“It took two pregnancies, a fierce fight against cancer and finally a pandemic, but I made it, I graduated!”

Carmen Cinque graduated last week with a BA Modern Languages degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carmen Cinque with her family

When I enrolled on the first year of my course in 2015, I was pregnant. With my first daughter due to be born in the middle of the academic year I knew that studying would be no easy task. I was also working full time as a bookkeeper for a restaurant. However, I was highly motivated and eager to start my course – finally, at 36, after many professional and personal experiences, I was about to start studying to obtain my first degree.

My daughter was born at the beginning of January. I continued to study and complete assessments and exams thanks to the understanding and availability of lecturers and the support of my husband and sister. I even sat a German exam with my daughter in the room while I was breastfeeding! Everything was going well, but suddenly in spring, I started to feel very, very tired and unable to concentrate.

My doctor thought it was just the difficulty of reconciling everyday activities with caring for a little girl, and at first, I agreed with her. However, I did feel there was something more. So, after a lot of analysis, stress, frustration and many dead-end diagnoses, at the beginning of August 2016, I met a doctor who urged me to have a biopsy. I was given a horrible diagnosis: I had a rare form of pregnancy-related cancer called choriocarcinoma. My world crushed, my family and I had to deal with a long treatment and all its devastating side effects. I had to put my degree on hold. Chemotherapy did not allow me to take care of my daughter alone, let alone studying. I don’t deny – it was hard, but luckily in March 2017, I was cured. Still very weak, but cancer free.

I had doubts as to whether to start studying again or to drop out; I was scared and fragile. My husband, however, did not allow me to give up. In September I started my second year at Birkbeck and this turned out to be a great choice. It was the best way to pick up my life where I left it. Everything started to go well again. In November I fell pregnant, which wasn’t a surprise as we always wanted a second child – only it came a little earlier than expected! Oscar was born on 30 June this year – a week after my last exam and during the pandemic.

Beside learning a new language (German) and deepening my understanding of Portuguese, my experience at Birkbeck widened my horizons professionally and personally. It gave me the motivation to try and change my career path, and I plan to start a qualification soon to become an interpreter, thanks to my degree qualification and the knowledge I gained whilst studying.

2020 is a peculiar year, but the birth of my second child and graduation make it an exceptional year for me! I am so happy and proud of my achievements. It was not always an easy path but not trying is the biggest mistake to make in life and I am very grateful to the professors, my family, and my dear friends for the support I have received in this amazing journey. Studying at Birkbeck was a wonderful experience, a privilege and an important achievement in a phase so full of positive and negative events in my life.

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The perils of swearing in a foreign language

This post was contributed by Matt Davis, a postgraduate student in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck. He tweets about language at @word_jazz.

As every Birkbeck student knows, 6.30pm on Friday night is not the best time to listen to an academic lecture. But if there is any serious sociolinguistic discussion that’s going to keep members of the public from their weekends, it’s one about swearing.

Jean-Marc Dewaele is a Professor of Bilingualism at Birkbeck. A Belgian polyglot, he knows a thing or two about the subject. He has spoken academically about the experience of bringing up his daughter in north London to be trilingual (fluent in French, Flemish and English). He is also winner of an annual award for the rudest title of an academic article (unrepeatable here, but more soberly subtitled ‘Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’).

Closing the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy’s series of events (‘To seek, to find, to live’) his lecture was about how speakers of a foreign language (what academics call ‘L2’) understand, experience and use taboo words in that language, and how it differs to how they swear in their first language (‘L1’).

Prof Dewaele described research, using lie detector technology, that shows we are uniformly less sensitive to the swear words we hear in our second language. He presented the results of his own survey of a number of proficient L2 speakers of English. In one question, they were asked to rank common English swear words according to what they thought was their relative level of power. This ranking was then compared to that by a group of native English speakers. Interestingly, L2 speakers of English tended to over-state the taboo of more benign words (like ‘idiot’), and under-state the taboo of some more powerful ones.

Prof Dewaele also introduced the idea of ‘sociopragmatic competence’ in a second language. This incorporates the idea that although it’s easy to learn a dictionary definition of a word – even taboo words – it takes experience to understand the various cultural values placed on that word by a society, and therefore where and when (if it all!) using it is appropriate.

Prof Dewaele is an engaging speaker and the talk was delivered with much humour as well as insight (sniggering among the audience was certainly not discouraged!) The talk was followed by a lively Q&A, where many people described their own experience in the subject. An American, now living in London, described how he had unwittingly caused great offence to a British family thanks to the greater emotional power of the expression ‘taking the piss’ in the UK. A lexicographer from the University of Portsmouth spoke about the nuances of writing taboo words into the dictionary.

So was it a better place to be than the pub? As a linguistics student, I certainly thought so but the test was whether my partner had found it interesting. A Canadian and native speaker of (North American) English, her mother tongue is actually Mandarin, but she has lived in UK for 6 years. She told me that she had enjoyed it too.

