Keeping in touch with your mother tongue while living abroad (here: French)

We all know that great writing skills and a complete mastery of your target language are necessary when you are a translator. But how do you maintain your fluency and keep up with new terminology when you live abroad?

I’ll speak from experience here and share with you a few tips on how I keep contact with my native French while living in Norway. (They work for other languages as well.)


Library services and loans between all national public and university libraries are entirely free in Norway. In the biggest towns, as well as in the capital, they have multilingual departments. I can easily select French books from their website and have them delivered to the library of my choice.

The same goes for DVDs.

Of course, the films you order will be a couple of years old, but you may discover things you have missed, as well as end up watching movies you would not have watched had you been in France.

Sending a request for a recently published book to be bought is entirely possible. I did it for Du temps qu’on existait and had my hands on the book within the month.


For those who prefer the moving picture, know that some TV content is not geoblocked. I can easily watch the news on TF1 with a one-day delay, and access news and TV content from independent small channels. Though I prefer to log in on to Le Monde or other online newspapers to get quick news, I appreciated being able to watch news reports on recent tragic domestic events.

I also watch Youtube or Dailymotion where users have uploaded French soaps (well, I can be a little bit modern), but my favourite website for audiovisual and radiophonic content is without a doubt INA. Some short clips are free and longer content is paying (you can select to download it or have it burned on a DVD). The last film I bought was Les suaires de Véronique, adapted from Michel Tournier, and I’m discovering “Le petit théâtre de Bouvard”.

Netflix also has a few French speaking films and series on rotation. I recently binged-watched Les revenants and saw Intouchables for the first time.


So far, I’ve not really listened to podcasts in French. I know that France culture.

I mostly listen to free audiobooks that I find on Librivox or Littérature audio. All books are in the public domain, so they are quite old, but it is still a wonderful occasion to discover texts or authors. The readers are extremely competent and their plays, particularly, sound everything professional. My favourite so far : On purge bébé! by Georges Feydeau


Get social and find expats groups on the internet. Try Internations, for example,  or the website Meet up, to see if they have members near you.

If you live in a big town, chances are that you will find an Alliance Française or a Cercle français. They’ll have a small library and organise language classes and weekly meetings.

Think about independent cinemas, as some set up foreign movie cycles and festivals or regularly run independent French films, usually on a Sunday afternoon.


I do not tend to read a lot of French blogs or websites (I need a serious update), but I keep contact with the written word thanks to ebooks books and texts that are in the public domain. Littérature audio links to different websites like Project Gutenberg  where virtually thousands of texts are available.

Of course, if, unlike me, you do not spend your life on, you can add your favourite French blogs to your feedly and make sure you get a daily dose of general as well as niche terminology in your mother tongue.

Being a language assistant: why am I writing this e-book?

Writing an e-book on making the most of your year as a language assistant was a project that I started last year. I completed a rough outline, let it simmer for a while, and starting picking it up again at the end of 2014.

I had the occasion of working on it for several hours this week and I am committed to publishing it before the summer.

Why writing a book on being a language assistant, you may ask?

arrow-harrespilFirst of all, I want to share my experience, from a professional, as well as a personal, point of view. In my time, there was really nothing but a two days meeting of all future volunteers and basic networking to prepare me for the great trip abroad. The job also proved to be a challenge, and I had to learn on my feet. Professional conduct, how a school functions, how to teach my native language, classroom management. These are all things I had to deal with nearly on my own, as there was no support for unqualified teaching assistants. There is only so much that didactic books can teach you about rocking your classroom!

arrow-harrespilOf course, there are different assistant- or lectorships that are directed at a large range of age groups. Not every year or programme is the same. Yet, I believe that some tips and basic info would help out fellow assistants during their year, as far as time management is concerned, for example. What to do on arrival, when to evaluate your plans for the next year, should you take classes or CPD to make sure not to miss out on opportunities at the end of your contract?

arrow-harrespilAs a caring person, I am also centered on the human side of it. Culture shock comes in waves and most people do not recognize its diagnostic signs. Whereas some may embrace the newfound freedom of otherness, others could bear the change of climate, food, language and social circle less positively. It is important to learn how to prosper in a foreign environment. Think about how the language barrier would affect you in a workplace in which you need to be assertive, for example. You may even not know a single word of the language of the country you are now living in!

