Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

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Location: The House of Usher, Brazil

I'm a flailing TEFL teacher who entered the profession over a decade ago to kill some time whilst I tried to find out what I really wanted to do. I like trying to write comedy (I once got to the semi-finals of a BBC Talent competition, ironically writing a sitcom based on TEFL), whilst trying to conquer genetically inherited procrastination... I am now based in Brazil, where I live with my wife and two chins.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


Here is my second package of carefully hewed nuggets of potential aid to the budding translator, many of which may fall into the category "bleeding obvious".

I've numbered them 1 to 5 again as I can't seem to make the list start at 6. In fact, I've numbered them 1 to 6, as I remembered another one at the end that I hadn't bargained for:

  1. Don't miss deadlines. This may seem obvious enough to make you wretch, but it is amazing how many translators apparently fail to follow this one simple rule. To help me not to forget files, I immediately save them in a folder named after the month and year, inside of which I have another folder for each client I work for, and then inside those folders I make a folder for each day that I have a file due. I can thereby see at a glance what I have to do, and I also keep an Excel spreadsheet with a list of upcoming jobs. Keep to deadlines if you want them to keep coming back for more.
  2. Learn how to search the Internet efficiently. I'm no master at this, but I have developed a few techniques that allow me to find 90% of what I'm looking for. With the world wide web, gone are the days when only experts in a certain field could successfully translate documents relating to that area. Nowadays, most terminology is available if you look hard enough. Google's translate service is a good starting point. It is useful for finding out the meaning of obscure everyday words, but can be weak for technical terms (I use IATE first for these, as mentioned before). Google is strange, because while it comes up with some very odd answers a lot of the time, it is, I have found, surprisingly good at translating legal language if you put in a full sentence. Another tip is to type "translate: FOREIGN TERM" as a Google search, and this will bring up possible sites where translations may be found. has another excellent service called KudoZ, where desperate translators ask their peers for help with expressions they are baffled by. Using said "translate: FOREIGN TERM" usually brings up these answers near the top of the lists, which is useful. If I'm really stuck with a term, I do a search on the original Portuguese term and see what comes up. Sometimes you'll find a company that sells that thing (and, if you're lucky, has an English version of their site), or even seeing a picture of that object may help you identify what it may be in English. If all else fails, try to translate the term literally into English, type it into Google and see if anything comes up.
  3. Don't be afraid to ask the client for help. When I first started translating, I was terrified of doing this, as I thought the client would regard me as a clueless buffoon for not knowing the meaning of a word. While some still might if you ask them too often, or send them a whole paragraph or a chapter or something, most Project Managers will be only too pleased to give you a hand with truly tricky language. I once had a term in a specification for a Portuguese Navy vessel that even the company requesting the translation had never heard of, so don't be shy.
  4. Be realistic about your workrate. Now I've learned touch typing, the number of words I can manage in a day has risen from around 2,500 - 3,000 per day to 5,500 - 6,000. If in doubt, understate your abilities rather than oversell them. At three a.m. on a Sunday night you may regret having promised to do 8,000 words a day just to secure a job.
  5. Do a bit of social networking. I'm pretty hopeless at this, despite knowing it's probably a very good idea. Sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook have groups for translators, and if you sign up for notifications, you can get to hear about which companies are seeking translators and generally keep up to date with what's going on in the wild world of translayshun.
  6. BONUS ITEM! There is a Yahoo Group called Glosspost, which is a collection of links to bilingual glossaries translators have found on their travels. Worth checking out, and available in many languages.

That's all for now. I hope a few things are useful to someone, but if they aren't, I don't really mind. It's the thought that counts.

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Monday, 21 September 2009


"Wardy," people bleat, "how did you take a step sideways into translation, then?"

In answer to this question, I have put together a hotch potch of ten translation tips, in no particular order of utility, which may help a budding linguist escape the TEFL control room before things start to malfunction and they get their eyebrows singed off in the ensuing catastrophic blast.

I am assuming, of course, that you have sufficient fluency in your foreign language of choice before you begin, that you love writing and that you have no problem in spending time exhausting every avenue towards finding the meaning of obscure terminology.

