Joie de vivre

Written by Tim Guttridge and Bex Elder
Tim Gutteridge and Bex Elder remind us that now, more than ever, it is important to think about joy, and how it can be found  in the work of translation. 

T: Joy, as a colleague of mine told me recently, is something I talk about a lot – but a lot of other translators don’t. Coincidentally, another colleague of mine, Bex Elder, had just published a blog post with the title ‘Breaking the silence: getting out of the rut’, in which she discussed the familiar problem of feeling stressed and overwhelmed by our work. What I really liked about the blog was that, rather than offering a list of tips, it started from the need to recognise and discuss one’s feelings before trying to do anything else. And point five on Rebecca’s list was simply ‘Rediscover the joy’. I’ve co-written quite a few blog posts over the last few years, and they are definitely the pieces of writing I’ve enjoyed most. It seemed logical, then, for this piece about finding joy to be written as a conversation between the two of us.

Joys large and small

B: I remember agonising over what to do after university. You so often hear people saying they don’t enjoy their job, that it just pays the bills. While my future job still had to pay the bills, I desperately wanted it to be something I enjoyed (at least most of the time!) and something which made a difference. I have such a vivid memory of the moment when I realised I could turn my favourite class into a job. Combining that with the freedom and flexibility of a freelance life seemed perfect. But like any job, the excitement can fade, the joy can be buried under a huge to-do list, and the passion can get lost in the income uncertainty. One day, you realise that work feels like a slog. I found that prospect quite frightening, and even had wobbles over whether this was the right industry for me.

T: I’ve definitely experienced similar moments over the course of my own career. In fact, the bad news is that I still do! I think that’s inevitable. Quite apart from the issues of pay and security, there’s the challenge of how we deal with the isolation that can be a part of self-employment (especially at the moment) and, as you say, what to do when the actual work itself feels like a slog. Obviously, the easiest solution to that second problem is to try to seek out subject areas that we’re actually interested in and search for texts that we find appealing. That’s what I’ve done to a degree by focusing on literary translation. But if it was that easy then we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. And, anyway, it’s a long-term solution at best. In the meantime we need to find ways of taking pleasure in whatever it is that comes our way. To give a really nerdy example, if I come across a list of countries in a text – ‘we have projects in Mexico, Cuba, Brazil and Peru’ – I’ll always reorder the list alphabetically unless there is some other logic (large to small, or whatever). I’d say that’s good practice, anyway, but if I’m honest I do it because the unordered version strikes me as ugly, and I derive pleasure from transforming it into a pretty, alphabetical version.

B: It’s comforting to know that everyone experiences similar things and that it’s a normal part of professional life. I agree that text type can definitely help. I love how varied the specialisms are in our profession, and we all enjoy work when we’re in our sweet spot, whatever it is. But that’s not the whole picture. I can completely relate to little things making all the difference in a job. One of the things I’ve realised as I’ve been working is that I actually do a lot of my thinking away from the screen. I often think about a term literally, and it’s often when I’m away from work, doing an unrelated task like driving somewhere or wandering round a supermarket, that the perfect solution occurs to me.

One of the things I love is the unexpected sources of joy, often fuelled by technology. When I found a way to track all my admin data and stats, it was incredibly satisfying

Bex Elder

T: Yes, I think that finding the right word or phrasing is the key to it: the foundation of enjoying translation, if you like. I know that a lot of people who don’t translate just imagine the whole process would be a constant source of frustration and annoyance – living your life with that ‘tip of the tongue’ sensation – and obviously that happens sometimes, but I always have an underlying confidence that I will, eventually, put my finger on the word or phrase I’m looking for, even if, as you say, it may actually be when I’m doing something else. Obviously you draw on your own knowledge and skill and experience when you come up with the right word or phrasing, but I think that the real secret is engagement with the task. Here’s an example from a colleague, Chris Pellow, on Twitter. The original text (in Spanish) said: ‘In those cases in which the material used to construct the tower is steel, the demolition procedure to be followed is that which is detailed below.’ Chris translated this quite simply, as: ‘Steel towers should be demolished as follows.’ Usually we talk about these examples in terms of clarity, differences between languages or whatever. But I think we forget that there is also intrinsic satisfaction in producing a lovely concise translation from a tangled source (as long as you’re not being paid by the target word!).

