Lesson 135: 5 mistakes more experienced translators make

Lesson 135: 5 mistakes more experienced translators make

I’ve recently been invited to moderate a panel on social media networking at Translating Europe Forum in Brussels. This was one of my last presentations for a while. Plus, Translating Europe’s goal this year was empowering young translators, so the room was filled with students and recent graduates. Put these two together and you’ll inevitably end up reflecting… At least I did.

It’s easier to give advice and point out the mistakes of younger colleagues (wannabes, newbies, however you decide to call them). Been there, done that, went through similar issues so I can share my experience. And I certainly was very grateful to receive pointers when I was starting out.

But what about the more experienced translators? Maybe we’re not making mistakes anymore after we’ve been around for 3, 4, 5 or 6 years. Maybe we have our own, trusted sources. Or maybe we don’t ask for this sort of advice anymore?

In my pondering, I did a bit of an introspective journey to try and uncover what I thought some of the mistakes I’ve been making (or observing) were. And no, this article isn’t a list of things more experienced colleagues are failing at but an honest conversation with myself – and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find some aspects resounding with you.

Relying too much on your memory or experience

Of course getting more experience in an area speeds us up, makes us better translators, results in higher per hour income, but what if we become too reliant on memory or experience? I’ve seen this word before, I remember how I translated it, I’ve worked on a similar text – all of these can be positive and tricky at the same time. Overreliance on how I did something in the past makes me less vigilant, less curious, less attentive. I gloss over a text perhaps without giving it the right attention.

And what about proper text analysis? We learn about it as translation students, but with time we tend to skip it. What happens with this powerful tool? Does it get internalised as we’d hope it to, or does it get… blunt?

Not following developments

I remember when I was a new translator, I followed everything: read all magazines, subscribed to all newsletters, went to all events I could. Of course, you shouldn’t be doing that forever. But what I noticed now is that I’m less and less likely to read an industry magazine, I’m less likely to catch up with a colleague’s blog, I’m less likely to focus on what’s going on.

Well, all these sources are still somewhere there, in the periphery, but I don’t pay as much attention to them as I used to. I’m telling myself that I’m too busy working, that I’ll catch up with newsletters over the weekend, that next year I will go to this or that event – and I never do. What I can do these days is, at most, scroll through subject lines and titles to get the gist of what’s happening. Of course, I’m still up-to-date with the major developments, but I don’t have the drive to go into details as much as before.

Been there, done that attitude

After being in the industry for a few years, it’s quite easy to get the ‘been there, done that attitude’: you’ve read similar articles, heard similar discussions, been to similar events or even worked on similar projects, so it’s nothing new for you, you no longer see why anyone would be excited about a conference, an opportunity or a project, it’s all becoming very casual, almost pedestrian. Nothing surprises you anymore, very few things really get you interested and inspired.

To a certain extent, feeling like this is normal. But sometimes we can go a step too far and discourage a younger colleague or undermine their enthusiasm by insisting that everything’s the same. It’s hard to get the same novice-like attitude, but letting this ‘been there, done that’ approach influence your thinking is likely to make work less fun for you. Or sometimes we may end up even neglecting the useful ideas with could add to our repertoire because they’re hidden in the midst of things we already know.

The curse of knowledge

Something I’ve noticed I was doing myself was throwing acronyms, names, ideas, people, companies assuming that everyone knows what I was talking about. This insider knowledge is often a source of pride, a sign of belonging and possessing privileged information. It’s easy to forget that getting to the point of understanding all this and seeing connections in the industry takes ages – it certainly took me a few good years. All of a sudden we expect everyone around us – from another colleague to a newcomer to the industry – to be getting the same acronyms, names and concepts. And when they don’t, we often remark that they must have been living under a rock…

What I’ve realised over the years is that I’ll be in a much better position if I assume that my interlocutors don’t have this privileged knowledge — that is, if I want to communicate, not impress them. And of course, it’s up to me to share information with them.

Rosy retrospection

Don’t we all get the feeling that things were better in the past every now and then? I’m certainly guilty of that. Rates used to be higher, we were treated better, translation agencies used to be nicer to work with, and everything that we have now is worse or somewhat lacking. The same principle applies to some bigger mechanisms in the industry: we’re now threatened more than ever, it’s now easier for unqualified people to claim they’re translators, and so on. It’s a fallacy – in general things are getting better but our sentiment tells us we’re in a worse and worse situation.

This thinking affects us in a negative way, but sometimes it can also lead us to discouraging younger colleagues: things aren’t as good as they were before, so maybe you want to think about it twice.

At the end of the day, we should know that aging is inevitable, maturing is optional. Hopefully, by being aware that we sometimes make these mistakes, we become not only more experienced translators, but wiser ones as well.

Any other “mistakes” you can think of?


  1. Borja Sanus Pastor , on Nov 5, 2015 at 08:17 Reply

    Hello Marta. Just want to say that it is a good post as a reflexion of the Europe Translating Forum in Brussels. As I see it, the translator experience can encourage young and new translators to be part of this world; so all thoughts of experts are welcome.

    Kind regards.


  2. Tanya Quintieri , on Nov 5, 2015 at 11:17 Reply

    “At the end of the day, we should know that aging is inevitable, maturing is optional.” So true.

