Translators in the City: Part 6 – Barcelona


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.

In this final post of Translators in the City, what could be a better city to round off the series than Barcelona? It’s cool yet eccentric, and stylish yet down-to-earth. And with 1.5 million people, Barcelona is a sizeable city. In London and Paris, you feel as if you’re living in a city within a city. But in Barcelona, you feel as if you’re living in a village within a city.

Maia Figueroa (@maia_figueroa) has been translating books and novels, amongst other things, since 2008 after a variety of jobs in education and the chemical and tourism industries. Maia has a BA (Hons) in Media and MAs both in Scriptwriting and Translation. She jointly runs eCPD Webinars, a company that provides flexible training for professional translators.

Simon Berrill (SJB Translations) has been translating since 2001, working from Spanish, Catalan and French into English. Born and brought up in the UK, Simon studied history at Bristol University and then worked as a journalist on English regional newspapers for almost 15 years before moving to Badalona, near Barcelona, where he has lived ever since.

Judit Izcara (@dramaconpatas) is new to the translation world and is even still studying. A native speaker of Spanish and Catalan, Judit is fluent in English and German, and also works with French and Italian. Earlier this year, she began learning Finnish.

In this post, Translators in the City is lucky to have a contributor born in Barcelona, another who moved to the city and now calls it home, and another somewhere in between. Let’s learn more about what made our hosts move to Barcelona or why they stayed.

Judit, a native of Barcelona, began her journey into translation two years ago. “I work in Barcelona, my city. I was born and raised here, in such a wonderful city. Although I did not choose to live here, I think it is the best thing that has happened to me. Here we have almost everything: sea and mountains, hot and cold, city and surroundings – yeah, in the same city, awesome, isn’t it? And, of course, we have languages, plural. We are part of Spain, but in my lovely nation we speak two languages. And this makes us bilingual by birth-right. I speak both, I think in both languages. And that is an incredible gift!”

Simon, a native of the UK, challenges whether it was him who chose Barcelona or the other way round. “My first visit to Barcelona was in January 1999 and the fact that within four months I was living here had more to do with being in love than anything else, although I was also captivated by a city that seemed to have everything: history, fascinating buildings, wonderful restaurants and beaches, to name just a few of its attractions.”

Maia’s arrival in Barcelona was the result of a series of coincidences, however. “I had been working as an in-house translator at Dow Chemical, in Tarragona. It motivated me to do an MA in translation and finally become a professional translator for good. Halfway through my masters, though, my job description changed radically and I ended up in a different department with little to do and lots of spare time to translate subtitles for DVDs and my first novel —a period romance— during working hours. Around that time I met my partner, who lived in Barcelona. Soon after, we started to make plans to get married and the choice was obvious: I wanted to pursue a career in translation, which I could do from practically anywhere. So, after the wedding I moved here and became a freelancer.”

Let’s compare Barcelona with other cities. You can’t deny that it has fierce competition in winning a translator’s attention. In Europe alone, we’ve had London, Berlin and Madrid all making a solid case for why translators would be happiest there. Why is Barcelona the best city for a translator to work from?

“Translation is such a portable job nowadays that I’m not certain any one city is any better than another as a place to do it,” says Simon. “One thing I love about Barcelona though is that you can always see out of the city, whether it’s looking out to sea or up to the hills inland. For me, that’s an essential quality, as I always find cities oppressive if I can’t see beyond their edges when I’m in them. I love Bristol, where I went to university, but I hate London, for example. Having the sea close at hand is also a big attraction and a walk along the beach can be very relaxing.”

So Barcelona’s better than London, Simon thinks. What if we compared Barcelona to the Spanish capital? “Madrid is bigger, but from my point of view Barcelona is better indeed,” argues Judit. “We are smaller, true, but we are warmer. And the city is, too! It could be that we are between two rivers, the mountains and sea, so we need to maximise our space – and our time, too! And that make us hard-working people, with almost no time to waste, because our lack of long space. But you must think: if Barcelona is so small, what are you doing there? Barcelona is big, do not get me wrong. But if we compare ourselves with Madrid, we are smaller. But as we say in Catalan, ‘in the little pot you’ll find the good jam!’”

And where can you find the best jam? “When I come out to play,” Maia explains, “I like to go to some of the parks, especially Parc de l’Oreneta, which is on the outskirts of the city, up a hill, but I mostly visit the nice neighbourhoods where there are fewer tourists. I avoid the Ramblas as much as possible.”

One thing that translators who prefer the countryside would ask is how you can work in such bustling surroundings. What would be the argument to live and work as a translator in busy Barcelona instead of rural northern Catalonia for example?

