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A Translator’s Career Is One Long Marathon: Why Slow and Steady Wins the Race and Leads to a Happier Life

I find today’s world quite frightening.
 
It gives you the impression that you have to fight with somebody to achieve something. Every day is a battle—you have to wake up at dawn, earlier than everyone else, and run towards something busily without stopping. That’s the only way you’ll succeed. You don’t want to get left behind, so you also feel the urge to make quick decisions and rush forward.
 
That kind of life, however, will only wear you out.
 
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There are times when I look back at what I’ve done in the evening and realize that I’ve been so busy all day. But this does not mean that all the tasks I’ve performed, the conversations I’ve shared, and thoughts that occupied my mind were meaningful in some way. Nevertheless, time still moves forward and tomorrow will be another busy day. Actually, the world will still be moving rapidly and busily that same night. There’s not much room for contemplation, introspection, or rest.
 
Not long ago, I came across a story in Yeh Byungil’s Economy Note about a baker. He wrote that he “makes time not to bake so that he can be a good baker.” His bakery is open only 3 days a week. I only read the book review, so I don’t know exactly what his life is like or what he does when he doesn’t bake, but he clearly lives a unique life different from others.
 
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The point I want to make is that a translator also “needs to make time for not translating so that he or she can be a good translator.”
 
Other bakers who come across this story may say, “Such arrogance!” or, “He can afford to do that because he’s already wealthy!” “How can he work only three days a week when it’s so difficult to get by?” They’ll probably yell out in frustration. In this competitive world, their remarks shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it’s problematic if bakers bake all day every day without rest. They’ll miss out on life and the baking that they’ve once enjoyed will become exhausting work.
 
The same can be said for translation. For new translators, the initial difficulties are so big that planning for the distant future while enjoying the work at hand may sound very unrealistic. I understand this perspective as well because I’ve been through it. Even so, if you don’t gradually advance forward while looking far up ahead, you’ll just end up in circles or go in the wrong direction.
 
A translator’s career is one long marathon. A translator’s career is one long marathon. Click To Tweet
 
No matter how determined you are, how good your profile is, or how often you bid for projects, you won’t have much work in the beginning. Companies will not acknowledge you because you’re a beginner. This may lead to disappointment and you may develop an inferiority complex because you are evaluating your aptitude and abilities based on the market response. This is why some translators give up in less than a year, feeling that a career in translation is not lucrative.
 
Think of your career in translation as a marathon. Work towards developing a good route and a positive attitude. The aim of this marathon is not to win, but to complete your route at your speed. If you approach your translation career and lifestyle in this way, you’ll begin to see how you can fill your working and non-working hours.
 
I remember when I first learned about positive and negative feedback. I don’t mean feedback like, “You did very well!” Here, ‘feedback’ is the control or modification of a process by its results. Positive feedback will increase output, while negative feedback will cause output to remain constant.
 
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I will give you an example of positive feedback. Sometimes, when the microphone is not adjusted properly, you’ll hear a high pitched “BEEP” sound. This sound occurs because the speaker and microphone are too close together and the small sound from the speaker is fed back into the microphone again. Sound coming from the speaker goes into the microphone, and that sound becomes louder when it comes out of the speaker again, and that louder sound then goes back into the microphone, etc. Because this process occurs so quickly, the loud screeching sound instantly results.
 
Negative feedback can be seen in indoor temperature control systems. If the heater is on and the temperature goes up too much, something in the switch will expand so that the heater will turn off. Conversely, if the heater is off and the temperature goes down too much, something in the switch will shrink which will cause the heater to turn on. This is called a negative feedback system. Because of this system, the indoor temperature can be maintained at a set range.
 
In my opinion, a translator’s work and life must be designed so that positive feedback can be achieved over time. A translator’s work and life must be designed so that positive feedback can be achieved over time. Click To Tweet
 
As time passes, all the little results obtained in a translator’s career and life should be used as positive feedback to produce better results than before. Then, those better results should again support the translator’s work and life, and on the cycle goes. This should be the system we aim to build.
 
This way, we’ll be able to walk our own path with conviction no matter how slowly we progress, or what other people say. If today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow is better than today, we can push ourselves forward persistently, not too hastily, with any small task, no matter how difficult or gloomy things may become, or how insecure we may feel at times.
 
