A Somewhat Existential Argument against Translating for Peanuts


Life is full of difficult questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? Milk or cereal first? Scrambled or sunny side up? Alas, lots of questions, very few answers. In light of all the things we don’t know about life, the one thing we do know for sure should be particularly meaningful: we’re all going to die. We don’t know what (if anything) comes after that. But we know we will transition from whatever being alive really is to whatever being dead really is (or isn’t). One day, we will cease to “be” as we “are” today.

That is a scary thought to many people. To me, it’s the exact opposite of scary. Knowing that I will cease to “be,” that everything I do and deem so fundamentally important right now will fade into memory and eventually become part of the forgotten past of humankind is what keeps me grounded and focused. What today is a big deal will, not so long from now, be reduced to that one time someone somewhere did an incredibly irrelevant and mundane thing no one really remembers anyway. Mortality has a way of putting everything into perspective

“So what does this have to do with translation?,” you wonder. A lot, actually. A fellow translator said something incredible to me the other day. She said, “You work hard so you can afford to have a life, and then when you have money, you don’t have time to live.” This idea of a life reduced to working hard to have money to live and then not being able to live for lack of time immediately conjured up the image of the Ouroboros in my head.

The thought of working to the bone while all the time suffering as life passes by brought back memories of my days as a newbie, when I had no idea how much to charge (or even that I was being exploited). It reminded me of all the sad weekends in front of my computer when life was happening outside my window. But it also reminded me of what inspired me to change that. It was a little quote I read somewhere by “some guy” named Steve Jobs (of whom I knew almost nothing about at the time), but which simply made too much sense to ignore:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

If today were the last day of my life, I would die a pretty happy person. This is partly because I can afford to live and have time to enjoy the fruits of my hard work. I can do that because ever since I learned the valuable lesson of mortality, I realized time is not money, time is life. When we view time as money alone, our cost-benefit analysis can easily lead to accepting low rates as a rational choice (to get by, to pay the bills, to make it to the end of the month, to make a living, etc.). But when we view time in terms of life, then our cost-benefit analysis never results in low rates as a rational choice because the cost is simply too high. Conceived in this way, things look quite differently. “To get by” becomes “to live to the fullest.” “To make it to the end of the month” becomes “to pamper ourselves and treat our loved ones to small pleasures.” “To make a living” becomes “to build a life.” Thus, the rational choice is to work for an amount that, at least, lets us have enough time left over to live… and peanuts simply won’t cut it.

10 thoughts on “A Somewhat Existential Argument against Translating for Peanuts

  1. Mercedes Guhl says:

    Wise words, Paula. Thanks!!
    When we moved from a small flat to a proper house, where the two translators of the household could also have an office/room of their own for work, it took me a while to realize that having a house was something to enjoy and not to be fussing all the time with cleaning and dusting. Some dust may settle and live with us till the next dusting day but life is more than having your house spotless ready for the Architectural Digest photographer… And I’m glad to pay someone to dust and clean and mop each week (and I’m also glad to admit that my cleaning lady is not paid peanuts!).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me;
    The carriage held but just ourselves
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
    And I had put away
    My labor, and my leisure too,
    For his civility.

    We passed the school, where children strove
    At recess, in the ring;
    We passed the fields of gazing grain,
    We passed the setting sun.

    Or rather, he passed us;
    The dews grew quivering and chill,
    For only gossamer my gown,
    My tippet only tulle.

    We paused before a house that seemed
    A swelling of the ground;
    The roof was scarcely visible,
    The cornice but a mound.

    Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
    Feels shorter than the day
    I first surmised the horses’ heads
    Were toward eternity.

    Emily Dickinson, 1830 -1886.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lukegos says:

    There’s even a bit more to it than just life understood as a day, month or year against your life expectancy. Particularly when processing those huge projects in your mid and late twenties you realize that you’re selling your best years away, for peanuts. Sometimes at a cost to your health, affecting your life when you’re older. It’s sad to spend the best years of your life ‘gaining experience’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s