    Hey Marta,
    I’ve been in the business for more than 12 years now. And it’s true. We make mistakes as well. As for the curse of knowledge, my experiences are a bit different: I am sometimes not sure if what I tell newbies is really all that interesting to them, as most of those topics are “no-brainers” in my book – and I’m assuming I will bore the hell out of them. But more often that not, the exact opposite is true. And that’s what reminds me constantly that I had to learn the very same things.

    I’ve found it quite helpful to be a mentor. It kind of grounds me and enables me to maintain a (hopefully) open attitude towards all things business. And it’s less time consuming than offering internships or running from one event to the next.

    Great post, as always!

  3. Diana Jankowiak , on Nov 5, 2015 at 13:23 Reply

    Well said, Marta. I am certainly guilty of some of those myself, although I am trying to avoid discouriging younger colleagues. As I have classes with university students, they often ask about the market. I keep telling them that there are plenty of opportunities, if you know how to make use of them.
    But you made me realise that what I’ve been sensing for some time – that I have less and less time to dig deeper into news and industry magazines – is not only a feeling, it’s a fact. I am going to change that as of January, because there will be a shift in my professional life and much more space in it.
    Other mistakes? I think that perhaps “walking the talk” might be tough. I keep praising social networks and online presence, but I have trouble fixing three language versions of my LinkedIn profile.
    Overall, it’s good to reflect upon these issues 🙂

  4. Ana Beard , on Nov 6, 2015 at 16:24 Reply

    Thanks Marta, for being so honest. I loved reading your perspective. It’s much appreciated by a newbie. Please also note some new translators are not ‘young’, we are changing over from other careers.

    I would add to some experienced translators, please be flattered if a newbie approaches you for advice. We know you are very busy. We don’t want to swipe your job from you. It’s a compliment that someone has done their research and sought you out – we value your experience and really appreciate your knowledge. Having said that, I have met many experienced translators who are amazing, don’t feel threatened and whose generosity is overwhelming.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 30, 2016 at 14:29 Reply

      I had huge luck meeting some of the great translators when I started out. I think they leave huge impact and thus change the industry one student at a time 😉

  5. Perla Hassan , on Nov 6, 2015 at 16:37 Reply

    Dear Marta,
    Great blog post!
    Firstly, experienced translators should keep track of new linguistic theories applied to translation.
    Secondly, social networks and the internet have given birth to new genres. Ignoring the features of new styles and registers can affect proper text analysis.
    And thirdly, disregarding translation quality assessment for freelancers can impact on the final product and discourage clients from hiring our services again.
    Thanks for letting us continue learning and reflecting on our professional practices.
    Perla Hassan (Argentina)

  6. Paulinho , on Nov 6, 2015 at 17:49 Reply

    Dear Marta,

    you are absolutely right and it is funny how we, along the time, assume some sort of wisdom or comfort zone that might end up causing some job related issues. Assuming we know everything on a specific field is a trap. I have been translating for some years and always refer to my source material or clients suggested glossaries, I mean, I try and use every source I can in order to deliver good quality jobs.

    Thank you.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 30, 2016 at 14:27 Reply

      I think the secret is to stay humble. You’re doing a good job 🙂

  7. Michael Ellis , on Nov 24, 2015 at 09:26 Reply

    A very interesting and mature article. It has made me review my attitudes. Thanks, Marta.

  8. Marcela Losavio , on Nov 26, 2015 at 13:30 Reply

    Thank you Marta! you’ve made me think. I plead guilty. 🙂
    I certainly make many of those mistakes and many others. However, I don’t rely on my memory at all, in fact I do check and recheck many words, so perhaps my mistake there is distrusting my own memory and experience. Regarding the second mistake, you’ve got me there, I do scroll over the headlines and tend to think that it is enough to decide whether such and such event, blog, article, etc might be useful or not. In fact I do have a Folder named “To read later on” which is full of “unread” articles…in fact I’ve been there, and I’ve done that, and I guess the rosy introspection is only human. Now, My feeling is that it is all related to communication. We as experienced pros need to know how to communicate with newbies, how to listen instead of doing all the talk. We should be willing to ask questions instead of “showing off”. I also think it is a pedagogic issue. Such as a teacher should know what is the best way to approach a class, we, as experienced translators, should be aware of the best way to lecture on newbies. Also,”empathy” is another ability we should exercise in all aspects of life. Being an adult, mature, experienced translator is not an exception.

  9. Oliver Lawrence , on Nov 27, 2015 at 13:26 Reply

    Some good thoughts here again (of course!), Marta.

    Taking your foot off the pedal is another pitfall to avoid, IMHO. You start out in your career as keen as mustard, pushing as hard as you can to make headway, then when some pieces of the jigsaw have fallen into place, it’s easy to start coasting. But that way lies death! Or professional stagnation, to be less melodramatic.

    I’m told that some translators with decades of experience think that they don’t need to do CPD. As if the world, language and their specialisms became fossilised in stone the moment they achieved mastery of them. Crazy. When you know plenty about a subject, it then becomes fun to find new ideas, insights and knowledge in unlikely places, to pick unexpected gems from unexpected sources. From a chance remark overhead in a corridor at a conference to something in a magazine or leaflet that gives you a brainwave. The challenge then becomes to keep an eye out for what you don’t know, as opposed to recognising what you do know and switching off.

    Onward and upward :).

  10. Jessica Martinez , on Dec 10, 2015 at 10:18 Reply

    Thanks Marta for point out these mistakes. Translators learned many things to avoid mistakes from your article. Great, thanks again.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 30, 2016 at 14:57 Reply

      Thank you, I hope to learn from my mistakes as well 🙂

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