translators in Berlin

The (Dis)Comfort Zone II

In an earlier post I talked about how, if you want to produce optimal work or push yourself to be that bit better, faster, sharper, the optimal place to be is outside your comfort zone. It’s where the zingy ideas happen.

But I also know how hard it is to leave the comfort zone, especially if you’re not the most daring person. But the only difference between you, and the slouch on the couch, is that one of you just gets up and does it anyway.


One of the things that I used to be uncomfortable with was travelling. The absence of control over where you are going to get food, or a decent night’s sleep, or whether the Muezzin is going to lead his call to prayers at 6am, just freaked me out. But having forced myself to do it, and realising I was actually OK, I now also know that it helps me to prioritise better, to value my work, my free time, my friends. Travelling has direct knock-on effects on so many aspects of your life, as I mentioned in my last post, which make it an absolute must for anyone wanting to remain open to the world, especially for us translators.

So, without further ado, my travel tips on turning the fear into the fearless.

  1. Buddha nature

Cultivating your sense of childish wonder at each new situation is a great way of calming yourself. Instead of thinking “What if I miss my flight/train/don’t find my hotel…” take a look around and ground yourself in the details. It also helps to check out what children near you are doing. (Well, if they’re not in the middle of a tantrum or staring into a “device”.) Years ago, my children would be so busy figuring out and marvelling at the fold-down tables in the plane (or the ones stowed in the armrest), they didn’t have time to worry about “What if the plane crashes?” At least for the first five minutes…


(This was taken by my ten-year-old daughter, proving that her experience of Barcelona was utterly different from mine. Her photos were often shot from a worm’s eye view, and were often close-ups. They made me think about how everyone sees the world very differently.)

  1. Having a reason

I’m not very good at doing things that don’t have a palpable result. I’m a utilitarian kind of girl and perhaps I’m also a little scared of “free-form time”, worried it will swallow me up.

So when it comes to travel, one way of providing structure and results is going to language school or taking some kind of course. Not only does it mean you are learning something, it also means you have a daily rhythm and you’ll make friends without even trying. And if something better comes up, you can always pretend you’re 14 again and bunk off!

  1. Controlling the chaos

When I went abroad alone for the first time, my biggest fear was losing my key or having it stolen while I was wandering the streets. I didn’t know a soul in the city and preferred to leave my mobile phone at the apartment so that it wouldn’t get stolen. So I knew that if my key was stolen I would have absolutely no way of getting in touch with anyone (because the only phone number I knew off by heart was the one belonging to my best friend at primary school, Helen Bothleswick, and she might possibly have moved house since the seventies). Obviously, it is slightly irrational to worry about someone stealing a key (what would they do with it?) but regardless, my solution was to hide the second key in a plant pot on the roof. You will not believe how calm and safe this made me feel.


  1. Associations

You know the best thing about being a translator? They are EVERYWHERE. I don’t know if people have this with every profession, you know, secret little car mechanic clubs dotted all over the globe, where you get to talk about carburettors and turtle wax, or European hairdressing clans where they exchange favourite scissor-sharpening secrets and discuss and compare tipping rates in different European cities….but wherever you go, yes, even in South Dakota, you will find there are meet ups for translators. I joined a gang of about twenty very welcoming translators in a lovely little bistro in Barcelona where I ate the best pastrami sandwich this side of New York and got to talk shop and find out what it was like to live and work in the beautiful city. It’s nice to know you are never truly a stranger, wherever you go in the world. Especially as a translator.screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-21-29-07

  1. Getting lost doesn’t mean you’re going to die

Another concern I had was getting lost. Especially in the first few days with my children where I realised that maybe I am just not a map person. Initially I tried to navigate by the street names and avoided getting lost by poring over the map and boring my kids to tears. But thanks to them, I discovered that sometimes it really isn’t that important to know which street you’re on. And once you let go, it’s so much more fun. Barcelona’s old town is perhaps one square kilometre, so we’re not exactly talking Welsh hills in November. In fact, now I actually relish wandering around without knowing exactly where I am, as long as there are enough tapas bars along the way.

  1. The internet can be your friend

If, after taking yourself out of the comfort zone, you feel the need for a bit of company, it’s nice to know you can meet like-minded people anywhere in the world if you want to.

Back in the day, the only way to make friends in a strange place was by simply sitting at a random bar, preferably the same one night after night, or striking up a conversation with a stranger on a park bench. But these things happen less these days because everyone is of the “bowed head tribe”, engrossed in their mobile phones. If it doesn’t strike you as pseudo-modernist to be using social media to actually meet people IRL, then this is for you. There are a bunch of mobile apps beyond social tinder and bumble, like MeetUp, peoplehunt, and ATLETO if you’re looking for people who share your passion for wine or food, or for some sports buddies to go for a run with when you’re a stranger in town.