Let’s look at an example. Say a translator received a small project and put in a great amount of effort to complete it. He spent 3 hours on the project (though another translator could have done it in 30 minutes) because he meticulously looked up words in dictionaries and via Google to gain background knowledge and search for technical terminology. Others may look upon this translator with pity. “Why work so hard for 3 hours to earn so little?” “Why would you put yourself through that?” “There’s no need to put forth that much effort—no one’s going to say anything even if it’s not perfect.” (These comments are more likely to be self-criticisms, not made by anyone else but the translator himself.)
 
However, if you think of your translation career as a marathon and set out on a long term route, you won’t pay attention to such comments, whether they be from others or from yourself. To be a good translator, you’ll need more than good linguistic knowledge. You’ll need meticulous research skills and you’ll need to be thorough. You’ll need to look over your work again (self-proofreading) after it’s complete from the reader’s point of view to make sure that you haven’t missed anything. If you keep working like this, you’ll see the following positive results:

  • You’ll increase your skills as a translator.
  • You’ll create high quality TMs.
  • You’ll receive good evaluations from clients.

 
All these are positive feedback for a translator. The translator will gain satisfaction from knowing that he or she has completed a project with great effort and will gain confidence to perform other tasks. Furthermore, the next time similar sentences and terminology appear (whenever that may be), they can be translated much more quickly with less effort, because of the TM. Lastly, high-quality translations executed with great effort will receive good feedback from clients, which is the key to receiving other projects.
 
We can accelerate this process in several ways. I will discuss these in one of ‘How to’ posts later. But, the most important thing is you have this kind of positive feedback system and live and work in it. No matter how slowly you may progress or how small the project may be, if you keep working with this positive feedback system, your future as a translator will be bright. No matter how slowly you may progress, if you go on with this positive feedback system, your future is bright. Click To Tweet
 
You’ll also be able to focus on your hobbies and acquire new knowledge when you think of your translation career as a marathon. Translators need to distance themselves from their work and spend time doing other things as the above-mentioned baker did. No one can live on work alone, and translation skills won’t increase if you simply translate a lot. Translation skills are built via long detours because a translation business requires advanced knowledge. Translation skills are built via long detours because a translation business requires advanced knowledge. Click To Tweet
 
As I mentioned in my earlier posts, translation business is a language business and a knowledge business.
 
Only when you dive into your second language (a language that is not your mother tongue), read in it, watch films in it, play games in it, converse with others in it, will you be able to reach into the depths of that language. To do this takes a long, long, long, long, long time. (I will discuss how long this takes in another post.) That’s why good translation is and should be so expensive. So, don’t worry if you don’t have work at the moment. Spend time on your hobbies and have fun (on things that aren’t directly related to translation). In the beginning, it’s important to study the translation world itself, but after a certain level, you’ll need to sail through a much wider ocean.
 
As you read this, you might be saying, “Ugh, do I have to do all that to be a good translator?” Yes, you do. But try to change your perspective. Do you know why a translator’s life is so amazing? Because translators can enjoy this lifestyle. If you actively seek to have fun and work with a positive attitude, you can enjoy the translator’s incredible lifestyle. Like the grasshopper. These ‘other tasks’ (detours that build knowledge and skill) are necessary if you want to work on projects that require advanced knowledge where you have to deliver information between languages and cultures. You can’t do this by only looking at the source document. In-depth knowledge is a prerequisite.
 
Do not worry if agencies would understand these aspects of translation. There are many agencies and direct clients that want to hire highly skilled translators for important projects. They require translators who have gained an in-depth understanding of language and the specific field through many ‘detours.’ You can work with these people. If you are just starting out, you’ll have to rely a lot on bidding for projects, and you may feel that agencies only care about getting the lowest translation rate. This may lead you to think that you’ll only be able to make a living out of translation by working on a lot of projects at a low price. That is the opposite of what I am trying to say here. If you head in that direction, you’ll only set yourself up to fail in your career. It is going to be very difficult to become a happy translator if you take that path.
 
I worry that I may be giving the wrong advice to new translators. I’m also cautious when I express my ideas so that you won’t misinterpret what I’m saying. Think it through carefully before you make your decision. Will you just push yourself forward without any particular plans? Or will you think of your career as a long marathon and take it step by step, putting one foot in front of the other? I think the latter choice will lead you to becoming a happy translator.
 
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