All Quiet on the Translation Front

A translator’s life can often seem to be a lonely existence. Many aspects about the profession fuel the isolation. I have ploughed a sometimes lone furrow for two decades. In times of plenty I remember being “too busy” to take a break. For self-employed/freelance translators in particular, the initial stage is filled with worry about what happens when e-mails or phone calls dry up.

Another major issue is the asynchronous nature of feedback also plays a role: feedback is frequently sparing when positive, yet abundant when negative. And there is seldom meaningful feedback to help translators to improve. Translation is a mentally demanding profession with tight deadlines and an impossible battle to achieve perfection.

Translators strive for this elusive perfection in the translation they deliver, while also contending with running a business. A job as a translator entails much more than merely translating. Translators have a reputation, possibly due to the precision the profession requires, of being overcautious and introverted. Overcautiousness is often fed by the constant need to set yourself apart from your competitors.

Translators are also secretive creatures – they dare not give away anything more than is absolutely necessary. NDAs often bind them to secrecy that prevent them from discussing their work. This also has an effect of increasing the silo mentality, as does viewing other translators as “the competition”. Translators rarely publish details about customers and rates, due to a fear of “being too expensive”, or providing information to allow others to undercut them. And then, playing on the fear of not having enough work, unscrupulous agencies squeeze freelancers’ rates.

With friends like these, who needs enemies…

Friends and acquaintances from outside the industry also chip away unwittingly at a fledgling translator’s self-esteem. Many comments falsely conflate being bilingual from birth with a divine right to translate. Bilingualism itself does not automatically qualify someone as a translator, in the way that having ten fingers (or eight fingers and two thumbs!) does not make you a pianist.

Others contribute with throwaway remarks and questions like “Anyone can translate!”, “How come you can’t translate everything”, or even “How can you survive on one language combination?”. Others humblebrag by saying how they “just translated something”. Occasionally translating short texts is a world away from delivering long and complex quality translations to a tight schedule day-in-day-out. Others neglect the fact that translation is an added value service, with providers best selected using the best bidder principle, rather than the cheapest bidder principle. All these factors contribute to imposter syndrome among translators, particularly those at the start of their career.

How perfectionism makes things worse…

Translators’ tendencies towards seeking perfectionism compounds the issue of being an imposter. With hindsight, this is as ridiculous as the notion of a “perfect translation” is absurd. After all, apparently “faithful translations are not beautiful, while beautiful translations are not faithful”.

Translators nevertheless tend to strive for perfection, when possibly there is a need for a translation that is fit-for-purpose. This can make translators their own worst enemy, particularly until they have sufficient experience to know what is needed. Experience brings with it a degree of acceptance about the necessity of occasional (linguistic) sacrifices.

Literary settings lend themselves to being able to stylistically offset and compensate between source and target texts. Stylistic devices used in the source text may also appear in the target text, albeit not necessarily 1:1 at sentence level. But when it comes to say commercial contracts, it is worth remembering that they aren’t ripped up over a missed alliteration in an arcane clause, but are ripped up if not being fit for purpose.

When is a translation fit-for-purpose?

Fit-for-purpose translation refers to producing a translation of an appropriate quality for the purpose and audience specified by a client. I usually establish the intended use (e.g. discussion at a meeting, or for presentation or publication) at the start. Time constraints can have a bearing – for example, whether to translate the entire text or only certain sections, with possible gisted summaries between those sections.

Feeling like an imposter

In the early stages of my career as a freelancer, imposter syndrome plagued me in a particular form: the form of a dream/nightmare. It took a number of years to overcome and banish the self-doubts instilled by the dream. Even acquiring a batch of stable direct clients, and learning to decline work without guilt didn’t help. Even though I knew my worth, and stuck steadfastly to my rates, with as much work as I could manage, the recurring dream plagued me for three years.

Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that imposter syndrome is quite common, particularly among freelance translators. Translators are constantly under scrutiny and always having to perform: ultimately many translators feel as though they are judged solely on their most recent translation. When starting out, before you find and settle into your niche(s), you feel compelled to take jobs in a wide range of matters. It was no different in my case. My earliest projects covered a wide range of subject areas – from software manuals through to telecoms equipment, and even the odd military procurement contract.

I remember the relentless pressure on me to deliver. Often it would be in subject areas where I had a very limited degree of knowledge and negligible advance warning or briefing. The only “knowns” would be the broad subject matter, number of pages and the deadline. It lead on occasions to swearing never to touch a specific subject matter again, even after successfully delivering jobs to customers. Panic, fear and dread often only subsided after the money hit my bank account.

