On Being Wrong

On March 2nd, 2017, I decided to be wrong.

More concretely, I decided to give up being right for Lent. I was motivated by several different things, both abstract and pragmatic. There was my frustration with what I see as a potentially fatal barrier to productive discourse in American society today—widespread self-righteousness—and my desire to change it. There was my interest in how philosophical concepts like self-doubt and self-righteousness interact with religion. And there was my identity as a translator.

Wait, you may be thinking, what does being a translator have to do with any of this?

Well, I’m glad you asked! This is a translation blog, after all. And my view is that a healthy, consciously wielded self-doubt sits squarely at the heart of the translator’s best practices.

TheDetailWoman tweet from 4:26 PM - 4 Mar 2017.

Less than a year after I turned translation from my hobby into my profession, I was put in charge of reviewing other anime translators’ work. I was so young—just 23!—and so unestablished that this was a pretty shocking development. I mean, I knew translation was the career for me, but I didn’t think I’d already achieved unparalleled genius in the field or anything. I’m sure that if any of the people whose work I was correcting back then learned my age, they were quite shocked too, if not actively offended.

As it turned out, the fact that I didn’t think I’d achieved genius is exactly what made me a good reviewer. In the beginning, when I looked at a translation of anything more complex than sentences like “Please” and “Thank you,” I’d try to verify, because I didn’t trust my own authority over the other translators’ in any inherent way. I looked up words. I looked up all the words, including the words I already knew. I reread my grammar books to make sure I wasn’t misremembering obscure usages. I asked my mentor when I wasn’t sure I’d figured something out correctly. And I rapidly discovered that this is exactly what the people whose work I reviewed weren’t doing, and therefore the work was riddled with errors. And so I learned that the self-doubt I felt wasn’t just “beginner’s jitters” that more time in the career should alleviate. Instead, it was the most powerful tool a translator can have at her disposal. When we know how easily we can be wrong, we take the steps to try to be less wrong. It might take a few days of bravery to really internalize that you’re constantly teetering on the edge of wrongness, but once you get there, it’s not only empowering: it’s an enormous relief.

You can’t be both a good translator and a self-righteous translator. It’s just not a thing.

Human fallibility, on the other hand, is definitely a thing.

So in the last couple of years, as I’ve seen self-righteousness overcome more and more of society in our religious, political, and social conversations and realized how little we are willing to listen to each other from that place of “healthy, consciously wielded self-doubt” so that we can truly understand and solve problems, the more I’ve thought that this wrongness principle should apply outside of translation. It should apply to our lives across the board: humans are fallible, which means we could be wrong in our convictions at any time. My premise, then, at the beginning of my Lenten experiment was, “You can’t really see the truth about anything until you acknowledge that you might not have looked at it properly yet.”

self-righteous. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved May 5, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/self-righteous

self-righteous. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved May 5, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/self-righteous


Since I want to see everyone practice this, I started by trying to practice it myself. I wrote several friends-only follow-ups on Facebook throughout Lent, and promised to write up my notes on the whole experience at the end… which is what I’m doing now.

So, how did it go and what did I learn?

Continue Reading →

FAQ #3: Did Your Bryn Mawr Education Prepare You For Your Career?

Another FAQ!

Much as I love my alma mater, the question “Did your Bryn Mawr education prepare you for your career?” is, I think, actually a bigger one: “Did your liberal arts education prepare you for your career?” Because Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts school, and I think the practical usefulness of the liberal arts is what people are really getting at here.

The short answer: yep, it did.

The long answer: Here’s what a liberal arts education is, and why it’s useful to a translator’s career even though it’s by definition not career-specific.

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Setting Boundaries with Freelance Clients

I’ve read a lot of excellent posts from my fellow freelancers talking about setting boundaries with clients: establishing what type of deadline is okay and what price you’re willing to work for, or even establishing when you will be available via email throughout the day (I could swear I remember Corinne McKay giving that advice, but I can’t find it just now, so apologies if I am misattributing!). Like most of us, I sometimes have trouble saying “no” to either the client or myself, so it’s always great advice to hear.

I’d add one more type of boundary that’s helpful for freelancers: boundaries concerning the source content. I recently set a boundary with a prospective agency client that felt really good to me. The agency contact and I talked price and workload, and it was all going very smoothly, but he mentioned that sometimes his company was pitched content with “adult themes.”

