Holy trinities and double whammies

One of the things I was most excited about when I got accepted into a Master’s program called ‘Translation in Theory and Practice’ was not having to dread the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions anymore. The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions is as follows:

  1. How are you?
  2. What do you do/study?
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up? (Rarely phrased this way, but exactly what it boils down to.)

The first question usually has a relatively straight-forward answer, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was in college, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly—which is sort of the point of “small” talk. Pursuing a liberal arts degree in a country that hosts only a handful of liberal arts colleges puts a considerable strain on your ability to converse with people you don’t know all that well but know well enough to, you know, have to converse with them.

When Dutch people ask you what you study, they expect a one-word answer like “psychology” or “law”. College me, however, had to answer that question with “English linguistics and literature oh and film and some psychology,” and then spend the rest of the conversation having to explain how I could possibly be studying several subjects at once and where this magical university that allowed its students to study several subjects at once was located and what else made it different from ‘normal’ universities. All of which would precede the “but… what kind of job can you get with that degree?” knock-out punchline.

But then I got my Bachelor’s degree and moved on to grad school, and the future looked bright. So bright. Okay, so technically the program I’m doing is a specialization of a Master’s in Linguistics, and technically I’m sort of sub-specializing in legal, literary, and multimodal translation, but still. Translation! I would be able to parry all three Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions with one-word answers. How are you – fine; what do you study – translation; what do you want to do when you grow up – translate.

At the next birthday party/family gathering/obligatory chat with a person coming over to see my parents, I would be ready. I would be unstoppable. I would be able to battle my way through the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions competently and efficiently, after which the conversation would be free to move on to infinitely more interesting subjects, such as what was the last movie you saw and who is your favorite author and when was the last time you had a really good pizza. You know, stuff that matters.

My hope was shattered when one of my mother’s friends came over to see her and, at some point, engaged me in aforementioned obligatory chat. The first two answers went down relatively well. I’m fine, thank you, how are you; translation, yes, translation, very interesting, yes; what can I do with that? Well, hold on to your hat—translate.

She stared at me, bug-eyed. “Translate?”


“So after this you can become a translator?”


“But what would you be translating?”


“Okay, but what kinds of texts?”

And with a heavy heart, I abandoned my triumphant one-word answer approach.

(I have since learned that this conversation could have gone less smoothly. For example, people sometimes think I’m studying to become an interpreter. I’m not. People who study translation become translators; people who study interpreting become interpreters.)

The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions remained, and remains to this day, the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions. Fortunately, not having to dread the Questions anymore was only one of the reasons why I was excited about this program. Another reason was that I expected my bilingualism and interest in linguistics, literature, and writing to dovetail perfectly into a love of translating. About this, I was (again, fortunately) right.

If you’re wondering what exactly is so interesting about my current field of study and future line of work, stay tuned for some adventures in linguistic interference, false friendship, and other concepts that arise in the realm where two languages intersect.

Image credit: comic


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