How translators deal with their emotions can mean the difference between job satisfaction and burnout, but can emotion management be learnt, asks Séverine Hubscher-Davidson

Published in The Linguist, 56/5 October/November 2017

Aristotle once said that educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. A recent study that I carried out on the emotional skills of 155 professional translators really brought home the relevance of this quotation. The results of my investigation showed that emotions impact on various aspects of translators’ lives and work, and that some are able to manage emotions more successfully than others. What’s more, the stakes are high: results indicated that translators who are more skilled at managing emotions in the context of their work tend to be more satisfied with their jobs and to stay longer in the profession. Age and education also seem to play a role in terms of how well translators cope with feelings.

There is a fair amount of literature that shows that being emotionally skilled, or competent, goes hand in hand with work engagement, entrepreneurial behaviour and leadership skills. Indeed, when managed appropriately, emotions can promote creativity and improve decision-making. Conversely, it has been shown that a lack of emotional skills can lead to job stress, counterproductive work behaviour and burnout.

Translating and interpreting can involve quite a lot of emotion management but many questions remain: What is the secret to good emotion management? How is it linked to variables such as job satisfaction, experience and education? And, perhaps more importantly, can it be taught?

Job satisfaction

The following anecdote is a good example of how successful emotion management and job satisfaction are inextricably linked. A seasoned translator working in various fields is asked to translate a hospital report for a cancer patient who is the same age as him. That week happens to be the anniversary of his mother’s death from cancer. When translating the piece, he struggles to focus, and feels intense and paralysing emotions. He considers giving up entirely, worried that he is becoming too upset to produce a high-quality translation. Instead, the translator decides to take several physical breaks from the text so that he does not have to think about it for long stretches of time and can regain control of his feelings. He also discusses it with a trusted colleague, and this enables him to talk through – and make sense of – his emotions. In the end, he succeeds in delivering a quality and timely translation. He feels a sense of achievement and relief once the task is done.

This example demonstrates that good emotion management can impact on performance, mental health and the sources of job satisfaction. Instead of ruminating or avoiding the work, the translator used some adaptive strategies that were conducive to maintaining his well-being and job satisfaction. Using specific emotion management techniques, such as speaking with a mentor or colleague, will maximise the chances of being a competent, happy and successful translator.

Experience and age

An important finding in my study regards the role that experience and age play in how translators handle emotions in the context of their work. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that people acquire an increasingly sophisticated ability to recognise, appreciate and relate to the emotions of others as they age, and that older, more experienced translators find it easier to control their emotional states.

With accumulative experience, translators become more adept at handling client expectations, gauging target-reader requirements and using adaptive coping strategies, which means they are less affected by problems encountered in their daily work. They also increase their knowledge of the language-cultures they work with, and increasingly make use of adaptive and culturally appropriate emotional skills. The seasoned translator Eliot Weinberger once noted that problems such as “the old bugbear of fidelity” are overrated – this kind of unperturbed perspective, denoting a level of resilience to problems, is a product of experience and effective self-regulation. It is also likely to make the job of translating a more pleasant and relaxed experience.

Some developmental psychologists argue that, as people age, they become used to the effects of intense emotions – a process known as habituation. Although not particularly comforting for novice translators, it would seem that the saying ‘it gets easier with time’ holds true. As they get used to coping with negative emotions and experiences, translators learn to neutralise the emotional impact of challenging events. It would seem that one of the secrets to good emotion management is, therefore, to be patient.

Educational links

Another striking finding in my study was the link found between education and emotional skills. The higher the level of education, the better translators seemed to be at regulating and expressing their emotions. Academic performance has been linked to emotional competence in other fields, but it was interesting to note a similar trend for professional translators. The idea that highly educated translators are better able to function emotionally makes sense. Translators who inherently cope well with emotional stress and anxiety are more likely to achieve well academically and to stay in education; while translators who do not cope as well with emotions may learn to do so while in education, as the longer they engage with the intense experiences of academic life the better they will be at managing them.

Take the example of a student on an undergraduate translation degree: throughout her studies, she experiences positive emotions when successfully completing challenging assignments but experiences negative emotions when the problematic dynamics of a group-work situation impact on how well she performs in an important task.

These rich emotional experiences shape her behaviour and the longer she stays in this kind of learning environment, the more proficient she becomes at handling both cognitive and affective issues in and around her work. So it would seem that education and emotional competences have a mutually beneficial impact on one another.

Learning to cope

There is no simple answer when it comes to translators managing their emotions. A number of different factors are involved. However, there are strategies that can be learnt and that can positively influence whether translators stay in the profession. As such, it seems that employers, educators and those concerned with the professional development of translators would do well to engage with translators’ emotional development. Given the potential for emotional involvement in translation work, translators should be prepared to handle some of the emotions they may encounter when working. It makes sense for translators to spend some time reflecting on their emotional triggers, and considering how they handle various texts and contexts which are likely to elicit strong emotions.

But if emotional skills are likely to develop with age and experience, is it really necessary to try to develop them? I would argue that it is and that engagement with these issues, even at an early stage in a translator’s career, may go some way towards preparing them for what lies ahead, possibly influencing their future engagement with the profession.

The results of my study led me to the conclusion that more efforts were needed to help translators to become more skilled in dealing with emotion-laden and difficult issues in their work, to be less stressed and depleted after emotional work, to develop a self-aware and balanced attitude towards their work, and to respond more effectively to environmental demands. To come back to Aristotle, educating the translator’s mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

Séverine Hubscher-Davidson’s Translation and Emotion: A psychological perspective (Routledge) will be published in December.