Mariam Bagayoko: A Translator with a Cause

In August 2015, we conducted an email interview with Mariam Bagayoko, a professional translator whose clients include NGOs and international organizations. A long-time proponent of women’s rights, Bagayoko gives a voice to the voiceless, translating from English and Spanish into her native French. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RedLine: Tell us about your education, background, and your interest in languages.

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Mariam Bagayoko: I grew up in the south of France (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), and upon graduating from high school, I spent a year in Ashland, Virginia, as part of an intercultural program, my goal being to improve my English and learn more about American culture. Then, I attended the University of Provence and the University of Paris 7 (Jussieu) and majored in foreign languages (English/Spanish) with a minor in law. I received a fellowship from NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science and spent my senior year in New York. I chose to focus on American studies and subsequently wrote a thesis on black politics in the Big Apple. When I came back to France, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science as well as a master’s in international relations at the Sorbonne and a master’s in American civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

RedLine: When did you know you wanted to become a translator?

MB: From a very young age, I had an inclination for the English and Spanish languages. My parents spoke both Bambara [a West African language] and French at home and they would listen to traditional Malian music, salsa, and rhythm and blues. So I was used to listening to different languages, and I was eager to understand English and Spanish to fully connect with American, Caribbean, and Hispanic cultures.

When I started studying English at the age of 11, I was convinced that I either wanted to teach English or become an interpreter (I didn’t really make a distinction between translating and interpreting at the time). I also became very fond of the Spanish language and whenever I could take extra classes, I did. As time went by, my travel experiences, encounters, and personal journey confirmed my aspirations to work in a cross-cultural environment.

RedLine: How have your education and upbringing in France influenced your work as a translator?

MB: As a French woman of African descent, I think I have always tried to embrace the various dimensions of my identity influenced by my origins, my nationality, and my intellectual interests, so when I was given the opportunity to work as a translator for a nonprofit organization specializing in maternal health and women’s empowerment in developing countries, I didn’t hesitate. I felt I had a duty to make a contribution and create a bond between my origins and my cultures of adoption. I am fortunate to speak foreign languages so I can help enable communication between advocacy organizations and underserved communities.

RedLine: How long have you been a professional translator?

MB: I have worked as a translator for 15 years. I got my first assignments from an NGO where I had worked as an intern back in 2000 while pursuing my master’s degree in international relations.

RedLine: Are there any particular challenges you face as a translator working from English and Spanish into French?

MB: I would say that it’s a very competitive market. There are a lot of fellow translators who work in those language pairs. Therefore, being professional and reliable and also having a niche are definitely advantages if you want to stand out.

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The website of Mariam Bagayoko, which includes personal accounts of work as well as opinion and thought pieces. (Click to visit.)

RedLine: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing translation as a career?

MB: Freelance translators need to be able to work on their own. It’s important to carefully manage one’s time during busy times and make the most of slow periods. You need to read constantly and work on writing skills in both your target and source languages, even though all of this may sound obvious. Attending conferences on translation and also on one’s areas of specialization can pay off in developing skills and getting new clients.

RedLine: You mention on your website [www.mariambagayoko.com] that you consider yourself a passionate world citizen. Can you tell us how your worldview has influenced your life, both personally and professionally?

MB: My origins as well as my education and travel experiences have shaped my career choices in many ways. As an offspring of immigrants, I feel French, but I have ties with my family’s African roots, and also with the U.S. and Spain through traveling, literature, history, and politics. I have always wanted to live and work in a cross-cultural environment. I can’t imagine my life without an Anglo-Saxon and Latin “flavor,” even though my “Frenchness” and African roots are of course always present. I make it a point to read, write, and interact in English, Spanish, and French on a daily basis. In a nutshell, I live, read, write, work, think, sing, and even dream in those three languages and that certainly explains why I have managed to adapt to different cultural contexts over the years.

RedLine: You believe strongly in women’s rights, and women’s health and well-being in French-speaking developing countries in particular. Tell us a bit about the causes you are passionate about and what percentage of your translation work focuses on these issues.

MB: I am deeply committed to minority issues and women’s rights. I feel engaged by the struggle for women’s empowerment, especially in areas where gender discrimination and maternal mortality are pervasive. In a way, I make an anonymous contribution to this cause through my translation work. I also volunteer for a Massachusetts-based nonprofit specializing in human rights education.

I follow the activities of NGOs, international and grassroots organizations that mobilize and work on behalf of the voiceless through advocacy, outreach, training, and health interventions in order to foster change in behavior and mentality. About 95% of my work deals with women’s health and rights as well as development issues.

RedLine: What types of organizations need translation services but cannot afford them?

MB: From what I have observed over the years, some grassroots organizations cannot always afford translation services, especially the ones that are located in developing countries. Moreover, larger nonprofits may at times be confronted with budgetary constraints, as some of them get most of their funding from philanthropic organizations, governments, and foreign institutions.

RedLine: Last, can you tell us what you like most about translation?

MB: Each translation is a new challenge, a new story—and I truly enjoy that. I see translation as an opportunity to do some research on a given subject matter and learn. Moreover, I am running a business. So I strive to heed my instructors and colleagues’ advice and market my services, which is quite an interesting and thrilling endeavor because I get to explain why I like this craft so much.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work.

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