‘Open to interpretation’ – an interview with Benjamin Penin

Ben interpreting for Anand Gokani (great grandson of Mahatma Ghandi)
Ben interpreting for Anand Gokani (great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi)


Benjamin Penin swapped sunny Manchester for downtown Grenoble in 2002 to pursue his dreams of living in the Alps and becoming a freelance translator.  Grenoble Life wanted to find out more …

Grenoble Life: You have an interesting bi-cultural background, tell us about it.

Benjamin Penin: I was born in London to an English mother and a French father. Intent on creating bilingual offspring they spoke to my sister and me in their respective mother tongues, while our schooling took place in the capital’s French schools. It was the family’s move to Manchester that thrust us into a more traditional British education, just in time for my GCSEs. A massive culture shock I’m still struggling to deal with! I was French, then I was English, and now I’m not so sure…

GL: You are a translator and an interpreter. Do you need specific qualifications to do this in France?

BP: Specific qualifications in translation certainly aren’t essential to finding work (except if you wish to work as a “sworn translator”, for legal documents, court work, etc.).

My university degree included specialist training in translation, but to be honest, “on-the-job” experience is far more useful than any diploma … this may be news to some in France [laughs].

Customers are primarily interested in the quality of your work, so once you have proven your worth and built yourself a strong reputation, work tends to come in through contacts and word of mouth.

GL: What kinds of clients do you generally have for your translating work?

BP: My translation clients are firms and other organisations that need to communicate to an English-speaking public or with their subsidiaries abroad.

A huge variety of sectors benefit from the services of people like me, from high-tech industry, to banks, cultural associations, conference organisers and ski resorts!

You have to be versatile and knowledgeable because of the variety of the work out there. I might translate detailed promotional material on a region’s winemaking industry one week and guidelines for energy-efficient building construction the next!

GL: What kinds of clients do you have for your interpreting work?

BP: They might be companies or associations who hold conferences for an international audience, training courses for foreign employees or meetings between individuals who don’t speak the same language, or even regional authorities receiving foreign visitors.

GL: Are your clients mostly based in the local area?

BP: For translation, not really. The rise of the internet means that customers can be acquired from anywhere, although local organisations tend to look for suppliers in their vicinity, and translation is no exception.

Interpreting work tends to revolve around the Rhône-Alpes region for obvious reasons of travel costs, although I have had assignments in Utah, Tunis and Amsterdam.

GL: Do you translate from English into French and French into English? Is there a difference in the way to approach such work? Is one more challenging than the other?

BP: People consider me to be completely bilingual, but I find the subtleties of French slightly more challenging (and time consuming!) so it makes sense for me to translate only into English. I’m sure some people work in both directions, but I have doubts over the quality of the results.

GL: Tell us about some interesting jobs you’ve done as an interpreter.

BP: The end of last year took the biscuit in terms of unusual jobs.

September kicked off with an assignment interpreting for the French Minister of Finance during her tour of local multinationals, and ended with a day accompanying Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson (above) to press conferences, radio interviews and lunch with the Deputy Mayors.

Not long after, I spent a month in a laboratory near Nîmes with a young Russian chemist who was being trained up on the various ways of testing dog-food quality!

I could tell you about my four weeks in the countryside with a group of Indian civil engineers, but it’s a long story involving hydroelectric dams, frogs’ legs and rather too much time spent in coaches.

GL: What are some of the challenges / drawbacks of being self-employed in France?

BP: France certainly isn’t known as being an entrepreneur’s dream, but once you’ve got your head around the accounting rules and paperwork (pension, tax, insurance, etc.) I don’t think it’s any worse than other countries.

However, those exercising “professions libérales” pay a huge whack in social contributions and taxes (40-50% of their income) and of course they don’t have all the advantages of French employees.

GL: What are some of the advantages to being self-employed in France?

BP: You can take the day off at a moment’s notice and be on the slopes in less than an hour!

GL: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working at home?

You avoid office politics and traffic jams, but you need serious self-discipline to get your work done without it overflowing into your free time.

GL: Why did you come to live in Grenoble?

BP: I like Britain, but the weather would have driven me over the edge eventually, plus it lacked both a lifestyle conducive to a long life and sufficiently extreme geology – the Alps definitely exerted a gravitational pull on me.

GL: Is Grenoble a good town in which to do your kind of work?

BP: It is insofar as the local organisations involved in the leisure sector, high-tech industry, culture and tourism usually seek to work with local suppliers. But the web-based nature of my work makes my location almost irrelevant. There is a good little network of translators and interpreters here, though, and word of mouth works well.

Benjamin Penin – French-English Translator & Interpreter
Tel: 06 65 16 27 14

6 thoughts on “‘Open to interpretation’ – an interview with Benjamin Penin”

  1. Attention tu vas avoir trop de succès avec cet article et t’auras plus le temps de faire du sport !

  2. Hi Ben,

    I agree with the comments about translators working into a foreign language. I’ve recently graduated with a Master’s in translation here in Grenoble and I’m shocked at the amount of jobs I’ve seen advertised around the world asking for people to work into all sorts of weird language combinations.

  3. Hi Woody,

    We hope to feature more on translators, and the translation industry here, in the near future,

    Thanks for your comment,


Comments are closed.