I had a dream…

For three years at the start of my career as a translator, I had a recurring imposter syndrome dream. I suspect readers who have had imposter syndrome might even have had the same dream/nightmare. Alternatively, it may have been a similar dream around the same underlying theme. In my case, the core theme of the dream was that I achieved my university degree by mistake or accident.

The dream manifested itself in a number of forms:

  • failing to satisfy a formal requirement about the modules I chose.
  • failing to complete coursework for a module.
  • failure to turn up for an examination.

The common thread of the dreams is “failure”. If the “failure” in the dream was left unchecked, it began to also dominate my thoughts while working. This in turn led to anxiety and affected my ability to think clearly. Since 2004, the dream has only “resurfaced” very occasionally, but never as a frequently recurring nightmare. Any subsequent minor “relapse” was at times of greater stress, when I was facing tight deadlines to deliver high volume translations.

Deconstructing the dream – dismissing its validity

In order to consign the dream to the past, I had to look at the facts in a rational manner. By deconstructing it, it allowed me to reject the dream’s validity.

  1. The advising appointments for each academic session never identified any issues about formal requirements.
  2. I graduated. At latest, any issue would have come to light before graduation.

Banishing the dream

Recurrences were only on an isolated basis in subsequent years. I confronted recurrence head on at times where I felt vulnerable to a relapse. For a while I struggled with panic attacks from overwork, but didn’t suffer from a relapse of the nightmare. At that time, I visited St. Andrews with friends. On both occasions, I never felt like an imposter or a charlatan. I looked back on my time studying there with pride.

On my second visit, I met up with my former Professor for a drink. He was delighted that I had a career as a translator. I mentioned my (then) specialisations of ionising smoke detectors, nurse-call communications, and banking law. He responded with a broad smile, “I can’t imagine you became an expert in those subjects while at university!” I quipped, “I did manage to set off a fire alarm cooking a fry-up!”.

In 2013, I started to forge plans to bring my divergent career strands together, and decided to purchase an academic transcript. It confirmed the satisfactory completion of all necessary modules to allow me to graduate. It gave me greater confirmation than looking at my degree certificate in the early days had.

In 2021, during seemingly endless pandemic lockdowns, I exchanged messages with my former tutor, with whom I also had played cricket, and tackled my only unresolved thought. I had scraped a low 2.ii in the module on War Fiction that he had taught. After the exam, I realised that I’d made an unmitigated hash of an essay question.

My former tutor was quick to dismiss the issue. He consigned the hiccough, a case of “missing the straight one” in cricketing parlance, as being “water under the bridge”. Despatched like a loose delivery to the boundary. Had I not mentioned the issue, I don’t imagine it would have even registered with him. The elephant was only in my room, if it even existed.

Fear of failure?

A comparatively poor pass result had weighed more heavily on my mind than having failed a module and passing a resit in my second year. Passing a module at the second attempt had been like polishing out a scratch. A poor pass was like a still visible scratch – an unsettled score.

Polishing out a scratch…

The unsettled score perhaps weighed far more heavily than it should. After all, it had had no bearing on my final degree classification. Put into perspective against accumulated professional experience it barely even registers now. At the start of a career, your degree classification is a massive benchmark, and still carries a disproportionate weight for a few years. Its significance fades towards obscurity over your professional life. The presence of post-nominals are the only significant reference to my degree. My experience, professional standing, reputation and specialisations carry far greater weight.

How do perceived failures impact translators?

When I started out as a freelancer, I reached a point after 2-3 years to be in a position to pick and choose customers. However, just as I reached this position, I lost a seemingly stable customer. At the time, it seemed like a catastrophic failure and one I took as a failure on my part. A few years later it became clear than translation was only one area to fall foul of cost-cutting measures. Shortly afterwards, another customer chose to pursue cheaper options for their translations. This still felt like a failure in that my service was not good enough value for money. “Failure” as a translator, in terms of customer retention, however, is frequently due to external factors rather than a lack of quality of the actual translation.

Alternatively, the “failure” dream may rest on a sense of under-preparation. As traditionally risk-averse people, translators understandably fear flying by the seat of their pants and need to feel to be in absolute control. The feeling of failure may be even more exaggerated when starting out, as you don’t have the positive past experience to reassure you. Not being in control may be equated with failure. This is unsurprising in a mentally demanding and meticulous profession.

In contrast, in-house translators (at companies or agencies/LSPs) often cover substantially narrower fields of specialisation or a single language combination. Nevertheless they can still feel like imposters. Internal hierarchies can exist in teams, with some translators getting the juiciest cherries, and others having to be content with the pulp. In this case it can become a challenge to keep the whole team happy, as well as how to harmonise the level of knowledge and expertise. There is often scope to acquire different areas of expertise.

