Are Translators Normal?

Common sense tells us that being a translator is, like any other profession, fraught with ups and downs, peaks and troughs, although our ups and downs are often intrinsically linked to linguistic competence or know-how, stamina and concentration. The state of one’s mind is just as important as the knowledge we have acquired. Hence, the translator’s, like the writer’s, need for routine, regimented schedules and ‘peace and quiet’.

In a sense, the work of the translator, viewed by some as something akin to the work of the tireless monk scratching away at his calligraphy, requires intellectual discipline, patience and staying power. The freelance translator, often working from home, may often be isolated from regular human contact and, again like the writer, is often engrossed in his or her own mental jugglery ‘battling’ with a text in order to control it and then tame it.

What is more, translators, thanks to their know-how and linguistic prowess are not unfamiliar with multi-tasking. Translators are known to hold down many jobs and (as a previous post suggests) have a wide range of interests, hobbies and pastimes, unlike people working in other professions. Add to this the fact that translators have to deal with the rigours of time management and planning and we are left with an image of a truly multifaceted professional.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the translator’s lot is a difficult one and only a relatively small group have the pleasure of working in the field. Furthermore, because of the nature of this beast, people unfamiliar with the art (or craft) of translation do not quite understand the import of the work. Moreover, translators themselves are often not always clear on their own role. Is it a full-time profession? Do I want to do it all my life? Is it a calling?

Due to the fact that there are so many conflicting attitudes about translation from both within the field and without it is not surprising that this profession is not always regarded as ‘normal’ (whatever that may mean). What seems to be a pressing issue and most certainly interesting is whether translators themselves feel that they are ‘normal’ (whatever that may mean).



79 thoughts on “Are Translators Normal?

  1. I am completely in love with the fact that my choice, and the leader at the moment, is a French phrase which is best left untranslated in order to provide its full meaning. It is rather humbling for someone who (at least tries) to make a living from taking that “je ne sais quoi” which is French and pinning it down into simple English words.

  2. I believe that translators and interpreters are normal. They need to manage their time as in any other profession, one could argue that because you work from home you have more flexibility than a person that has the strict 9 to 5 schedule. However, because you do not have anybody controlling you along the way just a deadline you need to be more organized than the rest. Learning how to multi task (which happens in another fileds) and how to make the best of your time are extreamly important……but those two skills are also true for any other profession

  3. Although I have noticed people sometimes seem to blank out when I tell them I’m a translator, I’m sure that happens to people in other professions too. A more intriguing aspect of being a translator is the feeling I sometimes get that people must believe I am engaged in some kind of magic. Especially those who need 10 thousand words translated immediately and can’t seem to understand that it will take me at least 3 days to be able to achieve what they want. What, they seem to think, have you lost your magic wand?

  4. Translators are known to hold down many jobs and (as a previous post suggests) have a wide range of interests, hobbies and pastimes, unlike people working in other professions.
    First of all, I just loved this post. This is absolutely true. I strongly believe that the translator is a “scientist of the words”, a restless mind always looking for the next challenge. I have plenty of jobs (Freelance Translator, Language Trainer, Production Line Coordinator, Real-Estate Consultant for Foreign Business) and several hobbies (Musician, Lyricist, Mixing and Mastering Engineer, Web developper, Writer, among others). As you can see, I have a lot of interests and they all serve only one purpose: knowledge, which I can use in my translation work. I love to learn everything there is to learn, and my stickler nature and persistence always helped me to achieve my goals. What I learned first (and I’m still learning) from what I love the most, which is Literature, is never to quit on anything and everything is possible and if you believe you can do it, beleieve me, you’ll do it. Very interesting this post. Normal or not, the “je ne sais quoi” is definitely there and so is the responsibility. Like spider-man’s uncle Ben said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” What’s more powerful than words? (by this time and with this quote you might all be thinking that I’m not normal.) Best to all πŸ™‚

  5. Comparing our profession with the monk, working away at his calligraphy, fits very well.
    When I asked this question, “Yo soy un poco loco?”, to my wife she just nodded vehemently, yes.
    Using skills that other people do not have enough of, to do the job themselves, brings with it a alone-ness, separation from the rest, difference. Unknown differences have been called crazy throughout history.
    So, yes yo soy un poco loco. But that is why I can translate, and the director of the sugar mill here, can not, altough he speaks 3 languages.

