The Fascination of the Nitty-Gritty

As I booked my tickets for the CIOL Conference 2020 this morning, my main object of interest was naturally the programme. Many of the events are about the business side of freelancing – digital marketing, specialising, business development, future trends, working with different types of clients. Only Michelle Deeter’s session on translating fiction vs. non-fiction books and Oliver Lawrence’s session on editing skills seem to be about translation as a practice. (Maybe Gabriela Bocanete’s talk on slowing down, but it’s difficult to tell from the name.)

This perhaps reflects the fact that linguists en masse are far more confident about their language skills than about their business skills. These two aspects of the job – the language side and the business side – are what I most often see discussed on linguist fora and communities online as well. While most translators enjoy translating and a few are enthusiastic about business, I hardly ever see anyone talking about the thing I like best about being a freelance translator: getting to see a whole bunch of documents.

Our society is so large and our economy so complex that each of us only concretely understands a very small part of it. The rest is a black box. What is it like to be a quantitative analyst, congressional aide, junior solicitor, consultant, line chef, bank director, level 3 tech support? What do all these people do all day, how do they do it, how do they hold each other accountable, how are their actions connected to the rest of us? Freelance translation is a sluice gate that lets a tiny trickle of the vast stream of information underwriting all this activity flow directly into my inbox.

That’s what I like best about it: reading the fine print, seeing how the sausage is made, the nitty-gritty of diverse workplaces and situations. In my case, the fine print may be software maintenance contracts, patents on incredibly minor details of design, internal reports about developments on such-and-such a market, terms and conditions for such-and-such a widget, court cases in which someone didn’t pay for the monster piece of industrial equipment they ordered, or assessments of the impact of EU emissions regulations. The experience has the immersive quality of archival research about it.

These things sound dry and technical, but I love reading them and I love the background research. (Exception: insurance policies. Never again.) Freelancing clues me in to the detail happening in other people’s lives all the time. It has made me more tolerant of mistakes, inefficiencies, and mysterious (to an outsider) goings-on in the everyday world around me because I am more aware of the effort and limitations involved.

Of course, I definitely need to brush up on my digital marketing as well. See you at the conference!

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