Over the last couple of months, most translators have seen an increase in boring work. How do I know? It’s not that I’m psychic, I’m just aware that most of us will have been translating text related to the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). And I believe most of us will agree that translations don’t come much duller than that. While I was doing my share of this linguistic hard labour, I suddenly realised that it was a long time since I had had to do work I enjoyed so little.
It hasn’t always been like that. When I started as a translator I would take on almost anything, and I ended up doing plenty of pieces of work that bored me rigid. It was all fine as long as it would bring in some cash. The truth is, I started translating simply for the money. I’d moved from the UK to live in Barcelona without a job to go to. When continuing my journalism career by freelancing didn’t work out (I didn’t want to write what potential customers wanted me to write and they didn’t want to buy what I did want to write) I drifted into teaching English and it took several years before I had the opportunity to try my hand at translation. In those days, I’m sure I wasn’t a very good translator, but I soon realised there was an awful lot more money in it than in giving English classes, and that was my motivation: I wanted to make a decent living.
It took several years before I started to realise there was actually much more to it – I enjoyed some kinds of work more than others and, generally, did a better job when I was happy with what I was translating. It then took even longer for me to realise that not only was it possible to be choosy, it was desirable. Because who does their best work when they are not interested in what they are translating?
Finally, out went all the technical and medical translations I’d always hated and in came a much greater pride in my work. I passed the DipTrans qualification, I developed my website, which meant I had to think about things I had scarcely considered before, like my specialist areas, and I began to feel less like an impostor when I asked for higher rates. But it had all begun back when I started to realise that I liked some translations better than others and to do something about it.
I’ve heard similar stories from many colleagues for whom concentrating on the translations they liked doing put them on the road to specialisation, better rates and greater satisfaction. There are also those who started out enjoying one kind of translation and then fell out of love with it and have moved into a different type of work. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. A lot of translators have switched career, let alone specialisation, two or three times, so most of us understand that people and their tastes change as time goes on.
I understand, of course, that we can’t always have what we want all the time. Sometimes, for one reason or another, I’ll take on a job for a client that doesn’t fill me with joy, but if I do that I always need to have another very good reason for doing it: not letting a valued client down or the possibility of getting more interesting future work might persuade me, for example.
When you are enjoying what you do, though, going that little bit further is no trouble at all. I am delighted to spend time researching obscure medieval terms for my current project, a museum exhibition catalogue, whereas having to hunt for the names of modern machine parts feels like a chore. So now, if I get requests of that kind, I help the client find the right kind of technical translator. I win, the client wins and my colleague wins too.
So although the advocates of bashing out any old translation fast and on the cheap would disagree with me, enjoying what you do is not a trivial consideration, or a luxury. If you’re not doing it, you’re not doing yourself or your clients justice. And, in the end, the translators who mechanically plough on with their eyes only on the bottom line, never stopping to revel in the satisfaction of a job well done, are surely going to be the first to be replaced by machines.