As a side project, I am also considering interviewing former assistants to give out a broader range of experiences on the topic.

I’ll keep you posted on this book project. It’s starting to take shape and it’s really exciting.

Publication #4: Un bon jour pour mourir, by David Danish

Un bon jour pour mourir (A good day to die), authored by Iranian author David Danish, currently residing in the Netherlands, is the first war narrative that I translated.
It is no secret that I would like to make the topic of war narratives, focusing particularly on trauma and PTSD, the subject of my academic research, as well as a translation specialisation of mine. Translating this novel has proved interesting and challenging.

It is Wednesday, and the narrator is dying. His life flashes before his eyes, from the evening he got arrested for seeking the services of a prostitute in a Teheran hotel, to his visit to his grandfather, and his drafting into the war against Irak.
Baber, the young man, is indecisive, never knowing if he should escape or face his destiny, flee to Europe or go to war, and to what purpose or according to which ideology? Through his daily struggles and qualms, Danish describes how life was in the 1980s in the Iran of the Ayatollahs.

As a twist to keep me on my toes, I was not given the entire book in one go, but fed two chapters at a time, and could see the character slowly evolve and get more decisive… until the final goodbye.

Un bon jour pour mourir, par David Danish. Disponible sur Amazon et Smashwords.

Welcome to 2015!

I’ll come clean: 2014 has been a tough year. Trying to juggle a string of health issues that forced me to become a recluse while slowly building up my translation activities has been quite an act, but, like you, I have so much to look forward to in 2015.

In 2014, I have worked on several books and gained returning customers (new projects to come this month), set up this website and a Facebook page, dedicated my Instagram to books and gained a steady flow of followers, and, most importantly, seen my writing and translating skills improve and flow more easily, page after page. I have also joined a MOOC on a topic I would like to specialise in (see here) and read avidly to feed my mind.

On the downside, my health problems have prevented me from really developing this business and, on a personal side, from joining a Master’s programme in comparative literature at the University of Bergen like I had counted on doing. See you next summer, UiB! In the meantime, I have my eye on an online literary translation course that could certainly allow me to hone my skills and, in the long run, open countless doors.

Plans for 2015:
-Get my health back!
-Revamp this website and blog more regularly
-Develop my skills through formal training and CPD
-Work on more books
-Follow Marta Stelmaszak’s January Bootcamp for translators and get on track!

Using slang in literary translations, or telling a story in words that I would never use

My current translation is taking me to extraordinary places… namely the suburbs of Paris in the 1990s, before the infamous riots, right during the rise of rap, hip-hop and black feminism.
A word of explanation: the narrator of the book is a French guy of African origin, who grew up in France before making his way up from the streets and their gangs to the offices of Wall Street. He wrote his book in English and I now have to translate back into our mother tongue the savoury dialogues he exchanged with his gangsta friends or his bandmates.

But, ”our” mother tongue? As I started working, I realised that the voice could be quite playful and familiar and that this manner of speaking should carry into my translation. I went back on some of the text I had already translated and I started using contractions, stock phrases that were a little bit more visual (ok, graphic) as well as some words that only people who have grown up in France in the 1990s (preferably in the projects) use, sometimes on a daily basis… our particular form of slang: the verlan.

Now, the verlan is a special form of slang that basically means ”backwards”’, but à l’envers, ”wardsback”. Femme meuf; choper pécho; cité téci. Get it? You simply have to switch the order of the syllables in order to create a new noun, adjective, verb, or even name. Some letters might be omitted and the spelling can change a little, but that’s basically it and it became the language young people used to communicate and recognize each other.

