SELTA at 40: Julie Martin

Julie Martin joined SELTA in 2006. Here she talks about how she came to join SELTA and her career.

When did you join SELTA?

Some time in 2006 my elderly aunt, aged 90+, was admitted to St. Helier’s Hospital to have a pacemaker fitted. Tom Geddes’ mother-in-law was in the next bed and when he visited her, he kindly also talked to my aunt if she didn’t have a visitor.  When he mentioned that he was a Swedish translator, Auntie Helen immediately said that her niece would be interested to talk to him and asked for his details. As soon as she got home, she sat down and wrote me a letter on her trademark Basildon Bond notepaper, using a fountain pen of course, and sent me Tom’s details. So I rang Tom and he was very excited, especially when I mentioned that I had produced some translations of Swedish books that had been published (see below), he said that meant I could become a full member straightaway, which I did. At that stage I was actually a commercial translator, mainly of French and German.  According to my diaries, the first SELTA meeting I attended was on 20th November 2006 and I was thrilled to find myself in the Swedish Embassy.

What kinds of things was SELTA doing when you joined?

Although I had done a few stints in the translation department of the Council of Europe in 1971-73, and initially worked for the Interlingua translation agency when I first returned to England (from South America), I had never met any literary translators, let alone any translating Swedish, so I spent the first meeting or two trying to understand what people were talking about! I believe that at that time many of the members had started their careers in the British Library and had become full-time free lance translators when the Scandinavian Department of that institution was closed. As far as I recall, everyone had an opportunity to say what they were working on and I think people who had won prizes or commendations were congratulated.

Are there any events or things SELTA did in your time that you would like to highlight?

Over the years it is the ‘one-off’ events that stand out, such as the Lucia celebration at the Residence once or twice, an invitation to the Festival Hall (I think), when it was reopened after a refit and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was invited to try out the new facilities. At one stage, when the Embassy was being refurbished, we had meetings in the University of London buildings, which was a bit of a nightmare to navigate, and unfamiliar territory to me. More recently SELTA has organised various workshops and I have attended one or two and met some interesting authors in the process.

Another memory is that as a member of SELTA I was invited some years ago to a ‘Linnaeus Evening’ celebrating his 300th anniversary I think, at the Royal Geographical Society. On 22nd March 2007 I walked into a room full of people, many talking Swedish, and did a double take when I spotted David Attenborough sitting halfway down the room. He smiled a very welcoming smile and with hindsight I suspect he was surrounded by Swedish conversations and would have appreciated an English speaker as an interpreter but I was so dumbstruck I panicked and turned the other way! I have been kicking myself ever since! The poster is still on my office wall!

Tell us about your career – where did you learn Swedish, how did you become a translator?

My degree is a Joint Honours in Modern Languages (French and German) from Manchester. The nearest I came to Scandinavian was Old Icelandic as my special subject in my final year! At the end of my degree course, I completed a post-graduate diploma in language studies at the University of Bath, which led me to work on an occasional basis at the Council of Europe and the EEC (as it then was) in Brussels, translating and interpreting French and German.

However, I met my first husband, who was Swedish, on a course in Münster, Germany and he was a teacher of English and German in Sweden, which is how I came to live in Sundsvall for about 4 years. I learned my Swedish speaking to my neighbours on Alnön and my husband’s colleagues at the comprehensive school where he taught, plus some entertaining conversations with my 10-year-old stepdaughter, who quickly realised she could tell me non-existent words and pretend they meant something! Her favourite was ‘gölp’, which she assured me meant a light bulb! I used to read her stories too, without a clue as to how to pronounce anything and this caused much merriment.

I’ve never studied Swedish formally, apart from a free introductory course for immigrants and a year with Swedish students at KomVux, Sundsvall, equivalent to the final year of mellanstadiet.  I did a little freelance translating work in Sundsvall and worked as a guide for the local tourist office, among other things.

Some of my most interesting translation projects:

Thanks to SELTA I have been contacted by various publishers for the translation of children’s books (most notably various series by Martin Widmark, published by Bonnier), self-help books, cookery books and ‘coffee table books’, plus lots of samples. However my favourite job was actually pre-SELTA – I was invited to submit a short sample translation taken from the book by Claes Grundsten which was selected as the Panda Book of the Year in 2001 by the WWF and on the strength of that sample I was invited to translate the whole book. It was called ‘Naturens Mästerverk’ and Claes and I wanted to call it ‘Nature’s Masterpieces’ in English but the publisher, Max Ström, insisted on changing it to ‘Our Magnificent Wilderness’. In 2005, Claes won the Panda Prize again, with ‘Äventyrets Stigar’ and Claes asked me to translate it. The publisher decreed should be called ‘Trek’ (which Claes and I didn’t like at all!) It was wonderful to sit here in my little office with all those beautiful scenic photos in front of me, almost like being on holiday.

Did your career trajectory change? Is it different now compared with what you expected at the start?

I never really thought about a career, I just love languages and seemed to have an aptitude, so I followed where fortune took me. Moving to Sweden with my Swedish husband changed my life dramatically, I had no concept of Scandinavia at all prior to that and of course there was much that was strange, living in Norrland was wonderful and I still hanker after the forest!

How has being a SELTA member helped in your career (if it has!)

See above! Being included in the directory has brought me into contact with Swedish publishers and authors, which has been very interesting and not something I had expected from the start.

How is the world of translation today different from when you started out?

The main difference is the use of so many electronic ‘aids’, when I started at the Council of Europe I think we used manual typewriters! Of course I can translate bigger volumes and copy and paste etc. with a computer but I never use translation software. The problem of getting some clients to understand that it isn’t just a matter of replacing each Swedish word with an English one hasn’t gone away entirely but on the whole I would say that people now are more aware of, and exposed to, other languages which makes life easier. I remember in the early days trying to explain what a translator does to people who have never met one before!