How to refresh your translation career in the fall

How to refresh your translation careerFall always brings memories of “back to school”, or even “back to business”. Summer vacations over, now it’s time to get back to work. Put the pedal to the metal. Get the nose to the grindstone. Refresh your translation career. But how?

There are many language refresher tips and tools for polyglots. If you want a real challenge, I would suggest looking at translation and interpretation careers in the United Nations (UN) system. Beyond the personal satisfaction of contributing to making a better world, a UN translation career is one of the most profitable careers for polyglots.

If you do not want to work for the United Nations, I still recommend taking the UN language competency exam (LCE) just to make yourself more marketable in your translation job.

I recently sat for the first part of the infamous LCE. Surprisingly, taking the exam was not nearly as hard as figuring out how to register for it!

Here are some simple facts to help you through the process. The official United Nations LCE website has all of the information, though ironically not presented clearly.

1. Check your credentials

The six official UN languages are: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. You must have “a perfect command of one of these languages and excellent knowledge of at least one other.” The exception is German, for which the UN has a small unit in NYC. German speakers need only one other official UN language.

To be clear: to sit for most LCE options, you need mother tongue in one of the six, PLUS another two. For example, you are French mother tongue with perfect command of Spanish and excellent knowledge of Russian.

2. Decide on what kind of exam you want to take

There are exams for translation and interpretation. There are also exams custom made for copywriters and editors, as well as other specific skill sets. Make sure to read though the options and select your exam(s) carefully based on your desired translation career.

3. Check the exam schedule

The LCE website updates exam dates, the first part of which are taken on-line.

The website is not updated regularly, nor does it offer a notification service. I suggest checking it every day if you are serious about bringing your translation career up to the next level.

4. Apply to take the exam

Similar to a job application, you must apply to the exam to gain a virtual seat. Do not underestimate how long it will take you to complete this application! Make it stand out!

The LCE website walks you through the steps to set up your online profile and application.

5. Preparing for the exam

If you search the internet hard enough, there are examples of the LCE individual components on-line. The website prepares you only in that it stipulates what kind of texts will be presented. So far in 2017, it has either been “legal” or “economic” texts, all related to international development documents.

While the LCE website says it is not necessary, I would highly recommend studying the UN style guide and manuals beforehand. These are all available on-line.

Like any boost to your translation career, I recommend immersing yourself in the languages you choose.

In this case, not just any media or company will do. Focus on United Nations documents and films and find yourself a language meet-up with humanitarian professionals in it. You will need to be familiar with humanitarian terminology and constructs if you want to make it through!

6. Taking the first part of the exam

Treat the LCE like any major exam or presentation in your life.

I found the exam exhausting and a bit grueling, even if I love translation! You are under time restrictions and of course mental pressure. Lucky for me I was in a time zone only four hours ahead of NYC. You may end up having to take the exam in the wee hours of the night.

Get good rest the night before. Make sure you have access to plenty of water and healthy food to quickly eat on breaks between the exam sections.

Last words of advice: be ready with the email address where you need to immediately report any technical glitches. I was working on a very slow internet speed, I recommend not doing that! All technical information is sent beforehand in terms of what you need.

7. Results

Perhaps needless-to-say, but the United Nations system can be quite slow. Check back on the LCE website for test results, and be prepared to wait. Refreshing your translation career this way will be slow.

I took the exam on 8 April 2017 and as of 26 August 2017, still no results. Meanwhile, other exams have been graded and are onto the second parts. This part of the LCE system remains a mystery.

If I pass, I move onto the second phase of the exam. From what I can gather, that happens in person in a location I do not choose. The only thing I am sure of, you have to pay your own way to get there!

When translation mistakes are funny, and when they are not

translations are sacred

“Translations are sacred”, from the film Okja

Accidental translation mistakes can sometimes be amusing, though much to the chagrin of the translator most likely. Except in the case of Netflix which has allowed intentional subtitle translation mistakes for the sake of a good joke.

The Summer 2017 Netflix hit film Okja has fun with translation mistakes and translation humor.

The film Okja is about a little girl’s love for a pig. Read more deeply, it is about the debate over genetic modification and the meat industry. Childhood love and health both being topics where one wants good translation, right?

“Translations are sacred”

Okja is a film bridging Korean and American cultures and languages – and characters. A translator in the film intentionally botches some live interpretation to mislead his criminal comrades. He later repents by brandishing a tattoo on his arm which reads, “translations are sacred”.

This character’s intentional translation mistakes led to plot hilarity and tongue-in-cheek translation humor. However, it also is a serious reminder of how crucial translation is in the context of our globalized relationships and business affairs.

Translations are funny

The film’s actual translators also made intentional translation mistakes, providing another type of hilarity and humor.

Netflix allowed subtitle translation mistakes in Okja for the sake of a good cultural joke. Of course, only someone fluent in Korean and English would understand.

A character simply says his name in Korean, but the English subtitle reads, “Try learning English. It opens new doors!” It is a Korean cultural joke about the pressures to learn English in Korea.