Wait? Did you notice what I just wrote? ”Language”, not slang. At one point in the book, the narrator admits that when he and his friends (most of whom are of foreign extraction) are in a public place surrounded by white people, they would only talk verlan among themselves, as if to re-emphasize their own differences and their feeling of exclusion. Verlan has also become the official language of rap and hip-hop but is not limited to non-white users. A popular singer like Renaud (and by popular, I mean in touch with the workers and the poorest classes of society) often uses verlan in his songs.

As we discussed with the author using a verlan word in the title of the book, my first reaction was to think that it would seem unnatural to me and that some readers might not really understand it… And then it hit me that the work I had done listening to old rap videos and researching some ”suburb speech” was actually honest and that I could not have translated accurately the struggle of growing up in the suburbs if I had point blank avoided to use verlan. And if the readership the book will attract has gone through the same story as the narrator, then it will not seem like a few words of slang thrown here and there, but like a language as close to their heart as any mother tongue would be.

So, to slang or not to slang? In that particular case, it’s not like I had to translate a story that takes place in the Bronx or in a Londonian suburb, and phrases will have to be transcreated into French or point-blank invented. Those are real words I’ve heard in the street, on the radio, in the bus, and some of them reactivate quite unpleasant memories. The funny thing is that French, my native language, is the only one that I speak without a regional accent and I very seldom use slang or dialect words. But I needed to overcome that affective block and… let it go. I managed to sound like a gangsta hanging out in the streets with his bros, and it was worth the sacrifice.

Deepening my understanding of war narratives

As you have understood by now, I would like, both as a translator and as a researcher, to specialise in the topic of war and trauma narratives. I believe that the implications of this research cross the borders of a variety of fields, mixing psychology, political implications, and philosophical concerns, in an attempt to define the reasons humans have to wield wars, the narratives that justify them, as well as the enduring trauma that results, pervading memories and stories: the broken and wounded narratives of trauma.

My quest is not only a matter of terminology. It’s true that I have tried lately to improve my linguistic abilities in my three languages in order to understand and translate war narratives more efficiently. As a researcher, I realised that I needed to deepen my understanding of the philosophical, ethical, and political concerns that are at play behind armed conflicts.

When I found a course available on Coursera, I did the dance of joy! Tomorrow, I will be joining an online course from the University of Tokyo, entitled “Conditions of War and Peace”. I am eager to learn more about how power relations between countries or ethnic groups can shape the need for war or peace. The practical case studies of recent conflicts are also something I am looking forward to studying.

Some might call it a morbid fascination. My final aim is in fact to understand the nefarious influence of bellicose narratives better to disarm them, and on the other side to deconstruct trauma narratives to be able to cure that pain while preserving the memory.

See you tomorrow on Coursera!

Publication #3: A guide of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam

It was a pleasure to translate into French and expand this guide written by Liesbeth Heenk and Marko Kassenaar over the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The book is part of a series of guides released by Amsterdam Publishers over the most popular museums in the Dutch capital. They have been translated in multiple languages and are both popular and informative.

The first of Anne's diaries
The first of Anne’s diaries

I read Anne’s diary when I was a little girl and it had prompted a life-long interest in the stories of those who had to live in captivity to escape persecutions, as well as in the heroism of their helpers.

Far from being a simple “tour” of the building, this guide doubles as a detailed biography of the two families who shared the Annex, but also explains the historical circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of the diary, as well as its cultural impact. Reading it before visiting the house and its annex will allow the visitor to understand the wider implications of the museum. It could also be read by schoolchildren who would like to learn more about Anne and the general history of the second world war.

Paperback available in French on Amazon by clicking here.

Publication #2: Van Gogh’s letters and his inner struggle

This book, written by art historian Liesbeth Heenk, Van Gogh specialist, is a vision and an interpretation of the artist’s struggle in his life and in his art based on his vast correspondence, notably with his brother (and protector) Theo.

If you have not read Van Gogh’s letters, I advise you to visit that fantastic website, Van Gogh letters, which contains absolutely all his correspondence (back and forth), translated into English when Vincent used French or Dutch.

