Greatest Women in Translation: Allison Wright


Happy New Year, dear readers! And welcome back to our (belated) Greatest Women in Translation series! I just couldn’t find the time between the holidays and the hectic beginning of the year to post this month’s interview. But, as I always say, better late than never, right?

I hope you enjoy our new interviewee, the great Allison Wright, nominated by Sabine Lammersdorf.

Welcome, Allison!


allison wright

Thank you, Caroline, for the interesting questions which make up this interview. They certainly gave me food for thought! I do need to mention that I still have a problem with the adjective “great” being applied to me. Perhaps we should edit that to read “most verbose” instead?

1. You were born in Kitwe, Zambia. At the age of 2, your family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa. When you were 8, your family moved again to Harare, Zimbabwe, where you completed your schooling. After that, you spent 4 years at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa, where you received a Bachelor’s degree in Translation and a postgraduate Honours degree in French. After your studies, you returned to Zimbabwe, where you remained for the next 22 years working. Finally, in 2008, you moved to Portugal, where you are based now. Wow! That’s quite a lot of moving about. What made you move to Portugal after living for so long in Africa? How did this affect your translation career?

The migration pattern described above is very common for all manner of people from southern Africa; the resultant “diaspora” has spread all over the world. Although my partner of 28 years is Portuguese, I was the one who wanted to move to Portugal because when on holiday here two years before we arrived for good, I felt a strong affinity with the semi-rural village in which I now live, despite only having a handful of Portuguese words in my pocket at the time.

The other motivation was one of survival. Various decisions made and policies pursued by the Government of Zimbabwe, particularly in the ten years preceding my departure, caused a series of successive economic crises each one more severe than the last. The day before I left Zimbabwe in early October 2008, the annual rate of inflation posted at one investment bank I used to visit often was 231 million percent – as if anyone can even conceive of such a figure! Less than five weeks later, the country reached levels of true hyperinflation with an estimated rate of inflation of 79.6 billion percent, comparable with rates experienced under Germany’s Weimar Republic.

We emigrated a mere seven weeks after making the decision to do so. I am a British citizen (one of my favourite jokes is that if I can be British, then anyone can) and my partner is a citizen of Portugal, so moving to an EU country was relatively straightforward. We sold almost everything we had and managed to buy our air tickets and pay for the shipping of a few treasured possessions. Savings (entirely from translation work) equivalent to six or seven months’ worth of living expenses in Portugal and no real idea of how I was going to make things work formed the basis of our fresh start in a new country shortly before I turned 44. I should add that I love living in Portugal and now consider it my home.

As a result of the move, my translation career came to a halt. The bulk of my clients were NGOs active in development cooperation in Zimbabwe and the SADC region. Their various bilateral and multilateral agreements stated that locally or regionally resident personnel had to be used for “support services” of which translation was considered one. Simultaneously, my other large regular client, headquartered in France, experienced a radical organisational restructuring and I was advised by the new managing director that alternative arrangements had been made for their translation requirements.

Nevertheless, within two months of arriving in Portugal I had registered with the tax authorities as a freelance translator – which, coincidentally, is what my passport said I was – and have been bound by law ever since to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, something which keeps my somewhat non-conformist self in check.

2. You are a member of the recently created APTRAD (Portuguese Association of Translators and Interpreters). Why did you become an APTRAD member? 

I have been an accredited member (Fr-En and De-En translation) of SATI, the South African Translators’ Institute since 2001, having joined as a member the year before that. Last year I was honoured to be invited to mark French to English accreditation examinations for SATI, which so far has not been an onerous task. While in Zimbabwe, living 2,000 kilometres from SATI’s headquarters made it difficult to participate in the Institute’s activities, which I would have done had I lived closer.

Until APTRAD was formally constituted in February 2014, there was no comparable association for translators and interpreters in Portugal. All seven of APTRAD’s founders are themselves professional translators of good repute. Its President, Paula Pinto Ribeiro, has long had the dream to put in place a dynamic organisation which assists new translators and interpreters in integrating into the market and provides a platform which will allow issues affecting existing professionals to be addressed more effectively through concerted action. I became a member because I believe that membership of such associations not only gives one credibility as a professional but also enables one to make a contribution to the profession, if only at the level of paying the membership fee. Apart from that, I agree with the objects stated in APTRAD’s Articles of Association and, perhaps more importantly, subscribe to its Code of Ethics.

APTRAD has already held awareness-raising presentations at all the leading universities in Portugal, embarked on a training series in Portuguese, and is currently running its first mentoring programme which is set to last three months in which 8 mentors and 9 mentorees are participating.

