring a new culture.
For me, a translator's life unfolds a bit like writing a book. Blank pages are filled one by one with the translator’s experiences. I still have many empty pages in my book.