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!“