  1. Join You can become a member of this site for free initially (as I did), but to access the really useful features it pays to take out an annual subscription. A kind of marketplace for freelance translators, you can check out the Blue Board for comments made by fellow translators on potential outsourcers (for example, if they are likely to pay you), as well as asking clients you've worked for to recommend your work. The profile you create also helps you to gain credibility as a professional translator, and I managed to get a 70% reduction in the price of my CAT software (see item 2 below) through participating in a group buy. There are a host of other features, more of which I shall be mentioning hereinafter.
  2. Get some CAT software. I shudder when I remember that, when I first started translating, I used to edit the Word files directly, translating a section then deleting the original text. This has obvious disadvantages, as, in addition to being painfully slow, in deleting the original (source) text, you cannot then easily go back and revise what you've done (something I consider essential, even if not explicitly demanded by the client). Computer-Assisted Translation software essentially divides the source text into segments (normally sentences) and saves each one in a database with the translation you enter. If another identical, or very similar, segment appears later, the program automatically enters your previous translation for you to confirm or edit, saving you precious time. I downloaded a free copy of Wordfast Classic first, but later took the plunge and bought SDL Trados, the most widely used software on the market. It is undoubtedly an expensive bit of kit, but it helps you gain credibility, and widens the range of potential clients, as many only work with files in the SDL Trados format. There are other tools out there, but I am unfamiliar with them.
  3. Learn to touch type. When I was younger, there were two skills I was desperate to master - juggling and touch typing. The first I got under my belt in my early twenties, when my sister kindly bought me some More Balls Than Most juggling balls and I spent that Christmas patiently lobbed them about until I was proficient enough to impress the ladies. The ladies at the Women's Institute, at least. Now I can proudly add touch typing to my list of capabilities, and what a godsend for a translator. It takes training, but the raging neckaches I suffered in the early days from looking screen-keyboard, keyboard-screen like a demented Tommy Cooper are a thing of the past now. This superb free typing site probably saved me from a lengthy course of acupuncture and/or physiotherapy.
  4. If you work in a European language, use and abuse the InterActive Terminology for Europe site, or IATE, always my first port of call for technical terms. This is by far the best resource on the Internet in terms of terminology in my humble opinion. Billed as "the EU inter-institutional terminology database", it contains millions of words you'd probably not find anywhere else with such ease. Quite simply essential.
  5. Start projects as soon as you can after receiving them. Develop your self-discipline. This is true of any freelance job, probably, but it has proved a challenge for me. The worst jobs are those with high wordcounts that come with distant deadlines, as the temptation is always to think, "I have n days to do this, so I'll piss about for a bit and start in a couple of days." Of course, you have been given n days because the client has calculated that you need them, and by starting later you are making accepting more work from other clients that may arrive in the meantime less feasible.

So that's the end of Part One. Part Two to appear shortly.

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Saturday, 19 September 2009


Some months ago, I was hurrying to the high street to make some urgent purchases when I was accosted by a waif in a state of great peturbation. He proceeded to recount to me a tragic tale of how his lorry had been hijacked by armed ruffians while making a delivery to a nearby factory.

"Why, that's abomnable, my man!" I cried, "We must summon the beadle forthwith!"
As I strode out towards the Police Station, a shabby building that periodically bursts into flames as incarcerated delinquents make incendiary protests as to their innocence, I became aware of the poor fellow trotting along beside me, gibbering excitedly.
"I've already informed the Police," he snapped, "and they're useless. It isn't worth even going there again."
"Well, what are we to do then?" I enquired.
"I need to get a bus to Campinas," he said, a city that lies a good two hours away by road. "Do you happen to have any money to help me buy a ticket?"
"Of course!" I cried thrusting a crisp note into his grimy paw.
"God bless you!" he called over his shoulder as he crossed the bridge, going in the opposite direction to where the buses passed, trying not to break into a run. A light feeling consumed my chest in the knowledge that I had, however insignificantly, helped a stranger in need.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the very same individual struggling to find the pavement as he emerged from a bar yesterday as I exercised my hound, his level of intoxication being such that he didn't acknowledge me as the good samaritan that helped him all those months ago. Indeed, I doubt he would have acknowledged his own mother, unless she was behind a bar doling out the pinga.

But it gives me some measure of satisfaction that, clearly moved by my humble act of selflessness, this gent decided to leave the city of Campinas and come and live among us - kindly folk always willing to help a stranger who has entered straits that may be described as dire.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the southern hemisphere's equivalent of Cranford.

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Endless autumn:
Waiting for the
To cease.

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