Dr. Meenakshi Vinaitheerthan is a French language expert and an inspiring teacher. She has over twenty years of experience translating and interpreting French to English or Tamizh and vice versa. She has also worked on the subtitles and voice-overs for a number of movies and documentaries, including the French documentary “Ma” based on rural woman of Tamil Nadu, and “Burning Memories,” a Sri Lankan Tamizh documentary dubbed into French. Dr. Meenakshi is available as a mentor with Careers Infinite.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on interesting career choices available to those leveraging their language skills.
You seem to have a flair for languages. Is that inherent?
Yes, it is a very important trait, and it is something that’s either there with you or not. It cannot be acquired. And, it also reflects in your teaching. For instance, I cannot make a student like the French language if I don’t have the flair for it or if I am not passionate about it myself. When students see me talk about the subject passionately, they get inspired to take it up, even if it is challenging. Otherwise, they might just give up easily.
I have seen some French teachers who give up teaching passionately because they do not see enthusiasm among students. But what they do not realize is that it ruins the experience even for the one or two students who are genuinely interested in learning the language.
Can you tell us about your PhD?
My PhD was a study on the feminism movement in France and Tamil Nadu. I compared the history of feminism in both regions. I was surprised to find that there were not that many books that talk about the history of feminism in Tamil Nadu. I personally think that we need to do a lot of work on that.
I also compared two books (novels), one by an Indian author and one by a French author, and interpreted how feminism was handled by them. In addition, I looked at how feminism was portrayed in the print media. It was very hard to find feminism-centric magazines in both the regions studied.
Generally, one cannot assume that women in developed countries feel liberated or have more rights than us. Women, no matter where they are in the world, face similar problems. In fact, we have all the required laws here since the British times, but the execution is where we lack. Most often, traditional and cultural reasons stop us from making full use of the laws. However, if you look at the history in France, women had to fight every step of the way, before such laws were passed.
There is also a negative connotation for feminism in India. Many people do not understand the meaning of the ideology. The general misconception is that feminism is against men! In actuality, it is not against men; it is just for women!
What are you planning for the future?
I am working towards translating some of the Indian literature into French. There is a lot of legal aspects to be taken care of, in addition to the work of translation. There are permissions to be obtained from authors, publishers and governments! So, it will be a slow process. I am looking at works which are women-centric and deal with issues concerning women. A lot of English works by Indian authors have been translated into French and, they have had excellent reception among the French. They get to experience the Indian culture through these translated works. I would like to popularize in France, the work of Tamizh writers. I have no formal training in Tamizh, but I learned the language after hearing from friends about the abundance of scholarly literature in this language.
How many years of preparatory work does a student have to put in for his/her career to take off?
If you are good at languages, a minimum of 3 to 5 years is needed to reach the level of being able to translate. It is not just about learning the language; one has to be able to think in the language. It is not a good idea to think in one language and translate it to another.
What age would a student become aware of whether s/he should take up language studies for a career?
I would say, around 14 years. Generally, at younger ages, the grasping power of children is much higher. They pick up the vocabulary very quickly. But they also tend to forget quickly. In India, you can change second languages in the 8th standard, and I think that is ideal. But, the only thing that needs to change in the system is progressive French. Currently, students who have done 3 years of French from 8th to 10th standard have to start from the basics again in the 11th standard. And that repeats once again in college! But, I guess it works for students who want to focus on the other major subjects in 11th and 12th.
Those interested in pursuing the language further (after 10th) can do so through the Alliance Francaise, which offers standard courses (‘DELF ‘DALF) that are recognized internationally. This system is the same for all European languages.
What are three important skills needed for this career, which are not taught?
Primarily, one has to have a flair for languages. Second, the aptitude to learn the cultural and traditional background of the native speakers is also very important. Thirdly, observation and grasping are essential skills for translating and interpreting. If you cannot concentrate on a conversation for too long, you may not be able to do a good job interpreting. In that case, teaching would be a better option.
Could you share with us the challenges you faced in this career?
Earning recognition is a challenge. Nowadays, there are not too many opportunities for interpreting. When it comes to translation, we are actually competing with Google! Although it does not give the exact output we would give, it still seems sufficient for some purposes.
Does your career offer a good work-life balance?
Teaching offers great work-life balance. But, it varies a lot for translation and interpretation because you are working on someone else’s schedule.
What is your advice to students aspiring for a career as a language expert?
Analyze your interest in the language. Think about whether you will be able to work with it all your life. Try a 6-month course in the language. If you are good at it, give it your 100%, and within 3 years, you can become fluent. Make sure you enjoy it, because if you don’t, you are never going to be able to give it your 100%.
What is mentorship to you?
I remember a teacher who taught me French literature. She was such a passionate teacher; the way she taught the subject made me fall in love with classical literature. She inspired me to write poetry for the first time. I had never considered myself a poet. I wrote only because she asked me to. And I ended up winning awards! Her perspective changed my thinking. She made me do something I never would have dared to. And that is what mentors do. That is mentorship to me!
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