There is one other reason why I joined APTRAD  which is equally compelling: I like every single Portuguese translator I have met in person and a good many I have met online. They are a great bunch of people who more often than not encourage each other, and perhaps this is what has motivated me to take part in the mentoring programme, and to torture APTRAD members in the Algarve with my less than perfect Portuguese as their local APTRAD representative. In that respect, I am quite an odd choice!

3. As I was compiling these questions, APTRAD announced that you will be one of the speakers at its first international conference to be held in June 2016. Could you tell us a bit about the topic you will talk about (Collaboration Essentials)?

Other than saying the presentation focuses on examining a people-centred approach to clients and others who populate our technology-driven world, I would prefer to keep the actual content under wraps until the conference itself. After the conference, I shall be happy to make the content freely available.

4. Speaking of collaboration, you mention on one of your blog posts that you think collaboration is key? How and why?

Perhaps I should preface my answer by saying that the job of a translator is to translate. Because it is our job, it is up to us to develop our translation competence constantly. This is a professional responsibility we owe to ourselves and to our clients. It is also something which requires hours of private study, private reading of a host of material from a variety of sources, paying attention to our environment (such as that strange new advert on the side of a bus, for example) as well as a good deal of serious thought.  I am not referring to continuous professional development (CPD) here; I am speaking about the honing of our translation skills alone and in private.

Collaboration, by definition, is not a solitary activity. It is simply working with someone, as opposed to working for someone. I have a rather broad definition of a collaborator, and include in it anyone you work with who helps you achieve your objective which, one would hope, is to translate accurately, well, and by the deadline given for the assignment, whether a one-hour rush job or a large project lasting several weeks or months.

At the level of the translator-client relationship (and I include agencies under the term “client”), I am of the view that despite huge advances in technology, the most effective approach in acquiring and keeping clients is one where you focus on the human aspect. Connecting with people and focusing on working with them to achieve what becomes your mutual objective (getting the job done) seems to me to engender a greater degree of cooperation among all those involved than if you do not. This interpersonal interaction – which often has very little to do with the job of translation itself – is often the driving force behind the generation of more work, and better paid work, as a result of the closer understanding between the translator and the client.

I also dealt with the matter of collaboration slightly differently in a guest blog on Catherine Translates written in May 2012, although the underlying ideas are the same.  As you can see, the “how” part of your question has no single, easy answer.

The “why” is simpler to answer: Collaboration is key because it improves the quality of your translations and, as intimated above, creates opportunities for further collaboration – also known as “more work”.

5. As already mentioned, you also have a blog, That elusive pair of jeans, where, as Sabine Lammersdorf said, you write eloquently. And I do have to agree with her. I really enjoy reading your posts. How do you think blogging can help translators?

There is no doubt in my mind that blogging on translation matters does help other translators. I have gained many insights over the years from content published by other translators, and regularly set aside part of my weekend to enjoy the latest offerings. There is a wealth of information which one can absorb. Reading translation blogs helps us stay abreast of events within our profession and developments in translation-related technology and offers a searchable space for the exchange of ideas which is less ephemeral than Facebook, for example. I especially love the comments section of active blogs, and would encourage more translators to comment more freely. It is an excellent way for translators to get to know each other.

How blogging benefits the translators who do blog is different for each individual. For me, blogging helps me clarify precisely what I think about something.

Blogging is a form of relaxation for me; the taming of stray thoughts which occur but have to be temporarily ignored when chasing translation deadlines. I find it therapeutic! That elusive pair of jeans was never intended purely as a translation blog. My chief intention when blogging is to write things of my own, as a corollary to the writing one must do as part the translation process.   Occasionally, I find myself writing about translation matters, but I do not fit into the category of person who finds joy in writing blogs entitled, “50 Ways to Leave your Lover” or similar − and indeed, I find such blogs hard to read, although they are useful to many readers as checklists.

Since November 2014, I have had a second blog on my translation website where content is restricted to translation matters and the style is slightly more formal. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I never follow a blogging schedule, and only write when I feel like it!

6. Everywhere on your blog and website you clearly state your copyright. Have you ever had any problem related to copyright? Why do you think it is important to clearly state it?

The chief stumbling block in discussing copyright and its nefarious cousin, plagiarism, is that people tend to think of these two as abstract concepts. Abstract they are not. Far from it; they are real.  Asserting copyright is, as the word suggests, a right. Infringing or violating someone else’s copyright is a crime. Plagiarism is an infringement of copyright.

