When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill

Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!

There are countless ways to mess up your business, but here is one sure-fire method: just base your decisions on presumptions and disaster is sure to follow. There are various degrees of presumption, of course, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of a few.

An example of the mildest form of presumption is the mistakes you make when you’re learning a new language and confidence skips merrily ahead of skill.

When I had been living in the US for about a year, I was introduced by my friend Peter to someone he had told me about a few times. Casting about for a conversational opening I remembered something about her loving the outdoors and said “Oh right, Peter told me you used to be a yahoo!”* I thought a Yahoo was a kind of Girl Scout, but the awkward beat of silence followed by Peter’s horrified “No I didn’t!!” clued me in that it very definitely was not, so I backpedaled with Olympic speed, although the rest of the details are blurred by the overwhelming mortification of the moment.

Don’t judge me though. I mean come on; if this was a test question asking you to “select the word that is not a boy/girl scout rank” are you telling me that “c” is the one that really stands out?

  1. Webelo
  2. Daisy
  3. Yahoo
  4. Brownie

I think not. Still, innocent mistake or not, I had been presumptuous by thinking I was more fluent in English than I was, and I paid the price.

You’d think I had learned my lesson after that incident, but no. A few years later, my husband and I were visiting one of his great-aunts in Berkeley, and after a while she brought out a stack of old photo albums to show some pictures of her late husband. He apparently belonged to some social group that organized a lot of fun events, and when I saw a picture of men wearing fez hats and robes with a caption referring to one of them as “Imperial Potentate”, I assumed it was a costume party and burst out laughing at the creative name — until I caught the look on great-aunt’s face and had to pull a screeching vocal U-turn along the lines of “HAHAHAhaooooo wow that is so interesting, we don’t have this group in Holland, Shriners you say? yes fascinating…”

I still get sweaty when I think about it. Still though, these bloopers, bad as they are, were committed in the privacy of my own social circle. Professional presumption is a whole different ball game.

Novelists, for example, are paid to imagine, but most of them do a lot of research to get their facts straight. In spite of this, facts fall between the cracks sometimes, when the author presumes there is simply nothing to know about a topic like oh, say, translation, for example.

Michael Connelly, one of my favorite authors, made a rare slip in one of his novels when he had an attorney tell his associate to find some student who had taken Spanish to translate these documents that might be crucial to their case. Oh, good move! I wrote Mr. Connelly a letter in which I pointed out, humorously and graciously, I thought, that he might want to have his character hire a professional translator next time. He has yet to respond or thank me in his next novel or create a translator character and name it after me, which I am still bitter about if you must know. (If you read this, Mr. Connelly, it is not too late!)

Then there was this other novel I started reading recently, in which an interpreter at a trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague not only summarizes the speaker’s words using the “he says that…” form instead of rendering everything verbatim, but also speaks ungrammatical Croatian-sounding (I assume) English rather than idiomatic English — like all highly paid United Nations-level interpreters are trained to do, I’m sure. (Professor teaching an upper-level interpretation course: “And when you speak, always make sure to use the accent and odd grammar you think your client would be using if he or she were to speak English”).

This imaginary interpreter was so patently ridiculous I lost interest in the book right then and there.

In both cases, the presumption is that there is nothing to know about translation or interpretation, ergo nothing to research, and you end up alienating some of your audience.

To be fair, everyone is subject to presumption at times and translators maybe even more than most. In a profession without formal professional requirements, all it really takes is the conviction that you can do it and the gumption to go for it. Ideally this confidence is based on education, training and experience and backed up by high-quality work, but we all know that this is not always true, in which case the confidence is really more of a presumption.

But even legitimate translators are tempted many times a day to make decisions that are presumptuous:

  • It’s not my field but close enough
  • I know that term; I don’t need to look it up
  • This first edit is wrong so this editor doesn’t know what she’s doing; I’m rejecting all her changes
  • I’m in a hurry but I’ve worked with this client many times before; I’ll accept real quick and look at the document later

Every time I presume that there is nothing to learn, nothing to research, nothing to verify, I risk alienating my audience, i.e. my clients.

It’s a fine line; you can’t question every single thing you do or you’ll never get anything done. But I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to listen to that persistent, nagging little voice when it tells me to check something, because 9 times out 10 that will be the exact issue addressed by the editor in her comments. A little bit of OCD goes a long way if you don’t want to end up looking like a yahoo.


* yokel, hillbilly, rube

Marie Brotnov

About Marie Brotnov

I present your medical and legal documents intelligently and convincingly in English. Let me do the hard work to make your eloquence look easy.

10 thoughts on “When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill

  1. “A little bit of OCD goes a long way if you don’t want to end up looking like a yahoo.”
    This is basically what I answer to people who criticize me for my perfectionism – but you said it better 😉 You can never be too sure. Humility may not be fashionable, but it’s definitely useful.

    1. Agreed! Double-checking something only takes a little bit of extra time and can potentially avert disaster, so I’d consider that a great investment 🙂

  2. Fantastic article, Marie! Well worth featuring it on our home page! 🙂 It really does pay off to listen to your inner voice and not jump to conclusions before you’re 100% sure that you’re doing the right thing. Excessive level of confidence is a recipe for disaster.

    1. Thank you Dmitry! I guess the best lessons are the ones we learn the hard way, although I much prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes 😉 So I’m happy to share my missteps if that will help someone else!

  3. Hi Marie, this is so true, especially in our profession. Some time ago, I worked in the localization department of a company, which had this workflow: every English source text was proofread by a freelance English native before being sent for translation. One time, a requestor from another department called me in his office, after I had insisted with the marketing team, that we should change parts of the English copy, based on our internal proofreading. He explained to me, that the text will be published for a non-native audience, and that it was intentionally written in a “not so stylish and grammatically correct” way.

    Even when you’re right, you might be wrong. 🙂

    1. Oh my goodness, I am stunned. Use grammatically incorrect English to help non-native speakers understand English better? That sounds like one of those embarrassing stereotypical scenes from the olden days of colonialism. My example of the interpreter was only fictional, but you prove that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction! I hope you don’t work there anymore, or at least that you don’t have to cross paths with that department too often 😮

    2. Ah, “the customer is always right” bit!

      “It was intentionally written in a “not so stylish and grammatically correct” – what an eloquent way to say “we don’t care about our copy and think that our customers are illiterate”.

      Oh, well. You win some and you lose some.

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