Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The travelling translator...reporting from Brisbane, Australia

Moving on to the third installment of the travelling translator, this week's story comes from Jean-Marc Doumenc, an EN into FR freelance translator who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Here's what he had to say:

Jean-Marc, talk to us briefly about your life before you moved to Brisbane, Australia.

-          I was born in Bordeaux, France, lived there for many years and also in Martinique in the Caribbean and near Sète in the south of France before moving to Australia. I had always been a literature and culture geek, doing a literary baccalaureate, and then going on to be a primary teacher for a little while, a librarian, a manager of a tiny publishing business that gave birth once to an international best-seller, a manager of a small genealogy business, a published writer.

      Why Brisbane of all places and how long have you been living there already?

A kids' paradise
-          I have been living in Brisbane, in the Queensland state of Australia, since 1996. It was only accidental in my life as I had never planned to live in Australia. When I met my ex-wife in France, she was living in Melbourne and at some stage I had to migrate if I wanted to try to save our relationship and see our two daughters. We got divorced so I got stranded in Australia and Brisbane. I found it hard to live there; the city has changed a lot but 15 years ago it was lacking all sorts of sophistication and basic pleasures of life like cafés, café terraces, and mainstream night life. I coped with that by working more, spending a lot of time on the Internet and completing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing with the help of a generous Australian Postgraduate Scholarship.

      How would you describe life in Australia in three words?

Aboriginal dance
The popular lagoon pool in South Bank
-          Too difficult, sorry, I can’t respect your constraint! Australia is a continent with many different people and climate diversity. My life in Australia is mainly in Brisbane; I guess, it could be very different  somewhere else on the same continent. I have lived here mainly to keep in touch with my kids, not because I fell in love with Queensland or Brisbane. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with Brisbane or Australia, but there are so many others places in the world, I wouldn’t have stayed 15 years+. I wouldn’t have chosen Brisbane, or I would have moved, maybe to Sydney, a city I prefer. Or most probably I would have gone back to Europe, or experienced life in Japan maybe. My few words would probably be: kids, emptiness, boredom, heat, humidity, baggy shorts, thongs, multicultural diversity, shopping centers, Internet, Asian foods… Sorry I can’t really droll on the beaches and rave about the palm trees as I had already experienced this kind of life before and knew their pleasures and limitations. I saw more of the sea and the ocean in France than in Australia in fact, because I was living closer to them. I’m not into rugby, cricket or heavy drinking so my life has been a bit limited here. When you have seen a few kangaroos, possums and koalas you’re done. There are dangerous animals like spiders, snakes, crocodiles, sharks and even sea crocodiles! The people smile, are polite, organized, everything is clean and well maintained. Money is very important. Social security is OK, not so Medicare. The cost of life is now very high. They legally play with your future
Brisbane from the plane
retirement money on the stock market and many people after the big financial crisis had to work five or ten years more because their future pensions had shrunk. I like to meet on a daily basis people from all around the world living here, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Greeks, Italians, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and so many more nationalities… It’s a great place for young kids; there are playgrounds and parks everywhere. But I’m lucky I met a few years ago a French lady! Now you know about my life in Australia. Years have passed very quickly, kids have grown up. This period from 96 to these days will probably stay in my memory if I return back overseas as the period of the kids growing up and the global development of technology, computers, smartphones and the things I could do with them, both professionally and for entertainment. 

      What languages do you speak and what made you become a translator? 

-          I speak French my native language. I started to learn English at school when I was ten but Spanish became my second language when I was 15 as I had a bigger interest for Spanish and South-American culture than for the American one and more opportunities to go to Spain as I was living in Bordeaux, only 200 km away from the Spanish border, and having also a part of Spanish roots.
Brisbane river
-          In the 1990s, as I was working on cutting edge multimedia computers I had to work more on my English as nothing I was studying had already been translated. Then I met my ex-wife and found myself in Australia already aged 35 with a huge linguistic and cultural challenge in my hands. As is the case with many expats,  you have sometimes the opportunity to do a couple of translations but I only established myself as a pro when they opened the Gallery of Modern Arts and Cinematheque in Brisbane. They started with a three months French Nouvelle Vague program, I went there often as a spectator with a handful of enthusiasts and found the subtitles were often very bad. I mentioned the fact to a staff member who happened to be the Head of the place. She asked me if I could do better and when I said yes she offered me to help. They were only screening reels and needed a lot of subtitling, sometimes for the next day. Students in French had been recruited at the local universities but their level was sometimes still low. I loved the job, the conditions of the job, working at night, the live subtitling, the rush, and the excitation. I didn’t look back after that period even if my daily jobs became less fun, with a lot of website localizations, smartphone app translations, etc. I still had lot of fun for a whole year translating press articles. Because I have always liked my language and words, I think I approach my daily jobs as word games, like others do crosswords or Sudoku to kill time.

      Describe a typical day in your working life. 


