Lesson 33: Translators and paranoid thoughts

Lesson 33: Translators and paranoid thoughts

I have a colleague who’s just starting out as a legal interpreter. She’s not too experienced, but she’s trained and she’ll make a good professional in this field. She admitted to me some time ago that there are nights when she wakes up terrified and frightened, because in her dream, she was interpreting in court and she didn’t know a word. Yes, she does get paranoid nightmares about court staff being angry with her because she couldn’t interpret a word.

Her confession was funny for me in the beginning. I mean, I thought it was just her being too stressed. Or too inexperienced. And then I realised that I also have these paranoid thoughts. I’m not scared about not knowing a word, but sometimes I have to check deadlines 3 or 4 times, because I’m sure I mixed them up. I started asking.

It’s either the fact that translators (and interpreters to some extent) are lonely and therefore prone to irrational fears, or we all care too much. Either way there is a link between translators and paranoid thoughts.

I’ll make a mistake

Think of a situation in which you diligently check terminology, find parallel texts, leaf through dictionaries. And no matter how many times you re-assure yourself, you’re always in doubt. It must be the fear of making a mistake, a genuine mistake, not just a typo or omitted sentence. Sometimes there seems to be nothing worse than making a MISTAKE. It hardly ever happens, but when you do, when you use a wrong word, that’s the end of the world.

Some time ago I’ve heard, or read, that we’re constantly trying to be right because from our spiritual point of view being wrong is like dying. Trying to extend that metaphor, translators think that if they make a mistake, their professional self dies.

And it’s even worse with perfectionists. If you are one, you know how hard it is to finish and send off a job. You’re followed by this feeling that something must be wrong, that you made a mistake somewhere. When you don’t get any complains, you start making up weird scenarios, like “they were so upset with my mistake that they won’t talk to me again”.

I’ll never be as good as…

It gets almost everyone at some point of their careers. You come across a website, a CV, a Proz profile, you skim through experience and clients, and here you are feeling low for a couple of days. Because SHE has so many clients, because SHE graduated from a better university, because SHE knows more languages, because SHE charges more. You grow your little obsession and research this person online, trying to find something to help you, to let you say “ha! She’s not that good in the end!”. But you never find anything like that.

There always will be someone more experienced or more educated. Accepting this fact is necessary to be able to develop your own career. Believe or not, there isn’t a closed circle of good translators and the rest is not admitted. Neither there is a benchmark to show that that much experience and this university is required to become a good translator.

But we keep comparing. It’s in our blood. And it’s not essentially bad, as long as it’s not destructive. The same colleague of mine I mentioned above almost gave up interpreting because she discovered Proz and developed low self-esteem. She asked for help, and I told her not to look at Proz, or not to research other translators until she gets a couple of clients. She did, despite the fact that she wasn’t the best one.

Ambition, is that what causes this irrational thought that we have to be better than someone? I don’t think so. You can be an ambitious translator, and never suffer from this self-esteem issue. I’d say that we want to be better than others simply to survive on the market. We think that only the best ones will be spared, and we’re struggling to be in this circle. Wait, there is no circle of the greatest of the greatest translators.

I’ll lose the ability

We all suffer from worse days, when we’re trying hard to translate and this textual creature in the other language is just a disgusting pile of random words. There’s the translator’s block, and we can’t force ourselves to ignore it (unless you do legal translation). Ok, it happens. But then it happens tomorrow as well, and the day after…

And then it starts. The paranoid thought, or the heart-trembling feeling that you’ve lost it. That whatever made you translate, it’s gone now. The Muse of Translation’s abandoned you, you’re forsaken and you’ll never be able to translate a single word again. Done and dusted, start looking for another job as soon as you can.

The good news is that it doesn’t happen. You may be overworked, overstressed, or too tired. But once cursed with the ability to translate, you can’t just simply be salvaged and relieved from your eternal duty. You’d sooner lose all your clients due to paranoid thinking rather than losing your skill.

I’ve talked about these three paranoid fears, because they all touched me at some point. There are many others, like “I won’t have enough work” when you’re booked for the next two months, or “I’ll lose all my documents”. The common thing of all these assumptions is that they’re completely unfounded. How to get rid of them? Rationalise! And read this post.

What paranoid thoughts you had to deal with? How did you manage to leave them behind? Do you think they’re linked to some turns of our careers?


  1. Olga , on Apr 26, 2012 at 08:57 Reply

    Hi Marta! Thanks for a brilliant post! One of my teachers once said “irrational and unfounded fears (like when you are afraid you’ll never be good enough etc.) are actually good for you because when you have them you can be sure that whatever you are afraid of will never happen to you” 🙂 I am a perfectionist, so I always check my translations for any kind of errors several times. But I learned that even the most experienced colleagues may be mistaken sometimes. It’s not the mistake that matters, but rather what we do about it.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 26, 2012 at 19:58 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Olga! I’m so hoping that your teacher’s right. I agree with your comment about rectifying our mistakes – I even wanted to add a similar though to the body of my post, but then it wasn’t really what I tried to communicate today. But I definitely agree with that!

