A Cultural Issue?


It is hard to imagine (except in a farce) a dentist persistently pulling out the wrong tooth. Publishers and translators, however, seem to get away with something of that sort.
 — Vladimir Nabokov


Every person is unique. Nobody argues this. Peoples living in different parts of the world differ much. Even if two persons originate from the same country, they still can have different cultural backgrounds.

The Chinese never criticize their colleagues openly or in front of others, whereas the Dutch tend to be always honest and make their communications straight. Americans use to combine positive and negative assessments. (Read How to Say “This is Crap” In Different Cultures by Erin Meyer at https://hbr.org/2014/02/how-to-say-this-is-crap-in-different-cultures)

I remember the first time I saw my Kazakh friend talking to her sister. The sister was only 1.5 year older and was apparently wrong, but my friend did not dare to oppose her because of the age. As a Russian, I was absolutely at a loss. I did understand that older/aged persons should be treated with respect. However, I was in denial over the obedience to a rude elder sister.

Much has changed since that time. But now I regularly face a similar cultural problem related to the feedback. It seems that Kazakhstanis, regardless of their ethnicities, do not like open criticism. At least, this happens in the translation industry.

More than a decade ago, I made a test translation for a large local translation agency. I knew that they had an American proofreader who was to assess my translation. That did not fear me, as I had worked for a bilingual newspaper and all my texts had been proofread by foreigners. I was so confident in my competence and skills… Poor me.

When I received the sheet, all my translation was full of corrections and notes. I was almost unable to hear what their manager was telling me. Her words that a candidate’s test translation rarely contained so little corrections and all that I needed was to improve the style, appeared to be a trick. Anyhow, I did not want either to argue with the proofreader or deny the corrections. That did not undermine my self-esteem either. I went ahead and was eager to make progress.

So, I can understand it is unpleasant to receive a negative feedback. When I have to communicate a negative message to a translator, I try to be reasonable and polite. Nevertheless, most translators feel aggravated and sometimes are even aggressive. Why? Like any human being, I can be wrong.  And this can be proved.

At the same time, every translator would agree that when we look at our own translations made three, five or  a dozen years ago, we have to admit that now we would have translated it otherwise. All is in a state of flux, nothing is the same. Our skills, experience and competence are continuously expanding. There is always an expert who would rightfully correct the text of mine or yours. Let us remember this. Let us be open to learning something new from our colleagues.


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