Best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults*

The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) said that “one of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

We will leave the spectacular textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, operating at the highest level of government in my home country, to the real experts (W.S. Gilbert lives!) I want to talk about the second bit of that quote, the “doubt and indecision” part. Because if incompetent people can’t realize they are incompetent, is the reverse then also true, i.e., do competent people know there’s room for improvement?

You’re coasting along for a few weeks, doing your work, some of in interesting, some of it boring, feeling pretty good about everything. Then you’re told that something you’ve done is unsatisfactory. The client is unhappy. Please fix it. You get right on it, apologize,  and now all is right again and everyone has moved on – except you. The shame of having been called to the carpet for your work (possibly something done in haste and utter confidence) is gnawing at your feelings of self-worth.

I could probably do a year’s worth of posts about how being a professional translator is similar to being in the performing arts – interpreting the works of others, the debate on the need for academic credentials (and the psychological impact of having – or not having – them), being a sometimes invisible cog in a large machine (take a look at opera reviews, where four fifths of the article consists of discussion of the composition, the concept, the stage director, the set designer. The conductor usually gets a mention and a few of the singers, at the end, but they are actually interchangeable in many reviewers’ opinions.) Perhaps being able to process criticism in a constructive manner is something everyone grapples with at times. Performers, however, have the added aspect of their talents being on display, where they can be judged. So do writers, and, by extension, translators. Neither group particularly enjoys looking at their own past work, even while many others out there are doing just that, if the work has been made public.

You need a thick skin to accept criticism, even the constructive kind, and learn from it. This may well be some kind of man/woman thing – it seems like a lot of men I know are able to brush off criticism with flair, while a lot of women I know internalize it. There are cultural aspects to it as well. I remember, many years ago when I sang in an opera chorus, a particular day when the chorus master rehearsed each voice section separately. There were, then, just eight of us altos being led through some difficult passages from an upcoming opera. One of my colleagues made a small mistake and, after we stopped, she said “That was me!”, basically in order to assure the chorus master that we didn’t need to rehearse that bit again, as she knew what she’d done. Immediately, two other colleagues jumped on her: “Don’t ever admit that! Never say that you made a mistake!” This stumped a few of the others – why wouldn’t you admit to a mistake? And yet there are people out there who simply cannot or will not.

Well, where am I going with this, actually? That healthy balance of accepting blame and only dwelling on it to the extent that you work on bettering your abilities, but not so much that it cripples you. I suppose that’s what we are all aiming for. Well, at least those of us who can admit we’re wrong.

*Jane Austen. She also wrote “Self-knowledge is the first step to maturity” and “Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.”

 

 

 

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