Translation and… Tennis? Really?

tennis ball with english and french flags

From Tennis to English-French translation

A taste for language study, grammar, literature and translation, and more than 25 years as an English into French translator defines a large part of who I am, the way I think, with whom I relate and to whom I dedicate most of my time now. In the past, things were very different. As a teenager, one of the activities that most occupied my time was tennis.

Funny thing that I should think about tennis – now – when I spent so much time translating documents these days, wouldn’t you think?

Translated English documents to French for 25 years of my professional life

While I spend most of my professional life doing French translations these days, the truth of the matter is, recently I met a very old friend of mine for an important event in my life. Someone who played a major role, whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years.

Our meeting after all these years made me think about how and when we met 35 years ago. We were both teenagers and I used to play tennis. Let’s be honest, I wasn’t very good at it but this is not important. What’s important is that meeting him after such a long time got me to compare my present life as a language translator and my former life as a teenager playing tennis. My mind began to “travel back” and weave parallels between those two activities. I was amazed to see how much they have in common. So here’s a little exercise in reflection: any of the items below are what I see and feel as much about the field of translation as about tennis, or for any individual sport for that matter.

Thoughts about what it is to be a translator

                – It is a notoriously lonely activity, which does not mean that everything depends on you alone.

                – Those who see this activity without knowing it, think that it is something purely mechanical.

                – You have to train your whole life; there is no time when there is no need to practise and improve. In the beginning it’s just to do the basics, but the higher the level you reach, the more important it is to train regularly to seek to extend your own limits.

                – You can always improve.

                – It is 99% creating and 1% inspiration.

                – If, for those who look from the outside, what the person does seem easy and natural, you can be sure that it takes a lot more effort than you can imagine.

                – We need to train a lot, for years and years, so that when we come across some of those crucial moments of our career, when we have those immense challenges that mark us for the rest of our lives, we know how to seize the opportunity.

                – There is luck. But strategy cannot be ignored.

                – There is much room for discussion about rules and questions. But inside is inside, and outside is outside.

                – You have to be able to get a taste for – or at least accept and take satisfaction – from practice in all aspects (even those we do not like) – tiredness, repetition, frustration, pain. The moments of memorable victories and recognition are rare and are directly related to this continuous effort.

                – Mistakes are a part of it and often happen. There simply isn’t any way you cannot – eventually – make mistakes. One must accept that this will happen and be able to deal with errors so as not to compromise the final result, and jeopardise their self-confidence and the pleasure of continuing to dedicate themselves to that activity.

                – Defeat is also a part of it. You need to know how to use it as a source of motivation to improve. But if you repeatedly fail to win, there is something very wrong with what you are doing, and you need to acknowledge this fact and seek help.

                – The only way to improve is always to measure ourselves with who is better than you.

                – It is important to have a model (or some) of what we would like to be. And it is important to know why we choose this model.

                – Defeating or pointing out mistakes of those who are technically inferior does not make us better at something.

And the comparison with translation does not stop here

                – Making serious mistakes, gossiping or giving justifications only makes the situation worse. The only solution is to learn from them immediately and find a way to get it right the next time.

                – The feeling of pride in winning is very strong, because we fight alone and the merit is strongly individual. But whoever wins a major victory always has a huge number of people to thank for, for getting there.

                – It takes a very unique combination of ambition and humility, always.

                – Do not stand still in one place. To stop is to go back.

                – You cannot rest on your laurels while your career has not come to an end. This is a mortal sin.

                – Few things reveal our true ethics as a painful defeat. Or even the possibility of defeat.

                – Even the most correct of people might try to distort a rule in their favour or take advantage from time to time. But nothing is more difficult than doing what we know to be right when we are robbed or harmed in bad faith. And this happens often.

                – External factors, whether natural or human, interfere all the time. No one is immune to them. But whoever is really serious never uses these factors as justification for their failures.

                – It is perfectly possible to be self-taught, but the immense majority of self-taught people will have visible technical defects or deficiencies if they ever stop learning.

                – Except for rare exceptions, it is possible to identify self-taught, amateur or occasional practitioners in a matter of seconds.

                – “Having passion” for the activity and being a professional – which makes of that activity, the career of a lifetime – are completely different things. Being professional and not losing your passion for something that requires so much effort and dedication is the big challenge.

                – There is plenty of room for great professionals who will never be on top or go down in history. There is no shame and it is possible to have a very dignified and productive career at intermediate levels. The degree of effort and dedication required remains exactly the same.

                – There are those who have innate talent for the thing, and this is noticeable, even if we do not know exactly what it is.

                – Helping someone improve makes us even better.

                – Our opponent is our colleague. Without it, we are nothing, we have no merit. Our enemy today is your partner tomorrow, or vice versa.

                – It is fundamental to respect the adversary and know how to recognise his merits.

More analogies with translation

                – It is crucial to know how to separate a profession from personal relationships, even though these two dimensions are constantly mixing.

                – We do not dedicate ourselves to this activity because we expect recognition. We dedicate ourselves to this activity because it is part of who we are and we want to carry it out with quality.

                – It’s a journey of self-knowledge. We need to face our faults and weaknesses, as well as discover and know how to take advantage of our talents.

                – We have to know how to study alone, to work alone, to protect ourselves, to overcome solitary challenges.

                – Those who observe us from the outside will judge us, sometimes based on details we barely notice. It’s part of the activity.

                – Claiming that you are good at it means nothing. You have to show it.

                – A beautiful victory or one of pride fills everyone.

                – Anyone who says they do not feel pressure when other people are watching is lying blatantly. The great merit lies in not letting the performance fall too much under pressure.

                – Anyone who thinks that constantly investing in quality instrumental makes no difference in performance does not understand anything. Whoever thinks that only the instrumental solves everything, either.

                – The better you are, the more difference it makes in a fraction of a second, a centimetre, a degree.

                – It’s not something we do. It is something that one is. It’s a way of life, a way of thinking. Not just the person, but the whole family.

                – It is an activity that transforms our way of looking at life and that influences everything we do, even if it is totally unrelated to the activity itself.

                – When done well, it even touches. But only for those who know how to really enjoy it.

               – It is science. It’s art. Juggling. It’s dance.

And I’m sure the list could go on and on. One day, maybe in 35 years’ time – Will I still be doing English-French translation? – I might still add items to this list…

PS: talking about tennis, I didn’t mean to generalise. That was in even the goal. Much of this would also apply to a number of other individual sports or any challenging activity one might practise.

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