    1. Most translators, at least “hard-core” translators who translate difficult subjects and languages, are more than just un poco loco. My wife calls this type of translator “henjin”. Henjin is a Japanese word consisting of two characters, the first one means “strange” and the second one means “human”. Since we’ve been married for 26 years, and I have been a full-time translator for most of these years, she met quite a few “henjins”.

      Personally, I am proud to be a henjin. Who wants to be normal, except maybe for 120 million Japanese drones? If I was normal, I would have a normal job, I would drive 30 minutes to it 5 or 6 days a week, and around the year 2008 or so, that job would have disappeared as millions of normal jobs have disappeared in America in the last couple of years.

      Being a henjin is much safer these days than being a normal person, although of course, nothing is really safe.

      Us un poco locos, henjins, weird humans, we are actually here to bring back some semblance of stability and sanity to this insane world. Without us, the world would descend into total madness and disintegration brought about by those seemingly normal persons.

      We may be a little weird, but they are the really crazy ones.

      1. Let’s drink to the hard working people
        Let’s drink of the lowly of birth
        Raise your glass to the good and the evil
        Let’s drink to the salt of the earth

        Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
        Spare a thought for his back breaking work
        Spare a part for his wife and his children
        Who burn the fires and who still till the earth

        And when I look into the this faceless crowd
        A swirling mass of gray blue
        Black and white
        They don’t look real to me
        In fact, we all look so strange

        Raise your glass to the hard working people
        Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
        Let’s think of the wavering millions
        Who need leading but get gamblers instead

        Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
        His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
        And a parade of the gray suited grafters
        A choice of cancer or polio

        And when I look into this faceless crowd
        A swirling mass of grays and
        Black and white
        They don’t look real to you
        Or do we look too strange

        Rolling Stones, cca 1967, I think.
        Nothing has changed in almost fifty years.
        Except that today, one would say “a choice of cancer or AIDS”.

        Onward and upward!

      2. Onward, let’s drink to that, if you have the time to drink.
        I do not. Have to work tomorrow, sometimes it does look like a normal job, but…..

    1. Pascal,

      But please, answer the question, normal is, in accordance with the norm. The Norm is a set of rules, made by “them” to make sure that you do what “they” believe is good for you. What “they” did not tell us, in fact it is only good for “them”.
      Can you live with that? I can not, that is why I am un poco loco.

  6. Personally, I find the question almost offensive… Who’s normal? What’s normal? For me, it’s like all these ‘distinctions’ like: ugly/beautiful, stupid/intelligent, etc.

  7. Based on what I see on Proz, most translators are incredibly ‘anal’ and take themselves deadly seriously; I minimise my contacts with them whenever possible.

  8. Ken,
    As a translator, my comment to you will be “de pot verwijt de ketel dat ie zwart ziet”.
    If you do not speak Dutch, ask on ProZ.

    1. Hey, Gone Native,

      It wouldn’t kill you to translate it, would it? Or do you mean that most people on this planet speak or should speak Dutch because you do? OTH, we know it’s something about a pot and a kettle, so maybe that’s all we need to know.


      For those who don’t speak Japanese, the sentence above is a typical, completely untranslatable and completely nonsensical sentence which literally means: “what is, is, but what is not, is not, is it?”

      Japanese businessmen utter dozens of such nonsensical sentences like this during a business meeting to create a Zen-like atmosphere conducive to a frank discussion of issues.

  9. As a relative newcomer to the profession, I’ve found this post fascinating. All I know is that freelance translation seems such a perfect fit with all the things that aren’t quite “normal” about me (whatever “normal” is!) – especially the juggling of a wide range of interests and pastimes. I’d never stopped to consider whether other translators are the same.

