Lesson 21: Translator’s block

Lesson 21: Translator’s block

I was sitting and staring at a blank piece of paper for some time. Around 5 weeks, to be precise. It’s not that I didn’t know what to write, I just had to translate. But believe me, even though I am just a translator, I have just experienced the longest and most terrifying writer’s block I ever had. And it’s time to admit that translators do get their blocks as well.

Wikipedia says that a writer’s block is a “condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. It can manifest as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable”. I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t apply to translators. A translator’s block definitely applies to me.

It all started with my Christmas holidays, the rush and hassle around it, and the fact that it was the longest time off I ever took in my life. After a week without translating I started thinking: “What if I forget how to do it?”, what if I lose my skill? I came back from holidays and I had to catch up with all too many things, with deadlines, illnesses, and personal dilemmas. I tried to forget about my superstitious (or insane) thinking, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that something was wrong with my inner translator. As a responsible and caring manager, I started investigating what can cause the translator’s block. Here are my notes:

Causes of translator’s block:

Lack of inspiration Whatever they say, translation IS a creative activity, and you need at least a bit of motivation or flow to make it tick. I didn’t have my inspiration, and I knew I was totally flat and boring in my translations. And it was the first time in my life I wished I didn’t have to translate. Oh, just to be a lawyer or an accountant (even in January), or just lock myself up in a cosy chalet with no internet at all…
Not enough experience or skill. I still do get it sometimes, despite a few years of experience. I receive a new project, open it… and I simply don’t know how to do it. It usually goes away, like stage fright. But what if it doesn’t? What if you keep thinking that you’re not good enough, that this text is too difficult? What if you start thinking like that about every second text you get? I don’t translate texts I can’t translate. At least that keeps translator’s block in a healthy distance.
Personal problems. Stress, illness, finances. Perhaps that has no influence on solicitors or accountants (I doubt it), but translators suffer a lot. And it’s all connected. If you’re sick, you can’t work. You can’t work, you don’t earn. You don’t earn, you’re stressed. You’re stressed, so your immune system can’t cope.
Time. It doesn’t work with me, but I know a few people who get their blocks with short deadlines.

What about possible results?

Low quality is one of them. And it’s not so much about proofreading, or mistranslations, but about boring and mediocre texts. And it drives me crazy that I can’t do better than that!
Stress. During this dreadful period I wanted to die at least once a week. And I couldn’t work too much either, as I was sure that my translations are too poor.
Thinking of changing careers.
Neglecting your blog.

How did I deal with that?

Well, I started with planning some nice and creative things to do that had nothing in common with translation. And I worked on changing my website. And I talked to people, a lot. And I decided to apply for my MA (keep fingers crossed – it’s conference interpreting!). And I asked my colleague for an honest peer review (as you could guess, my texts were not flat or boring, they were perfectly fine). I’m getting better now.

Thank you for sticking with me during this long period of silence. I’ve planned a bunch of interesting things for 2012, so stay tuned in!

Have you ever experienced a translator’s block? How did you deal with it? And how are you doing in 2012? Is it as prosperous as they’re saying?


PS I do apologise for a weird e-mail that you got some time ago (‘Hello world!’). Let’s just pretend it never happened 🙂


  1. Carolyn Y. , on Jan 24, 2012 at 18:13 Reply

    Welcome back! I’m glad you realize that you’re not the only creative wordsmith to have an attack of the ughs. As in, “ugh, this is so boring today” and “ugh, why can’t I think of a more interesting word?” Usually this makes me wonder if maybe I’m not good enough (my hubby works in an industry that makes him rant forever about “charlatans!” and sometimes I wonder if I should be included in that list). Talking with colleagues usually helps me shake that off.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 24, 2012 at 18:16 Reply

      Thanks, Carolyn, for being so nicely reassuring! I struggled throughout this whole time, because it seems like no-one ever gets these difficult moments (or at least no-one writes about them), and I felt like I’m definitely losing it. Writing about it all helped a lot, it’s like talking with colleagues, isn’t it?

  2. Jan Snauwaert , on Jan 24, 2012 at 21:49 Reply

    Well, Marta, it is courageous to share such a confession about yourself. I am (we are) happy you are back. I don’t know you personally, but if I judge by all your activities, I guess you are a very busy person. Perhaps you overloaded yourself with work. Stress can also lead one to underestimate one’s capacities, I guess. Perhaps the main reason why you started doubting yourself and had a writer’s block. Anyways, you are back now and we are happy about that. Back on a very good track. I read your “lessons” with great interest.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 25, 2012 at 20:08 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Jan. I think that everyone gets that from time to time, for many various reasons. And I know it’s not that common to blog about harder times (or about our mistakes). But then, I blog because I want to know people, not to pretend I’m always perfect 🙂 Nice meeting you!

  3. Lisa Carter , on Jan 25, 2012 at 01:03 Reply

    Hey, Marta! As both Jan and Carolyn have said, it’s good to see you back, and we can all totally relate to what you said. Those blahs/blocks definitely do happen for all of the reasons you mentioned and our work can suffer as a result. Funnily enough, I was talking to my lawyer friend just the other day and she said it happens to her too! 😉 We both agreed that sometimes you just need to step back. If it’s not working, sitting at the computer, staring at the screen sometimes only makes things worse. Take an hour or two, or a day or two (as long as deadlines allow…). I find that not forcing yourself to push through often has great results and you come back really able to accomplish a lot more. Not easy to do, I know, but something to keep in mind.
    Thanks for sharing your reality and do know you’re not alone in it!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 25, 2012 at 20:10 Reply

      Thank you, Lisa. I tried looking that up online, but I couldn’t really find anyone blogging about their blocks, or harder days. And it is a part of our job, and a wonderful evidence that we do creative work after all!

  4. juliacgs , on Jan 26, 2012 at 12:37 Reply

    Hello, Marta! Nathalie Fernández (@nath_trad) recommended me your post, because I just confessed in Twitter I had exactly the same problem!

    I have felt extraordinarily identified with what you have experimented. I know my reasons perfectly well, but that does not avoid me suffering that translator’s block.

    Now I have to begin the translation of my next novel, but I had some nasty disagreements with the editors, something which unfortunately has affected the way I normally relate myself to my translations… Apart from that, as some have already mentioned, this past year I have been overloaded for an insanely long time, which has not helped at all to help me cope with my block.

    Nevertheless, I have also made some plans: I intend to work more efficiently this year and to try to change the way I relate myself emotionally to my work, but for the moment, it is being a bit difficult and I am not having too good results… But I will keep trying, always with a positive mind!

    Good luck with your plans, and I hope you will be able to overcome yor difficulties very soon!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 26, 2012 at 12:42 Reply

      Dear Julia, thank you for you comment! I’m already over the trouble and things are looking up. I think that you made a really relevant point here. Perhaps we just become too attached to our work, and then it’s eating us up?

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