Those letters function as a background to the numerous struggles encountered by the artist during his life. We discover him solitary as a young man, extaticly devout as an Evangelist while living in England, lost in alcoholism in Paris, flung into folly after a fight with Gauguin.

Far beyond a mere biography or an “art book”, Van Gogh’s Inner Struggle (La lutte intérieure de Van Gogh) is the revelation of the literary potential of a man who has been and still is too often reduced to the symptoms of his madness.

French translation available on Amazon by clicking here.

My first steps in SEO writing

I had been registrered on a famous crowdsourcing website for some time now, and a couple of days ago, I got my first missions: SEO writing and approval of previously written texts. Over the past two days, I have already developed a love-hate relationship with the linguistic challenge that is writing for SEO , and here is why.

Writing for search engines

Yes, I had to write descriptions of the different objects an online shop was selling. Try to write 400 words on, say, umbrellas, having to present their uses, the wonderful colours they come in, the material they are made of, etc. Inspiration comes from other sites selling the same products, or articles and entries on specialised websites or forums. Be careful though: your text will be checked for plagiarism. Hence the importance on learning how to «spin» a text, that is to produce the same meaning by changing the words and the sentence structure. Not all the words, though, as keywords and phrases have to be quoted a certain number of times, in a way that is search engines-friendly, and who cares if those phrases are not even grammatically correct? The goal is to write empty articles which content is optimised to appear as high as possible in the search results for the keywords they showcase. Even if the topic is interesting, producing endless variations on the same void topic is pretty much mind-numbing.

SEO is easy to learn

If a writer is competent in their mother tongue and has been granted with the ability to work fast, then SEO writing is actually a source of easy extra income, depending on the number of missions one receives in a month. The first text you will have to write on an unknown topic is of course the most difficult and time-consuming to deliver, but, the more articles you write, the quicker you will be able to produce the typical SEO text: A title, and three paragraphs headed by an undertitle. Provided you keep every article you write and analyse which sentences work or are catchy while being neutral and selling, you will soon be able to produce «empty language» around the theme and the keywords you are given, and see the euros pile up.

Will I pursue my experience?

Absolutely. I had never thought I would be able to bang out an article so quickly about a topic about which I had no previous knowledge… even less a series of articles. Those missions came at a great point in my timetable, when I have book translation projects for which I will be payed only on delivery. Writing and receiving immediate (and informative) feedback about my work, while seeing the money counter climb and climb is not sufficient to make me forget that I am in a digital sweatshop, but is a profitable way to keep my on my toes when I am not elsewhere engaged. And on the bright side, ask me about why cats need a tree, I can answer AND produce an informative 400 words article on the subject anytime!

Good resolution (and I acted on it): writing an ebook

I had been toying a long time with the idea of writing something about my experience working as a language assistant. The format was not really clear, though. A blog? A guide? A small ebook? A first person narrative?

The more I thought about it, the stronger I felt that my aim should be to keep it professional, in order to help the countless students, volunteers or more experienced educators who would like to join the ranks of «Foreign Language Assistant» succeed in their assistantship and make the most of their year abroad . succeed as a language assistantThe position is usually a one-year-only opportunity and often represents the first steps of a prospective teacher in a real-life classroom; what’s more: in a foreign country with a different set of educational practices and values. I wanted to enlightened the readers about what to expect and give them tips about how best to cope with the challenges of starting a new career in a foreign country. Being an assistant is not a year of being a tourist, but the first step to Continuous Professional Development.

Yesterday evening, I finally put pen to paper and scribbled down in an orderly manner the storm of ideas that were rolling around in my head. The outline of the book is ready and it seems that I would manage to write around 70 or 100 pages on the topic, the goal being to cover everything that can come up before, during and after your assistantship, providing practical professionally orientated information, personal advice as well as support with the aspects that are too often left untouched by training or briefing sessions, such as the psychological effects of culture-shock / reverse culture-shock and second language immersion.

Are you with me in that? It is only a beginning, but I think it’s a first step in the creation of a very useful guide. But now, back to my on-going translation!

Harrespil Language Services – Translation and Copywriting