Michelle Deeter and I met at Carleton College, where she was a member of the class of 2009 and earned a degree in International Relations. At Carleton she was a member of the Exit 69 a capella group, wowing the campus with some truly killer pipes and singing the definitive version of “Put Your Records On”. After graduation she lived in China and later received a Masters in Translation and Interpreting from Newcastle University. She then became a professional Chinese translator. Michelle’s first translated book, Beijing, Beijing, was published this past March. She now lives in Manchester, England.
[See other entries in the series here]
Me: Let's start with the basic bio -- where were you born and raised?
Michelle: I was born and raised in California. Neither of my parents are from California though, so we spent a lot of summer visiting my family in Indiana (on my dad's side) and my family in Germany (on my mom's side). I have one younger brother, and we get along really well. We played Legos as kids for hours on end.
Me: What was your Lego style of choice?
Michelle: We had these flat tile type things that had green "grass" on the edges and streets, so you could put them in a loop or whatever and build a whole town. We liked to make restaurants and houses and stuff for the town.
Me: I was about to ask "do they have Legos in Europe", but of course they do -- it's a Danish company, isn't it? Typical American chauvinism.
Michelle: Yeah they have Lego stores here like they have Disney stores in the U.S. I have been to both the Legoland in Billund and the one in Carlsbad, CA, I am proud to say.
Me: What about the one in Minneapolis?
Michelle: I haven't been to that one, sadly. Have you?
Me: Yes -- it was basically my first stop when I came out to Carleton. The Mall of America is a surprisingly fun place.
Michelle: I would agree! And even though shopping can seem really shallow, a good friend of mine said you can learn a lot about a country by looking at how they shop. Especially supermarkets.
Me: I've never shopped abroad, but I hear American supermarkets blow people's minds.
Michelle: Yeah and I have reverse culture shock or something because they blow my minds now. So many different jams and jellies! So many different EVERYTHING.
Me: So I've been doing some research in preparation for resuming the interview, and in particular, listening to your rendition of "Put Your Records On", which for me is the definitive version of the song. When did you get into singing?
Michelle: I always loved singing but never did it competitively. When I was about nine or ten I sang with the school choir and I also went to German School on Saturdays where we had to sing too
Me: When did you decide to join a Carleton a capella group? We're no St. Olaf [our neighboring school with a famous music program], but those are still pretty serious.
Michelle: My Dad bought me a CD of the Knightingales, and I thought that their a cappella was so amazing that I signed myself up for a few singing lessons and then just prayed that loving singing plus a background in piano would be enough to get me into one of the groups at Carleton.
Me: What was it like to get a big solo performance?
Michelle: Nerve wracking. I like blending in a cappella, so basically making my voice not noticeable. But it is kind of cool, I had so many supportive friends so when I had a solo in my freshman year. I think half of the front row was filled with my buddies eager to cheer me on. That makes it all worthwhile.
Me: I remember watching you perform "Put Your Records On" and thinking "Man, for a tiny person she has some booming pipes."
Michelle: Haha you must have mistaken me for Maia [Rodriguez]. I distinctly remember Aaron Kaufman telling me I had to sing as loud as I could and make sure that Maia didn't steal my song at the end. Although I guess when I'm excited I can get pretty loud.
That group [Exit 69] was pretty amazing--Aaron and Hannah [Button-Harrison] still do gigs, and David Lonoff had such a deep understanding of music theory.
My first year I just lived in awe of them and then I started contributing.
Me: Now speaking of "tiny girl with the big pipes," I have to ask: Were you always the shortest girl in class?
Or was there a time in your life where you towered over your fellow first graders?
Michelle: Always the shortest girl in class, definitely. I remember lining up by height for pictures and being right at the front.
Me: At what point in your life did you realize "well, this is as high as I go?"
Michelle: Pretty early. My mom made jokes that the doctor told us neither of her kids would be tall because both my dad and my mom are relatively short.
But I don't know I must have read a bunch of stories about tiny children being awesome (think Matilda) and mice being warriors (the Redwall series) so I never thought it was something to be bummed about.
Me: It sounds like you were pretty well-travelled even as a kid. Was that normal in your neighborhood -- were folks pretty cosmopolitan, or were you the worldly and sophisticated one in class growing up?