Now, all of you who’ve been in the entertainment biz in the US–and also most of you who haven’t–know that the phrase “adult themes” is code for “nudity and/or sexual content.” Most of us TV/film staff have worked with it on and off since day one, and it’s just part of the job. But there is one variation on this theme that I am extremely uncomfortable with, and that’s the sexualization of children. I decided to be very upfront and honest with my new client and simply say that while I’m happy to work on most projects, I may not be able to accept a job if it sexualizes children.

Of course the client understood my position perfectly! There really aren’t many people who don’t understand that particular discomfort, so it’s certainly not a conversation to be afraid of. But all the same, sometimes in my first conversation with a prospective client, I feel hesitant to bring up content-related concerns that might not be immediately relevant. So for anyone out there who also hesitates to set content-related boundaries early, I just want you to know that coming to this understanding so quickly put a smile on my face for the rest of the morning. I highly recommend it!

Encouraging food for thought:

  • Your client will probably understand and respect your position. And even if they don’t understand it, they’ll probably still respect it.
  • If your client doesn’t respect your position, you probably don’t want that client anyway, so best to know that now!
  • If you don’t set a boundary right from the beginning, you don’t get to set it until your client unknowingly tries to cross it. That will be super awkward and you will feel worse! If you do it now, neither you nor your client have to have that awkward conversation later.
  • If you set the boundary right away, and someone later offers you a job that crosses the line, you won’t have to explain yourself again. You can just say, “Thank you very much for the offer. As I mentioned when we began working together, my policy is not to do assignments which sexualize children [or whatever].” Perfectly professional, and not embarrassing at all.
  • Setting the boundary up front is a huge mood boost and instantly makes you feel good about your future relationship the client when they respect it. Stating even your very simplest needs and feeling they will be met is a big deal in all areas of life.

One last thing–It’s good to keep in mind that when any project manager offers you a job with uncomfortable content (while of course you’re not psychic and you don’t know what they’re thinking), there’s a good chance that they are uncomfortable about it too. The difference is that unlike you, they may not be allowed to tell you how uncomfortable they feel about the content. Frankly, they may not even know what the content actually is–maybe this sounds incredible, but it’s true! Project managers don’t have time to watch every single piece of content they assign before translation, so there will usually be at least a few scenes in the middle of things that they have never seen, and if it’s a TV show, obviously they can’t watch the episodes that haven’t been made yet. So if they assign you something that crosses one of your boundaries, maybe they’re trying to test those boundaries, but it is just as likely that aren’t trying to test you at all–they just didn’t realize that content was there!

So, try not to fall into the trap of assuming things about either their position or how they might feel about your position. Just say what you need to say as professionally, calmly, and non-judgmentally as possible.

And finally, try not to be too judgmental of yourself, either. If you accept a project and then it turns into something other than what you thought it was, that happens. It really does happen to everyone. You may decide that you started the project and you’ll see it through to the end, even though if you’d known what it was up front you would have said no. Maybe you’ll find yourself evaluating what to do based on whether the line crossed is a moral one or a “this is creepy and I don’t like it” one, and ask to stop the project if it’s a moral line. Maybe you’ll realize it’s your own fault that you’re in this mess–you didn’t fully evaluate the project before agreeing to it–and therefore you’re obligated to finish it no matter what. Maybe you’ll realize there’s no way you could have known. Maybe your contract is such that it doesn’t matter either way; you simply have to finish it. Every person and project are different, but as you’re working out what to do next, remember: you didn’t know. You didn’t sit down one day and think, “Today, I will sexualize children [or whatever].” That is not the decision you made, so don’t blame yourself for it. Just do what you have to do with this project, and then use what you’ve learned to handle these issues better next time.

What Good Is Literature? Side Notes

I’m slammed by so many work emergencies these days I haven’t had time to write too much for myself, but here a couple of quick little thoughts about the uses of literature in translation and in the world to follow up on What Good Is Literature?:

1. Literature: It’s What’s on TV

Every so often people ask me whether a liberal arts education really prepared me for my career. The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is, yes, and without a strong literary and liberal arts background, my translations of TV shows and films would be not only inferior to what I can do now, but just plain sub-standard. You can’t afford to miss the explicit literary references made in films, and those notes usually aren’t in the script–you just have to have to know them, or have enough ear for literature to recognize a quote even if you don’t know it. A random sampling of spontaneous quotes I’ve encountered in anime:

Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and most of the rest of Shakespeare’s canon

-Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl


-“Alice in Wonderland”

-Science fiction works by Robert A. Heinlein & others

-Dante’s Divine Comedy

Yasunari Kawabata‘s Snow Country & other famous works by Japanese authors

-The Bible, the Koran, various sections of the Apocrypha, Kabbalistic writings, Buddhist sutras, etc.