       I tend to wake up very early, a personal habit of mine, which is locally induced too, as it can be too hot later during the day in the summer, to work in good conditions. I can easily start at 6AM or even earlier in the summer, with daylight. First thing I do is I check my emails, accept some jobs, register or apply for others. Then I make coffee and start translating. I usually work this way full mornings, and more if there is lots of work. Sometimes I work long hours for a few days on a project then only a few hours during some other days. I can work on week-ends if necessary. If I go out, I can accept jobs via the phone too, which gives me a lot of flexibility. If I go away I tend to keep the same routine, taking on board fewer jobs to be sure to enjoy my holidays. I don’t mind working a few hours every day, I don’t really see life as separated between work and free time. 

      What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in Australia and how do they affect your life and your translation business?

Brisbane by night
-          Australia is a continent so you can’t easily reduce life here to common denominators mainly with regards to climate. In Melbourne or Tasmania you can be swept by Antarctic winds while in Darwin, clothes can rot in drawers because of the humidity. 89,2 % of the Australian population live in cities and mainly in the three big ones on the East coast. Australia is one of the top multicultural countries in the world, and a recent national census described the “average Australian” as a 25 years old female, living in Sydney and of Asian descent. There are roughly only 20 million people on a surface as big as the U.S.A. or Europe but because of the deserts and the lack of big river systems the place probably won’t be able to accommodate many more, unless there are massive desalinization plants. 

-          Because of the huge number of migrants here, the government had to establish a very advanced system for translation, the very high-level NAATI accreditation. This exam
Local libraries offering language services
is very well regarded and I have friends in other language pairs who get a lot of interpreting jobs over the phone, even from the U.K. social services! When you migrate you can get free professional translating & interpreting services in official government departments, hospitals, for many different languages. They may vary depending on the demand caused by the periodic arrival of refugees (from ex-Yugoslavia in the 90s, from East Africa nowadays for example). Some of the already more educated migrants within these waves usually become translators/interpreters for their communities. The need for their work might vanish after a few years as most of their countrymen have become fluent in English and settled.

-          Working mainly via the Internet I don’t find time difference to be a huge problem to access overseas markets. Sometimes I get jobs while other people sleep in other parts of the world, sometimes it’s to their benefit. There are local time zones and then there is Internet time and a very global world. In our line of work borders are gone. But you can’t beat geography and here if you want to go to a different country you have to take the plane. It can be costly even if Australians use them as we use trains in Europe. Many expats living here go back as often as they can to Europe, which is an intriguing paradox.  

View from the State Library
      Where does the majority of your clients come from? Do you work with local clients as well? 

-          The majority of my clients are web-based international agencies, a couple of them in Australia. I get some local clients because of my NAATI accreditation which authorizes me to certify official document translations from English into French. And I still subtitle from time to time for the GoMA Cinémathèque in Brisbane. The French community in Australia is not that big, neither is the number of Australians moving to France, so I couldn’t make a living just by translating birth certificates or marriage certificates. I have sometimes the occasion to meet some clients “in the flesh” which is always nice. I’m curious of the personal history of the individuals contacting me and their reasons to move to France or Australia. I probably could make more money locally if I was working also as an interpreter but I didn’t choose to do it.

      What is your advice to anyone wishing to earn a living as a travelling translator? 

-          Like for all other jobs, if you want to earn a living as a translator you need to be good at what you do and serious about it. You’re running a business; you’re a kind of online shopkeeper, so you need to treat your clients well. You’re basically on your own. Have some discipline. Try to get regular daily jobs from different sources and agencies; if one of them defaults one day, you won’t be left stranded or having to change too much of your daily lifestyle. I would advise to live in a country where people speak your source language. I’m surprised everyday by translators with diplomas who don’t know English slang, popular formulas or wordings and have never really lived abroad. You have to live in the culture you’re translating from, it seems obvious. But then, don’t forget your mother tongue and culture either, keep in touch, things change. Have a specialty, the people, I know, making more money translating, are ex-engineers, highly specialized I.T. people or lawyers.

-          So far I can partly qualify as a “travelling translator” as I’m only working from home (I’m also an Australian citizen as well as a French one) or during short holidays abroad. But I hope, in a not so faraway future, to unleash fully this potential of travelling and working by staying for long periods in countries I’m interested in. I hope to do so by using the formula of home exchanges which I have already successfully practiced in Australia.

Thank you Jean-Marc!

Jean-Marc is an EN into FR freelance translator living in Brisbane, Australia 

Photos: Jean-Marc Dumenc,,, Worlds of Words

Have you got a similar story to share? Did you leave your country for an exotic paradise? Contact me at to feature your story on my blog. 

Previous stories : 

1) The travelling translator reporting from the exotic island of Reunion

2) The travelling translator reporting from Bangkok, Thailand


  1. Even the best translators need to sharpen their skills continuously through training and practice. It is to be assumed that a translator has a real passion for words and the challenge of using words correctly and effectively.