Last year, I became a book translator.
Last fall and winter, I worked on translating a book. English to Korean. It will be published in Spring, or even next month at the earliest.
This news surprised a few friends of mine greatly.
“Are you a translator now? I thought you liked working in design.”
“Didn’t you just suffer from burnout syndrome?”
But the person who would be most surprised by this announcement is probably my 20-year-old self.
“You major in Spanish, huh. So you can become a translator.” I frowned at this kind of comment during my college years. I stared back at the commenter (and there were a lot of them) as if they just said the rudest thing. I thought translator was the most boring occupation ever. I believed I was supposed to live this particular lifestyle, as a creative person I am: putting on a fancy office dress like a proud peacock, working in a bright and neatly decorated office with a wide city view, bouncing off exciting ideas with people who also look like a proud peacock.
A decade later, I became the person who daydreams burying myself between pages, in complete silence, in my favorite dress that L likes to call “oh, you mean pajama.” I have become the kind of boring person my 20-year-old self was so afraid of.
One good thing about growing old is you get to know yourself better. Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean age makes you wiser. You deepen the knowledge of self as you accumulate experiences of building expectations then feeling disappointed or accomplished, attempts to throw yourself in a lot of awkward and foreign environments, and struggles to figure out your priorities out of role conflict.
The 20-year-old proclaimed never to become a translator, the boring occupation. But let’s be honest. That brand new adult had no clue how to interpret “boring” vs “fun” when it comes to career — especially not when she just got out of the 16-hour-a-day study hell called high school.
That cute office suit you saw in the movie is in real life a pain in the butt, especially after a big lunch. More meetings are about planning the next meetings than actually brainstorming the solutions. The kind of shiny ideas you fantasized to produce usually come out at 10 pm in the room filled with the pressure of the deadline, with the smell from the half-empty delivery food bowl, between yawns and sighs and lame jokes. Oh, and no view is better than the view of my bed.
But I am not trying to say that’s why I quit. nor I was disappointed with my job. These are just sober facts working professionals learn to live with.
What I am trying to say is I’ve been working enough to gain perspective. A perspective to appreciate the real moments that bring deep contentment in what you do. The perspective to notice what it is that you need exactly at each chapter of life in order for your long-term growth. When the summer came last year, I knew I ‘needed’ to become a translator.
There is always a good explanation for food cravings. Your body is telling you what nutrients you are lacking. Or what your current emotion is. Same with desire. Desire is not necessarily there to be fulfilled; it is there to give us clues on the direction, the next step. It is like a tiny little gift from life to our mundane everyday.
Once the desire to become a translator arrived, I spent some good time dissecting WHY it came to me. The reasons were more complicated than you might have thought.
1. Translation was a way to escape from the uncertainty and ambiguity creative works entailed. Beginning of last summer, I was trying to write a book. Embarrassingly I gave up in a week. It was too overwhelming. How long should be the story? How deep can I go? The sky was the limit. I craved for more freedom in my work, but not this much. Meanwhile, translating a book has a clear goal and boundary. A complete story, printed in 300 pages.
2. Unlike creative work, translation allows measuring productivity and efficiency. You can’t fully control the velocity of creativity. You never 100% guarantee to create an ad copy in an hour. Back in marketing days, my team of 4 spent 3 months just to create a brand name for a razor. Your creative endeavor is always exposed to detours and bottlenecks. Therefore, a creative person should stay open-minded. To put it bluntly, creative people live with anxiety. While translating a book has no fixed answer either and still requires creative input, it has tangible ingredients to work with. You can set a goal like translating 5 pages a day. And that felt like the right amount of daily accomplishment to me.
3. Translation gives you solitude. I LOVE collaboration, but I CRAVED for solitude in doing my job. The solitude offers an intimate relationship between my work and I. With no stakeholders and managers in sight, you don’t need a planning brief, progress reports, and the final report… the kinds of deliverables that exist to continuously justify what you are working on. It was so easy to focus when you know what you are working on directly contributes to the final product. When it was not easy to focus, I could simply go on a walk or watch youtube.
As I keep digging down the root of my craving, I reached this final reason. The most important reason why I “needed” to be a translator.
4. I wanted to fortify the bridge between Korean and English by taking translator as my added identity. No matter how comfortable and fluent I have become with English, the frustration is always with me. I am always frustrated knowing I can’t 1000% deliver my feelings and thoughts with a language that is not my mother tongue. Sometimes I am also angry that I need to spend more brainpower than native speakers even for the simplest conversation. Even when I express my love to my husband, when I open up my vulnerability to friends, when I so excitedly share the research insights.
Everyone who lives abroad and speaks a foreign language for a living is already a translator. Instead of holding this reality as an immigrant’s baggage, I wanted to utilize it as my strength and create value out of it. So that I can feel more proud and comfortable between the two languages, filling the gap between two languages with my unique perspective.
That’s how I started.