The Seven-Year Itch in Translation

The most dangerous drivers, statistically, are those who have had their license for about a year. They start feeling comfortable and relax their vigilance even though they are actually not that experienced yet, leading to a higher accident rate. Similarly, the seven-year mark is reportedly a tricky time in a relationship. The thrill of conquest and romance has worn off and gradually gets replaced, it seems, by bills, annoying nose-blowing habits and demanding in-laws.

Translation careers go through phases as well, some exciting and some not so much, and it’s good to be aware and prepared so you don’t wreck your career through misplaced confidence or throw it all to the wind when difficult times (inevitably) arrive.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m guessing the “misplaced overconfidence” phase first rears its head after about the first year of translating for a living. These are some of the signs:

Hypersensitivity/argumentativeness when a client or proofreader comes back with comments on the text. The other day I read a complaint on a forum from a translator whose client was not happy with the translation. She was baffled, she said, because she had been extremely pleased with her own translation when reviewing it before submission. I get it, it’s hard to hear that someone is not totally in love with your beautiful text and it may feel like a personal attack on your competence. But language is not a closed system with a finite amount of black-and-white knowledge. It’s alive, always evolving with infinite variations, and it’s impossible for one human being to always have the best take on everything. In language, it’s hardly ever “my way or the highway”.

We also have to remember that it’s not about us; it’s about creating the best possible text for the context it will be used in, and it’s a sign of maturity, not to mention a matter of retaining your sanity, to let go of disputable matters after you have made your point and the client or the proofreader still doesn’t see it your way. Emphasis on disputable. Some things are not disputable and you absolutely need to stand your ground in those cases, because you don’t want your name associated with an objectively ungrammatical, unidiomatic text.

Taking on assignments that are outside of your area of expertise. This temptation can be especially strong when work is slow and there are bills to be paid. After all, you’re a paid professional now, so with a bit of research you should be okay, right? Let me join the chorus here and entreat you to not engage in this type of unprofessional conduct, no matter how strong the urge. You may get lucky and skate by once or twice, but in the end you will hurt yourself, the client, and ultimately the profession by perpetuating the misconception that translation is a hobby-type activity that anyone could do.

Now fast-forward about 6 years or so, and let’s look at the more seasoned translators. They have established a specialty, a solid core group of clients and a steady income. Except for occasional slow periods, the scramble for survival is a thing of the past and the challenge is mainly to keep growing and learning. It’s all smooth sailing from here, right? Well, there are a few pitfalls to keep in mind.

Mistaking your own habits for required usage. One of the nice things about having years of experience in a particular specialty is that a lot of the terminology becomes second nature and there is less and less you need to research (although, like an asymptote in math, the time spent on research should never actually reach zero). However, a small but noteworthy danger is that a certain term sounds natural, not because it’s the right one, but simply because this is how you have been translating it for years. This just happened to me the other day. I had been writing “acetyl salicylic acid” as three words for years, which seems to make sense because English doesn’t like to combine words like Dutch or German. So when a Trados TM suggested “acetylsalicylic acid” I was a little huffed, until I looked it up and lo and behold, I was the one who had been wrong all these years. This is closely related to the second pitfall:

Unnecessary arrogance/harshness when proofreading a colleague’s work. I confess I get irritated sometimes when I see basic mistakes or sloppiness in a translation supposedly done by a qualified specialist, but I have learned to double-check any terminology I am certain is wrong, because there have been times when the “incorrect” term was actually an acceptable or even commonly used alternative.

Going back to the comparison with relationships, it is very human and common to start seeing the other person as an imperfect version of ourselves, rather than a unique individual with their own perfectly valid, and yes, different, ways of folding laundry and putting the dishes in the dishwasher. As an inveterate rearranger of dishes I confess I’m still working on that one, but in the same way, we need to remember as we become more experienced translators that different is not necessarily wrong.

There is a time for boldness and self-promotion, but we had better make sure continually that we have the goods to back it up. Humility and teachability go a long way towards making sure that confidence does not overtake skill and crash a budding or thriving career.