How Passion and Perspective Bring Language to Life

An interview with Oana, a freelance translator who lives in a small town near Toulouse, France.


Editor's Note: As part of Smartling's Move the World with Words campaign, we're traveling across the globe to create a photo series about ten of our freelance translators. We want to give you a glimpse into their daily lives, and share their thoughts on language and communication in the digital age. We've teamed up with photographer/writer Elisabeth Brentano to capture these brilliant translators in their element, and our second profile is on Oana, who lives in a small town near Toulouse, France.


After soaking up the first few days of spring in northern Spain, I land in southern France to interview yet another translator who has chosen to live off the grid. Exactly two seconds after sticking the key in the ignition of my rental car, I notice the gear shift and roll my eyes. France is probably not the place to learn how to operate a manual transmission, so I sheepishly head back to the counter and request an automatic vehicle. Once I'm swapped into something I can drive, I sync up the directions and my playlist and hit the road. I'm amazed at how easy this trip had been thus far, and it's all thanks to technology. If I didn't have a Smartphone, would I feel comfortable meeting seven strangers in six countries in three and a half weeks? I’ve amassed plenty of passport stamps in the last decade, but a trip like this would be incredibly intimidating without the assistance of online maps and translation apps.


Save for one email and a few WhatsApp messages suggesting that we go on a short hike, I know absolutely nothing about Oana. We meet at her place so we can carpool to the trailhead, and I get a quick tour of her modest country home. Oana has a small pond next to the driveway, and when I step onto her deck, she apologizes profusely, as some of the panels are being replaced. However, I am not paying attention to the boards under my feet, because in the distance is a wall of snow-capped peaks. "We're going to head that way later," Oana says when she notices me staring at the Pyrenees. But first, tea. As we get to know each other, I realize Oana is a lot like me. She is strong and independent, but she has a sensitive side. She loves to travel, and she is extremely driven. She speaks Romanian, French and English, and she's currently learning Spanish. "The more I discover Spain, the more I love it," she says, and she lights up when I show her a few of my images from Asturias. Seeing as she is just a few hours from the border and loves road trips, it makes perfect sense.


I ask how she's learning Spanish, expecting her to mention some sort of online course. "Instead of learning from books and being more or less fluent when I set foot there, I'm doing it the other way round," she tells me. "No rush, no pressure, but immersion. I won't completely resist staying away from textbooks, but I'm planning on spending more time in Spain in the very near future, and I love the experience of learning the language while living among the locals." It becomes clear that she feels the same intense passion for language that I do for nature photography, and she's also helping me see the artistic element involved in translation. Oana is from Romania, and her parents encouraged her to start taking French when she was just six years old. She started learning English when she was 11, and by the age of 13, she knew she wanted to be a translator. She's been doing this professionally for 20 years, and she has an impressive rolodex of clients.


We hop in her car and soon after leaving her small town, we're on a one-lane road in an even smaller town. The peaks of the Pyrenees are getting bigger, and the sun is starting to cast a golden glow on everything from the trees to the cracked asphalt. "One of the best things about languages and translation is seeing, perceiving and understanding the world through other nations’ eyes," she explains while expertly navigating the curves of the road. "Translating means making communication easier for everyone. Cultivating beauty and clarity, and bringing people together while praising diversity." Then she drops this line from Günter Grass: "Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes." As I recite it back to her, everything starts to make sense. "Some people describe translation as the image you get when you put your source text in front of a mirror," Oana adds. "I sometimes like to picture it as the echo of your voice in a beautiful valley in the mountains."


