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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Janet Pitt (French, 1974)

Janet Pitt photo

I was at Durham (St Aidan’s) from 1970 to 1974 studying French, with German as a subsidiary subject. I spent a year abroad as an ‘assistante’, an enjoyable experience but one that convinced me I was not the stuff of which (good) teachers are made. Although in those days the main focus was on literature, there was also plenty of scope for language, including translation classes. It was at Durham that I realised that my true interest and aptitude lay in the languages themselves: not just the languages I was learning but also my mother tongue, English.

After Durham I followed a ‘bilingual secretarial course for graduates’, a plunge into practicalities which has stood me in very good stead, and then in 1975 applied for an Open Competition organised by the European Parliament (EP) for the recruitment of translators to work in Luxembourg. This involved written and oral tests and despite the many experienced translators among the candidates, I succeeded and joined the English Division in 1976, when the only tools available to translators were their intellectual ability and a manual typewriter (the former is still the most important, pace machine translation).

I spent 21 years in the translation service as a translator, reviser and manager, adding Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to my languages. I was then given the opportunity to explore other professional challenges, notably working as an adviser to Parliament’s Secretary-General and as director of human resources management, and then in 2010 I was appointed Director-General of Translation, where I am in charge of 1200 staff.

The EP is committed to ensuring full multilingualism, which means that we need to cover 552 possible language combinations (24 official languages) as efficiently as possible. We achieve this through recourse to ‘relay’ languages for some of the lesser-used combinations. Some would claim that the EU could manage perfectly well with English but in practice, over 60% of EU citizens have insufficient English to hold a conversation, let alone understand legal texts, which is what a Parliament produces. And how impoverished we would be, culturally, linguistically and, I would say, also economically, if we renounced any effort to enter into the worlds – the history, culture, politics, mind-set and so on – represented by other languages.

The EU institutions offer an incredibly stimulating environment in which to work if you have a passion for languages. To be successful, and to be happy, as a translator in an international organisation, this passion needs to be combined with skills such as a close attention to detail (translators are often perfectionists), flexibility (unpredictable workload, changes in working methods), an awareness of current affairs, IT literacy (CAT tools, translation memories, etc.) and, perhaps most importantly, mastery of the mother tongue.

It is a long time since I graduated but the link to Durham is still there, since the excellent education and the encouragement I received gave me the confidence to believe that I could actually earn my living with languages.

EP Directorate-General for Translation website

2014