  2. Sophie , on Apr 26, 2012 at 11:30 Reply

    Hi Marta, I really enjoyed this post. The first part reminded me of a talk on ted.com about doctors making mistakes, how it is widely thought completely unacceptable and how much pressure that puts on them. It goes on to say they are human beings as well and they learn in all their career and they can only do their best. Also, only by acknowledging and sharing their mistakes can they help others avoid making the same mistakes. There is a lot of fear about making mistakes and then even more when it comes to telling others about them. But I think in any profession, it would be for the greater good to accept them and talk about them, because that way we can all learn and grow better. http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_goldman_doctors_make_mistakes_can_we_talk_about_that.html
    Then about comparison and it leading to low self-esteem, what a good thing to point out! (It can also lead to too high self-esteem and that can be just as destructive.) Perhaps a useful piece of advice I learned from a series of talks about the inner critic is that when you think somebody is much better than you at something, be inspired by what you see in them – it is perhaps showing you what you might want to achieve. And remind yourself that you are inherently good and have a great amount of knowledge yourself – depends who you compare yourself with. A challenging thing you can do is praise them for it, celebrate their good points – they will probably appreciate it and you will feel great as well!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 26, 2012 at 20:00 Reply

      Thanks for such a comprehensive and interesting comment, Sophie! It is true, we should talk about our mistakes and change our approach to being wrong. Do you think it will happen?

      I wholeheartedly agree with being inspired by others. I’m trying to do that all the time. I used to be quite depressed when faced with profiles of other, “better” translators, and then I realised that I should learn from them instead. That’s when my career started for good 🙂

      • Sophie , on Apr 26, 2012 at 20:57 Reply

        Great to hear that!
        Do I think people will change their approach to being wrong and making mistakes? I think the more people open up and talk about it, the more likely it will be that this issue will be heard. But I know that it is very challenging and there would be those who wouldn’t see the value in sharing about failures. I do believe that if professionals develop real, open relationships among each other or with project managers in agencies, they could talk about mistakes with reliable individuals. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do that and the listener wouldn’t judge you, but would appreciate the honesty and see the value in exploring “when things go wrong”, as opposed to discontinuing the relationship.

  3. Megan , on Apr 26, 2012 at 12:54 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Marta. I’m sure we can all relate to some of these feelings at some time or another, especially when first starting out!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 26, 2012 at 20:01 Reply

      I know, we have this tendency to panic when we’re just getting settled! Courage, mes amis!

  4. Sally , on Apr 26, 2012 at 18:47 Reply

    I can identify with all of the above, but luckily as a translator of nearly 30 years’ experience I must say things evolve, and of course you improve, although sometimes in some areas more than others and at different rates.

    So going back to work after taking time out might make you SO nervous that you just can’t do yourself justice in our high-pressured/stimulating job.

    Also, as you rightly say – there is the isolation factor – in my view a blessing and a curse, But nowadays the Internet is bringing us together if we want it.

    I have come across a lot of work by other linguists, and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and in fact the kind of work they like to do and therefore become very good at. So among the excellent linguists I know there are many slightly different specialisations and talents, although of course you always aim at a good ‘general’ language level.

    And none of us is infallible – we all make mistakes – so a bit of interaction does no harm (the great thing about interpreting) because we’re not actually all out to steal each others’ work and in any case we’re all very differerent.

    Thanks for your Blog – it is interesting.


    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 26, 2012 at 20:04 Reply

      Thanks for your kind comment, Sally!

      I think that in terms of making mistakes, it is crucial to accept that they do happen. And, as you point out, it is also necessary to acknowledge that we’re all different and specialise in various fields, even within the same discipline. Accept the variety, I’d say.

  5. Jan Snauwaert , on Apr 28, 2012 at 08:25 Reply

    Much depends on the kind of translation. For instance, in medical translations, mistakes are not admissible. But, in general, you described the fears of most of us, in an excellent way. Very clarifying, as always and as such, a great help to many of us. Keep going!

  6. Tolken , on May 4, 2012 at 06:39 Reply

    This is inspiration for another post! 🙂
    I’d like to add the issue of evaluation and assessment too, the fact that interpreters and many translators too are evaluated by others can be very intimidating. The same goes for peer-review if you write scientific articles.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 4, 2015 at 23:04 Reply

      I agree completely, being evaluated by your peers takes getting used to 🙂

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