Posted by: patenttranslator | August 19, 2012

Translator’s Block and Translator’s High – Are They Real or Mostly Imaginary?


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-konomiyaki” 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.


  1. Steve, translator’s block is indeed real. All the 3 types you describe above happen to me from time to time.

    To avoid the first type, I decline projects that do not allow me sufficient time for research. To avoid the second type, I read the texts to be translated for an idea of the proceeding of the translation before I accept the in-coming projects. However, there is almost no way to avoid the third type and there I need some help from other translation colleagues. It proves very helpful in the past 12 years to maintain good terms with some trusty colleagues and/or experts in the fields I do translations. Even the senior employees at the clients’, either in engineering or in marketing departments, are also very helpful when any of the 3 types of block occurs.

    During my stay on vacation in Germany since 10 days, I had to decline 2 projects that would have incurred one of the first 2 types of block. I accepted 2 other projects, because the one was “like in butter” – it took less than 5 minutes what just came out of my mind – and the other is an update of my previous translation years ago. The best is that the deadline is scheduled middle of September. I must be very unprofessional if I let this one turn to be a type 1 translator’s block.

    BTW, I cannot view the Sakamoto’s song above because of GEMA license. But I know the song since the 60s. I had been wondering why it is named “The Sukiyaki Song” and did some online research. Interesting stories!

    Well, music usually does not need the exactitude of words. When I listened for the first time to the following piece, I thought I was listening to a kind of Piazzolla mimic and was only to find out that it was composed by a Taiwanese compatriot. The name is then not the least important, if the music moves our hearts.


  2. “BTW, I cannot view the Sakamoto’s song above because of GEMA license. But I know the song since the 60s. I had been wondering why it is named “The Sukiyaki Song” and did some online research. Interesting stories!”

    I found out from my poll that most people actually don’t watch music videos in my posts, and in some countries they can’t watch them at all, for example in Germany or China. But some people like them.

    My first job after graduation was interpreting for about a month for a Japanese film producer in Prague who said that he also produced the Sukiyaki song.

    Poor guy could not eat Czech food and there were no Japanese restaurants in Prague back then. We would go to have a lunch in a good restaurant, he would order something like a schnitzel with boiled potatoes, but he would only be able to eat the potatoes.

    After a month he was as thin as a rail.

    Once I had to translate for him when he got drunk and lost his wallet in an expensive restaurant frequented by ladies of the night.

    That was a really interesting interpreting job for me that night.

    We did find the wallet. I don’t remember whether he got it back with his money or without it.


  3. “My first job after graduation was interpreting for about a month for a Japanese film producer in Prague who said that he also produced the Sukiyaki song.”

    I would wonder that the film producer happened to be Mr. 草野浩二 and the restaurant happened to pertain to the most famous hotel in Prag during those days?


  4. I forgot his name but I do know that it was not Mr. Kusano.

    It was a restaurant inside the Evropa Hotel on Vaclavske namesti.


  5. Ha, I thought you happened to have met Kusano Sama by the end of 70s or so in Prag!


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