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.

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13 thoughts on “What is success in translation?

  1. Thank you for sharing this post.
    Success is such a personal concept. We all have our own definition. Some people will measure success by the amount of money they earn, others by the difference that they make. In some cases, making money and making a difference go hand in hand.
    I like to think of success as finding fulfillment in what we do.

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  2. Success can be defined in many ways.

    One could also define it as finally climbing down an emergency escape from a Tokyo highway to suddenly find your rightful place in a different reality, the one to which you really belong, which is unlike the one other people wanted you to live, the way Aomame did it in Haruki Murakami’s “19Q4”.

    And failure could be also defined as living the kind of reality that everybody else wants you to live. So you accept that reality to make other people happy, although it makes you unhappy because you don’t really belong there, even if you can’t explain why.

    If you haven’t read 19Q4, give it a try. You will probably enjoy it.

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      • Thank you very much for this post, Paula. It is so great to see a fellow translator who is also fond of running. I have been challenging myself with long-distance running for 2.5 years, and I would like to finish a marathon one day. Although my progress is not as fast as I would wish, I am moving forward, which is more important. And it is really helpful to compare yourself to… yourself (the older version of yourself, as you call it). It took me a while before I could realize that.

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  3. Thank you very much for this post, Paula. It is so great to see a fellow translator who is also fond of running. I have been challenging myself with long-distance running for 2.5 years, and I would like to finish a marathon one day. Although my progress is not as fast as I would wish, I am moving forward, which is more important. And it is really helpful to compare yourself to… yourself (the older version of yourself, as you call it). It took me a while before I could realize that.

    Like

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