What is success in translation?

runner - japan

For the past few weeks, this question has been lingering in my mind: How do you define success? Or better yet: How do you know if you’ve succeeded? In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage International) author Haruki Murakami talks a lot about himself, how he became a “successful” novelist, and how he prepared for long-distance marathon running. I have yet to feel “successful” in any walk of life and am still transitioning the road to physical recovery that will ultimately result in my first full distance marathon (for those of you who are not runners, by “full distance” we mean 42 kilometers). I’m slow compared to other runners, mainly because I’m still hauling around some of the weight I put on during my “dark years” (and by “dark years” I mean law school, when I struggled with obesity). Though I’ve lost most of that weight running, the remaining part still weighs me down at times, and not just physically.

Even though I’ve been running for some time now, I have not yet worked up the physical strength for competitive running beyond 10 kilometers. I can endure very long distances at a very slow pace, but my lungs can’t take a speed of 8 kilometers per hour for more than an hour at a time. Despite my best effort, I’m far below the average 10 K in under an hour. But week after week, I gear up anyway and keep trying. A friend of mine who is a great runner claims that you succeed every time you gear up and run. Success to her is fighting the little voice in your head that is full of self-doubt and believes you can’t measure up, and then proving her wrong, run after run. So one way to look at it is that you succeed by trying.

She also says that you succeed by outgrowing older versions of yourself. I know I’ve come a long way since the first time I ever geared up, gave it my best, and then crashed 700 meters later. By that rationale, I am a successful runner. Apparently, you succeed by overcoming yourself. Mr. Murakami talks about this a lot in his book; he too struggled with a weight problem and had to overcome many personal challenges to become a runner.

I like both ways of looking at success in running, but I feel there’s a little more to it than that. Although I’m very much aware of my shortcomings as a runner, I don’t really think about any of them when I run. Once I pass those first tricky kilometers when I feel I could drop dead any minute, I stop thinking. It’s hard to explain in rational terms, but it’s like my brain quiets down. There is no voice in my head saying pretty much anything; there’s just the music playing in my little music thingy and a feeling of connection with the world around me. If I’m running outdoors, there’s the scenery, the sunlight, or the rain, or the cold. When running indoors on a treadmill there’s nothing but the tree outside the window. There’s an overpowering sensation that nothing exists outside the reality of that moment. At times it’s peaceful and at other it’s challenging, but either way, for a while I am connected to nothing and everything at the same time. I am not caught up in the urgent yet insignificant problems of day to day living in a competitive professional world. I am undoubtedly alive and living the moment in a context far greater than myself. Success, by that rationale, is loving what you are doing so much it makes you feel alive.

Enter translation.

You often read about how to become a successful translator, yet nobody really bothers to define success. When I was younger, I thought success was making money from translation. Once I achieved that goal, I realized money had nothing to do with success. Not that I’m herding in the bucks or anything, I’m merely talking about a nice steady income by which I can afford a comfortable standard of living. Then I thought success was enjoying a certain reputation among your clients and peers. Great though that feels, I can’t honestly say that’s it. With age I am becoming more humble. So for a while I thought success was simply a job well done and happy clients. That doesn’t seem to be it either.

However, it occurs to me that sometimes when I find myself translating something I am genuinely interested in, mainly human rights or humanitarian issues, my brain quiets down like it does when I’m running. I connect to the text on a deeper level. I let it transport me and connect me to the cause that inspired it, to the people the author is advocating for, to the here and now of a reality far more complex than my own. I am part of something amazing, something too large to even fathom: a living breathing world that struggles and expresses itself in and through humanity. A human rights violation expressed in Spanish in Peru or Argentina is being heard by the Human Rights Committee in English in Europe, via my client, my language skills, my computer and a system that connects yet exceeds us all. Nothing exists outside that translation and the reality it represents. I am undoubtedly alive and living the moment in a context far greater than myself. By that rationale, then maybe like in running, succeeding in translation is loving what you do so much it makes you feel alive.

How to handle stress in translation… like a dog

peeing dog (2)

A translator’s life can be stressful. We quote jobs, plan out our workflow, research terms, translate, make invoices, market our services, study, read, take care of our loved ones, run our homes, run our businesses, train hard, and some of us even try to have a social life. Lots of responsibilities often result in lots of stress. A few years back, I discovered that, for me, running is a big help in coping with the physical and psychological toll of translation. But there’s more to managing stress than simply releasing it through some sort of physical activity or hobby. Effectively dealing with stress requires a certain kind of attitude toward life in general.

In difficult times, people who are admirably good at handling stress remain like Hollis in Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope (in The Illustrated Man): “objective,” even when he feels himself “falling” toward Earth, knowing he’ll go up in flames when he hits the Earth’s atmosphere. Remaining emotionally detached and objective helps keep stressful situations under control. The calmer and more objective one remains, the more quickly and effectively things can be dealt with. But this calmness and lack of emotional reaction to even the most stressful situations is not an easy skill to master, which is why I think we could learn a thing or two from dogs; or at least the oldest and wisest of my dogs, “Cosquillitas” (roughly, “Tickles” in English).

Aside from being the sweetest and most ticklish dog in the world, Cosquillitas is the epitome of canine wisdom. He’s a Boxer we adopted right off the street a few years ago after he laid down in exhaustion on a pile of leaves on our front lawn on a very cold winter’s day. He was bone thin and had a large tumor protruding from his testicles. He had a lazy eye, was missing a piece of his right ear, and had scars and lumps all over his body. It was the most heartbreaking sight we’d ever seen. So we fed him and brought him water; and when we had earned his trust and he was strong enough to stand up on his own, we invited him inside the house. He did nothing but eat and sleep for the first few days while we made accommodations for our new friend and found a vet. Shortly after we took him in, he began to show signs of recovery, but the vet believed he had suffered prolonged physical abuse and had possibly been used as a fight dog. He had an untreated spinal injury from several years back and by the time we got him there was not much to be done about that other than manage his pain and discomfort. Because of that old injury, his legs are crooked and he walks a bit funnily now.

