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.

Five Translation-Related Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Running

marty runner

Runners are an odd bunch. We often say weird things like, “it’s just 5K,” and are genuinely surprised when others don’t immediately lace up and come running with us. We run up and down pedestrian overpasses and do squats until we can barely move our legs, and after we’re done we just keep running. We run in the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and even the snow. Because of our excitement about running, we rarely admit how much running hurts! Our muscles cramp, our legs burn, our lungs close up and, sometimes, we feel like we’re going to vomit. As the pain increases, we start asking ourselves why we’re even doing this in the first place. But we run through the pain and self doubt, because we love the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a tough run. By experiencing those moments of awe at what our minds and bodies are capable of, we are, in a way, cheating death (…or experiencing a runners “high,” which basically means your brain has released so many endorphins you feel like Leonardo DiCaprio in that cheesy “King of the World” scene in Titanic). But that amazing feeling during and after a run requires discipline, dedication, and resistance. Reaching your goal means giving it your all every time you put on a pair of running shoes. In that sense, running is not so different from successfully completing a challenging translation job.

Becoming a great translator requires years of intellectual training and preparation, dedication, and commitment. But one thing translators often neglect is the physical and psychological toll of translation; a toll that runners are well prepared to handle. Hence, running can teach us a thing or two about translation.

1. Watch what you eat. Your diet influences your entire bodily performance, including brain function. Despite representing only 2% of your body’s weight, your brain gobbles up about 20% of your daily intake. What you eat in terms of quality and quantity will have an impact on everything from energy and resistance when running to learning, memory and productivity when translating. Whether running or translating 10K, eating a healthy diet helps your brain perform every physical and intellectual task of the day.

2. Pace yourself. Sometimes we try to tackle too much too quickly. We’re overly positive about how much we can do. We forget to start slowly and maintain a reasonable pace; and so we burn out. That’s why it’s important to remember that all 42K in a marathon are run one step at a time. We translate one word at a time, one day at a time, one project at a time.

3. Resist. Rest. Reload. Do over. Whether training for a race or translating an important job, resting and reloading are essential to resisting the task at hand and then facing the next challenge.

4. You are your only true opponent. Everyone’s running their own race, fighting their own battles, pushing toward their own finish lines. Regardless of what others do, your integrity, your values, your strengths are the only true measures of your success, in running, in translation, and in life. Running helped me identify my own limitations and to measure myself, not against others, but against previous versions of myself. On a personal level, this is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from running.

5. You deserve cookies (or whatever other small pleasures you like to indulge in). Running taught me that training is the means, not the end. To me, the end is a guilt free chocolate chip cookie. The same can be said about translation. The end is whatever you can access through the fruit of your hard work that ultimately brings you satisfaction and a little daily quota of joy.


This post is dedicated to the loving memory of my faithful friend and companion Benny, whose struggle against canine heart disease inspired me to start running in the first place…