This Translator Can Cook. Meet Jennifer!

This month, I interviewed Jennifer Case, the founder of Arabizi Translations and a blogger who took on the “This Translator Can Cook” challenge.

Jennifer hasn’t studied translation as an academic discipline. However, you can really enjoy the cultural elements that she skillfully brings to the audience in her blog, along with culinary terminology that translators can jot down!  A strong advocate of food culture myself, I find this blog a great way for you to discover the flavors of Middle East! If you are a translation student and you are about to read this interview, make sure to visit Jennifer’s blog to learn more about recipe translations.

Jennifer’s relationship with Arabic wasn’t planned at all.  In this interview, Jennifer explains how her passion for Arabic was sparked, and where languages have taken her around the world: an Arabic language student in the U.S., an English teacher in Palestine, and now a founder of a translation website where she helps clients worldwide.

I virtually met Jennifer in our American Translators Association’s Arabic Language Division’s e-group, and I’m really happy to introduce her and share her story with you on Tarjamati blog.

Happy reading! 

Can you tell us more about you? Where did you grow up and how did you become fond of the Arabic language?

I was born and raised in the state of Maryland in the United States, and the area I grew up in was very diverse and was a part of the DC suburbs. I did not learn Arabic until freshman year of high school; I grew up only speaking English. My high school was specialized in languages and technology. I wanted to take Latin because it has a great influence on English, but it was cancelled the year I started. My friend, whose father immigrated from Egypt, wanted to learn Arabic, and she begged, “Please take Arabic with me, I don’t want to do it by myself!” And that’s how it all began. I just like Arabic; I like how different it is (even though it makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes), and I like its logic (because we all know that English has some messed up rules).

When did you start translating? And did you study translation as an academic discipline?

Even though I majored in Arabic in college, I didn’t study translation, which I regret to some extent. I should have because all I wanted to do was work with Arabic—I wasn’t interested in international affairs, business management, or any other field of study really. I did study and get certified in teaching English as a foreign language, but I’m only intermittently passionate about it. When I was teaching English in Palestine as a volunteer, people would ask me to translate stuff into English, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ When I came back, I became a member of American Translators Association (ATA). Someone hired me to translate a course syllabus and it was like “Oh my God, I could get paid for this!”

Your blog reflects a rich cultural background, which is really an asset for a translator. Can you tell us more about it? What was the idea behind the blog and how does it complement your work?

My blog is hard work, and it makes me realize that not only do I not know everything, but that I have so much more to learn about Arab culture as a whole and each country/area’s culture individually. I got the idea for That Translator Can Cook from other culinary translators sharing this challenge on Twitter. I think that they came up with this particular blogging challenge because they specialize in translations about food and they like to cook. I took up the challenge because I love food and because I wanted show people who are unfamiliar with Middle Eastern food that it’s more than hummus, falafel, shawarma, and kebab. I research the food’s history and cultural significance because I don’t actually make the recipes like the other translators, and I learn so much from it. It’s so much fun!

Arabic is a complex figurative language. A non-native Arabic translator who promises excellent quality when translating from Arabic must be brave! Was there a time when a client doubted your capability because Arabic is not your native language? And how did you convince them to work with you?

Haha the key statement that will trigger my imposter syndrome! Most Arabic speakers don’t doubt my language skills, they praise them, which of course, is always nice. I do get a lot of project managers who don’t know Arabic questioning my translations of basic things. I’ve asked for preferred English name spellings and received an explanation of what بن  and بنت  meant, and then I had to explain that they weren’t usually translated. Another project manager questioned my translation of numbers because they weren’t aware of Arabic-Indic numerals and how people handwrite them. I really enjoy working with project managers who also speak Arabic because the conversation is more about stylistic choices rather than justifying my translations of basic aspects of language.

What are your translation specializations? Is there a specific specialization that you fear and plan to try in the future?

I mainly specialize in medical and official documents, but I also enjoy translating documents about social sciences, human rights, climate change mitigation, and tourism. I would like to translate a novel one day, but I’m afraid of not being creative enough for literary translation. I have a book of Palestinian child detainees’ personal experiences translated into English. I would love to do something like that because it tells a story yet it’s nonfiction, so less abstract language.

How do you continue to hone your translation skills? And what do you think of current available trainings and professional development opportunities for translators working with Arabic and English?

I practice translating news articles and papers, and I create my own glossaries by researching terms. I feel like it’s hard to find trainings/workshops and webinars about Arabic-English translation unless it’s from an organization dedicated to Arabic-English translation. It seems like there aren’t a lot of Arabic translators in the ATA and its chapters.

Do you remember how did it feel to work on your first freelance job? And how did it end up?!

I was terrified on my first translation job! I think I did well, especially since I was completely untrained in translation theory. I think I was a bit abrupt when I delivered the file because I was worried about being scammed/never getting paid, so I don’t know if I scared them off. I asked for feedback a little while later, but they never got back to me.

What do you think about professional memberships and certifications in translation?

I think professional memberships really help you connect to other translators and can help clients find you. My first job was the only time I got a client from the ATA directory, but I think as I gain more experience (and hopefully get certified), I will receive more requests through the directory. I don’t think degrees and certifications are required in order to be considered a professional translator. They definitely make you look good on paper and show you have the knowledge and some skills, but I think experience is the most important factor in a translator’s development. You have to be exposed to a variety of real-life documents and deal with the business aspect of a translation. Also, if you think about it, writing is creative process, so translation is also just as creative, even technical and official documents vary from author to author (or country to country). I think that many translation choices are subjective; they require interpretation of the source text and culture, and people can interpret and represent the meaning differently. Of course, some sectors are stricter than others (i.e. medical vs tourism), so the translation choices are more objective, which can be taught or studied. In summary, degrees and certifications give you objective yet incomplete knowledge of translation, and experience allows you to find your own voice/style and encounter unique writing styles.

What was the most enjoyable project that you worked on?

I’ve translated research papers and news articles for NGOs in Egypt, and they were really fun for several reasons. One, I worked with a local translator who has become a good friend, it’s always fun to work with him. Two, the topics were very interesting: I had to further research political and social dimensions in Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Yemen. Research is one of the intriguing elements of translation that I really enjoy.

Did you ever blacklist a client? If yes, why?

I mostly work with agencies and other translators at the moment, and for the agencies I don’t really like working with, I just turn down projects rather than blacklist them. If I were to ever blacklist a client/agency it would be because they didn’t respect me or my time, and because they don’t pay me an adequate rate.

Finally, is there anything that you would like to share with us in this challenging time with COVID-19? Has the virus impacted your business? And what is your advice for translators in this time to keep up the good work?

I translate medical documents, but they were mostly medical records, bills, and licenses, not articles and papers. I don’t think many medical documents beside the ones about COVID-19 are being translated right now. Oddly enough, I’ve seen a surge in translation of official (personal) documents, so that’s been a nice source of income. I used to edit technical reports from factory inspections, but since COVID-19, there aren’t any more inspections, so that work has dried up. I’ve been working on marketing and learning new skills and subjects to keep myself busy. My advice is not to wallow too much and don’t allow yourself to slack off. I’ve started to reapply to agencies and five have already gotten back to me because they want to work with me. Learn a new skill that complements translation (i.e. subtitling, desktop publishing, etc.). Take a course for a specialization. Update your resume or website/blog. And finally, take some time to get out of the house (if you can) to take a walk or just to breathe in some fresh air, and set aside some time for your favorite hobby. Mental health more important than ever in the midst of a stressful, frightening pandemic and social isolation.

To learn more about Jennifer Case, you can visit her website  or you can follow her on Twitter @hermitranslator.