Michelle: Yeah I guess [it was pretty cosmopolitan]. I remember growing up with a lot of kids that spoke different languages at home--Chinese, Farsi, Korean--and that just seemed normal. I've always been proud of being half German. I think the Germans have great public transit and great environmental policies, so I am glad to be able to say I'm German.
Me: I'm actually a quarter German myself ("Schraub"), though I don't have any family there anymore.
Michelle: Have you visited any parts of Germany?
Me: No. My grandparents were of the "never visit Germany, never buy a German car" generation of Jews. I don't think my parents were quite that dogmatic, but they had no interest in ever going. We did hit Denmark and Poland (among other places) in my one trip to Europe.
Michelle: Oh I see. Well it's always there and you can visit by yourself whenever you feel like it. And I'm happy to play tour guide if I'm free.
Me: I've heard nothing but good things about it from those who have visited, so I might take you up on that. I'm guessing you speak German, then? How many languages do you speak?
Michelle: I speak English, Chinese, German and French. My Chinese is better than my German now because I use Chinese every day. My French is super rusty but I can watch a film and know what's happening most of the time.
I definitely think languages follow the principle of "use it or lose it" so I have to work really hard to keep my Chinese up. But with the internet I can listen to Chinese radio, read a bunch of articles, or ask friends for help when I have questions.
Me: I have an incredible admiration for people who can speak multiple languages -- I was a failed Spanish student in high school and a failed Hebrew student in college. When did you start learning French and Chinese (I assume you learned German from childhood)?
Michelle: Yes I learned German at home, with my mom (and my dad, who speaks pretty amazing German considering he started in high school). My mom believed that it would be good for me to learn a language "from the textbook" instead of just getting language credit for German. She said if I chose French (instead of Spanish, the only other option at the time) she would let me go to France and stay with a family that she knew there. And that was enough for me to pick French!
It has come in handy a few times. I did an internship in Geneva, which is the French speaking part of Switzerland, and I could read all the signs and take yoga classes taught by a French instructor.
But now that I work using languages, I'm hyper aware of the actual proficiency you need to reach to use it in a business environment versus using it as a tourist. So I would never apply to a job in Paris, because I can't write a nice business email in French.
Me: When did you start learning Chinese?
Michelle: I started at Carleton. The summer before I arrived at Carleton, my dad and I were looking at classes and I almost went with Japanese, just for a lark. But I thought that Chinese would be more useful (based on some advice given to me by someone working in the State Department) and then I fell in love after one lesson. It was a great beginner lesson taught by Mark Hansell, so who wouldn't want to learn Chinese after that?
Me: Well, me, because I would fail at it miserably. But I'm glad it worked out for you! It's amazing that you're so proficient -- basically, a professional Chinese speaker -- starting so late in the game. The stereotype is that you should learn it at age 3 or whatever to really get it natural.
Michelle: Yeah, and I understand where people get that idea. Apparently in Switzerland you're supposed to start learning how to ski when you're 3 otherwise you'll never get it right.
The reality is, is that apart from learning how to copy sounds, adults are really great learners compared to kids. They have a lot of experience, they can understand complex grammar and learn rules and exceptions to rules...and they can even tell a teacher exactly what is confusing them.
I guess for anybody who is thinking of studying languages or doesn't know what to do with their life, I highly recommend living abroad for a year and seeing what happens. It's more common in the UK and Australia (students take a gap year between high school and college) and it might result in a lot of fooling around but it might help someone realize their real passion.
So if you are desperate to get a perfect accent, you need to learn the language early. But if you want to master a language, all you need is to put in the time. That's my philosophy.
That being said, I get that some people feel like they can never learn a language no matter how hard they try. So it's not that everyone can follow the same formula for learning a language and then get the same result. I sometimes get really shy about my language abilities, because some people will say "I've been learning language x for ten years, and I can't speak it as well as you speak Chinese!"
It's hard to pinpoint why that person hasn't reached a certain level even though they really wanted it. So I give them three or four answers and hope that it makes them feel better.
Me: I think you can be justly proud. I mean, you have a book out! Which is an excellent segue -- how did you get into the translation game?
