Former Harley-Davidson employee Peggy Daly recently circled back to her love of French as a freelance translator. With nothing but “a computer and an internet connection,” Daly launched her own freelance operation this past January and has already worked with clients in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Africa. During a recent interview, this former French House resident shared with us memories of her time at the French House and on campus, tips for how to get started in freelance translation, and why she’s excited about her new career. Bonne lecture à tous!
How did life on campus feel in the late 80s and early 90s?
I don’t think life was as convenient for students back then as it seems to be now. This may seem primitive to today’s students, but personal computers were just being introduced, and not many people had them yet. Most of us had to write our papers by hand, and then type them on a typewriter. Also, if we didn’t hand a paper in during class the day it was due, there was no emailing it to the professor; you had to slide it under their office door so they had it by morning. As long as you did that, most professors wouldn’t count it as late. I remember many late night treks in the cold and snow, finished paper in hand, hoping the building would still be open!
Also, there seem to be so many more opportunities for students to network and connect with each other now. I think that’s one of the reasons why the French House was so valuable for me. In a sea of 40,000 students, it was much harder back then to connect with like-minded people. At the French House, we all had French as a common interest.
You said that your time at the French House was significant for you. In what way?
I had been studying French since 7th grade, so I already had a strong foundation. But at the French House, I was able to really develop my fluency. I’ve known a lot of people who have studied abroad, and that’s really valuable as well. I didn’t do that, but in talking with people about their experiences abroad, I would say I learned as much or perhaps even more living at the French House. I think maybe it’s because when you’re in a foreign country, you’re speaking that language in public, but in your down time, you tend to seek out other native English speakers because there’s a familiarity there.
At the French House, it’s the opposite. You’re speaking English in public (except, of course, in your French classes), but in your down time, you’re speaking French. It’s a relaxed environment, and you have native French speakers living there as well, so I think that really helps you learn. It was great to be around people who shared my interest in French. And even after all these years, I still keep in touch with some of them. I feel like we have this common bond of such a unique experience living at the French House.
For most of your career, you worked in the marketing department at Harley-Davidson. Do Harley-Davidson and French have anything common?
For me, there wasn’t much overlap, unfortunately. Harley-Davidson is all over the world, but business for the French speaking countries was handled through the European office.
However, while it wasn’t central to my job, I was the “in-house French speaker” at the U.S. corporate headquarters. I translated all the letters that came in that were written in French, as well as greeted and redirected French tourists who showed up at corporate thinking it was the factory, and that they could take a tour. Every August, a good number of them would show up.
What is one thing that your time at Harley taught you?
I worked in the Consumer Insights area of marketing, and we really delved into people’s motivations for doing what they do. If I had to boil it all down to one thing I’ve learned over the years, I would say that people are overwhelmingly driven by the image they wish to convey about themselves to others, whether they admit it or not. And the products they buy, the services they use, as well as the things they do, generally serve to reinforce that image. Any organization that can tap into that will be successful.
How does one become a freelance translator?
Of course, you need to have excellent language skills, both in your second language and in your native language. And most importantly, you need be a good writer. If you’re not a good writer, you won’t be a good translator, since translating is not about simply swapping one word or phrase for another. It’s about understanding what the author is communicating in the source language, and being able to communicate that in the target language. Rhythm, flow, and tone are all important. Once you have all the language skills in place, it’s pretty easy to get started. All you really need in the beginning is a computer and an internet connection.
I would also recommend that you have another stream of income, because it takes time to build it up. I’m still in the building stage. I started out doing volunteer work in translation, just to gain practice. I got good feedback with that, so then I started freelancing through agencies. Ultimately, I’d like to end up with several good clients that I deal with directly, on an ongoing basis.
What should students expect from this field?
You can expect it to always be interesting! I never know what sort of project is going to come next, and to me, that’s exciting. Because of my background in business, I translate a lot of web content for internet start-ups, as well as business articles and marketing communications. With each project, I get to learn about something new. We live in a global economy, where the world is connected now more than ever, and France is one of the largest economies in Europe. In addition, I’ve had projects from Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Africa, so there really is a lot of work out there.
The flexibility in being a freelancer is great. I can take on as much work as I want, and I can work from anywhere, anytime. Due to the time difference between here and Europe, a lot of my work comes in the early morning hours, so it helps that I’m a morning person.
How has language influenced you professionally and personally?
In so many ways! Obviously, I’m using it in my translation work. But beyond that, I feel that language has given me so much insight into the world, with respect to people and cultures.
I’ve read a lot on the ‘bilingual brain’ and how it functions differently. Bilingual people access different parts of their brains, and even different parts of their personalities depending on the language they’re speaking. Because of that, I feel like I am able to live another life, parallel to the one I actually live. It’s cool, and I wouldn’t trade it!
If you’ve been on campus recently, what has surprised you most?
I’m fortunate to get back to campus a lot, since my husband is also a UW-Madison graduate, and we live in Wisconsin. I’m always surprised at all the new construction, and the changes in student housing. It’s come a long way since we lived there! But as much as the campus changes, I’m glad there are things that remain the same (at least on the outside)… Science Hall, Bascom Hall, and the Red Gym, just to name a few. I also love the work they did to the Memorial Union, updating much of it, but preserving the Rathskellar.
I’ve always loved the French “bonne continuation” because it’s hard to translate into English. Do you have a favorite French saying, expression, idiom, etc.?
The Resident Assistant of the French House at the time (John Greene) used to always yell, “Bon courage!” to everyone as they left to take exams. That’s a phrase I’ve always been fond of because of the memories associated with it. And after all, don’t we all need a little “bon courage” every day as we journey through life?