    Marga Burke
    Freelance translator / poet / webmaster / OU student / chorister / very part-time university teacher

  10. What we do is normal. Our job is normal, however some of us feel this “skill” is not conventional. And I strongly believe many of you feel this. We’re not that different from a Mathematician or a Phycisist. We look at the signs and sometimes, without even knowing how, we interpret them and understand them as if it was our own language. How many of you experienced the “I already know this” on your first foreign language lesson? Chomsky explains this with the “innatess hypothesis” and it makes sense, however there must be more to it. How can the body recognize “linguistic universals”? I don’t know about you, but I think about this a lot. Let’s suppose an Alien spaceship landed on earth. If only a few of us were able to easily learn their language and communicate with them, what would this mean? Many of the translators I know love music or play in a band among other things, and why is that? Music is “Linguistic Universals”? Think about it. We are as normal as a Mathematician (Linguistic Universals”?) or a Phycisist or whatever, but the skill is not normal, so everyone theorizes about it, but no one seems to have THE answer.

  11. I never met an alien from outer space, but they may look like normal people, who knows?
    You explanation about deja vu experience in languages, I used to get my first teacher of English very angry, be cause I knew. From where? I did not think about it much, after the same happened with German, I decided not to show it. It took about three months to learn Spanish, live.

    It is a gift, and we must use it well. Gifts come with responsibility.
    I agree, the skill, gift, is not normal.

    1. To learn, not to understand, that took a week, I think. I am not even sure how long it took it does not ‘take’, it happens. But he Arabic, Sudan. I did not have the deja vu (that is he expression I use for the experience)
      When I am reading Italian or Portuguese, I know what it means. For me it is a gift, but a gift from….

  12. I have a degree in Biology and I used to work in research before becoming a sci translator. When I said I was a biologist, you had to see people’s faces…now I say I’m a translator and everyone thinks I’m normal!!

      1. I wish I was πŸ™‚ My bookshelf is filled with sci-fi, gothic and horror literature, from Ray Bradbury to Robert Bloch, Lovecraft, Stoker, Walpole, Poe, among many others.

  13. The first sci-fi book I read was Foundattion Trilogy by the grand master Isaac Asimov, on the way to college, by train a one hour trip. We lived above the station at that time, on the way back I often just passed my home reading.

      1. The first book I read was “Bloch and Bradbury”, a collection of short-stories from both writers, organized by Kurt Singer. I still read it from time to time. It’s a great book.

      2. I recommend the great Stanislaw Lem who, owing to the fact that he didn’t write in English, is still largely ignored in the West. Lem is one of the few Sci-Fi authors I believe should have won a Nobel Prize for Literature. The amount of quality material the man produced is truly atonishing. The sheer volume led Philip K. Dick to believe Lem was actually an acronym for a communist undercover operation comprising a hot of writers; a belief he put forward in a letter to the FBI.
        More on Lem:

  14. sci-fi reader and translator, I am not really specialized, but do a lot of job application related translations, and some medical/nursing, sport, personal correspondence, press articles about liquor and news. But if you want to see my portfolio……:)

  15. When I tell people I’m a translator, they think that the only thing that people need to have translated are birth certificates and other legal records. They have a hard time comprehending the need for translation in so many other different areas and can’t believe that I make a more comfortable living as a translator than at a “normal 9-5” job. So they may not think that I am or that what I do is normal, but being a translator fits so well with my personality and many of the things I love that it’s as “normal” as can be for me!

  16. Very interesting post, and certainly a catchy title. There are, of course, different definitions of “normal,” starting with my compatriote Freud. Under the normal definition (hehe, pun intended), I feel quite normal. I’m always branching out into new areas (consulting, speaking), learning new things, improving my skills, and working too much — just like any other professional. This is certainly something to ponder, and this is the most comments I’ve seen on a blog lately. Thanks for the post!

    1. Many thanks for the comments, Judy.
      What is key is the fact that we understand that there is a certain aura of ‘strangeness’ about what we do, whether we like it or nor. How we cope with this is important.

