We Are Neither This Nor That


Photo Credit: HubSpot

Photo Credit: HubSpot

This & That ― Vignettes of a Professional Journey
a column by Ines Bojlesen

“Are you comfortable translating a project about social media and millennials? Are you familiar with the latest idioms and language used?” I recently received this question from a client and I thought it would be a good subject for this blog.

Being familiar and being comfortable are two different things. We translators and interpreters have to be not simply familiar with a subject, but we also have to be knowledgeable about it as much as possible. We need to transform our knowledge and adapt to the times as well as to the place and environment where we are working. We act as ghosts behind booths, standing in a remote corner of a room or using the first person to interpret men, women, children or adults. By being the voice of both genders and of multiple generations, we become neither male nor female, neither old nor young.

We need to convey the foul language used verbally or in writing regardless of how we feel. We need to use the same register, intonation and tone to convey not just words, but also behaviors, regardless of the era or time frame in which they were generated.

By the same token, we need to reflect the old-fashioned writing of an author or the latest slang of a video gamer. Our age or gender is irrelevant. What really matters is how good we are at researching, keeping up with the new, or recalling the old. We resort to all sorts of media and absorb new expressions, new trends.

If we are newcomers, just starting as translators, the best practice (in addition to everything else) is to have good mentors, a network we can resort to. If we are “old timers,” we need to keep track, accept the new and stay ahead. If we do not go forward, we will fall behind.

Now a few words about the “being comfortable.” I had an interesting experience related to this part of my client’s question. A couple of years ago, an agency asked if I would be comfortable translating for their new client. They assured me I would only be involved with the software, the user interface (UI) part of the website, not the content itself.

Based on this assurance, I accepted the task. However, to become familiar with the client’s work, I had to visit their site and leave my footprint there, as well as visiting related sites. It did not take long before the client started to send me materials to translate that were not just software/UI, but pages of text extracted from the website. This made me feel uncomfortable; I was forced to research on a subject I was not familiar with for translations I would not want my name associated with. I was candid in explaining to the agency that I no longer “felt comfortable” translating that material. The agency did not argue and from then on assigned me projects from other clients.

Since then, I have often wondered if I did the right thing. Should I have permitted my aversion to the subject interfere with my neutrality as a translator? Should I have let my gender or my age weigh on my decision? Should I have allowed the fact that I did not feel “comfortable” with the material prevent me from being the messenger?

I would say these are traits that translators, interpreters, angels and even chameleons share. Angels are neither male nor female, and they don’t age. As the Merriam-Webster dictionary says,They are a messenger or a special guardian of an individual or nation.” We, too, as translators and interpreters, are a bridge between different cultures and languages. Like chameleons, we have to adapt and get immersed in the work, environment and uniqueness of our assignment at hand.

Our mission is clear: we must convey the message in verbal or written words, regardless of our gender, age or beliefs. We need to wear the hats of multiple generations: Traditionals, Baby Boomers, Generation X or Millennials. We must not judge or let our opinions interfere with our work. We must not forget that we are neither this nor that!

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