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Ivory Tower

THE RECENT TENTH ANNIVERSARY of my ex-husband leaving has set me thinking about the number of my translating colleagues who are on their own, for one reason or another, whether single, divorced, or separated. Does it just go with the territory, that image of a clever academic, working away in the fabled ivory tower? Or is it merely in line with modern statistics showing an ever-increasing number of people choosing to live alone? It’s certainly not uncommon for translators to tend to be more at the introverted end of the spectrum and to enjoy the isolated nature of freelance translating. I know I’m generalising – any discussion of a subject of this kind is bound to be – but it’s interesting to speculate nonetheless.

Introvert Hamsterball

Even before I started working freelance when I had my first son nearly 25 years ago, I had no problem with working on my own. In fact, when I first started work in-house, there were three of us in an office, two translators and the company photograph archivist, all naturally quiet souls, even though we translators were required to dictate our translations into dictaphones for the typing pool to type up. A few years down the line, the dictaphones fell by the wayside as we were introduced to the delights and otherwise of IBM Displaywrite computers. Then, horror of horrors, some bright spark decreed that we should leave the comfort of our old 50’s issue civil service building with its individual offices and move to a brand spanking new open-plan building over the road. We were on the top floor, right next to the directors’ suite, but no executive offices for us: just a corner of a huge open-plan office. I can’t find words to describe how awful I found it having to work in those conditions: from the constant telephone calls going on around us, to the daily weigh-ins, diet diaries, nail varnishing sessions and constant gossip from the clerks in the political lobbying department… I’m sure our output plummeted, and our morale certainly took a nose dive. We eventually successfully campaigned for screens, although they merely cut out the visual distractions, not the noise, and finally, with the advent of a new manager (not a translator) who took pity on us, we were reinstated in our own office – huge sigh of relief all round!

When I started working from home after my maternity leave, I had no problem with the enforced isolation. I certainly didn’t miss the back-stabbing and personal feuds that go hand-in-hand with office life. I suppose it helps when you love what you do, and it’s certainly easier nowadays with internet forums and social networks like Twitter and Facebook to keep translators in touch with the outside world. Back in the late 80’s, it was quite progressive to have an answering machine, let alone a fax, so interaction with other people had to be by telephone! Again, you have to be disciplined and equally, you have to discipline your friends and family not to call at all times of the day, expecting coffee and cake when you’re desperately trying to meet a deadline! Skype is a godsend now – I have certain colleagues who instant-message me (and vice versa) on a fairly regular basis with queries, or funny asides, and that’s definitely a bonus.

As for my original question, of why so many translators seem to be on their own, I guess it follows on from the ability to work successfully alone – and the longer you are on your own, the harder it becomes to want to share your space with anyone else. I know many of my colleagues who are happily married/co-habiting with partners, but equally there are a fair few of us who are on our own (ProZ poll for actual figures anyone?). Do we really shy away from contact and enjoy this solitary existence? Or does our bookish ivory tower profile isolate us and make us inaccessible to others? It’s definitely harder to meet people when you work alone and there are only so many conferences and networking meetings you can attend without your work (or bank balance!) suffering.

So what do you think? Is the notion of a solitary translator a stereotypical myth or does it have its foundations in reality? I look forward to hearing your views.

Keep Calm and Get Back to the Ivory Tower