When it comes down to it, the desire for safety and security and instincts like fear are generally a good thing – they keep you from doing stupid things like jumping off cliffs and going home with strangers. But it’s knowing when the time has come to say “thank you primeval cavewoman brain, for worrying about me, but I think I’ll take it from here,” that keeps life special and exciting.


The Ten Commandments of How to be a Good Translator

  1.  A good translator is also a good cultural manager. That means understanding the heritage of both your source language and your target language, and the sensitivities of a culture. It means not translating sandalias de esclavaas “slave sandals”, yes, Zara we mean you. Stop using Google Translate and start paying decent translators a decent wage.
  2.  A good translator will say no when they have too much work on. Clients will appreciate a clean-cut “I won’t be able to do this until next week” to a rush job, or worse, an outsourced job to some poor student. In most cases, amazingly, you’ll suddenly find that it’s not the end of the world if you can only deliver next week.


  1. A good translator knows their own worth. They won’t give volume discounts because their work doesn’t suddenly lessen if the job gets bigger. Unless they are using one of the latest CAT tools and translating some law book or instructions manual, in which case, fine: although I think they deserve a generous bonus for taking on such boring work!


  1. A good translator doesn’t need to wear a suit to deliver excellent copy. In fact they will sometimes be wearing pyjamas or sports gear when doing their best work. And might even not be freshly showered (shock horror!) as they translate your press release about the swanky, star-studded after-show parties at Berlin Fashion Week.
  2. A good translator will, at some point in their career, be criticised or told a piece they delivered was not up to standard, but we all live and learn. Ask a fellow translator for their opinion and ask the client exactly what they don’t like about it. Everyone has an off day, but it’s important to find the source of the client’s unhappiness. Was it the client’s boyfriend’s friend of a friend who spent a summer learning the said target language who reckons it was bad? Or was it the client’s customers or PR agency? There is a difference.


  1. A good translator is a word nerd with at least four books stacked on their bedside table. Preferably in both their target and source languages. They will understand jokes in both those languages and will know that someone who has “ein Ei auf’m Kopp” most likely isn’t walking around with an egg on their head, but is just a bit of an idiot. They will also know the difference between kissing an Irish lad* and giving a Glasgow kiss**. And they’ll know their plates of meat from their mince pies***.
    *Kissing someone from Ireland is considered lucky.
    **In the UK, a head butt is sometimes referred to as a Glasgow kiss.
    ***Cockney rhyming slang: plates of meat = ‘feet’ and mince pies = ‘eyes’.
  2. A good translator will only translate into their native language. Even if you grew up bilingual, your strongest language will most probably be that of the country you were immersed in before and during puberty (the so-called “critical period” for language acquisition).


  1. A good translator will try hard not to get offended when someone verschlimmbessert their great translation. Verschlimmbessern = a portmanteau of verschlimmern and verbessern, aka actually make a text worse with so-called corrections. If the client thinks the word “indispensable” is better than “prerequisite” then let them have their way. However, if they think that “an utilitarian” is better than “a utilitarian” then copy and paste the applicable passage from your trusted style guide* and politely explain to them that they are mistaken.
    * (The correct option is ‘a utilitarian’ because the article behaves according to the sound of the first letter, rather than according to whether it is a vowel or consonant. ‘u’ from utilitarian sounds like a consonant, which is why you use the article ‘a’.)
  2. A good translator will usually have a specialisation or two. That means if you ask them to translate a medical text, and their field of expertise is architecture, they will say no and refer you to a colleague.


  1. A good translator will have a colleague proofing their work for them and vice-versa. That way, if they’re having a bad day, it isn’t reflected in the text and any embarrassing clangers or bloopers can be quickly eradicated before delivery. And because it’s reciprocal you’ll both be learning on the job. I learned today that ‘arctuate stitching’ is a thing in jeans manufacturing! Who knew?

Bonus Commandment

A good translator has a sense of humour. There is no greater joy than discovering that the fashion rookie who wrote the puff piece you are translating on emo fashion in Berlin has written “Susie and the Bandshees”* by mistake. But be careful with the commentary function in Word. My colleague and I often use it for personal banter, but sending it to the client with comments included could be potentially embarrassing (and yes, I am speaking from experience).

*Anyone born before 1985 knows the correct spelling is Siouxsie and the Banshees!