Translators in the City: Part 4 – Brussels


Translators in the City (#xl8city) is a series of articles that looks at why translators choose to work in a certain city. Since freelancers can essentially set up anywhere in the world, the series seeks to find out what individual cities can offer linguists, and features testimonies from a handful of translators about how their city can motivate and inspire them in their work.

This article is all about Brussels, the capital of Belgium and indeed Europe. Historically Dutch-speaking, the city today mostly speaks French and is the seat of the European Commission, making Brussels a natural commune for linguists. But what does the city offer translators other than waffles, chocolate and beer?

Emeline Jamoul (@EmelineJamoul) is an English and Spanish into French translator, specialising in marketing, business, IT and medical, and is also familiar with Dutch and Arabic. Emeline has run In Touch Translations since 2013 and in the same year organised an International Translation Day 2013 project to raise awareness about the state of translation and to increase the pride of fellow translators in what they do.

Raphaël Toussaint (@Muelleflupp) works as a Linguistic Services Supervisor for an international communications company in Brussels. Starting out as a translator and language analyst, his role now includes organising linguistic support services, supervising a team of linguists, and managing translation memories and termbases. A native speaker of German, Raphaël’s other languages are French, English, Dutch, Luxembourgish and Bulgarian.

First of all, let’s get to know our contributors a bit better and meet the kind of people that Brussels has cast its spell over.

Emeline has been living in Brussels for three years, but has been a freelance translator for six months. Born and raised in a small village in the Province of Liège, in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, Emeline says she has always had itchy feet. “While I have very fond memories of my childhood, I’ve always considered myself as a citizen of the world, which was a state of mind that was very different from the local mentality. I wanted to see more of what this world had to offer, to discover new horizons. I knew right from the start that I would leave at some point. When I entered the third year of my Bachelor, there was no question in my mind: my Erasmus trip to Leicester, in the United Kingdom, would mark the beginning of my journey.”

Raphaël, on the other hand, has been living in Brussels for eight years, but he is also from a small village in Belgium, albeit in the German speaking part. “I went to university in Louvain-la-Neuve which then had less than 10,000 inhabitants and some 30,000 students. Brussels was only 30 km away but I never really got to know the city, it was all a bit overwhelming at the time. After graduating in German and English philology, I worked for a few months as an in-house translator in a small translation agency back home before my career path led me into tourism. As representative of a Luxembourgish tour operator, my work brought me to Tunisia, Corfu (Greece), Egypt and Bulgaria.”

Now, even those who don’t know Brussels very well can tell that the city’s a hotspot for languages. For starters, it’s the capital of a country with three official languages. It can’t just be the linguistic community that attracts translators to Brussels, so how did it draw Emeline and Raphaël to it?

For Raphaël, it was love that brought him to Brussels. “My then-girlfriend and now-wife and I decided the job market was more promising in Belgium or Luxembourg than it was in Bulgaria (where she is from). After several months of job hunting, a New Year’s Eve celebration with some friends from university led to a job offer for the position of a technical translator at an international translation and communication agency.”

It must have been quite a shock for Raphaël, having grown up in small village and worked largely in holiday resorts. So how easy is it to assimilate in Brussels? “Although I had never before lived in a bigger city, adaptation was easy enough and I quickly discovered that I actually enjoy urban life a lot. Something I really like is the fact that my work’s offices are on the outskirts of Brussels and partially surrounded by fields (although some people might even argue that Zaventem is not actually part of Brussels, but that’s surreal Belgium with its linguistic fights for you). This means that I can drive against the commuter traffic in the morning heading out and the same in the evening when getting back home. Additionally, when grabbing a sandwich at midday, you can go for a nice walk.”

As it goes, love played a factor in bringing Emeline to Bruxelles.Originally, what motivated me to leave la cité ardente (as my hometown, Liège, is sometimes called) was joining my husband (who is Brussels born and bred) and starting an MA at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Besides the two decisive aspects explained above, Brussels is a city that is so much more vibrant, dynamic and open-minded in terms of multiculturalism (which is something that is very important to me) than the city I originally come from. It offers many opportunities for those who are willing to take them and allows you to meet people coming from all horizons due to its massive migrant population.”

Now that they have their feet firmly planted in the hoofdstad, what do Emeline and Raphaël love best about living and working in Brussels?

“I’m lucky enough to live in a great part of Brussels – Forest,” says Emeline. “Its numerous parks make for refreshing strolls, it is minutes away from the centre or from Flanders and some more rural and isolated areas. But it is still urban enough to remind me that I live in a big city.”

