5 Things That All Translators Love to Hate | October 2016 | Translation Journal

October 2016 Issue

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5 Things That All Translators Love to Hate

Don’t you just love being a translator? Working from home, the hours you choose, living your passion and speaking different languages every day? Eating, drinking, breathing in other cultures and spending your life on a constant journey of exploration? Traveling, socializing and partying with your foreign friends.

Wait a moment…

What do you mean your life’s not like that? Are you saying you don’t spend your time in exotic lands on faraway beaches and drinking Mai Tai while overlooking foreign cityscapes? What do you mean the last time you traveled was in 2010? Don’t translators spend their lives jetting around the globe?

As a Spanish to English translator, nothing irritates me more than people who think my job is easy, filled with social gatherings, or that my life is basically a permanent vacation. That said, I also kind of secretly relish the fact that my friends think my life is so glamorous. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Here are 5 things that ALL translators love to hate:

1. Translating for Friends (for Free)

We all work hard so what could be better than getting together with friends? Maybe going to a swanky foreign restaurant, checking out an independent movie, or even going on vacation together?

What could be better? Well, doing all of the above without having to work at the same time, that’s what. When you’re the only one in your group of friends who speaks a foreign language, you end up becoming the group interpreter and translator by default. And that’s not being on vacation. That’s working for free in my book.

While I’ll admit to enjoying feeling smarter than everyone else (even if some of them are Harvard graduates) I resent having to do all the work. Asking for directions, making introductions, translating menus. Come on! I don’t ask you for free tax advice, foot massages or life insurance. So stop making me work for you.

2. Translating Jokes

Translating jokes has to be single-handedly the worst thing about being a translator. Jokes and idioms. The punch line falls pretty flat the moment you try taking it out of its context, geographic region and cultural setting.

A joke about an Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman, for example, will only be funny to people who live in that region. It will likely fall drop like a lead balloon to an American audience. And that’s before you translate it into Spanish, French, Arabic, or whichever language you work with.

There really ought to be something in the translator’s manual that states that jokes must be told in their original language, or not at all. In fact, maybe even in their original country and no further. And the same goes for idioms. Don’t even get me started on idioms.

Ever heard the one about blowing up cows, patting a horse’s butt or acting crazier than a goat? No? Well, that’s because it’s impossible to translate an idiom. And honestly, even in English idioms are pretty much better off left to the old folks at a family reunion. I mean… seriously.

3. Getting Caught Out Red Handed

Apart from fostering a greater understanding and improving your cultural intelligence, one of the best things about speaking other languages is that you get to talk about people without them realizing.

I know. It’s a guilty pleasure and maybe it’s even just a little bit mean. But if someone’s been getting on your last nerve all day long, or behaving like a prize jerk, getting a dig in about them in a language they don’t speak can be a great way of letting off steam.

Unless you get caught out. Red handed. With your cover totally blown by someone who you never in your wildest dreams imagined spoke fluent Farsi, Greek, German, or Mandarin. Serious face palm moment.

4. People Who Think Your Life’s a Vacation

Did I already mention this? I’m a translator, not a school teacher. I don’t get three months’ vacation a year (although I’m sure it’s very hard to be a teacher). I don’t even get three weeks. My life is not a vacation. I might have lived in some exotic sounding places. That’s true. I might have some friends with interesting names. I’ll give you that. But I work every bit as hard as you do, and I’m willing to bet, even harder.

So, I’ll say it again, just for the record. My life is not a vacation. Even when I’m on vacation you people make me work. So give me some credit, OK?

5. People Who Think You’re Lucky

What’s wrong with people thinking you’re lucky? Well, nothing I guess. Except that my career trajectory (and I’m willing to bet that yours as well) has a lot more to do with hard work than luck.

After all, translators study to learn and speak all the languages they work in. They weren’t born natural polyglots. I’m not “lucky” to speak Spanish, French and Italian. I did actually put my mind to it and decide to study those languages. I don’t tell you how lucky you are to have your MBA or your doctorate, because I know how hard you worked for it. So, don’t underestimate me. 

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