Translating early experience into a career in France

Young movers: ‘We started school with little French but look at us now!’

27 February 2019
By James Harrington

The children of military personnel are used to moving from one place to another as their parents get new postings. That is exactly what happened to language teacher and translator Stéphanie Denton-Welburn, now 31.

She had already lived in Preston, Lancashire, and Ripon, North Yorkshire, by the time her RAF father was posted to Orange, Vaucluse, for three years when she was 14.

“I find it quite easy to integrate, because I have got used to moving around,” she said.

“Orange was the longest I’d ever stayed in one place, apart from when I was really young.”

While her transient lifestyle made it easy for her to make friends, Stéphanie remembers her first day at school in France. “I’d done French at school but I wouldn’t have been able to do much more than order a baguette.

“I will always remember my first day. I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but right down in the south, the French are very Mediterranean in appearance.

“I still recall being stared at. It was really hard. There was a girl in my class who was English, but she was only around for a couple of months. I think, like most foreign children do, I clung to her at first.

“But everyone wanted to speak to me. Everyone wanted to be my friend because I was so different, so I soon made friends with French people.”

Thanks in part to support from her teachers, Stéphanie said that, once she had got over her early nerves, she picked up the language quite quickly. She arrived in France in April and by September she knew enough to be able – in her own words – “just to get on with it”.

In educational terms, Stéphanie’s arrival in France could not have been more awkwardly timed. It coincided with the start of brevet for her year, but her parents and the education authorities negotiated a “grace” so she did not have to sit the exam or re-take the year, and could head straight into bac studies.

“Normally, a posting is three years,” Stéphanie said. “But my dad got an extension for six months so that I could finish my schooling.”

After three years in the south, Stéphanie went to take a degree in French studies at the University of London Institute in Paris.

The unusual choice of university was a compromise with her parents. She “was adamant” she wanted to study at a French establishment, but her parents wanted her to go to a British university.

After relatively rural Orange, Stéphanie said Paris was a “total culture shock”. But it was there that her later teaching career – which she said started when she helped teach English to younger students while at school – developed.

She earned money as a student giving one-to-one English lessons to professionals.

After completing her degree, Stéphanie returned to England for a decade, beginning her teaching career there, but decided her future was in France. Last March, she moved to a village near Civray, Vienne. While launching her teaching and translation business proved straight-forward, problems setting up a Siret number for her hairstylist husband proved invaluable for Stéphanie. She landed some translation work with the prefecture following a meeting with officials.

Stéphanie is not assermenté, which means she cannot do certain translation work.

She said: “I keep thinking ‘should I go through the process?’. But the income isn’t worth it. Some of the work involved – translations for the police – is not paid for a year.

“I did three-and-a-half hours interpreting for the prefecture for a meeting with Britons on Brexit. I translated all their PowerPoints and so on. I get enough work without it.”

Meanwhile, she has found expectations for their two daughters, aged nine and six, have been high. 

She said: “I’ve spoken French to them since they were young – but it’s not the same as being immersed.

There are four or five English children in my youngest’s class, and she’s using them as translators. But the teacher is adamant that she’s struggling in her learning.   “I think part of the problem is that because my French is so good, they expect the girls to be the same.”

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