I wrote a blog early in the morning on 16 November 2014 publicising a scam concerning a bogus directory of translators created by perpetrators stealing 43,158 translator profiles from ProZ. It contained the following words of mine:

“There is no such thing as a cheap translation. It may be cheap, but it won’t be a translation.”

Because my words intentionally followed the cadence of the now common saying “that there is no such things as a free lunch”, and therefore sounded familiar to me, I was careful before publishing my blog to search various word strings to ensure that no one had written this before. No one had. Less than an hour later, a young translator in a Portuguese-language translators’ group on Facebook posted these two sentences of mine without inverted commas, without attribution to me, and without any link or reference to the blog in question, and certainly without my permission. Just those two sentences in a Facebook “update” bearing her name; nothing else. I called her out on it straight away quite plainly and said that I had just written those words on my blog and she should acknowledge her source. In response, she was unapologetic, asked me how I knew they were my original words (!), embarked on a stream of uncalled-for rudeness, and refused outright to acknowledge that she had done anything wrong despite other group members urging her to do so, and despite the several “chances” I gave her, as well as providing her with numerous definitions of plagiarism cited from authoritative sources on the web. Her utter lack of respect for copyright (and for me, I suppose) resulted in her being barred from the group. It is since that day that I have clearly stated my copyright in more than one place on my blog.

I have also come across plagiarism in translation. The first time was when I took on a “rephrasing” assignment, ostensibly to improve the English of the writer, whose native tongue was Arabic and who had written an article intended for submission to an academic journal. He had, it would appear, received his doctorate based on a thesis (in Arabic) on a similar topic. Since I am a stickler for correct terminology, I was once again methodically searching word strings of the English text which I had rephrased to ensure that the edited version conformed to standard terminology within the subject field concerned. I repeatedly encountered academic articles by one particular writer in English. Whole paragraphs were strikingly similar, if not lifted wholesale. The only non-plagiarised part of the article was the section containing the Arabic author’s own research data. I phoned the agency. The project manager was as unconcerned as the end client, evidently, about this problem, and instructed me to “change the English text some more” so that one could not tell that the text was basically the same as the original author’s. I refused on principle, and sent the unfinished mess back straight away. I was paid a token for my troubles. That was the one and only time I ever worked with that agency. It was long before I had a website or a blog. My first website (July 2011) included a section on plagiarism in my terms and conditions as does my current one.

I find plagiarism abhorrent and would certainly defend my copyright were I ever to discover that it had been violated. I respect everyone else’s copyright, and am careful not to misquote. It is not too much to ask others to do the same.

7. I really enjoyed learning more about you on your LinkedIn profile. You mention extra information in your job descriptions that makes it interesting to read. For example, I especially liked that you mention an experience as a laundry worker, explaining the reason for that (lack of the Portuguese language knowledge when you moved to Portugal) and saying that it confirmed what you had always known – that translation was your thing. Do you think the way you present yourself online helps you be noticed and differentiate yourself from other translators?

I had to mention that jolly laundry, since it accounts for 18 months of my life, and it is unwise to leave great gaps on one’s CV! The fact is that I knew from the age of 15 that I definitely wanted to be a translator. LinkedIn is useful, as it serves as a repository for the details of my corporate career (laundry work apart, I mean!) spanning 22 years. I worked in-house as a secretary and translator for three years in my first job, and for 20 of those 22 years, I worked part-time as a freelance translator. The term “part-time” is somewhat of a misnomer, since soon after starting to freelance, I was frequently clocking over 40 hours of translation work per week in addition to my full-time job, and in 1995 and 1996, weekly translation hours in excess of 60 were not unusual. I gave up playing golf, which I had been doing since the age of 12, because I preferred translation. I suppose I can identify with that freelance translator definition of a weekend: two working days before Monday.

I think a presence online is necessary for most freelance translators, although I can think of dozens for whom online visibility would not generate them additional work nor is it desirable, given the highly confidential work that they do.

I am not particularly concerned about whether I am “noticed” online or not, and apart from sharing blogs I write, I have never adopted a targeted marketing strategy online to acquire clients. When other translators do share a blog of mine, I am gratified to the extent that they have found something in that blog worth sharing.

That I am to some extent visible online does, I believe, assist in verifying my bona fides when potential clients follow the links I supply them in job applications, and so on. Where perhaps I do come across as a little different from many is that I try to present myself as honestly as possible rather than portray a strictly “professional” image − hence the always very up-to-date photographs, due for across the board renewal soon. What you see is definitely what you get, except in real life I tend to swear more and laugh more.

As far as differentiating myself from other translators is concerned, I think this is more properly the ambit of my clients, and I would hope that they base their opinion on the translations and other work that I do for them and the manner in which I communicate with them.