For Maia, Barcelona offers the perfect mix of personal and professional aspects. “I like living surrounded by the things I need, having everything handy, and that includes publishing houses as well as bars, restaurants, the markets, libraries, fibre optics internet access and all the rest. By being here I have everything I need to be a successful translator, including my clients. In my case, being close to the publishing houses that I work with is crucial. You’d be surprised how useful it is to pay regular visits to the people you work with, talk to them in person, make yourself available to them; it makes them remember you. So I guess the same applies to people who work with dubbing studios, the videogames industry or even with manufacturers, and so on.”

But as cool and sexy as Barcelona is, it’s still a big city, so would it still be hard to chill out there? “Yes, it is true we have a lot of stress,” says Judit, “but when I need to relax I just need to go outside. My balcony is an awesome place to relax (above all in summer). But if I really need to relax, I just have a walk through my neighbourhood. I don’t live in the city centre, but not as far from it as you might imagine. If you leave the city centre, you will find that each neighbourhood is like a little village.”

And where does Judit think the best place to work in Barcelona is? “The University Campus. I do not know if it has something to do with my habit of studying or working there, but in the middle of my old neighbourhood I find peace. I only need to go upstairs until the third floor of the University library and it is like heaven: silence, good views and always the perfect atmosphere.”

So far in the Translators in the City series, we’ve featured metropolises like London and Madrid. But only Brussels has been the other city in the series that speaks more than one language on an official level. Does living in a city that is officially multilingual make for a better environment for translators?

“For a linguist, Barcelona is a fascinating city because of the two languages in everyday use: everyone can speak Spanish and most people speak Catalan as well,” Simon states. “Having two languages to learn can be daunting at first, but it’s very rewarding and I’m now used to the bilingual conversations that often develop. Someone who doesn’t live here might wonder what’s the point of learning Catalan when Spanish will get you by. But that is to ignore the fact that Catalan is the first language of most people here and if you don’t understand it, you are the one who misses out.”

For expats like Simon, this must be a lot of hard work. As a translator, though, surely this is a worthwhile challenge, and one which might pay off in business terms. “If, as a foreigner, you speak Catalan as well, your effort is recognised and rewarded,” Simon continues. “As a freelance translator, I’m sure I have secured and built relationships with many customers here partly by being willing to communicate with them in Catalan.”

Judit relishes the city’s wider linguistic diversity. “Barcelona, besides its universities, is a special place: it is a mixture of cultures, languages and habits. And it is the best place to be translator indeed. There are a lot of foreign people studying or working here, so you only need to search a little to find somebody native of your working languages. Moreover, we have a high awareness of languages, so it is common to find people who speak more than our two mother tongues.”

So, we’ve heard how much of a linguistic haven Barcelona is. But what I’d like to know is whether this is reflected in the local translation industry. In our Brussels post, we learned that the industry has been traditionally underrepresented there. Is this the case in Barcelona?

“Like most big cities,” Simon supposes, “Barcelona has quite a large and active translation community. I am a member of the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Catalonia (APTIC). Most of its members are Catalans, but they are very welcoming to foreign translators and the association organises many professional short courses and social events. I have also joined Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET), based in Barcelona too, which has a membership largely of English-speaking translators.”

“There are lots of libraries,” adds Maia, “and plenty of continuous professional development in terms of conferences such as Fun4All, TraduEmprende, some of the most important trade fairs and industry events, and, naturally, courses organised by the universities, by the translator associations — APTIC and MET, for example— and by various other companies. Luckily, continuous development is no longer tied exclusively to given places and now translators from all over the place can access training from virtually anywhere —I should know, I co-own a successful online training enterprise, eCPD Webinars (shameless plug!)— but nothing beats being right where things are happening.”

Are there many chances for Barcelona’s translators to get together on a more casual basis, though? “As for informal networking,” Maia continues, “we have the MET APTIC meetings, but I’m not aware of any tweetups in Barcelona. I shan’t be the one starting one. Too shy for the job.”

So, that’s Barcelona for translators. The professional side and the personal side. Before our contributors leave us, what are their favourite sides to the city?

Simon enjoys the strong literary tradition in the city. “This really comes out on my favourite day of the year, St. George’s Day, when translators as well as authors can be seen on stalls all around the centre marking the festival of the patron saint of Catalonia, which also happens to be World Book Day. I always encourage people to visit Barcelona on 23 April because it really is a unique celebration: a city full of the books and roses traditionally given as presents for the occasion.”

What about Maia? “I’d say that all of the above, plus great food, nice wine, the nice weather and lots of concerts and music festivals. We are also a train ride away from other fantastic places such as Tarragona, the Delta, the Costa Brava, Madrid, etc. But when I am in the city I love exploring the bars and restaurants of Barcelona with our friends.”

That concludes the Translators in the City series. Have you read the other posts in the series: Berlin, London, Madrid, Brussels and San Diego?