Do Emeline’s urban surroundings have any effect on her work as a translator? “I love working in this urban environment because the fast-paced atmosphere of a capital city suits my state of mind. You always feel like something exciting is happening, and in fact, it’s true! There are many opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs to network (seminars, conferences, co-working spaces, etc.) and many cultural events are hosted each week.”

And Raphaël – what does he think the best part about the city is? “The buzz, the come and go makes me feel alive in a way that is good for work, like my native rolling hills and green forests make me feel alive when breezing and relaxing. Brussels is the “Capital of Europe” and at the same time a village. It keeps this cosy town feeling while actually being a cosmopolitan city, even if it isn’t on the same level as London, Paris or Rome.”

Indeed, Brussels isn’t as large as you might think. The population of the Brussels Capital Region is just over a million people, eight times smaller than London. Does this make it anymore less diverse? No, says Raphaël. “Not only is it the capital of a country which has three *official* languages and quite some language related quarrels, it is also a place where you more often than not hear people in the street in another that one of these three official languages (and I’m being quite generous here because when you hear somebody speaking German in Brussels, chances are slim it is one of the +/- 75,000 rare specimen of German speaking Belgians). It is really easy to run into people speaking all imaginable languages and start a discussion – great opportunities to train one’s language skills.

So the city is a hotbed for linguists. Being the seat of the European Commission and home to the EU’s Directorate General for Translation, surely it’s a treasure chest for translators in particular.

Unfortunately not, according to Emeline. “I find that the translation industry is not very well represented here, and in Belgium in general. This is unfortunate because after all, Brussels IS the heart of Europe and is thus a hub for European organisations employing many translators. That’s why I try to make things change from my tiny perspective and position, along with colleague, Sara Colombo. We are hosting TweetUps (@BxlTweetUp) in the city each month, which allow often isolated translators to meet, have a cup of coffee or tea, share stories and experiences and have a good laugh. It’s a wonderful occasion to network within your industry and to see actual faces for a change!”

But the Brussels TweetUp is now being taken to the next level, as Emeline explains. “We are also hosting the BxlTweetUpLab, a one-day event with presentations and a networking session. We realised the gap between studies and the profession was huge and that sadly, things are not really improving – students and new translators don’t seem to be aware of the power of social media for small business owners, for example. This example can be seen as a detail, of course, but combined with other decisive aspects, they can be quite game-changing.”

And what’s on the agenda for the BxlTweetUpLab? “Sara will be speaking about blogging and social media, Raphaël will share some technology tips that will improve productivity and I will talk about the importance of networking. The topics are very diverse and might be considered as underestimated topics of discussion – but we hope that everyone will find what they’re looking for and that they will discover new areas of interest. This event is designed to be highly interactive, meaning that we also want the attendees to take part in the presentations, sharing their experience and opinion with us and other participants. We want it to be personal and to be about them, not us.”

So Emeline, Sara and Raphaël are pulling out all stops to turn things around for translators in Belgium. Nevertheless, Raphaël still laments the lack of international industry presence in Brussels. “As far as events related to the translation and localisation business are concerned, there aren’t too many (if any) international events in Brussels I am aware of, but there is a lot of promising research happening on university level around machine translation for instance (TExSIS from Ghent University and SCATE from Leuven University and so on).”

Thinking of where Belgium is located, you have several neighbours where many different languages are spoken. Should this not put Brussels at an advantage? “It is quite useful to be in the centre of Europe, where Germany, France, Luxembourg, the UK or the Netherlands aren’t a lot further than a one hour drive away,” Raphaël continues. “It brings events like Localization World or Tekom almost to your doorstep. Another inspiring fact is that the world’s biggest translation service, the DGT (Directorate General for Translation) of the European Commission is located in Brussels. Members of the different European institutions are constantly on the move to share their knowledge and experience concerning the trade that matters so much to us. What better place could there be than next to the source?”

Brussels may not be the hub of freelance translation that I expected. But it must be doing something right to keep Emeline and Raphaël there. So, why wouldn’t our contributors give up the city for anywhere else?

“Because it has the most beautiful town square in the world,” says Raphaël. “Because its natives are constantly squabbling about language issues, but in the streets you will hear any imaginable language spoken. Because being bi- or multilingual is considered normal. Because one of its attractions is a little peeing boy. Because it is home of the bar with the most beers in the world (Delirium Café, over 2000 different beers) and I like beer. And because it is where I live with my lovely wife and my beautiful daughter, so it’s just perfect.”

And what about you, Emeline?

I would say that Brussels is the perfect city for people who like being active and who like living in a multicultural environment (which I’m sure, as translators, we all love, don’t we?).

Next week, Translator in the City will be heading almost 6,000 miles west, across the Atlantic, and over much of North America, to San Diego, featuring Maryam Abdi (@Maryam_Abdi) and Rafa Lombardino (@eWordNews).