He was one of the saddest dogs I had ever seen. But before you reach for your box of Kleenex, I have good news: This sad story has a happy ending. He made a full recovery and is now the crowned king of my house. He’s surrounded by people who care for him 24/7. He sleeps indoors on a custom made dog bed and always gets plenty of food and love. His biggest concern at this point in his life is what toy he feels like playing with or which of his humans he feels like hanging out with (but let’s face it, it’s usually me!). Yet all his hardships affected his behavior and seem to have endowed him with what can only be described as Zen-like wisdom. He is determined to be happy and enjoy the little things: napping under the sun, taking morning walks, playing with his toys, giving and receiving affection, being tickled, you know, typical dog stuff. But he also always stays calm in stressful situations, like going to the vet, getting his blood drawn or having to sit still for his ECGs. He accepts the things he doesn’t like, doesn’t fully understand and cannot control, all the time trusting his humans who can do nothing other than tell him things are going to be OK.

The way I see it, my dog is onto something when it comes to handling stress: There is no point in worrying about that which you cannot change or control, all you can do is endure the unpleasant moment while all the time trusting that it will pass and things will work out. When Cosquillitas sticks his head out the car window on the way to the vet, he knows exactly where we’re going and he knows there’s a high chance it’s going to be unpleasant. But he trusts that when the visit to the vet is over, things will go back to normal. So during the ride, instead of worrying about the inevitable, he just enjoys the wind in his face, the smell in the air, the imagery, and the unexplored possibilities of the world: All the trees out there to pee on, the birds out there to bark at, the friends out there to meet. He’s calm and relaxed. He does not dwell on the unpleasantness of what’s coming. He just kicks back and takes in as much of the good as he can so he can endure what he has to endure at the vet, just to get back to enjoying life again the second we walk out of there. And the minute it’s over, he’s back to wagging his tail and doing his happy little dance. The vet is out of his mind as soon as we walk out the door.

Silly though this may sound, I think handling stress in translation is a lot like handling the inevitable visit to the vet. We know there are challenges and difficulties up ahead and we know we’ll have to face them and it won’t be pleasant; but they do not account for the total sum of our day. Our here and now does not have to be ruined by the inevitable moment when things get rough during our workday. It is a single moment (or two) in what can otherwise be an entire day full of accomplishments, wonder, and endless possibilities. To handle stress, we need to understand the irrelevance of the unpleasant moments we can neither change nor control and indulge in the wonderful little things that give meaning to our lives. We need to learn to control our anxiety over what’s coming and let go of stressful events the minute they are over. In other words, we need to learn from dogs: “If you can’t eat or play with it, then pee on it and walk away!

Cosquillitas and me

Cosquillitas and me

The Weight of the World: Translating Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen

weight of the world

This year, I translated five Nobel Prize Laureates, one of whom was none-other than economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. This was one of the greatest honors of my entire 13 year career in translation. The International Bar Association (IBA), via Professor Martin Bohmer, JSD, entrusted me with the Spanish translation of “Poverty, Justice and the Rule of Law,” which is coming out this month. The book was commissioned by the IBA in the framework of the Presidential Taskforce on the Global Economic Crisis. The book’s mission was to find new ideas and perspectives on how the contemporary legal profession can contribute to eradicating poverty and strengthening the rule of law. These five Nobel Prize Laureates as well as international experts each contributed a chapter to this influential book and I did my best to render an accurate, faithful and idiomatic translation of their thoughts. Although I am happy with the outcome (and thankfully so was my client!), I must confess that throughout the project I sometimes felt I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. It was a great a challenge, and I hope that by sharing this experience, I can help those who are thinking of embarking in the translation of jurisprudence or legal philosophy to know what to expect.

Philosophical Complexity

It is no surprise that even when a certain publication is not fully philosophical, as was the case with this IBA book, reference will implicit or explicitly be made to theory of justice, ethics, or other areas of jurisprudence and philosophy in general. In this case, translating Amartya Sen required considerable background knowledge of Rawl’s theory of justice, which in turn, also required considerable background knowledge of Kant’s theory of right, and so on.

Technical Complexity

From a technical point of view, the book in general also required background knowledge on macroecnomics. However, Sen’s chapter in particular involved a great deal of care into accurate and consistent interpretations of the concepts of justice, on the one hand, and fairness, on the other, as well as adequate understanding and rendition of transcendental versus comparative notions of justice.

Linguistic Complexity

In addition to being able to follow Sen’s logical arguments and how they related to Rawlsian theory, there was the additional component of capturing the concepts of niti and nyaya, classical Sanskrit terms that have long been used by legal theorists in Ancient India, and which Sen brought back to life in his theory of global justice.

The Author

Nothing puts more pressure on a linguist than translating for someone who you admire on a personal level, but when you realize that that person is one of the most cited authors in the world and that your translation will be cited by others who want to cite the author in the target language… well, let’s just say that you get all sorts of butterflies in your stomach!

All in all, this was an amazing experience. One I will never forget; and will probably brag about to my children someday! But bragging rights aside, I can’t think of anything more rewarding in translation than working on a project of this caliber, and I can only hope my translation was up to the challenge.