Translators and the Dangers of Stress

There can be no denying that translators play a huge role in passing down the knowledge of civilizations. This old adage is reembodied in every society and every era, but a significant number of people prefer to cite the example of Abdullah al-Ma'mun, the Abbasid caliph who paid his translators the weight of their translated work in gold as repayment for their service.

The story of "Al-Ma'mun and the Translators" has compelled speakers at conferences and seminars to blame society for a comparative lack of financial support for translation. The blame has mostly centered on translators' poor salaries and difficult lifestyle that compels them to compete with legions of amateur translators in a labor market where clients can no longer tell who is or is not a professional.

The story of al-Ma'mun always intrigued me in discussions about translators, translation, and the labor market. As I was pondering the story one day, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a humanist and immaterial aspect to the story. Al-Ma'mun was like an affectionate father to his translators. He granted them such a sizable reward because he valued the emotional and psychological toll of their work and the time that they dedicated to their craft more than their actual knowledge. Because al-Ma'mun compensated his translators, he validated their value as human beings firstly, then as transmitters of information and conveyers of thought and civilization secondly and thirdly.

 On one occasion, I was doing simultaneous interpretation at a workshop that lacked the usual equipment. The goal was presumably to save money, but no one thought to consider the translators' comfort. God forbid if they should make a mistake because the speaker forgot to lean into the microphone and said something inaudible. I was further annoyed to see the speakers interrupt each other in the middle of each other's turns, without considering the simultaneous interpreter, who, due to the limits of the human brain, is unable to focus for more than 12 consecutive seconds.

Written translators do not have it much better. They might need to burn the midnight oil for days at a time in order to finish a large project, only to have the client angrily grill them over a typographic or orthographic error. For written translators, like interpreters, the most intense psychological pressure comes the content of their work. Content is our primary concern, and almost nothing that we translate is devoid of calamity and woe.

On another occasion, I was doing simultaneous interpretation at a workshop about crises and how aid workers can overcome the psychological effects of hearing tragic stories and witnessing horrible atrocities. The whole thing was quite surreal - why did the attendees not also consider the effect on the human interpreter who listens to such tragedies?

 Written translators are not immune, either:

 "Seven members of a single family died after suffocating on gas from the heater."

 For more than 200 million children, today is a workday, not a school day. Children as young as five years old are part of the global workforce. In factories and in fields, children work up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Matches, rugs, soccer balls, leather goods, paper cups, toys, shoes, fireworks — all of these products are made by tiny hands.”

"If you thought the disaster in Haiti ended with its total destruction in the wake of the earthquake, you would be wrong. With 70 policemen dead, 500 missing, and 400 more injured, there are few security elements remaining to defend women and young girls from the danger of criminal gangs."

These pieces of news, and others translation materials like them, constantly wear at the translator's mental fortitude. As disasters increase, so too do non-governmental organizations, bringing with them projects and programs that require translators. Thus, the psychological pressure on human translators increases.

Translators already face difficult living conditions as a result of trying times and the struggle for life's necessities, but this strain is compounded when they translate materials saturated with tragedies and disasters. Translators fall victim to continuous psychological and mental suffering, but the pressure does not let up. International organizations continue to employ translators for simultaneous interpretation and written translation for painful assignments that concern child torture, human trafficking, and oppression.

  In a number of workshops, speakers have discussed what they call "debriefing," wherein the subject overcomes the personal impact of a situation, allowing them to carry out their duties to the fullest. Likewise, international organizations should have already realized that translators need this service as well. I am simply exasperated with international organizations that throw work in an exhausted translator's face, without considering the psychological toll that affects both the translator and their performance.

One of the common methods for relieving stress is for the translator to travel and take time off for a few days with their family and friends, without so much as thinking about the word "translation." This and similar solutions will come at a higher cost, but the client must come to understand the underlying reason for the translator requesting a higher wage for simultaneous interpretation or written translation. We no longer have an al-Ma'mun to extend an affectionate hand to translators with every piece of gold bestowed.

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