    1. Please, do not organise anything, that is so ‘normal’. Next we all have to be a member of ProZ, or some other ‘organisation’ to controle us.
      The fact that most of us transltors are free lance is important. The only way to tell a client ‘no’, for a project I do not want to do, because it is against my own principles, is bing free lance. The client can go to someone else, I will even help look for a good translator myself.
      But if we start organising,all that will be lost.
      I am un poco loco, but I like that freedom.

  17. I can identify with your observations.

    Some of my relatives tell me that I’ve chosen ‘a very different’ profession. And I do believe that it has to do something with my being different from my cousins and friends who are happy doing 9 to 5 jobs.

  18. In India, where I live, people are surprised when I tell them that translation is my full-time profession. My relatives are no exception! Honestly, many of them still doubt that one can be a full-time translator.

      1. My professors in the U.S. also expressed concern that I was considering translation as a career. Some of these professors also did translation themselves so this was a bit intimidating. I finally figured out that they did *literary* translation as part of their academic contributions to the university both before and after tenure. Because this is something they had to do anyways and they are (hopefully) adequately compensated by the university, the publishers know that their payment can be more of an honorarium than a living wage.

        On the other hand, I translate legal documents and other texts with commercial value. They have to get translated, but I’m not going to do them just for my own mental stimulation – and certainly not on the timescale that is generally requested.

  19. To most people, translation is ONLY about replacing words of one language with those of another. They think that any bilingual can translate well. They find it difficult to believe that translation can be a full-time profession.

    In India, many people think that the Internet is all about checking e-mails and making friends on social networking websites. It is not easy to convince them that they can make a decent living working online.

  20. Nice blog. I am pleased to have stumbled upon it.
    A long time ago when I had a “proper” job, I was and still am from time to time, a bridge engineer, designing and maintaining bridges. People ask whether there is much call for bridges. To which I reply, “They are everywhere. You use them every day, so smoothly that you are not aware of them.” The reaction is the same when they hear that I am a translator and my reply is the same.
    The same intensity of effort and precision is involved in these rather solitary occupations producing one-off products. Yes, I can also see the monk in me now. πŸ™‚ And what do you know – in olden days monks built bridges and produced documents!
    There is no doubt in my mind that monks and structural engineers are strange. So are translators. However, I believe translators are less strange because they have to think about people more often, even if they are just writing about them or expressing their words. They also work in a non-male dominated profession, which greatly increases their normality score, but that deserves a future post of its own.
    Thanks for the interesting read everybody, now it’s back to work.

  21. I would not classify translator’s job as normal or not. As all occupations, this job has its advantages and disadvantages, but is does not make people ‘different’. It is true what many of you have written earlier: a lot of people do not realize how much effort and artistic skills this job requires, but if you compare it with the work of lawyers or doctors, translation seems to be really pleasant and easy πŸ™‚

  22. This job cannot be normal πŸ˜‰ This is some kind of artistic profession. Good translator – artist has to be creative and sometimes brave. In my opinion it is exciting and different job for people who love translation.

  23. It is very subjective to say whether doing a certain profession is normal or not. Taking into consideration the speed and lifestyle of most people these days, we could say that almost every profession is not normal πŸ™‚ As a student of English Philology I do not know much about the work of translators. However, I have some experience in translating and I can honestly say that it is definitely not easy. Primarily, it is a job that requires a lot of intellectual effort. Contrary to appearances, this occupation is also very responsible. Therefore, I think we should not be wondering whether what we are doing is normal or not, but we should do what we love as best as we can πŸ™‚

  24. In my opinion, we are choosing our profession on the basis of personal abilities as well as skills – nothing is by chance and definitely nobody will perform the job he/she isn’t prepared for. Translator’s responsibility is to translate as best as possible with respect to the appicable rules. Following this path, we can find dozens of examples where even more factors influence one’s work causing sometimes (maybe?) doubts or dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, it’s my subjective opinion.

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