The Humility Factor

Much has been written about what makes entrepreneurs successful, and in recent years, many books have also been written about success factors in the languages industry. We have also done quite a bit of writing about what one should do to succeed in our fantastic industry. Of course, while there are no secrets (which we would gladly share if they existed), there are many factors that contribute to one’s success. There are the basics, such as top-notch language skills and outstanding writing skills for translators, business skills, and a pleasant speaking voice and stamina for interpreters, among hundreds of other factors, both large and small. However, we’ve recently started noticing that not too much has been said about the importance of being humble. Allow us to elaborate.

We think being humble and recognizing one’s limitations and shortcomings can be a significant success factor. It keeps you honest and grounded, and if you are humble enough (and smart enough) to understand that you cannot take on a translation on say, quantum physics, it will serve you well because you won’t deliver a terrible translation. It will also serve you well because hopefully you will be humble enough to recommend a brilliant colleague who happens to have a doctorate in physics from.  The colleague will probably be happy to get the business, and the client should also be happy that you didn’t decide to wing it and instead sent her to the expert. In addition, humility is good because it helps you build a good reputation as an insightful analyst of your skills rather than show-off. We started thinking about this, and turns out that some of the translators and interpreters we admire the most are also the first ones to say that they don’t know something. Now, I don’t think there is much about legal interpreting that our court interpreting heroes Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall do not know, but we really like how they rarely speak in absolute terms and always allow some room for better ideas and other approaches. We have also noticed that the most experienced linguists are the ones who know exactly what they are good at and what they are not, while some newcomers tend to overrate their own abilities, which is a dangerous thing. It’s important to have confidence, but that confidence must be backed up by skills.


Humility has served us well in our years as a court and conference interpreters. Judy gladly confesses that she was initially terrified of the new interpreting territory in court, but that fear and that humility motivated her to acquire vocabulary at a fast pace. It’s not normal not to be humbled by what experienced court interpreters know, and of course you will be a better interpreter five years in than you are on day one. We have been flabbergasted by newcomers who insist that they know everything and that there is nothing they can learn from experienced interpreters (or translators, for that matter). 

These newbies are of course wrong, and going around saying you know everything certainly won’t endear you to your colleagues. Our best advice to newbies and to my students is to be a sponge and to follow around an experienced interpreter if they allow it (be sure to buy lunch!). This endeavor is a bit more difficult on the translation side, but the ATA listservs are a great opportunity to get advice from the best in the business, especially if you are new to translation. However, it’s important to keep one’s ego in in check and eat some humble pie if necessary – for instance, when an experienced colleague disagrees with your own crack at translating a particular sentence. Rather than getting defensive, take this valuable advice as what it is: a gift, and then, 10 years from now, you can pay it forward. However, regardless of how long we have been in the business: we are continuously humbled by all the things our colleagues know and by how much we still have to learn.  We will never know everything, and that’s a great gift for our brains and for our career. 

What do you think, dear colleagues? We'd love to hear your feedback.


3 comments:

EP on October 18, 2014 at 11:27 AM said...

Humility, for sure. But I think the best advice you gave was being a be a sponge - learning from everybody/everything you can. Interesting article.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 20, 2014 at 7:48 PM said...

@EP: Thanks for reading and for commenting as always! Yes, we are huge proponents of being a sponge indeed, and we always learn so much from others!

Viviana Spicer on October 23, 2014 at 11:20 AM said...

It's a tricky balance to find: confidence vs. humilty. You guys explained it quite well!

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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