Loving A Life With Languages

Michael Wells - French <> English Translator and Interpreter on Seekncheck

Michael Wells is a translator-interpreter, working mainly with English and French. He has worked for more than 35 years in many different roles: non-profit associations, his own company, big international firms, the European Union, and latterly as a freelancer. He spent twenty years abroad living variously in Paris, Vilnius, Moscow, and Brussels and returned to his native London, UK in 2006. He blogs occasionally at swithunwells.com.
In 2019, MIT Press published Being & Neonness by Luis De Miranda, translated by Michael Wells, a cultural and philosophical history of neon. His translation of Helene Khim-Tit’s book “A School for Joy in India” will be published in 2021 by Extraordinary Editions.

What inspired you to become a translator?

I loved Latin and French at school and did very well in my French exams, especially in the translation tests. Languages gave me the freedom to explore other worlds and meet other types of people who had other types of thoughts.

What’s your favorite citation about translation or language in general?

May I have three?

“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you anywhere.”

Albert Einstein

“The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a dream.”

Jean Cocteau

Who do you look up to as a role model?

For translation, I greatly admire Art Goldhammer and David Bellos. Otherwise, I’m a big Dolly Parton fan.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about being a translator?

It’s not so much that people misconceive translation, it’s just that many monolinguals have little idea about the shape of other worlds outside their own language environment. As translation work is fundamentally invisible, it is difficult for people to understand how much time, effort, and investment in learning it can take. Even with machine translation now, which can be very good and effective, a human is still needed to check and assess it.

What are the toughest challenges you’ve experienced as a freelance translator?

Initially, it can be hard to command high enough rates to make it worthwhile. In the early years of this century, there was huge downward pressure on prices, so the challenge was to find decent work that paid reasonably. As the LSP sector consolidated, large firms could treat translators like small cogs in a big machine, imposing software and working methods. I think that situation has improved more recently, as companies realize that human translators are still valuable.

What lessons you’ve learned through the crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Stay at home and avoid catching it at all costs! Also, that living on screen all the time is not so healthy. I like to read paper books for digital detox when I get zoomed out!

What are the top 3 tools you use as a freelance translator?

A neural machine translator which I use as I used to use dictionaries, i.e., with gratitude and scepticism.
Wikipedia. I am a member of my local Wikimedia. It’s one of the most important, independent sources of knowledge and learning available now. Everybody should support it.
Translation software. I don’t endorse brands, but there are several good options.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to become a translator?

Make sure you either have more than two source languages to work from or specialize in one language and gain expertise in a particular field. For instance, become a lawyer-linguist, engineer-linguist, medical linguist, etc.

A final word?

It is incredibly refreshing to have more than one language to read and enjoy information in. When I’m in London, most days I listen to my favourite French satirists on the radio in Paris. Laughing in a different language is delectable.


Michael Wells is a French <> English freelance translator and interpreter on Seekncheck. He has extensive experience working in marketing, international public affairs, development and health, and fundraising. Contact him through his Checker profile.