Why Translators Should Think Like Philosophers


Last week’s debate did not end well; especially after the person who had made the original post that sparked the debate unilaterally decided that everyone else’s opinions and contributions were not worth preserving and just went ahead and deleted the entire oddly enriching thread. The debate and its outcome left a lot of people with a very bad taste in their mouths. But in the words of J.R.R. Tolkein (perhaps ripped off of Will Shakespeare a bit): “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”

A lot of good can still come out of that debate if we view it as a learning experience. But learning from the darkest or most displeasing events in everyday life requires a certain amount of detachment and abstraction; perhaps it requires, for a moment, that we turn into philosophers in the most Socratic of terms. Allow me to explain…

In an insightful passage of the Republic that has come to be known, among other names, as the Allegory of the Cave, Plato has Socrates tell us of a group of prisoners chained to the wall of a cave throughout their entire lives. These prisoners see shadows projected onto the wall of things passing in front of a fire behind them; these projected shadows are the closest view the prisoners have of reality. Now, let’s suppose, says Socrates, that one of these prisoners is freed and forced to look at the fire directly, “[…] it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him.” He continues, “suppose […] that someone should drag him […] by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at being dragged and when he came into the light, the brilliance [of the sun] would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see even one of the things he now called real?” A philosopher, says Socrates, is he who has been freed from the cave and after undergoing the painful process of ascent is now able to perceive reality for what it really is. Beautiful! Isn’t it? Now let’s turn back to translation and last week’s debate.

There are many different ways in which we can interpret last week’s events. I like this one: We witnessed a lot of young translators (all of whom have the potential to rise from the darkness of the commodities market) resisting the notion that their reality is nothing but mere projections on the wall and that their limited worldviews are chaining them down to the dominant discourse of two cent agencies. But what skills –other than the obvious language, translation, and business skills– does a translator need to ascend from the commodities pseudo reality? I can think of at least four.

1) Logical reasoning: Logical reasoning requires the ability to connect premises with their conclusions in a way that is, by convention, universally accepted as valid. In a post on why translators should think like scientists, I defended the idea that the sciences have a lot to teach us about translation; but at some point in human history, these scientists learned to think from philosophers and “thinking correctly” (not in terms of content but in terms of methodology) is key to making sound decisions that result in professional success. Scientists and philosophers (who not so long ago were one in the same) think deductively, abstractly, impersonally, and rationally. But so do sound business people, and logical reasoning results in powerful arguments that translate into effective sales strategies that appeal to high-end clients.

2) Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence is one of those buzz words that have about as many interpretations as interpreters, but what I understand by emotional intelligence is the ability to “control” (note: by control I do no mean “repress”) emotions in certain settings. In other words, it’s the ability to put mind before heart, reason before feelings, or in the logic of a previous post, Spock before Kirk. There is nothing wrong with feeling things, but in a business setting one needs to learn to control those feelings and display the utmost seriousness, professionalism, and emotional maturity. A two cent agency may not mind having a hot headed translator who is not open to feedback or who takes things far too personally; but high-end clients will.

3) Openness and Confidence: The more you know, the greater your grasp of how much you still need to learn. “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance,” said Socrates in the Apology. The beautiful thing about a trained mind is that it is humbled (and sometimes even pained) by the vastness of all the human knowledge it will not be able to acquire in its lifetime. But this humbleness of knowing your own limitations, coupled with confidence in what you do know and openness to learning is what can make you excel in a given field. An expert doesn’t just master a portion of the whole in a particular subject area; an expert knows when to hit the books, when to ask questions, when to remain open to learning and is confident enough to say, “I don’t know, but I know where to look for the answer.”

4) Dedication and Persistence: Professional success (regardless of how you personally chose to define “success”) is a lot like running a marathon. You take it step by step. Your lungs burn, your legs hurt, but your mind forces you to keep going. It takes training and persistence. You will bleed, you will sweat, and you will doubt yourself. But your mind takes control of your body and you just keep going. Running a marathon is as much a philosophical endeavor as it is a physical one. The same can be said about achieving our professional goals, especially if that involves acquiring the necessary skills, business know-how, and training for convincing high-end clients that we have what it takes.

2 thoughts on “Why Translators Should Think Like Philosophers

  1. I lked reading this posting, especially because my colleague Paula Arturo pointed us to it in the ATA LinkedIn forum.

    Plato’s cave story about Socrates may offer additional insights. As a rational being, I have little use for emotional intelligence or whatever they call it today (i.e., follow your heart, follow your passion, listen to your gut, listen to your instincts, etc.), not because emotions are useless or irrelevant to sound debates, but because they should be properly controlled like the author says.

    But, how do you control or master your feelings and emotions when rational and logical approaches are mandatory to make sound judgments and thus achieve to appropriate decisions? Discipline, which is a mental attribute best acquired in childhood. Without discipline there is no true persistence, no real dedication. And discipline, that mental ability, engenders other abilities, such as focus, concentration, rigor in research.

    I am afraid the newer crop of translators are short on these abilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for comment, Mario! The author is Paula Arturo… and I just referred to myself in the third person, how “Jimmy” from Seinfeld of me! 😉

      I like your idea of discipline and how it transcends every other skill or ability that we may aspire to develop both professionally and personally. I don’t really understand emotional intelligence as following your heart, passion, etc. though, but rather as an appeal to educating yourself as much on an intellectual level as well as an emotional one. However, I totally see your point as to how rationality and emotional intelligence go hand in hand and also believe that it takes a lot of discipline, persistence, and dedication to achieve that.

      As far as the newer crop of translators, in light of last week’s debate, I think they’re short on these and a whole bunch of other abilities and I find that a little bit terrifying!

      Liked by 1 person

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