METM23 Chronicles: Katarzyna Szymańska & Audrey Bernard-Petitjean

What does it take to become (and remain) a scientific translator? A two-tale perspective

This duo of medical translators, Katarzyna Szymańska and Audrey Bernard-Petitjean, scientists born of (back then) very different worlds, cemented a friendship at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and thrived to become accomplished professionals with similar – yet distinct – profiles.

Let’s unravel their “mechanisms of action”.

Katarzyna was introduced to the world of languages and travelling abroad from her native Poland at a young age. She studied Russian, German and Latin at school, French and English through private classes. While she was absorbing languages by osmosis, science was winning her heart. The two paths found a natural intersection in a blend of … Scientish!

Katarzyna did research for her PhD at a WHO agency located in France and, taking everything in her stride, studied in parallel for her post-graduation diploma in translation. She started working as a scientist at IARC, where, of course, she wrote science. Soon she “found herself” translating science between English and Polish, and from French; perfecting scientific research papers at all stages by flanking, and sometimes whipping, authors; and eventually teaching translators how to translate science and scientists how to write papers.

She works almost exclusively in the field of oncology, but within that field the boundaries between her activities are blurred. She never knows what challenges await her when she opens a text for the first time. She doesn’t work with agencies, CAT tools or frameworks in general; they would only hamper her process.

Katarzyna’s professional trajectory would be hard to replicate. You might rightly feel in awe of her top-down, big-picture-to-small-detail approach to work. But before you feel too daunted, meet Audrey, the bottom-up professional.

As a girl, Audrey learned English, German, some Latin and some ancient Greek in the standard French school system. Having met her, I suspect that “some” and “standard” are what others would call “thorough” and “tough”. Still, she couldn’t call herself bilingual. So she diligently climbed the ladder, one step at a time.

Shy in interpersonal relationships, Audrey persevered, drawing on her inborn effortless approach to people. She completed a PhD in physiology and joined IARC, where she worked with, and befriended, Katarzyna. At some point, Audrey switched from the lab bench to the writing desk, to work as an English to French translator – and she did so without any formal tuition in translation. She taught herself.

Audrey now works with international organisations, pharmaceutical companies, agencies, authors and colleagues. She translates European Union guidelines on public health, regulatory documents for the European Medicines Agency, clinical materials, training materials and instructions.

These documents, combined, target diverse audiences. They require a strong command of several genres (institutional and legal, medical, technical, health-related lay language), a thorough understanding of the many ethical issues at stake, and clarity of mind when it comes to institution-specific ways of working and operational details. As Katarzyna stressed, Audrey’s broad expertise is fed by her habit of consciously exposing herself to novelty and learning from it.

Katarzyna and Audrey explained how they propose themselves as partners to their (different) clients and shared how they stay abreast of their profession.

Scientific translators at METM23
(Click the image to enlarge)

The audience discussion was lively, confirming that some of the top scientific translators do not have a background in science (nor all its great many facets!). It may just take them longer to amass the knowledge necessary to do the job. This is, for me, an excellent takeaway.

This METM23 presentation was chronicled by Claudia Percivalle.

Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato.

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