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4 Lessons I Learned Working as a Translator

I began my translation career many years ago, fresh out of school, when I was hired by a merchant bank to do translation work. There was another translator there, whom I will refer to as Mr. T.

Mr. T loved to chat all day about food and the weather. He liked using antiquated phrases to make his translations sound sophisticated. I was a very hard worker, cared about our customers, and did my best to produce translations that would be easy to understand. Everyone knew that Mr. T had graduated from a prestigious university. At the time, I did not go to college. Mr. T was senior to me. Mr. T was male. I was younger and female. I suspected that he was getting paid more than me. People often assumed I was Mr. T’s assistant. It hurt. Life did not make sense to me.

One day, my boss told me that our customers preferred my translations to Mr. T’s and that he was entrusting me with a big project. Life started to make sense to me. That was the first lesson I learned working as a translator:

Lesson No. 1: People are basically fair.

The big project was to work with the bank’s London office to compile a handbook containing detailed financial information pertaining to several dozen British firms. Since my employer was a leading merchant bank in England, the handbook’s quality was of utmost importance. But what did I know about finance? Almost nothing. So I started educating myself. I read books. I asked questions. By the end of the project, I was familiar with the material, and even began noticing errors made by analysts at the London office. I phoned them, corrected the errors, and was thanked for it. This was my second lesson:

Lesson No. 2: You can teach yourself JUST ABOUT ANYTHING.”

I needed help from a typist—we’ll call her Miss P. Miss P believed strongly that males were superior to females and that older people were superior to younger people. Here I was, younger than she was, giving her orders. She was furious. We had an argument once, where I was right and she was wrong, but she brought a complaint to our boss about me. Privately, our boss acknowledged that I was right, but told me I was the one who should bend. He, too, once angered a typist, causing a major disruption to his workflow. He advised me to be conciliatory to people like Miss P. This was my third lesson:

Lesson No. 3: Sometimes getting along matters more than being right.

The handbook was a long, tedious project. I sacrificed countless Saturdays. I delegated tasks to the junior staff. I wrote to and called London. During the final stage, a secretary volunteered her help, and she seemed like an angel. This was my fourth lesson:

Lesson No. 4: Patience pays off in unexpected ways.

Even though the merchant bank’s subsidiary in Tokyo went bankrupt and I was let go, completing the handbook gave me confidence. I still recall the experience when things get tough. It makes everything else seem easy by comparison.

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