And did the findings of Prof Dewaele’s research fit her experience? I thought it through for a moment and realized I knew the answer: she never swears. As we had learned, when it comes to cursing in someone else’s language, it’s much safer that way.

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Anglophones wanted!

This post was contributed by Jozef van der Voort, an MA student in Translation Studies at the University of Sheffield

English is a global lingua franca, and researchers or authors seeking to reach an international audience are obliged to publish in English. Yet native English speakers are notoriously reluctant to learn foreign languages, and as a result there is a great deal of unmet demand for expert translators working into English. This applies across all industries but the need is particularly acute in academia, where high level language skills must be paired with expert subject knowledge.

The Use Your Language, Use Your English summer school sought to address this need by offering a week of intensive editing and translation training to English speakers with knowledge of one or more foreign languages. My source languages are German and French, but also on offer were Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. This made for a diverse group of participants who all had unique experiences and insights to share throughout the course, and I found that I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from the translation tutors themselves.

The tutors were also excellent – practising translators all, they brought a vast amount of experience to bear and provided invaluable advice not just on how to tackle the texts that we worked on over the week, but also on how to get established in the profession.

Translation – not just an academic pursuit

For me, this professional focus was the most invaluable aspect of the summer school. Rewarding as it was to debate the intricacies of German and French literary texts with my like-minded and enthusiastic fellow students, the tutors and organisers never lost sight of the fact that translation is a business – that to succeed as a translator it is vital to build strong networks in order to promote your work, and to keep your clients’ needs in mind. This applies as much to literary and academic translation as it does to the more commercial texts I tend to deal with on my MA course. Every text has an audience, and while it is easy to immerse yourself in fine detail when translating texts from one language into another, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that translation is always undertaken for a specific purpose.

All in all it was encouraging to see that the translation marketplace is in good health, and that opportunities abound for native English speakers with high-level foreign language skills. I would like to thank the organiser Professor Naomi Segal for all her hard work in putting together this extremely rewarding week, and I would recommend the course as an excellent introduction for anyone interested in getting into translation.

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Use your language, use your English

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Although I was not able to participate in this summer’s ‘Use your language, Use your English’ summer school, I was still interested to hear about Jamie Allen’s work as Head of English Translation at the International Olympic Committee (IoC), based in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is surely the dream job of many a modern foreign languages graduate. (Jamie’s admission that he has been at the IoC for 25 years confirmed this suspicion).

Jamie gave an interesting account of how translation at the IoC, and at the Games themselves, work. The IoC relies on a small pool of permanently employed translators and no interpreters. Instead, they rely on freelance support around key events.

The organising committees for the individual Games require a larger team. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has 75 translators and interpreters under contract, covering 11 languages. A further 28 languages are covered by volunteers. Each Games will have its own Languages Services Committee as part of the overall organising committee, and much work goes on between Games to ensure that the knowledge gained by each committee is passed on, so that each team does not have to start from scratch.

Although his team has little to do with the actual delivery of the Games, Jamie was quick to reassure us that they have plenty to be working on – they are currently doing work around six Olympic Games: 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and two Youth Olympic Games.

The official languages of the IoC are French and English, so much of Jamie’s team’s work involves ensuring that all official documents are available in both languages. It was interesting to hear that when Jamie arrived at the IoC French was the more used of the two languages. Now, the number of speakers of English as their native, or first foreign language has greatly increased and a larger proportion of Jamie’s work involves proof-reading and revising texts written in English (often by non-native speakers), rather than translating into English from French or another language.

Jamie gave some interesting examples that demonstrate the vast variety within the types of documents that he works on. One day it might be a speech that the president of the IoC will deliver to a UN Committee, and the next minutes of a meeting about the maximum permitted size of manufacturers’ logos on swimwear!

Having come across a lot of ‘howlers’ over the years, Jamie and his team have created a style-guide, which aims to simplify writing in English for their colleagues.  Having corrected dates from 1rd January and 3th April, umpteen times, they decided to officially move to a number-month convention (i.e. 3 April).

During the questions and answers one attendee was concerned about the use of volunteer translators and interpreters at the Games. Jamie reassured us that the individual Games organising committees do invest a significant amount in professional translation/interpretation services, but that volunteers are on hand to assist with matters such as showing guests to the correct seats and giving directions to and within the venues. It is a way of allowing people to become involved in the Games – as with the volunteers who are performing in the opening and closing ceremonies and carrying out various other tasks at the Games.

Many of the questions inevitably focussed on qualifications, experience and tips for getting a job in translation. Unfortunately for all of us, the lure of skiing in the Swiss Alps and summers by Lake Geneva means that turnover at the IoC is not high and there may not be any openings there for a while!

You can read more about the rest of the ‘Use your language, use your English’ summer school in blog posts here and here.

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