Going in-house…

When I changed from being a freelancer to an in-house translator, I did not experience a feeling of being an imposter, due to the fact that I was the team (or as I now define it, a SPLSU (single person language services unit)). Having gained esteem and a good reputation as a freelancer, I knew that acceptance was key in this position and ensuring that I was treated on an equal footing. Fortunately, my employer helped in this regard as I followed the same training courses as desk officers (usually holding law degrees and postgraduate qualifications) in my department.

I also actively sought to establish the place of translation in workflows by showing how to integrate the translator from an early stage, rather than as an afterthought or a final step before publication. For example, I explained the workflows that should what a translator can already handle before the final document is available. This approach helps to minimise the impact of delays in previous stages, thus maximising the time available for translation.

Die eierlegende Wollmilchsau

Barnes’ iron triangle of expectations has existed for decades, yet translators still constantly fight the unachievable due to customer expectations. Customers still expect high quality translations quickly and cheaply – a combination as illusory as the eierlegende Wollmilchsau (the egg-laying, sheep-fleeced, milkable sow). To get a large translation delivered quickly, higher rates and larger teams are used. The result is not cheap.

However, there is another new reality that has come to pass. In the search for greater productivity, shorter turnaround times and keeping apace with greater demand, agencies are now downgrading translators to machine translation post-editors (MTPEs). I will be the first to say that embracing technology as a translator in many areas is essential. However, it is also essential to acknowledge the need for a human in the loop.

Why buy a CAT tool?

Investing in a CAT system definitely helped extend my competitive edge nearly two decades ago. It also gave me a greater feeling of control – in terms of times required for projects. It has helped with knowledge management. To this day, in my in-house position, it allows me to recall any job that I have done. It could be mere coincidence, but my imposter dream disappeared around the time I became a CAT user.

CAT and MT do not provide a human translator with the level of meaningful feedback that a human colleague can. QA tools can leverage your terminology to hint at unexpected terminology choices. For example detailed termbase entries can indicate the usage of a non-standard or obsolete term (helpful if your TM contains TUs spanning a large period of time!). Limitations depend on how Termbases have been set up, maintained and also the completeness of entries.

Dedicated terminologists or translators will provide more constructive feedback than a QA tool. Fellow professionals can point out why something may be a correct rendering of a term in a certain context, but doesn’t fit in another. It is what makes adequate feedback so important.

Improving feedback cycles

Both in-house and freelance translators suffer from lopsided feedback – an acceptable translation frequently yields little feedback. This makes it difficult to gain any constructive feedback, other than responses to questions during the translation process. I have come up with some ways to improve the amount of feedback, by normalising it.

  • For large translation jobs, I usually request a “fatal flaw check” of my translation – especially if it is intended for publication. I also offer to do a final consistency check before publication – which also allows me to amend TUs accordingly. This way I obtain more meaningful feedback.
  • For new translation customers, I slip in a feedback form (questions on overall satisfaction, a positive highlight, and suggested improvements). It is kept very short, but jogging them for feedback proves far more beneficial than just an “OK”.
  • For revision jobs that I do, I point out something that the customer can take away and apply. This often elicits feedback from them. Sometimes, my role is little more than a reassuring second pair of eyes. On other occasions, my role is to ensure that the correct message goes out, in an appropriate correct tone.
  • In outsourced translations, I add constructive feedback to the thank-you note I send out to the agency. I point out constructive corrections made, from checking the received document. After all, this kind of feedback is the only way to improve texts, or provide impulses for terminology work.

I firmly believe that you never stop learning. From 2023, I intend to take part in translation sparring slams with other translators. I have been reading up about them a lot recently. Sparring slams can be discussed virtually or while at conferences. Getting a fresh perspective is a good tool for staving off “Betriebsblindheit”. It helps you to freshen up your own language (your everyday situation may expose you unwittingly to source language interference, or to language attrition) as well as having a chance to gain knowledge from others and impart your own – this is particularly useful for those who work alone.

More thoughts on imposter syndrome/perfectionism/quiet spells as a translator or interpreter

All Quiet on the Western Front

As a bonus and reward for reading this post all the way to the end, a word of explanation about the chosen title. The play on words deliberately relates to one of the set texts in the German War Fiction course I took in my final semester at St Andrews. Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues was a text I initially studied in my first year at St Andrews, as well as part of the German War Fiction course.

Right translation, wrong cover!

I am about to re-read the book again, with the greater hindsight of a further 22 years of living in the German-speaking world, and also reading it for pleasure, rather than as a set text. I choose to do so in preparation for watching the new Netflix film version, which has just come out. See below for the trailer.

Trailer of the Netflix film version of All Quiet on the Western Front
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