You may need to see the film and be bilingual in Korean and English to get the joke, but I find it enjoyable enough to know about it and know that Netflix went for this.

Learn more English

Okja’s translation mistakes and translation humor are funny, though they also drive home how important it is in our globalized world to understand one another.

For ordering food or navigating car shares, perhaps using real-time, automatic translation apps from Microsoft, Skype and Google can help bridge the world. (See the other Summer 2017 hit film “Weit” for a scene about this).

But for important issues like genetic modification, meat industry, criminality and love, better use professional translation.

What Makes a Language Sound Beautiful or Ugly?

SAARA what makes a language beautifulWe’ve all heard (or said) it: “Italian sounds so romantic!” – “French is the most beautiful language in the world!” – “German sounds ugly” etc.

Nobody summed it up quite as succinctly as Roman emperor Charles V when he declared: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

Why is it that certain languages sound poetic and melodious while others grate on our nerves?

At The Guardian, Matthew Jenkin explains that sociolinguistics has so far not been able to find any intrinsic reason that certain languages should be objectively “more beautiful” than others. Instead, a language’s attractiveness seems to depend entirely on our own background.

Reasons why we find a language attractive

The attractiveness of a language depends on the perceived value of speaking it. For example, Chinese is increasingly considered valuable because of that country’s economic rise.

Our subjective impressions of a place also influence what we think of the language spoken there. Hearing Italian puts many of us in the mind of the canals of Venice or sunsets in Tuscany. Hence, Italian will automatically seem more “beautiful” to us.

That is easy with a popular destination in the world. But what about far-off places? Can TV and film transport us to other lands and make us fall in love with a language?

For example, what does the world think about Korean? Maybe the Olympic Winter Games 2018 being held in PyeongChang will influence our impression of the language. Maybe a certain Korean athlete will win the world’s hearts and soften us to the language’s sound.

Mother tongue determines love of certain languages

The closeness of a language’s sounds to one’s own mother tongue also influences our impression of it. For example, tonal distinctions used in Thai and Mandarin will sound unnatural and harsh to a native English speaker.

“There hasn’t been any research that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community,” Dr. Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex says in the Guardian. In other words: it’s all subjective.

And if you want an idea what your language sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it, listen to this amazing video of a woman imitating a dozen languages without actually saying anything

Want to Start Learning a New Language? These are the Resources You’ll Really Need

Want to Start Learning a New Language These are the Resources You Need

One of the most common questions I’m asked as a translator is: “how do I start learning a language?” I completely understand why people often do not know where to begin — as there are tons of language learning resources out there that promote their products and learning systems as the quickest and/or most accurate way to becoming fluent in a language.

Don’t tell me you’ve never seen them… “Become fluent in Spanish in just one month!” “Have your first fluent conversation in just 48 hours!” These money traps exist everywhere, and they should certainly be avoided.

My advice? Arm yourself with immersive resources. Setting your mind to learning a language is something that takes commitment and dedication. It is not enough to set aside thirty minutes a day if you want true fluency.

The language learnings resources I mention below are non-specific. Why? There are a number of reasons, including the fact that different resources exist for different languages, and that we all have different learning styles. Below are simply my suggestions for various resources that will help you learn a language by immersing yourself in it, whether learning for international work, travel, sports or other hobbies.


If your first instinct is to run to Amazon and find “[Language] for Dummies,” that’s okay. Textbooks and other written resources for language learning are excellent entry points for learning a language. Understand that these books are often not comprehensive — the reason that many language textbooks are specifically for classroom use is that the classroom time contributes to language fluency.

The main focus for in-home use should be gaining comfort with a language. These resources will help you acclimate yourself to the rules of a language and give you a guide to language learning flow, i.e. where to start, grammar structure, basic lessons.


Apps are a great idea if you want to learn languages quickly. That’s not to say an app can speed up the fluency process, but language learning apps like Duolingo can help you to familiarize yourself with common phrases rapidly. This helps to establish base words within your memory bank.

If you want to learn a language with a different character system (like Korean, for instance), memorizing the new alphabet involved can be an arduous task, but lessened by the use of apps. Apps can go wherever you go, making memorization much easier and also entertaining. Have a long wait in the doctor’s office? Pull out your app and get learning!


Apps for language learning try to be the digital version of old-school, paper flashcards, but they cannot replace them. Flashcards should definitely have a place in your language learning resource arsenal. Unlike apps that involve tapping and swiping, flashcards offer a more tactile form of learning that also includes a visual aide.

Flashcards are great for casual learning. Keep a stack next to your bed and study them a few times before you fall asleep. Also, it’s a common mistake to only use flashcards for vocabulary words. But flashcards are also great for memorizing grammar, sentence structure rules and other more conceptual ideas about a language.


Last, but certainly not least, media is one of the most important resources you can utilize when it comes to language immersion and language learning. Sites like Netflix have a wide array of television and movie options from different countries. Find a selection that contains the language you want to learn and start watching!

Pronunciation, repeated words, phrase structures — this is important when it comes to adapting your brain to a language. When you immerse yourself in a language’s media, you’re more likely to achieve and retain fluency.