Deal With it: Developing Thicker Skin as a Translator

feedbackAs 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
forensic_pathologyMost 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.

11 thoughts on “Deal With it: Developing Thicker Skin as a Translator

  1. Very true, Marie – another instance where we need thick skin is when dealing with those translators who rarely “leave their cave up in the mountains” to quote Chris Durban at the recent Berlin FIT Congress (love that image!). Not only do they rarely leave their caves, but they seem to forget that they’re dealing with human beings at the other end of the e-mail chain, resulting in at best brusque, and at worst downright rude and upsetting exchanges. Clients can be rude, too, of course, but it’s usually other translators who are the worst offenders in my experience…

    • Hi Claire, yes, that is another good example. I’ve observed the same thing and been on the receiving end of brusque/rude emails at times. I’m really baffled by it, because being rude is counterproductive from a business perspective, and even if we give these people the benefit of the doubt and believe the rudeness was unintentional, that still means they are completely unaware of the effect of how they phrase things, and how can that be for language professionals?

  2. Thank you for writing this, especially the second part. I’ve had to thicken my skin just to translate fictional stories about these horrific events; I can only imagine how much harder it must be to translate the facts of horrific events that actually happened. I’m grateful for people like you who do so with compassion and with a devotion to aiding the cause of justice.

    • Thank you for your kind words Sarah! As a translator of fiction you definitely have similar challenges. It seems to me that violence has been getting more graphic and horrific in mainstream fiction over the past few decades, as if writers feel they have to keep pushing the boundaries to keep people’s interest. At least when I read a book I can skim over graphic scenes if the rest of the story is worth reading, but as a translator you can’t escape. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this issue 🙂

  3. Great post! I think that with proofreading feedback, it’s really important to recognize when we’re actually wrong and when it’s a matter of stylistic preferences. Some proofreaders will stick to your preferences and only make mild changes, while others will change every other word just because they can.

    • Thank you Yael! Yes, that distinction is crucial. I think the “red-pen syndrome” where the changes are mostly stylistic is worse when the translation is assigned by an agency and the proofreader doesn’t know who the translator is. It’s much easier to be unnecessarily harsh when the translator is an abstraction. When you know you’re going to have to communicate with a real-life person about the changes you made to their translation, I think you tend to be a lot more careful and objective. I recently had one of my translations proofread by someone who did a great job of catching mistakes without imposing their own style. I sent them an e-mail expressing my appreciation because it’s definitely something I don’t take for granted!

  4. Hi, Marie! I just wanted to share something. I’m only beggining my road as a translator, but I have already experienced something alike. Once I translated something like “If you fail to take the exam…” which in Spanish would be similar to “Si no presentas el examen…”. My boss, however, didn’t know that “fail to” doesn’t only refer to a failure, but also to when someone can’t or won’t do something.

    • Hi Erick, perfect example! Often our project managers or clients are not fluent in both languages, yet they have a stake in the outcome so they are tempted to micromanage. That’s our opportunity to explain and educate with graciousness and humility (and suppress the occasional temptation to be impatient or sarcastic!) 🙂

  5. I was never asked to translate an autopsy report (fortunately) and, if I ever do, I don’t know how I’d react. If it’s a child, that’s going to be a tough one. I’d definetely accept it but I predict it will have an impact like no other project involving death or disease. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    • Hi Magda, thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes, in the end that’s how it is; these jobs hit me hard and I still remember most details even though I usually forget details once I’m done with other jobs, but I figure the bad stuff is out there anyway and it’s better to contribute something helpful than stick my head in the sand, as much as part of me would like to do that… :-/

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