We’ve all gotten those impersonal e-mails from agencies and companies starting with “dear translator,” “linguist,” the dreaded “resource” or some other generalized category. I know many translators who immediately delete these without reading them, others who jump on them trying to be the first to respond and still others who are either silently offended or…not-so-silently offended. My opinion of this has varied over the years but one question has lingered for me…why are we, as translators, so incredibly offended by these types of things that do ultimately fall under the umbrella of “it’s not personal – it’s just business”? Why do so many translators internalize this and get angry? After all, it’s true that it really isn’t personal…I mean with that type of greeting, it very literally isn’t personal, is it?
The more I thought about my own career and how long it took me not to feel the deep sting of negative feedback for days…or much longer, the more motivated I became to delve into this issue. I have mused that despite it usually being some tiny, and even sometimes subjective, issue and the rarity of these e-mails…each one felt like it completely undermined my confidence in my abilities. I knew I was a good translator intellectually, but they made me feel like I wasn’t. Now, I treat these e-mails like any other e-mail…I handle the issue, if any, and move on…but it didn’t start out that way…not at all…and I regularly see it from other colleagues. So, what’s going on? What’s the big deal?
Well, while it’s true that it’s all just business in the end, language itself is very personal. Language is, in fact, one of the most personal things about us. It’s one of the ways we connect with our parents when we are just babies and children learning about the world. Language is an aspect of our identity…wars have been fought over language and people have been bullied and prejudices have been formed over language. So, you know what?
It’s actually not just business…it’s VERY personal.
I interviewed a project manager and vendor manager and I asked her what types of things made a “good translator” from her perspective and one of the first qualities she mentioned was that she appreciated translators who did not get defensive when faced with negative feedback. It sounds simple, but it’s really difficult when we, as translators, begin working and are unknowingly unprepared for these strong feelings that can arise when we receive negative feedback. We might react as though it’s not just a minor piece of feedback about a bit of work we did but that our very identity is somehow under…sound crazy? When you think about how personal language truly is and how difficult it can be to separate our language from our identity, it becomes less crazy.
The truth is that most of us become translators because we LOVE our languages. We love connecting people. We love knowing that one person has been able to convey their message to another person because of our unique skill. We get the giddiest, most elated feeling from this and I’d be willing to bet that if you ask translators if they’d do their job for free if they had no use for the money, most would say yes…most of us have done it for free at some point, actually.
So, what does this mean? Why did I even bother writing this? Well, if you’re someone who could be classified as the “client” of a translator, whether that means you represent a translation agency or another company or group that might be hiring translators, I hope this sheds some light on the seemingly extreme defensiveness of some translators, and especially new ones who are typically wholly and completely unprepared for that feeling of being told you’ve erred in something that means so much to you.
If you’re reading this as a translator and you’ve been in the business a while, you’ve likely gone through this process and surfaced on the other side and are now (at least partly) able to tell yourself that “it’s just business.” But if you’re new, be aware that this is a reality of our job. At some point someone will disagree with the way you translated something…it might not even be an actual error. It will happen. Be prepared and try to take a deep breath and tell yourself, “it’s just business” and take the time you need to be objective, because the person on the receiving end of your e-mail might not understand that for us translators, linguists, and resources, this is about as personal as it gets.