Translation: the Business of Belonging

belongingOne of the more awkward moments in my life was dealt to me inadvertently by a close friend many years ago. We had dropped in to admire some handcrafted jewelry in a shop here in California, and she discovered that the owner/artist was Dutch like me. So she called me over excitedly to “speak Dutch” with him, and then left us to it while she stood there, beaming expectantly. The thing is, it was pretty obvious that we both felt put on the spot but we didn’t want to be churlish either, so we performed a forced little conversation about how long have you lived here, where in Holland are you from, do you like it here, can we gracefully wrap this up now.

Why was this so awkward? Granted, I’m an introvert who doesn’t like to be the center of attention, but it would have been fine if we could have conducted the conversation in English. Part of it is that it takes a second for the unprepared brain to switch gears and whip out flawless Dutch at a moment’s notice, and there is the fear of looking like a doofus, standing there all struggling with your native language.

But it’s more than that; it also has to do with belonging. Most immigrants want to fit in at least to some extent, and it’s not that enjoyable to have your “otherness” put on public display, even when it’s done with the best of intentions.

This relationship between language and belonging takes many different forms. When I go back to Holland, I invariably get comments from people who feel it’s their duty to evaluate my Dutch for the existence (and if so, the severity) of an American accent, complete with helpful imitations of perceived imperfections. Over the years I’ve learned to take these reports with a grain of salt, since they range from confirmations that I still sound 100% Dutch to firm conclusions that I have a Texas drawl even though I live on the West Coast. It’s all in good fun, but underneath the jokes there is an actual question: you no longer live here, so are you still “really” Dutch?

The same thing happens here in the US, for that matter. There are people I have known for years who are surprised to learn I wasn’t born here, because they never noticed any accent. And then, just when I’m feeling all smug about my ninja language skills,  I walk into a Starbucks and I get out no more than three words before the barista asks me where I’m from. Or worse, they mention how “heavy” my accent is.  That really bugs me, because even though I know I have an accent, I want to sound like I was born here — like I belong.

The only reason I’m admitting all this is a) because I’m pretty sure the need for belonging is universal, and b) because this has some interesting implications for us as translators.

When I translate an article from a medical journal into English, I’m not just transposing words and meaning. What I’m actually doing is giving its Dutch authors a place in the international medical community. Physicians may be an extremely smart and skilled bunch, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to the fear of looking stupid. I was talking to a doctor the other day who was preparing for a Grand Rounds presentation, and she was stressing out because she did not want to appear incompetent in front of her peers.


Magnify that fear by several hundred decibels if the presentation, article, or research has to be communicated in a language you haven’t fully mastered. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud, as someone who has no business being there, wherever “there” is. So my business is not words, as such, but belonging. I enable doctors to present a perfectly fluent English version of their skilled, knowledgeable, confident Dutch selves and to participate in international scientific discourse like they belong.

And of course this applies not just to medicine but to other translation specialties, as well. It goes along with the standard sales advice of speaking to the client’s needs rather than your own technical qualifications. Direct clients assume we’re going to be accurate, punctual, and won’t run with scissors, and they couldn’t care less about the CAT tools we use. They want to know if we can help them make the sale, win the case, get the research grant. And the answer should be: yes we can. It’s what we do.

8 thoughts on “Translation: the Business of Belonging

  1. I think that you have an advantage being an outsider. When you’re on the outside looking in, you get insights on the insiders that you would not if you were one of them. This is especially helpful when translating. If you take everything for granted and don’t ponder on why you say what you say, your work might not be as good because you might not spot the nuances of your source language.

    In fact, I contend that being the non-native among natives is not always a handicap; it is simply another way of being. To that end, I wrote a blog post called: Being a Language Citizen. Here’s the link if you care to read it.

    • Hi Reed, thank you for commenting. I read your blog post and I enjoyed your analogy of a visitor from the future figuring out how to communicate with different people. You clearly have a very systematic and analytical approach to learning which has served you well. And your point about seeing certain things more clearly from an outsider’s perspective reminded me of an experience I had during my last visit to Holland: I have lived in the US for about 30 years now, and when I go back to visit I have started to notice language changes that friends and family who live there are not necessarily aware of. For example, there are English expressions that have been adopted and transliterated into Dutch, such as “go for it” (ga ervoor). When I pointed this out to a friend she didn’t know what I was talking about, because she was sure that it has always been a Dutch expression. So you’re right: an outsider’s view does have its advantages.

  2. You’ve really hit the nail on the head. I just got back from Russia, where I have the same constant commenting on my language skills – or worse, silent disapproval from store clerks and transit conductors. In a way, knowing that I’m not the only person having this experience also satisfies that need for belonging!

    I’ve had these experiences for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never thought to connect it to what we do as translators: giving clients the opportunity to belong and not stick out like a sore thumb when they cross the language barrier. Thank you for that new perspective!

    • Hi Eugenia, thank you and welcome to the club! The whole situation is kind of ironic, isn’t it: people who struggle with belonging offering that belonging to others. But it feels good to turn a negative into something we love doing and that pays the bills as well 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s