An author whose book I’ve been translating wrote to me last week and asked if we could arrange a telephone call to discuss some of the questions and comments I had about the German text.
This is a nightmare scenario for me.
I get anxious about speaking on the phone, and I get anxious about speaking in German, and I get flat-out panicky at the thought of speaking on the phone in German. And even though I don’t have anything to prove to this author—I’ve already done the work and translated the book, and the author is pleased with it—I cringed at the prospect of getting on the phone and nervously stammering through a professional conversation. I knew I could do it, as uncomfortable as it would be, I just really didn’t want to.
And then it dawned on me that I could simply…say no? It may seem obvious, but in the moment it was truly revelatory. No one could force me to get on the phone. Maybe I’d come off as being wildly eccentric, but I could actually say “Nope, I don’t do phones” and (probably) nothing bad would happen. In the end, I opted for the route of radical honesty. I wrote back and said that I’d really prefer to clarify the unresolved issues in writing if possible because I get nervous on the phone and, after 20 years in England, my spoken German is rusty—but I added that I understood it might be faster to clear up some questions directly, so if the author did want to speak on the phone, I was willing to chat. I figured at least that way, if I did have to get on the phone, the author would be primed for any awkwardness on my part.
I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to do this had it not been for a recent conversation on a translators’ list I belong to. The thread was about translating from a language versus communicating in that language, and about the fear that so many translators have of speaking or writing in their second language or “L2” because they/we worry that any apparent “weaknesses”, such as speaking with a heavy accent or making grammatical mistakes, might be taken as a sign of linguistic incompetence. One translator said that, when she communicates with clients in writing, she asks if she can write in English and invites the client to write in their native language, with the explanation that her conversational L2 isn’t “appropriate for business communications.” It had honestly never crossed my mind to do something that like that—and while I wouldn’t make use of this specific tactic (because I’m actually okay writing in German), I felt like a door opened up nonetheless, showing me possibilities I wasn’t aware of—like the possibility of simply acknowledging a “shortcoming” and offering a solution for working around it instead of unnecessarily trying to maintain a façade of perfection all the time.
So I sent my note to the author, and the author wrote back and said it was no problem at all, he totally understood and he would send the short list of comments by email.
Reader, rarely have I felt so liberated. This was about more that just not wanting to talk on the phone. I know that avoidance is not the best way of dealing with things that scare you, so it wasn’t just that I wanted to avoid a phone call because I was nervous. If I’d honestly thought a direct conversation was the best approach, I would have agreed to it right away. I just know from experience that it can actually be more difficult and time-consuming to do this type of thing by phone, where the conversation generally goes like this: “… on page 25, in the second paragraph, three lines down … on page 43, 5 lines from the bottom, near the end of the sentence …” and on and on and on. No, it was more about taking control by relinquishing control, I think. I expend a lot of energy trying to control how I come across, to make sure there are no cracks in my façade. So to kick aside the façade altogether and say “look, this is the situation, and here’s how I’d like deal with it”—well, maybe it seems minor, but it was a pretty radical decision for me. To simultaneously drop my defenses and assert myself? Unheard of.
Maybe I’m just wearing down after almost 7 months of [waves hands around wildly at everything]. Or maybe it’s not so much being worn down—it’s that some extraneous layers of my (public) persona are being scoured away. What’s the point of pretense? What’s the point of saying “I’m fine with that” when I’m really not fine with whatever “that” may be? Everything is crummy enough as it is, so what’s the point of agreeing to unnecessary things if it’s just going to make me feel even worse? The façade is too tiring to maintain. And maybe, as it turns out, it was never necessary in the first place.
In my private life I can be a very willful, prickly, and frankly difficult person. These are not admirable traits that I necessarily want to flaunt in public, but there may be aspects of them worth nurturing, like determination and knowing one’s own mind. I already know my own mind, and I want to be more willing and able to speak it. (Just not on the phone.)