While obviously and justifiably I do put my best foot forward when trying to acquire a potential client, as does everybody else, I do not see myself as being particularly competitive, since I honestly believe that there is abundant work for everyone. We simply have to find it!

8. You translated Vine Atlas of Spain and Portugal – History, Terroir and Ampelography from German into English (125,000 words) which later appeared on the Vine to Wine Circle portal together with additional material (over 80,000 words) from Portuguese into English. Could you tell us briefly how you found this experience?

Demanding, interesting, exhausting, exhilarating and extremely rewarding! I translated those 125,000 German words without the use of a CAT tool, you know. Although I did the Portuguese to English translation in Trados one year later, I had no TM and only De-En glossaries of my own in Excel to help me. It was also a strange experience: during the four months actually spent doing the De-En translation, I only ever dreamt in Portuguese; I went to sleep thinking in Portuguese and woke up the same way. As soon as I was awake, the German and English parts of my brain revved up to full throttle (except when reading articles in Spanish – not one of my languages! – in the course of research). Through that experience I also learned that I cannot translate for 8 hours or more per day for longer than 23 consecutive days without a break, and I have not tried to break that record since. It is good to know your limitations.

9. Now it’s your turn. I’m curious to know who your role model is and who you have nominated for our next Great Woman in Translation.

Well, my true role model is neither a woman nor a translator, but a former boss in the corporate world with whom I had the very great privilege of working for four years, and with whom I maintained a friendship after his retirement until he died in 2006. He also swore and laughed a lot.

I will play by your rules, though, Caroline!

There is a female Brazilian Portuguese to English translator based in California whom I have admired for many years and who has graciously accepted my nomination. I gather from various private enquiries I have made of several colleagues that she is little known among the younger generation of translators. I admire her for the sheer volume of the body of work she has translated; her significant contribution academically and in practise to the translation profession; her sound, measured advice in ProZ forum discussions and elsewhere for many years ; and her tenacity and stamina in the face of enormous challenges in her life. Above all, I admire her for her crisp, honest and evocative writing style in her published memoirs, “Finding My Invincible Summer”. Her name is Muriel Vasconscellos.

Thank you so much for accepting Sabine’s nomination and my invitation to answer the interview for our blog series. It was a great pleasure hosting you here, since you are such an avid reader and commenter of the blog. I loved to get to know you a bit better! 🙂

I wish an amazing 2016 to you and all my dear readers! 🙂


11 thoughts on “Greatest Women in Translation: Allison Wright

  1. Very nice interview. Having a blog myself, I know how important it is to mention your sources. Your story about the thesis in Arabic is shocking. I hope never to have problems with copyright and it is important to point it out. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Patricia. I have to give a good deal of credit to Caroline for having asked some very good questions. Your InMyOwnTerms blog looks very interesting. I shall be paying it a proper visit soon!
    The problem I encountered with the journal article by the Arabic native can be avoided or minimised by insisting on having sight of all documents to be translated before quoting on them, and certainly before accepting the work.
    There is a lot of pressure to reply to job requests within ten or fifteen minutes of receiving them, which is fine when they come from a regular, trusted client in a specific subject field where it is easy to anticipate the content.
    What I typically do with requests from clients whose texts I have not translated before is conduct quick but extensive web searches on random bits of texts in the document to be translated, visit any websites mentioned, and try to form an idea of the type of organisation I would be dealing with and its bona fides. If I do not like what I see for any reason, I do not agree to the work. It simplifies one’s life!

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Thanks for writing this contribution Allison. I enjoyed reading about your background. Having known a few others from Zim who left with more or less nothing, I can imagine what it was like.
    Your points on plagiarism were eye-opening to say the least. Years ago I wrote an article and put it “out there” only to find that someone had copied it wholesale and published in their (now defunct) magazine. When I remonstrated he simply said “it’s out there in the public domain, so free to take.” My flab was well and truly gasted, but there was nothing I could do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I gave Caroline the option of publishing the “short version” or the “long version” of my answer to the question on copyright and plagiarism; she chose the latter, and I am pleased about that.
      As regards your experience, Lucinda, my knowledge is sketchy as to what would have been applicable years ago, but nowadays one can certainly assert author’s rights under EU and international copyright law. Works in the public domain specifically refer to those works published before the existence of copyright laws (in bygone centuries) and works copyrighted only by authors (and no subsequent entity) a certain period after their deaths, roughly 70 years in most parts of the world. The person who copied your article wholesale may well have been legally off the hook. Ethically, however, is another story.


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