Just 50 minutes after leaving her home, we arrive at a small lake in the mountains. The snowmelt has created dozens of waterfalls, and the sun glimmers on the water. Ahh, the perks of working remotely and setting your own schedule. Oana says much of her travel inspiration comes from her job, as she translates for Smartling’s hospitality and travel customers. "My last trip was to Andalusia [Spain], and it had been on my list for a while, but it was actually a European rail company project I was working on that made me decide to book that trip. When you spend days finding the perfect words for enticing descriptions of towns, landscapes and activities, you've already traveled in a way, and it makes you want to do it for real. I think translation, just like any other form of traveling, opens new perspectives, pushes the horizon further and further away, giving you more freedom." As far as the Smartling platform itself, it's reliable, intuitive and it saves her a lot of time. "The more perspective you get, the better," Oana adds, referencing the visual context feature. "Let's put it like this: in real life, when someone asks, 'How do you say this word in French?' I often ask for context or an example of the word in a sentence. When I see a puzzled look on their face, I explain that you can translate that one word with two or three or even five different words, depending on what you're referring to. And the same is the case when I'm translating text on a computer."


When I ask for her thoughts on automated translation, she says there are pros and cons. "Some of the automated systems are fast learners, but how creative can you be without any feelings?" Technology makes much of her daily work possible, but it's her attention to detail and talent for the art of language that makes her an expert at her craft. And of course, she is extraordinarily gifted. "Translating is not about replacing one word with another," she continues. "Translators are not dictionaries, and speaking two or more languages fluently does not necessarily qualify you for translation. It's a lot of hard work, skills, some talent and most certainly passion." Oana sometimes does pro bono work for nonprofit organizations, and she also takes on translation projects just for fun. When she gets a break in her schedule, she'll be translating the Nine Inch Nails classic, "Big Man with a Big Gun," for her friend, who is a member of the Romanian rock band, Partizan.


We head to a local eatery for dinner and chat about everything from relationships to parting with our beloved pets. I find it very easy to communicate with Oana, and I feel like I've known her for years. I return around 7am the following morning to snap a few photos her workspace -- and check out the morning light on the mountains. Unlike Oana, I do not enjoy getting out of bed at the crack of dawn, but thankfully, we share a mutual love for coffee. Oana loves how close she is to the Pyrenees, and even if she's not on the trail, she's still finding a way to appreciate them. "I turn on my laptop, make coffee, start the fireplace and I do my best not to miss the sunrise," she says of her routine when she's at home. "I watch the light move across the mountains and listen to the birds sing, and I feel nature slowly waking up. And that, together with coffee, gives me the energy I need for the day."


After another cup of coffee, I get ready to take off for Clermont l'Herault, where I'll be interviewing the next translator. Before I leave, it occurs to me that I need to get gas, and I didn't check with the rental agency to see what type of fuel my car takes. A friend once told me a horror story about how she accidentally put unleaded in a diesel vehicle in Italy, and I'm a little bit concerned I might make the same mistake. There is supposed to be a check mark next to either the "diesel" or the "gas" box on my rental agreement, but both are blank. Interestingly enough, my car's manual is in French, and French only. Oana skims through the pages for me, but she can't find a note about fuel. We then check the gas cap, which has tiny print about "sans plomb" with a few numbers and letters. "Aha!" Oana tells me that means unleaded E10 gas, and that diesel is "gazoil," as to avoid any confusion at the pump.

As I turn onto the main drag and head out of Oana's charming little town, I have a huge smile on my face. And it's not just because of my caffeine high or the dew drops sparkling on the grass. It's because I can’t stop thinking about everything she has shared with me in the last 24 hours. Even if people don't speak another language fluently, they can certainly relate to using passion, expressions and context to communicate and connect. Technology makes it possible for us to explore new territory with the same confidence we might have once reserved just for familiar spots, but we have to remember the hands, brains and hearts behind it all.


Move the World with Words™

Smartling is traveling across the globe to create a photo series about ten of our freelance translators. We want to give you a glimpse into their daily lives, and share their thoughts on language and communication in the digital age. We've teamed up with photographer/writer Elisabeth Brentano (@Elisabethontheroad) to capture these brilliant translators in their element and shine a spotlight on the diverse translator community so many of us rely on.

Follow our journey on Instagram @SmartlingInc and share with us how you #MovetheWorldwithWords.