Q&A with a French Language Expert

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.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on interesting career choices available to those leveraging their language skills.

Tell us about your career path.

I have taught French for over twenty years. I have also done a lot of translation of technical documentation as well as interpreting for collaborative teams, in companies like HAL and Mico, and for individual writers. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and an MA and PhD in French.

I started my career teaching at Alliance Francaise de Madras while also working as an interpreter. After a couple of years, I got into teaching full-time. I have also worked with writers and film-makers, translating their works from French to Tamil or English, subtitling, and providing the French voice-overs for regional documentary films dubbed into French.

Some of your work may have involved a lot of technical content. How did you manage translating that?

It was not easy. I had no engineering background when I was working for companies that built aircraft parts. I did have to learn some basics and get technical help from the subject-matter experts. But it is very rewarding at the end of the day. Some of the interesting projects I have worked on have involved manufacture of aircraft doors and parts for fighter planes. I was the interpreter between the French and Indian engineers and other technical personnel.

Are you also a freelancer?

Yes, I do freelance work. After establishing yourself, people will come to you when they know about the work you do. Of course, establishing yourself will take time. Similar to other professions, you will have to spend a few years making connections before you become known in the “French circle.”

What made you switch from BCom to MA in French?

I took up Commerce during my PUC at Mt. Carmel College, Bengaluru, and geared up to become a Chartered Accountant. While doing my PUC, my father was posted at Algeria. In order to prepare for our shift to Algeria, I learned the first level course in French at the Alliance Francaise in Bengaluru. I fell in love with the language instantly! Since I took up BCom by correspondence, I had ample time to get trained in French by the native speakers in Algiers. In four years, I had a proficiency similar to someone with a graduate degree in the language.

When I moved back to India, I worked as a teacher at the Alliance and took up interpretation on the side. After a couple of years, I took up an MA, because my certificates in French from Algeria were not recognized, and an Indian degree was required to teach French in India.

Was there any apprehension about a career in French when you starter out?

I studied French because I loved it. I did not give the career much thought when I started out. It was only after 2 or 3 years that I considered taking up translation and pedagogy assignments. And soon, I realized that I had the choice of doing all this for a living.

What are the universities in which French is taught in India?

MA French is offered by a number of universities. MA covers enough aspects of language training to become a translator or teacher. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, has separate MA courses for French translation and interpretation. The Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), Hyderabad, and Pondicherry University, Pondicherry, are also very good institutions for MA French. There are a few other colleges in Pondicherry that offer MA French as well. In Tamil Nadu, Madras University offers MA French.

BA French is only offered at Loyola College, and it accepts girls to the course. In India, however, you do not need to have a BA in French to take up an MA. As long as you are able to clear the entrance exam for MA French (say, you took up French in school and learnt the basic course in French at the Alliance), you can get in with any Bachelor’s degree. Starting French at the level MA also gives students some time to think about their careers and decide its course.

Tell us a bit more about interpretation.

Interpretation is a much tougher field than translation because when translating documents, you have the time to refer to a lot of resources like dictionaries and technical manuscripts. However, when interpreting, you do not have a lot of time or external help. You have to listen to the person talking in one language, translate it in your head into the other language, and speak it simultaneously. It is not easy to think in two languages at the same time. One definitely needs to undergo some training. Surviving in a career as an interpreter requires more than just knowledge of the two languages. You have to be able to think on your feet. Also, you have to time your interpreting to coordinate it with the person talking. 

It is very challenging, but very satisfying. When I used to work in HAL as an interpreter, it used to be a full day’s work. Even during lunchtime, I would be interpreting because the two teams would try to have a conversation over lunch to get to know each other! It used to be almost 12 straight hours of translating that, at the end of the day, I would be so exhausted. But, I was always excited to start my work again the next day!

Where did you take up training for French interpretation?

I was formally trained in interpretation in Algiers. In India, it is taught in Hyderabad, Delhi and Pondicherry. The best and most popular place to get trained in interpretation is JNU, Delhi. Other than that, there are several short-term courses that can be done in France, offered by The Institute of Intercultural Management and Communication (ISIT), the most prestigious institution for translation and interpretation. I had the opportunity to do the short-term course from there, but they also offer full-time courses.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series. For more informational interviews, subscribe using the form below.