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Hey guys! This week I’m trying something new.

And I’m really excited about it!

Olga Reinholdt, a colleague of mine, offered to write a guest post on my blog and when I’ve read it, I couldn’t say “No”.

Because it is absolutely fantastic and it is something that needs to be shared with as many people as possible.

Over to you, Olga 🙂

On Ignorance And Not Knowing In Translation Industry

The first years of work are time to learn lessons, many important lessons that will later define your whole professional experience.

When I had just started working as a technical translator with a project big enough to humble the hell out of me, I had a few hard learned  lessons, which have become my main professional asset.

One of them was delivered through a piece of advice, dispensed by a more experienced fellow translator. He said: “When you interpret, never show that you don’t understand something. Create something, fill in with general phrases, but never show you’re lost. It will create a very bad impression of you as a professional”.

Those words made the rebel in me question the colleague’s authority and… go out and ask question after question.

If I didn’t hear something clients were saying, I would ask them to repeat it.

If I forgot a part of a phrase that I was interpreting, I would ask the client to remind me, what had been said.

If I wasn’t sure, what a term stood for, I would ask them to describe it in other words.

I made every possible effort to deliver the complicated technical  information from one language into another as accurately as possible, and didn’t give much thought to how professional I looked, asking another question and clarifying something with a client.

Once, when I came across another unknown notion and went to an engineering guy in our department for a little educational talk, I was struck by his response: “I have no idea what it is”. “What? – I exclaimed. “But you are a specialist in this particular field, aren’t you?” “Well, yeah… But this field is quite wide, and I never heard of this particular thing before…”

It didn’t make me think of this guy as a less professional. This little dialogue made me realize, that it is only healthy to not know everything. Even engineers don’t know everything in their particular field.

So a translator with a linguistic background (after all) will naturally come across unknown things during his or her work.

It is normal. It is healthy. It doesn’t make the translator a less of a professional.

What does make us lesser professionals, however, is the denial of not knowing, and lost opportunities to learn a new concept.

I can’t speak for other cultures, but in post CIS countries there is a particular fear of letting anyone know you don’t know something. Our schooling system was all about “knowing it” rather than “finding it out” and “analyzing it”. You’d get bad marks, you’d lose your classmates respect, you’d be told off by your parents if you’d revealed that there was something you didn’t know. This is sad.

We leave school with definitive imprint: not knowing something is BAD, and you’ll be punished for showing your “ignorance”. No mercy, no excuses.

As translators, we are doomed to work with terminology which we don’t understand and phenomena, that we don’t know, day after day. It makes our job hard, it makes our job challenging, it makes our job adventurous, it makes our job fun!

[bctt tweet=”It is OK to admit, that we don’t know certain things, search for knowledge, go out and ask specialists.” via=”no”]

This is not weakness, this is a normal part of our job.

Thankfully, even those translators, who work from home, and don’t have immediate access to subject matter experts clicking mice right next to their desk, still have loads of opportunities to successfully reach out for help. God bless the Internet.

Besides, it is always great to have an excuse to make a new connection and to find out how your former colleague, who’s now thousands of miles away, is doing.

My favorite “SOS” platform is of course Kudoz by Kudoz is specially created for this purpose: connecting people who need advice and people who are willing – and have enough knowledge – to offer it. I can’t overestimate the value of being able to throw virtually any terminology inquiry into the Kudoz space and receive ideas and suggestions from the many professional members of Kudoz club. I love this part of my work.

LinkedIn is my favorite “find the expert” platform. This is where you can find an engineer, a designer, a doctor, – any professional who can explain complicated concepts that you might come across in your translation practice. Guess what:  most professionals LOVE giving advice on their area of expertise and most likely you will end up learning much more than just the translation of a particular term.

I could go on and on talking about great places on the Internet where you can go for advice and answers, but I won’t: I’m pretty sure you guys know these places very well, and this is not the purpose of this post anyway.

The message is:

[bctt tweet=”We don’t know everything.  We can’t know everything. We don’t have to know everything.” via=”no”]

We are eternal beginners: even translators with decades of professional experience behind them stumble onto new subjects on regular basis and start learning all over again. This is the challenge and the beauty of the profession.

Acknowledge the “not knowing”, accept it, embrace it, and don’t be afraid to reach out with open arms to those who can help you and are willing to help.

You just need to let people help you, and you’ll learn how rewarding it can be.

Ignorance is not “not knowing”: ignorance is refusing to find out.

Olga Reinholdt

Translation and Wellness professional, sharing love for mindful exercise, self-growth, harmony and perfect-fit terminology. Making art of life.


eda · August 11, 2015 at 2:40 am

I fully agree with you 🙂 I find that people showing their weaknesses are actually very strong for it takes lots of courage to open so much in public. I have no problem to ask for some explanation during my interpretation. And I did not loose others’ respect for my 24 years of service.

    Olga · August 11, 2015 at 4:01 am

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting! This is so true: vulnerability is natural to everyone, everyone has weak point. Strength is not in not having those – it is impossible. Strength is looking right into the eye of the vulnerability and constantly working on the weaknesses… or simply embracing them, which can be a good thing!

Gabriel Figueroa · August 11, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Very encouraging and healthy. However, I think the essence of the initial tip was somehow mistaken. The interpreting activity is in general very demanding, you need instant responses, no time to hesitate, no time to ask questions, no allowance for careful thinking. The client will feel disappointed and badly represented if someone who he barely knows fails to understand what he means and does not convey properly his message. “He knows the language, then he must know how to translate what I say” he might probably think! These are the cases when the interpreter, for example, needs to devise a way to “fill-in the gaps” not to cheat the client, not to lie the audience, but to provide a message as smooth as possible, in order no to spoil the speech and annoy the speaker.

    Olga Reinholdt · August 11, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    This is a very good point, Gabriel. Thank you for this comment, I can definitely relate!
    I will never forget this moment: I was interpreting for a CEO of our company in front of a huge staff. The CEO stated one number in his talk, then corrected himself for another number, which kind of mislead me and I paused for a moment… when a man from our office cried out loud “Why don’t you interpret, can we get an actual interpreter here?!?!” It hurt: I did hours of very demanding interpreting sessions that week, and knew for sure I was doing well. Small imperfect moment, where I should have inserted a “filler” just broke my heart (luckily the CEO understood exactly what happened, and he was paying my salary after all) 🙂
    The point is – it is all about balance, the universal truth for everything: the key is not to overdo anything and find the golden middle.

Steven Marzuola · August 11, 2015 at 3:39 pm

So true. Once when I was interpreting for a technical session, at the end of a question session, I raised my hand. I explained that no one had asked this question but I was very curious and wanted to know for future reference: what was the meaning of one particular acronym? The speaker explained it.

Then during the break, several of the other participants sought me out to thank me for asking the question. They didn’t understand the acronym either but none of them wanted to be the first one to ask about it.

Natalie Soper · August 14, 2015 at 5:21 am

This is good advice! I don’t like this culture where you’re expected to already know everything – in fact, I’m sometimes too scared to ask terminology questions on Proz in case I get shouted down by my peers with: “anyone who works in this industry should know this!” “this is a standard term!” and so on. I must be braver at asking questions! 🙂

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