Pleasure beyond the text

B: Another of the things I love is the unexpected sources of joy, often fuelled by technology. When I found a way to track all my admin data and stats conveniently, it was incredibly satisfying: my inner geek loves comparing statistics and then figuring out how to improve aspects of my work. I’ve attended webinars on formatting word documents and handling PDFs, and I love how much knowledge people have on the subject, and how it clearly provides some game-changing results, allowing them to spend more time on the things they love – both work- related and away from the office.

It may not go up in huge lights, but joy will still brighten your day

T: I think most translators have a nerdy side to them. When I’m working on literary texts, I generally receive my material as a PDF. I definitely get pleasure out of converting that into a usable format so that I can do my first draft with a CAT tool, and doing that generally involves some manual formatting. It feels like a nice way to begin my professional engagement with the text, just scanning through it making sure nothing has gone missing and sprucing it up with the right font and spacing before starting any other work. It’s almost tactile; if you like, it’s the equivalent of a cabinetmaker getting the feel for a piece of wood before picking up the saw! Another huge source of joy is the pleasure we get from our relationships with colleagues. We’re all aware of the dangers of isolation and loneliness and, obviously, we understand the benefits of networking in terms of continuing professional development, business referrals or whatever. But it’s far more fundamental than that. We’re social animals and I think, at some level, we all have a need to share our work, to collaborate, to talk about what we do. I have an ongoing arrangement, RevClub, with a couple of colleagues. We started out just taking turns to give each other feedback on our work, but over time it’s developed into a close friendship. It still has translation at its core – we do slams, chat about translation issues, present workshops and do webinars together – but we also talk about family life, relationships, emotional challenges and all sorts of other things.

Making freelancing human

B: I feel incredibly lucky to have been encouraged to connect with colleagues and join professional networks early on – there’s a real richness that comes from talking to people at all stages in their lives, both professionally and personally. I love the forum Twitter provides for doing this. You can go from discussing an ethical issue on @TranslationTalk to a book recommendation with #GlobalReadsforTranslators, passing through recipe ideas from #ThatTranslatorCanCook and invaluable tips for French to English translators from @anglais on the way. And I also find this connection and knowledge-sharing spurs me on to improve.

Personal relationships become a source of joy that gives my work human meaning that lifts it above the level of an abstract technical task

Tim Guttridge

T: I think it can be particularly difficult to cultivate intimacy with our freelance working contacts. We worry about boundaries, about what is appropriate, about the line between work and leisure and so on. Over time, I’ve consciously decided to try to make all of my work-related interactions a bit warmer. Within reason, I tell people about what’s going on in my life, I avoid over-formal emails, I don’t worry if there’s the odd mistake in my Spanish emails, I make jokes and add chatty comments, and so on. 

When I’m working with authors, I tend to use WhatsApp rather than email; I send voice messages and make video calls rather than sticking to text; when I visit Madrid or Barcelona I try to meet clients in person for a coffee or a beer. And the range of different types of interaction – face-to-face, social media, ongoing collaborative partnerships – is important. We need different things at different times. Twitter can be like a virtual water cooler: a place where we can gather to socialise as part of our working day. However, it has its limitations. I find I’m much more active on Twitter when I’m feeling positive and cheerful, but I tend to engage less when things are tough. At that point, I turn to deeper relationships. The classic freelancing model can be very impersonal – dehumanising even. The opposite of that model is one where our work happens within the context of rich personal relationships. These become a source of joy because they give my work human meaning that lifts it above the level of the performance of an abstract technical task.

B: Yes, that really resonates with me. I naturally adopt quite a personal and friendly tone, both with clients and colleagues. I’ve only recently realised that that my genuine interest in people is one of the things that makes me stand out and that it’s a reason why people enjoy working with me. As you say, I think when we can reach a place of honesty (and, dare I say it, vulnerability), we become closer, care more and support each other. Some of the best experiences I’ve had have involved working with people, whether as a team of translators sharing terminology, working with a trusted editor to polish texts, brainstorming marketing ideas during CPD exercises… or co-writing this article.

This article appeared as the cover article in the July-August 2020 edition of the ITI Bulletin.
About the writers

Tim Gutteridge translates from Spanish into English. He specialises in creative translation (both literary and otherwise) with a particular interest in theatre. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in Cadiz, in the south of Spain. He blogs about translation at timgutteridge.co.uk/blog/ and tweets at @timG_translator.

Bex Elder is a freelance translator who works from French and Spanish to English, specialising in creative and marketing texts. She’s passionate about gender equality, especially in language; the Scotland rugby team; delicious tapas; and good gin. She can be found online at bexelder-translation.co.uk or @translatorbex on Twitter.