The importance of appearing confident

I've been neglecting this blog for some time, but thanks to a nice reminder from a reader, I'm back. :)

As translators, we need to be humble about our work. Translation spans so many fields, from foreign-language study, to writing, to subject-matter knowledge–not to mention the actual skill of translation–that it's nearly impossible to fully master every aspect of our profession.

Part of this humility means being willing to consider that you might be wrong. Even if I'm confident about a translation, I think seriously about any feedback I get. In fact, a lot of my mistakes come from translations I'm very confident about, because I'm less likely to do a lot of deep thinking over "simple" translations.

That said, translators also need to give their clients an appearance of confidence. If you don't seem confident about your translation, your client will be even less confident about it.

I experienced this early in my career, with one of my first clients. When this client asked whether an alternative translation would work, I'd accept their alternative whenever possible. If the client claimed that one of my translations was incorrect, I'd fix it to their liking.

Of course, being a new translator I made a lot more mistakes than I do now. And I was eager to please, because I didn't have a lot of clients.

But I was changing my translations even when my original was actually better (and their change was plain wrong). Over time, this client asked for more and more changes, to the point where they (native speakers of Japanese with dubious English-language ability) were "teaching" me the finer points of English grammar. Although this often provided some needed comic relief, it took time away from actual translation work, and hurt the quality of my translations.

I learned from that experience to stick to my guns with my translations. I consider my client's feedback, but if I still believe my translation to be the best, then I'll let the client know, and explain why. If the client still insists on the change, I'll make it–but letting the client know the problem.

It took a lot of work, and a lot of patient explaining, but over time my clients began to accept a response of "the original is better"; and they began asking fewer questions as well. Of course, I was also getting better over this time, but I'm certain that my greater show of confidence also helped.

Don't offer alternative translations

This is another way to appear to lack confidence. When you're not sure about how something should be translated, it can be tempting to offer a couple of alternatives for the client to choose from. You might even think that you're offering a greater service by doing this. I think that this is a mistake for a few reasons:

  1. It sends the message that you lack confidence.
  2. It makes the client choose, and people hate to make choices (they think they do, but are more satisfied when they don't have to make them).
  3. It assumes your client is better able to choose the right translation than you are (if so, why did they hire you?).
  4. It probably means you didn't ask enough questions about the purpose of the document (Is it for a general audience, or for engineers? For in-house use, or publication?). The more you know about what the document is for, the more sure you'll be about how to translate it.

Although it's important to be humble about your work, there's a fine line between humility and wishy-washiness. Just as important as accepting client feedback is projecting an attitude that says, "Trust me, I'm an expert."

8 comments to The importance of appearing confident

  • Welcome back; I’ve missed your fantastic blog posts. This is great advice. It sure is difficult to master the balance between being the outside experts that we are and being humble enough to know that we just don’t know everything. It’s a learning process for sure. I completely agree with your advice not to offer alternative translations. Clients don’t like to make choices, and as a customer, I don’t really like either. When my doctor gives me two choices (let’s say, a cold remedy) I want her to choose because she’s the expert.

  • I think that there may be circumstances in which offering alternatives is valid, e.g. in transcreation-type jobs, if it is not a question of linguistic or terminological correctness, and provided that the client is highly engaged in the process and has a clear idea of the kind of nuances that they want the translation to convey.

  • @Oliver – That’s a good point. If your goal is to create a translation collaboratively with your client, then of course more of a give and take is warranted.

    Interestingly, the game translators at Nintendo don’t generally provide alternative translations (this invites disaster), but they do work hard with the game creators to get enough information to do a good translation.

  • Beatrix Pauw

    Thanks, this is very helpful advice. I agree with Oliver that alternatives do serve a purpose sometimes, especially if you work for a publisher that has set preferences which do not always correspond with those in the dictionary. I think we should determine the preference of the client in this respect.

  • @Beatrix

    I agree that we need to find out the publisher’s preferences. I think that this is usually best accomplished by asking them directly for their preferred style, terminology, and so on, rather than offering multiple translations to choose from. As Oliver pointed out, however, offering alternatives can be the best course in some cases.

  • Tom Curran

    “Interestingly, the game translators at Nintendo don’t generally provide alternative translations (this invites disaster), but they do work hard with the game creators to get enough information to do a good translation.”

    Happy to see that you are enjoying a fertile corporate environment where communication is encouraged. Unfortunately in Japan, as you probably already know, QUESTIONS send the message that a translator lacks confidence. Even if you do ask a question, there are agencies that won’t bother asking the client for you. I find myself sometimes spending hours researching something that someone “in the know” could have explained in seconds.

  • Hey Ryan,

    I’m not sure if you’re still checking in here, but I hope you are and that you’ll pick the blog back up again soon. Just wanted to say that I found GITS while searching around the internet for advice and information for aspiring J>E translators and I’m really enjoying looking through your posts.

    Hope all is well!

  • Thanks Paul — I’m still checking in, and I’m planning on writing more posts soon. Something always seems to get in the way, but they’re on the way. Thanks again for reading.

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