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Translator Impostor Syndrome

Thoughts and Musings

Translator Impostor Syndrome


Now that I have entered the lovely world of academia, I have come in contact with the phrase, "impostor syndrome".  I understood the meaning immediately.  I spent the majority of my first semester of graduate school wondering why I was there, what I could possibly contribute, and braced myself for utter embarrassment come grading period.  Instead I was met with surprising results. 

I wrote a few decent papers and a few more terrible ones.  I did my best.  I made it through with decent grades and at least one new friend.  I also learned more in 3 months about Korean literature and culture than I had in the past several years combined.  

I may suffer from impostor syndrome for a few more semesters, and maybe for my entire career as a student.  Even so, being recognized as hardworking has given me a lot more confidence to keep going forward.  

Many of us translators suffer from a similar form of impostor syndrome.  This is especially true in literary translation, when the translations produced bear our name.  As a professor recently pointed out, our translations of literature may even be picked apart by academics in published reviews.  Talk about pressure! 

In fact, I find the more successful translators are the most critical of their own work.  When I say critical, I do not mean that we believe our translations are bad.  It is simply the belief that given a few more edits, that our translations could improve.  Since language is such a fluid, ever-changing sort of thing, we often feel it is impossible to keep up.  It is almost that knowing so much helps you realize how difficult it is to reach absolute perfection when it comes to translation.  

There is also the fact that the marketplaces in which translators work are host to a number of verifiable impostors.  Maybe it is because my greatest fear is to become like them - lazy, overconfident, and uncritical.  In fact, it seems only the least qualified "translators" are the only ones who do not suffer the plight of impostor syndrome.  

For those of us doomed to languish for all eternity in "But am I good enough?" translator purgatory, be not afraid!  There are ways to stave off this fear.  The best way for me personally has been to seek out opportunities to be recognized for my work.  This serves two purposes; to create an environment where I have to compete, and to have the opportunity to be recognized as worthy of membership in that group.   I am doing this currently by going out on a limb and submitting to a few translation contests. Some other goals I have in the future are to submit my translations to academic journals and apply for a translation grant.  Should I fail, all that gives me is a swift kick in the butt to work harder, practice more, and stay humble.  

As translators, we have a duty to be passionately dedicated to the lifetime learning required for our field.  This does not mean we must suffer low confidence at all times.  I hope I can continue to find  constructive outlets for these nagging translator insecurities.  

If you are a translator and have anything to add, feel free to in the comments section!