Translator’s block is real. I can think of at least three types of translator’s block.
1. When I can’t convince myself to start working on a translation that is not yet very urgent, although I know very well that I should start working on it right away because the deadline is really around the corner and a new e-mail could turn what was a reasonable deadline into a brutal deadline.
2. When I can’t find words for terms and characters that I have been translating for years. Sometime I forget a character that I used to know for years or decades and I am reduced to having to look it up based on the radicals and the number of strokes in a character dictionary. I hate when that happens. I usually mumble something including the f-word while I am reaching for the dictionary.
3. And then there is the kind that is not really a translator’s block, it’s more like a word block. Some words seem to be lodged in my brain in one language only like a stray bullet that cannot be removed from a certain spot because it would kill me, and it takes me several seconds or longer before I can think of the usual equivalent in English.
For example when I am in a restaurant, it takes me a long time to think of the word “pancakes” when I am about to order them. The Czech word “palačinky”, which is completely useless in Virginia, comes out first, followed by the French version “crêpes” which is actually used in some restaurants here …. and before I can think of the word “pancakes”, the waitress says:”Why don’t I come later when you have made up your mind”.
Many names of types of meals are untranslatable anyway, such as shabu-shabu or sukiyaki, especially since most gaijins can’t tell the difference between the two anyway. What is the English translation for the Italian word “pizza“? There is none. You would have to use a whole sentence describing the ingredients. At least in Japanese you could call it “Western style o-konimiyaki” which would be only 3 words.
The best thing to do when you are assaulted by translator’s block is to give in. When you are not ready to write, you should not try to write, and when you are not ready to translate, you should not try to force it either. Take a nap if you have a choice.
But often we don’t have a choice, of course, and sometime instead of a translation, we create a monstrosity when our brain is not ready to deal with what may turn out to be a very complicated task.
I was once translating an old Japanese patent on a Sunday when I was feeling kind of tired. This patent was from the sixties and back in the sixties Japanese patent agents would sometimes just fax the application to the JPO, probably under time pressure. When you fax tiny Japanese characters even once, they become so fuzzy that you can’t be sure which character you are seeing. You have to know what they are supposed to be without really being able to see every detail of them.
There was one crucial chemical term in that patent that I was repeatedly mistranslating because I was seeing a different character there since the text was so fuzzy. The client got really mad and it had to be retranslated.
Maybe I would have been able to see the right character on Monday. Or maybe not, who knows.
I also believe that what is sometime called translator’s high is just as real as translator’s block. Translator’s high is the opposite pole to translator’s block. I will not describe it in this post because I described this magic moment when all things suddenly start making sense years ago here.
If you are lucky, you will encounter more translator’s highs than translator’s blocks. But as a translator you should have your own strategy for dealing with inevitable translator’s blocks, and different people will probably need different strategies.