2. Literature: It Moves Society Forward

I’m a devotee of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and in the various biographies of important historical figures, I’ve noticed a theme. For the women in the 1600s through the early 1900s, times when women of all classes were often barred from the same education men got, there was one sentence that popped up over and over in the biographies of women who revolutionized their fields of poetry, science, human rights, et cetera: “Her father gave her full access to his library.”

Sometimes, of course, it was the library of a brother, a family friend, or some other figure. And as often as not, these women’s fathers still didn’t allow them to pursue an “unwomanly” formal education–but they were allowed to read what they liked. And then they changed the world.

Something to think about!

What Good Is Literature?

Today, one of my advanced and highly motivated students embarked with me on his first foray into Japanese literature: we started reading the short story 「神様」 (“Kamisama,” or “God”), by Hiromi Kawakami. It’s the second time I’ve taught this story, which features a walk to the river with a delightfully polite bear.

It was hard work for him, of course, and it introduced a lot of new grammar his formal textbooks hadn’t covered. This particular student prefers non-fiction to fiction in English, so I’d warned him ahead of time that he might find it frustrating, but over a three-week holiday break he got through the first page just fine. I thought things were going pretty well until he said, “I don’t see how this is helping me speak Japanese.”

I was flabbergasted for a moment. In my head I heard the question, What good is literature? But I’ve always been a voracious reader of fiction—it’s never occurred to me to question literature’s usefulness. For me, and for many of my friends, being able to read foreign literature is one of the goals of learning a language. But today, for the first time, I personally witnessed the proof of the theory that you don’t need to care about literature to be passionate about learning a language.

In which case, what good is literature, to the language learner whose interests lie elsewhere?

My answer to my student was that studying this story would help his listening comprehension by introducing him to speech that people use in conversation or on TV, and he’ll now notice them using it and know what it’s doing. And I 100% believe that’s true. I also believe that literature, along with comic books and television, tells you how people actually speak in a way that textbooks don’t. But now that I’m not on the spot anymore, I think there’s more to it than that.

Literature is also good for us so that we don’t fall into ruts. When you’re speaking a language you didn’t learn as a child, it’s dreadfully easy to find yourself recycling the same limited phrases or constructions over and over. Even I find myself sometimes latching on to phrases and developing speech tics I have to force myself to shake off. You see, it’s easy to only use a small portion of what you actually know. To become repetitive, because (1) learning takes repeated practice, and (2) traditional textbooks won’t expose you to anything outside the box.

Fiction is usually where we find the most creative use of language, where authors actively try to put words together in provocative ways. I submit that whatever your level of enjoyment, literature can’t help but expose you to new patterns and new expressions. And so I think that literature can help us go beyond functional into articulate.

What do you think? Have stories been useful to you?

**Yes, in addition to my full-time and freelance translating, I also tutor in the Japanese language. It’s pretty fun. Feel absolutely free to question my work/life balance skills, though.

Translator as Holiday Navigator

We translators spend most of our working time critically examining the question, “What did this person mean by these words?”

Maybe that’s why over the years I’ve noticed myself at company meetings or music rehearsals or parties saying, “Fred, I think what Jane is trying to say is…” In other words, interpreting not between languages, but for people speaking the same language: helping them get their meanings across to each other when they’re talking at cross-purposes. When, very very occasionally, someone asks me about this, I just say “I’m a translator.”

Now I’m home in Minnesota for the holidays, and I notice myself playing conversational navigator at the lunch table: “Mom, what Grandpa wants to know is…” “Grandma, Dad is asking…”

I can’t say authoritatively that all translators have this habit, but I suspect many of us do. It’s certainly in line with the good translator’s skill set. At work, we navigate the waters between one language and another with phrasing and inflection as our guides; with grammar and historical context as our star charts. Why shouldn’t this prepare us to contribute to dialogue in our larger lives as well? There are also seas between people of different generations, people of different religious attitudes, people from different places. There are even seas between us and those closest to us in character: seas between all the islands of our individual minds. Who better than a translator to help navigate these waters?

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of my colleagues are spending their holidays a bit like I am. “Billy, I think Sally is wondering if…”

Happy holidays from snowy Minnesota.