Michelle: Mostly through volunteering. I think translation is kind of like solving a puzzle, especially with Chinese because it uses a completely different writing system and grammar conventions and everything. So when I can create an English version that means just about the same thing, I get an immense feeling of achievement.
I'm motivated by a curiosity so I always take on new jobs that sound interesting. I did subtitling for a kung fu film last year, tried some patent translation (hardest thing of my life) and dabbled in some contract stuff as well. It's all rewarding in different ways.
Me: So tell me about your book! What is it, what is it about, how did you come to be its translator?
Michelle: The book [Beijing, Beijing] is semi-autobiographical, written by a guy who used to study medicine in Beijing and later became a consultant and finally became an author.
In a way he reminds me of the typical American freshman college student--likes to party, likes to eat as much food as possible for as cheap as possible, and can't get the right girl at the right time.
Yet there were all these things that are just quintessentially Chinese, from the snacks to the architecture to the special little idioms sprinkled everywhere. So when you read the book you feel like you're in China, but it's easy to relate to him or at least kind of know what he's going through.
Me: I imagine one of the more difficult parts of translation is when you're dealing with idioms and other very culturally-specific points of knowledge. How do you approach getting those parts across to an Anglophone audience?
Michelle: My basic approach was using my family and friends as guinea pigs. So I would sit and think about if a certain phrase or cultural phenomena would make sense to your average American reader, and then test it out on my family, and then tweak accordingly.
For example, there were all these place names, and for almost all of them I used pinyin, so you can't tell the meaning of the name but it's systematic. Google Maps does this for almost all of Beijing, so that meant that it was kind of a standard.
But then there are these special alleys in Beijing called hutong. They don't have them in Southern China, and they're quite special. The editor said I wasn't allowed to use footnotes (because it's fiction, you want to get swept away in the story!) so I had to start with alleys, or hutong in the first mention of it, and then hope that the reader remembered what a hutong was for the rest of the book.
Character names are the hardest. All of the character names were nicknames or had some joke involved, and it's generally accepted that humor is hard to translate.
At the end of the day, I think my friend's advice was the most helpful: don't underestimate the reader, and don't over-explain for them. If they want more info they'll find it on Wikipedia.
Me: Did you get to do a book launch party? Were there any fancy soirees?
Michelle: Unfortunately no. The publisher is based in the US and they didn't have the money to fly me out. But in future that might happen with other books. Fingers crossed!
The other thing you have to consider is that translated fiction doesn't normally get best-seller status. One exception is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But generally the translations serve a very tiny niche audience.
Me: [You went directly from Carleton to China, and then directly from China to England]. What brought you to England originally? I assume there are other masters programs in translation work?
Michelle: Yeah I almost went to the Monterrey Institute in California, which would be close to my parents and very well regarded. Then Newcastle ended up being slightly cheaper and more interesting. Also the program is really highly regarded.
Although if I had gone to Monterrey I would have enjoyed more delicious Mexican food and taken advantage of a really good career center designed for translator types. Newcastle was not quite as helpful because they were busy helping undergraduates, finance people, law students, etc.
Ultimately I have no regrets, but it is one of those decisions where I went to a really odd place to learn just because I heard the teaching was top-notch. Just like Carleton!
Me: Did you have any intention of staying in England long-haul?
Michelle: I guess when I first applied I thought I would go straight back to China and work with better qualifications. At that point I had a Chinese boyfriend, and my mom seemed resigned to the fact that her daughter would live on the other side of the world
That all changed when I met Fred (my boyfriend) in Geneva. He's very international, likes languages, and is a great person to be with. So I thought it would be a good idea to change course completely and see what living in England was life, mostly to make sure our relationship stayed strong.
Basically I'm keeping my options open, and I am likely to stay in the UK for the next five to ten years. But I might move too.
Me: What do you think childhood Michelle would say if she found out she would be a professional translator when she grew up?
Michelle: I think she would be over the moon.
When I was a kid I said I wanted to do something "international" which doesn't really mean anything
But now that's exactly what I'm doing...living abroad, working with people from different countries, and using my language skills
The other way to put it, as my friend said is "I want to live in as many countries as I can before I settle down." So far I have three! And that feels pretty awesome.