When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill


There are countless ways to mess up your business, but here is one sure-fire method: just base your decisions on presumptions and disaster is sure to follow. There are various degrees of presumption, of course, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of a few.

An example of the mildest form of presumption is the mistakes you make when you’re learning a new language and confidence skips merrily ahead of skill.

When I had been living in the US for about a year, I was introduced by my friend Peter to someone he had told me about a few times. Casting about for a conversational opening I remembered something about her loving the outdoors and said “Oh right, Peter told me you used to be a yahoo!”* I thought a Yahoo was a kind of Girl Scout, but the awkward beat of silence followed by Peter’s horrified “No I didn’t!!” clued me in that it very definitely was not, so I backpedaled with Olympic speed, although the rest of the details are blurred by the overwhelming mortification of the moment.

Don’t judge me though. I mean come on; if this was a test question asking you to “select the word that is not a boy/girl scout rank” are you telling me that “c” is the one that really stands out?

  1. Webelo
  2. Daisy
  3. Yahoo
  4. Brownie

I think not. Still, innocent mistake or not, I had been presumptuous by thinking I was more fluent in English than I was, and I paid the price.

You’d think I had learned my lesson after that incident, but no. A few years later, my husband and I were visiting one of his great-aunts in Berkeley, and after a while she brought out a stack of old photo albums to show some pictures of her late husband. He apparently belonged to some social group that organized a lot of fun events, and when I saw a picture of men wearing fez hats and robes with a caption referring to one of them as “Imperial Potentate”, I assumed it was a costume party and burst out laughing at the preposterous title — until I caught the look on great-aunt’s face and had to pull a screeching vocal U-turn along the lines of “HAHAHAhaooooo wow that is so interesting, we don’t have this group in Holland, Shriners you say? yes fascinating…”

I still get sweaty when I think about it. Still though, these bloopers, bad as they are, were committed in the privacy of my own social circle. Professional presumption is a whole different ball game.

Novelists, for example, are paid to imagine, but most of them do a lot of research to get their facts straight. In spite of this, facts fall between the cracks sometimes, when the author presumes there is simply nothing to know about a topic like oh, say, translation, for example.

Michael Connelly, one of my favorite authors, made a rare slip in one of his novels when he had an attorney tell his associate to find some student who had taken Spanish to translate these documents that might be crucial to their case. Oh, good move! I wrote Mr. Connelly a letter in which I pointed out, humorously and graciously, I thought, that he might want to have his character hire a professional translator next time. He has yet to respond or thank me in the foreword to his next novel or create a translator character and name it after me, which I am still bitter about if you must know. (If you read this, Mr. Connelly, it is not too late!)

Then there was this other novel I started reading recently, in which an interpreter at a trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague not only summarizes the speaker’s words using the “he says that…” form instead of rendering everything verbatim, but also speaks ungrammatical Croatian-sounding (I assume) English rather than idiomatic English — like all highly paid United Nations-level interpreters are trained to do, I’m sure. (Professor teaching an upper-level interpretation course: “And when you speak, always make sure to use the accent and odd grammar you think your client would be using if he or she were to speak English”).

This imaginary interpreter was so patently ridiculous that the book went on the “nope” pile right then and there.

In both cases, the presumption is that there is nothing to know about translation or interpretation, ergo nothing to research, and you end up alienating some of your audience.

To be fair, everyone is subject to presumption at times and translators maybe even more than most. In a profession without formal professional requirements, all it really takes is the conviction that you can do it and the gumption to go for it. Ideally this confidence is based on education, training and experience and backed up by high-quality work, but we all know that this is not always true, in which case the confidence is really more of a presumption.

But even legitimate translators are tempted many times a day to make decisions that are presumptuous:

  • It’s not my field but close enough
  • I know that term; I don’t need to look it up
  • This first edit is wrong so this editor doesn’t know what she’s doing; I’m rejecting all her changes
  • I’m in a hurry but I’ve worked with this client many times before; I’ll accept real quick and look at the document later

Every time I presume that there is nothing to learn, nothing to research, nothing to verify, I risk alienating my audience, i.e. my clients.

It’s a fine line; you can’t question every single thing you do or you’ll never get anything done. But I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to listen to that persistent, nagging little voice when it tells me to check something, because 9 times out 10 that will be the exact issue addressed by the editor in her comments. A little bit of OCD goes a long way if you don’t want to end up looking like a yahoo.


* yokel, hillbilly, rube

12 thoughts on “When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill

  1. Such a fun exhilarating read! Yes, we’ve all been there….so thanks for sharing your faux pas! I would often comment at how “gay” the weather was in Berlin (the word “Schwul” being so similar to “Schwül” which means humid). And in an early translation I translated “eine Plastik” (a sculpture!) as “a piece of plastic”. Oh the shame….

    • Hahaha that is so funny! Thanks for sharing; I’m very happy to share the spotlight of shame with you 😀 (And I know I’m going to think “oh look, a piece of plastic” whenever I see a sculpture now ;-))

  2. Yes, we’ve definitely all been there, and not just non-native speakers, either. I remember laughingly asking who on earth “Arthur” was (thinking it was a dog or cat) when chatting with a group of mums, many years ago, only to find it was her husband – oops! Excellent post, as ever, Marie 🙂

    • Oooh my goodness, I think that even beats the time when I asked someone if the woman in the picture was his mother, and it was his wife. There really is no recovering from comments like that, is there. So did you keep talking to this lady or did you all of a sudden remember an “appointment” and quickly get out of there? 😀

      • Fortunately, it was in quite a large gathering, so I could slink off sideways and not talk to her again. Less funny was the time when I asked a lady at playgroup when her baby was due and she wasn’t pregnant – sigh. I don’t think she ever forgave me! I obviously have a talent for putting my foot in it, but I don’t ever comment on possible pregnancies now unless I’m 100% sure 🙂

  3. Ooo yes, cringe! They really should teach this kind of thing in Kindergarten, shouldn’t they: “Take turns, don’t run with scissors, don’t ask ladies when they’re due unless you’ve seen the ultrasound”….

  4. Reminds me of me, in a medical document, translating “birth control” (pills, condoms etc.) as “controle de natalidade”, which in Portuguese means a forced government program to reduce births (such as implemented in China), instead of “contraceptivo”. Thankfully my more experienced co-worker who reviews my translations caught this mistake before sending to the client, otherwise I’d be embarrassed to this day. It humbled me down a notch.

    Disclaimer: I’m a Brazilian native, which makes it even worse.

    • Oh my goodness, that was a close call! But, you were humble & smart enough to have your work reviewed, so you’re still in business, which I have a feeling is doing quite well 😉 Thanks for the laugh, I can relate!

  5. I can’t think of anything I have said in Spanish that has embarrassed me because I said the wrong thing per se. However, I do remember not minding the nuances, the subtleties. It took a while to learn what to say and when to say it. Sometimes I was too formal in an informal situation and vice versa. Some of this was due to showing off. However, if you spend your life in a foreign country speaking a different language, the newness wears off and you become aware of your limits and boundaries. At least I did.

    • Very true; there is really no substitute for language immersion over a long period of time. Even if you are competent right from the start, it takes a while to become aware of all the nuances and subtleties, like you said. I’m glad to hear you managed to avoid embarrassing pitfalls; those are funny (a long time) afterwards but not so much at the time…

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