It’s that time of year again. Where schools hold concerts daily, presents are handed to all and sundry and we freelance parents are expected to bake cookies every day and magically appear at absurd times of the day to watch our children blunder through Christmas performances and plays.
It’s a frighteningly social time for us translators, who spend most of our time closeted away, protected by a screen with just the occasional wave out of the window to the neighbours and a chat to the postman. Yes, the Yuletide spirit is here, and suddenly I am being invited to office parties. And I don’t even have an office.
The average freelance translator has around 10 to 15 regular clients; I have seven based in Berlin, where I live. That’s a lot of standing around leaning on the printer with a glass of bubbly in hand. No matter how much you love your work.
But being a bit of an introvert, the idea of walking into a room filled with people who all know each other, but don’t know me from Sally, fills me with dread to the point that I sit on the sofa at home beforehand weighing my odds in terms of embarrassment and career damage if I simply don’t go. (I once toyed with the idea of just saying I was there, along the lines of “Really? You didn’t see me? Yeah, I was there! Great punch, by the way?!” until I realised that that would only work if I were Doug from King of Queens. Oh, wait, it didn’t even work for him.
The Germans have a good word for us translator types, or part-time introverts: “Einzelgänger” which I like because it is an active word…“one-who-walks-alone”, rather than the passive depressing “loner” that conjures images of serial killers and misfits.
Of course there is plenty of advice to be had on how to survive parties etc. There has even been quite a spate of introvert-related books out recently, ranging from “Suck it up you guys, I don’t like hanging out with you” type manifestos like Party for One by Anneli S. Rufus, to deep ruminations on the essence of self (Rebecca Solnit; Wanderings, A Field Guide to Getting Lost). But even self-knowledge and top ten tips don’t really help with the nitty gritty of getting the balance right between things you really ought to do simply to be a card-carrying member of society (like the occasional office party or community clean up) and things you can strike off your to-do list without regret (like going to raves, gathering in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve and group therapy).
I like being part of my community; I know everyone on my street and everyone knows me, to the point where I need to plan in an extra half hour if I go to the supermarket because of all the chatting to be done along the way.
But what many people don’t realise, is that there is a flip side to that: intense social activity uses up a lot of energy, and to feel balanced again I sometimes need days, preferably several at a time, spent in solitude to “recharge”. This is the time when I can become creative and think, mull, and wander in my mind. Only when I am on my own do I dream up new ideas, whether it’s projects to raise money for the local playground, pie-in-the-sky ideas, or writing, reading and honing my business.
But I also know that after three days of working on a high-pressure translation project all by my lonesome I tend to get a little angsty about even the prospect of having to say “Drei Brötchen, bitte” at the baker’s, just in case my voice cracks with disuse. So this year I am making myself go to a few office parties. To help overcome my fraidy-cat-ness I remind myself how completely irrelevant my behaviour is in the big scheme of things. As long as I don’t slip and fall onto the buffet, or photocopy a moony at midnight with Clive from bookkeeping, I have a pretty good chance of getting through this without people snickering at my memory, right? Right?
This year I was invited to the “wrap” Christmas celebration of a three-year fixed project that I had been involved in as their main translator for the past 18 months. I had exchanged emails sometimes twenty times a day with these people, had grown fond of some, and felt I would like to go and actually meet up in person and thank them for the nice collaborative spirit that was present 99% of the time.
So off I trotted into the Berlin night, and after standing in the stairwell for a minute, willing myself to go in, I decided to be really ninja and just put myself out there. After hanging up my coat, I introduced myself to two friendly looking women standing close by and said “Hi! I actually don’t know a single person here, other than by email, I’m Galina the translator!” To which one of them replied, “Yes, you do! I know you! We met two months ago, remember at the opening?” Of course I had to pretend I remembered and so couldn’t ask her name, or what she did. BLUSH. And moving on swiftly to the buffet…
Later on, after having navigated the drinks and downed a glass of red, I accidentally started talking politics with one of the editors on the team. The sentence “Well, I suppose we’d better change the topic before we stab each other with these cake forks,” may have been uttered. And not by me. Moving on swiftly back to the buffet…
I did finally hit pay dirt at the cheese-cake-end of the buffet. A lovely woman working for a publishing house, whose main interests I shared: grammar and the etymology of obscure words. We hobnobbed over the history of words like “mole” and “Maulwurf” (yes! The same root!!!”)* and I shamelessly picked her brain on how to hyphenate foreign words in German (Pink-farbene Flip-flop-artige Pumps) for godssakes. Add the cheesecake to the mix and I was in nerd-heaven. We exchanged cards and I managed to get out in one piece, feeling rather proud of myself. It stands to reason that people are more likely to do business with people they know, like and trust. So, as long as you’re not like me, and can avoid getting stabbed by a cake fork at the buffet, you really should go to that office party this year!