Alex grew up in what she describes as a “world of her own” in Russia and later moved to London, where she still resides. A Russian to English translator, this Face of Gengo is a self-professed diehard introvert but is in her element when learning languages.
What languages do you speak? How do you maintain proficiency?
Russian, English, some Italian, and a sprinkle of French. I also learned a bit of Esperanto, but haven’t practiced it for ages.
Maintaining proficiency is fun. Learning in general is fun provided it is learning and not schooling. I keep notebooks where I write down any noteworthy words and expressions I come across while watching films, news programs or documentaries, reading books or articles and listening to music or radio shows. It’s a matter of paying attention without putting any pressure on yourself. This way you learn things not only in context, but in the kind of context you can relate to, such as interesting song lyrics.
Free audiobooks on YouTube are amazing. I often spend hours drawing or processing photos, and a good classic or a quaint children’s story provides a far better background than white-noise radio chatter. I tend to binge on one thing or another, depending on my mood, including classics, sci-fi, documentaries and radio plays. BBC Radio 4 has some nice adaptations.
These suggestions all work for my native Russian just as much as for English or Italian—there is always room for improvement in any language.
How did you become a translator? Do you translate full-time?
I wanted to be a translator from about the age of five. Thanks to school, some 12 years later, I had no idea which career path to choose. I guess I eventually just listened to myself again, and it all boiled down to the two areas I enjoyed the most: drawing and languages.
However, becoming an artist wasn’t seen in my family as a serious profession, so I moved on with linguistics and translation. I now do both drawing and translation and can’t imagine my life without either. They seem like areas that have little in common and even rely on different parts of the brain, but they are both highly creative activities that involve a lot of problem solving.
What have been your most enjoyable and challenging translation experiences?
I usually find a way to fall in love with every project I work on, and it becomes my biggest challenge, too. Once it’s done, there is a new love and a tougher challenge coming up.
This is especially clear in drawing: I was totally rubbish at perspective a year ago, and then, with some practice and observation—especially from photography—I returned to the same sketch that I once couldn’t do and completed it properly. Maybe a year later it will look rookie to me, too.
What’s your favorite thing about being a translator?
Languages broaden your outlook. Not just in some fluffy way, but in down-to-earth, practical terms. You get better access to films, music, media, and the web in other countries, and you can explore them on your terms rather than rely on what the BBC or Google decides to show you based on your location and system language. You get more freedom when traveling, too.
Also, I love the things that you can learn as a translator just by working on all that motley content!
Describe your office setup or workspace.
As a full-time freelancer, I have been gradually rearranging our place to have my own little corner where I can work. It is far from a proper studio, but it is way better than working in a pre-arranged office. I prefer to work on my own, have a break and go out for a walk or sit in bed for a while to focus and think (or sketch something).
The key idea for me was to arrange my workspace in such a way that work wouldn’t be a struggle. Also, I switched to a standing desk a few months ago and never looked back.
My view is okay, especially in a good summer or on a one-off snowy week in winter. I live in a relatively quiet, out-of-town part of London not yet ruined by tall concrete blocks of shoeboxes (commonly known in the UK as “flats”).
Based on your specific cultural expertise, what are the best books or movies you would recommend to others?
I’d recommend reading classics in general. They are great, whichever country they come from. It’s a shame that people seem to be starting to look down on fiction and feature films, whereas both are really good at teaching you to think and observe. Below are just a few picks:
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: a visionary book that is hugely underrated and even somewhat shunned amid the fuss around George Orwell’s 1984.
- Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury: sometimes too slow, sometimes too sweet, this book gives you a nice perspective on life (and parenting).
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron: this book once helped me resort to creativity while going through difficult times. Artist dates are still an amazing idea.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: work of a creative genius, on multiple levels.
- Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: this film, among other things, shows you how much a creative person can do without cutting-edge CGI.
- Pretty much any non-fiction book written over a century ago: reading old non-fiction, whether it be philosophy, self-help (oh yes, check out Samuel Smiles!) or autobiography, helps you zoom out and understand that generations prior to us did not live on trees. Plato, for example, complained about chefs becoming celebrities. Fancy that!
What is your favorite snack for while you work?
Fresh fruit, dark chocolate (85% and above), various teas and water.
What are your preferred translation tools?
Although translation tools do save a lot of time in some situations, I don’t like how they split the text into small segments and impose a linear workflow. It’s like drawing a picture one square at a time rather than starting with a sketch and adding layers of detail. I sometimes find myself printing out the entire text with massive line spacing and adding tiny pencil notes all over the place.
What’s your favorite productivity tool or service?
I love lists and tangible, beautiful notebooks. I’ve got my old pocket-size DIY Filofax, where I keep categorized lists, and a series of journals with each page split into 10 squares, where I outline five or so main things that I am going to focus on.
SomToDo is quite close to the way I organize my lists. I use it for highly dynamic lists, such as changes to introduce to illustrations and photos to process.
Pocket is another useful app that helps save time by cutting down on distractions; rather than read articles immediately, I save them for later when I want to get some rest from work.
What are your top tips for those translators who are just starting out?
- Remember that you do not translate for your language teacher—you translate for people to use that content in real life, so it has to look as if it were written in the target language in the first place. Think of it as forging an expensive painting: your job is to avoid being caught by the art police. So take a break and then run a Turing test on your translation: would you believe it’s the real thing?
- Watch a few Poirots and Columbos to learn the art of paying attention. Then start collecting words and phrases for your glossary. A loose-leaf journal is a good solution for this. But don’t pressure yourself into learning all that stuff: just keep your eyes open.
- Try not to claim you are a native speaker in your major foreign language unless you are Joseph Conrad.
- Keep educating yourself. Chances are, the school didn’t even teach you to manage your time and money.
- Don’t work for free and learn to say no.
- Get enough sleep.
- A good way to unwind is to go out for a walk or do a workout. I can’t live without regular exercise.
Want to become a Gengo translator?