As translators we spend a lot of time in the safety and comfort of our office, and those of us who are also introverts are just fine with that. (If you agree that e-mail is the best invention since the answering machine you know what I’m talking about.) So while we’re not exactly out there putting our fragile selves on the line like stand-up comics in front of a tough crowd, there are some aspects of our profession that do require thick skin. Here are two I’ve had to deal with.
Dealing with feedback
In a perfect world all proofreaders would be eagle-eyed, objective and blessed with the gift of restraint. At the other end of the spectrum, in translator hell, your beautiful translation gets mangled by nasty crimson track-changes that are objectively wrong, and you have to waste time and energy convincing the project manager that the proofreader completely biffed up the translation. Of course most cases are somewhere in between, but for the first few years of my career I experienced a cold dread when I saw the subject line “questions on translation” in my inbox, because I was afraid I’d be faced with incontrovertible evidence that I actually had no business being a translator.
The antidote? Just jump in and start replacing the fear with actual experiences. In doing so I found out that feedback is simply a natural part of the give-and-take of translation projects and that getting questioned doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong or that you don’t have a voice. I learned that most types of feedback fall into three categories:
- Sometimes the client or PM simply asks for confirmation that a certain translation is correct. So I explain my choice and that usually concludes the matter.
- Sometimes the client is not happy with my choice of words, but they failed to provide me with a list of preferred terminology. So I give them what they want and don’t feel bad because it’s not a reflection on my ability.
- And sometimes it’s an actual oversight or mistake on my part. But so far these mistakes have always been very minor and in a weird way it has actually been reassuring. You won’t always catch every single mistake, which is why it’s wise to work with a proofreading partner. But if these minor slip-ups are the worst that any of these professionals have been able to find over the years, apparently I do know what I’m doing.
Translating certain types of medical documents
Most hospital reports don’t bother me; I have worked on thousands of hospital reports describing the progress of cancer and heart disease, but usually the treatment is successful and the document ends with the patient being discharged. The patients that do die are usually old, which is still sad of course, but not tragic. As a translator I feel a momentary pang for this person and for the transience of life in general, but nothing more than that.
What I struggle with are autopsy reports in murder cases where the victims are children. Another extremely tough one is police reports on child abuse cases. Here are some strategies I use to deal with the heaviness of the content:
- I focus on the challenges of the translation itself and separate it from the person. This is not too difficult when translating autopsy reports because they are extremely technical, so most of the time you’re dealing with anatomy, cellular structures and lab tests.
- When it’s impossible to block out the horrific details of the case, I remind myself that I’m contributing to the perpetrator getting caught and sentenced. I try to channel the emotional impact into determination and the hope that my contribution counts for something.
- Of course refusing the assignment is always an option. One such project this year was supposed to be split up between two translators because it was so large, but a few days later they asked if I could do the whole thing if the deadline was moved up, and I wonder if the other translator bowed out for that reason. Pure conjecture, of course, and I’m only wondering because I briefly considered passing on it myself.
Sometimes the right response is to say no or bow out, but on the whole I’ve found that developing thicker skin by deliberately exposing myself to intimidating or challenging situations has helped me grow as a professional.
How about you, colleagues? I would love to hear about ways you have faced fears or challenges in your professional life.