A sculptor was once asked how he could carve such a magnificent likeness of his own head out of a block of marble. His reply? ‘I simply remove that which isn’t me.’
I first started as a full-time translator five years ago. Like just about everyone, I accepted whatever work came my way from the various agencies that deigned to take me on. Council meeting minutes, perfume descriptions, environmental awareness leaflets and restaurant menus.
True, I enjoyed some translations more than others, either for the fascination of their content or the flow of their prose, but I simply saw such highs and lows as a normal part of the job. Still, I was mildly troubled by the fact that I felt so alive when translating the history of a cathedral and quite so beset by a sense of gloom when wading through pages of what Mr X said to Ms Y at Meeting Z.
This was compounded of course by the commonly held belief that surely a good translator should be able to turn even plodding prose into gold?
Now I know better. It is of course entirely possible to weave golden thread out of council minutes, but it helps a great deal if such documents light your fire – if the cut and thrust of dialogue and policy are what get you springing out of bed in the morning, punching the air.
There are translators like that, just as there are those who are impassioned by ball bearings, captivated by nuclear power, scintillated by mediaeval art or riveted by financial analyses.
Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world of translation. But only if we first reflect on who we are and what inspires us, and honour that.
It was Edison who said that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But like all clichés, it’s only partly true. Have you ever noticed that on the days you are 99% inspired, you forget all about perspiration? How when you are in ‘the zone’, or in ‘flow’, or ‘the element’, your mind and body sing with the translation you are producing?
The day I learnt to follow my intuition in terms of choices was the day I freed myself from the shackles of duty, and the hard labour of working on texts I did not love. The doleful execution of activities that failed to make my brain fizzle and my limbs tingle was something I left behind in the faded classrooms of my schooldays. Life’s too short for that.
It was also the day I realised I would never be able to translate chemistry, architecture or legal texts, whereas on the contrary, history, religion, art and culture, and especially travel topics had me skipping to my computer.
The day I specialised, I did so not because every blog, book and website in the world told me to do so, or even because it would increase my profitability in a certain sector, but because I finally understood it was my perfect right as a freelancer to do what I love and to love what I do.
My aim ever since I understood that truth has been to cultivate it further by chipping away at the vast monolithic block that is the world of translation until I reveal my own likeness.
It’s an option that’s open to everyone.
Take a hefty swing at things that really turn you off, as I did the first time I ever sat in front of a 3,000-word text on the nuclear industry. Pick up a finer chisel as you hone in closer on the form you want. Decide on history, for example, but perhaps not the history of science. Embrace the fine arts museums but subtly chip away the industrial museums.
Likewise with your clients. Over time, lop off those whose methods or rates do not suit your temperament, whose working practices are too hurried or not quality-conscious enough for you. Whittle away until you are left with the ideal clients, whether agencies or direct, with whom you find it easy and a joy to work.
And then carve away at how you spend your time. Outsource your accounts, fill more time with writing, or take on more proofreading and editing and delegate out your website design.
What should emerge is a working life that resembles you and your deepest motivations in every way – a perfect likeness of you. And as you change over the years, make further modifications to your creation. It’s a work in progress.
So if you want 99% inspiration, just copy the sculptor.
And remove all that isn’t you.
About the author
While studying French and German at Oxford, Andrew Morris had the misfortune to meet a persuasive (non-translator) linguist who assured him translation was a dead-end option. And so for 20 years he devoted himself instead to language teaching and freelance teacher training in over 30 countries round the world. But when in 2009 a series of chance (?) life events dictated it was time for a major change, he finally realised the error of his ways. He’s been making up for lost time ever since. Andrew now heads Morristraduction, a thriving translation studio with a focus on the arts, culture and travel, and leads a team of 20 hand-picked colleagues. He writes regularly about life as a translator on the Facebook page Standing Out.