On Ringing in the New Year and Moving Forward

Goodbye MartyAll entities move and nothing remains still.

– Heraclitus

On July 24th, I published a post explaining this blog’s long silence and announcing my intention to keep the blog going. Then I never published another post again. A once active and popular blog, what characterized Translator’s Digest throughout 2017 was silence. “Did she run out of things to write?” you might wonder. Not at all. Quite the contrary. So, why then, did the blog go silent in 2017? Most likely because 2017 was a year of significant change.

Among many other changes, 2017 was the year I went from juggling my career as a lawyer-linguist and my interest in academia as a part-time law professor, to also starting my private law practice.

It was also a year in which my significant other underwent complicated surgery (he’s OK now, thankfully) and one of my boys (for those who don’t know, by “boys” I mean my dogs and my cat) had to have his spleen and part of his intestine removed. Mortality, whether our own or that of our loved ones, has a way of putting things into perspective.

Lastly, 2017 was a year in which I admitted to myself my own disappointment not only with the state of our profession, but also with our inability to rationally discuss the issues and find collective solutions. At some point, I realized this blog was not the habermassian public square it originally intended to be. Being repeatedly referred to as an “influencer” (whatever that means), I realized I was in a unique position to drive change, but a simple little somewhat philosophical blog about translation was not the way to go. So, instead, I became more involved in activities that I believe have a much stronger impact on the state of our profession than standing on my soapbox and yelling idly into the crowd.

Bidding Farewell.

Writing Translator’s Digest for the past few years has been a truly transformative experience for me. On some level, this blog has helped me evolve as a professional and as a human being. Writing and connecting with my readers has forced me to give serious thought to the issues I care about, not just from my point of view, but from theirs. And while this blog accidentally helped put me and my business on the map, it also achieved something far more meaningful: it helped me get to know people I would not otherwise have ever met and forged many great new friendships and professional alliances.

Every time I cross the Atlantic for a conference or fly to the US, I am warmly welcomed by colleagues to whom I already feel a profound connection thanks to this blog. I’ve had promising young translators walk up to me at conferences to tell me how something I wrote resonated with them and seasoned colleagues strike fascinating conversations with me in reaction to particular posts. There are colleagues I deeply admire and respect who are now my friends because somehow this blog connected us; and I’ve gotten to know and learn from some of the best and brightest people in our field. This blog, and every single one of my readers, will always be dear to my heart. I will be forever grateful to everyone who ever took the time to reach out to me on the count of one of my posts. Because of that, even though I won’t be publishing new posts here, I will keep the old ones online. You will still be able to read them and leave comments (which I intend to read and reply to). But the time has come for me to move forward… and hopefully some of you might even move forward with me.

And with that, Pablo, Marty and I bid you farewell, dear reader, and wish you all the best in 2018.

 

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On the unvirtuousness of tolerance and moral value of respect

martin tricosy

Far best is he who knows all things himself;

Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;

But he who neither knows, or lays to heart

Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.

Hesiod

A very important debate in moral philosophy is that of intrinsic virtues (or, interchangeably, “goods”). In Western thought, the notion of intrinsic virtues dates back to Plato. As Aristotle wrote in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics while attempting to unravel the nature of Good, “[…] the Platonists have not been speaking about all goods, […] the goods [which] are pursued and loved for themselves are called good by reference to a single Form, while those which tend to produce or to preserve those somehow or to prevent their contraries are called so by reference to these, and in the secondary sense. Clearly, then, goods must be spoken of in two ways, and some must be good in themselves, the others by reason of these.” This debate between Aristotle and his mentor sparked a long tradition of attempting to classify virtues (or goods) as either intrinsic or instrumental, where the latter simply advance the former.

When I was in law school, Professor Martin Farrell, one of the most distinguished minds in legal and moral philosophy in the country, taught us a hack for differentiating between intrinsic and instrumental virtues. Farrell proposed parting from the good you are trying to classify and asking yourself why. If the question makes sense, the virtue is instrumental. If the question does not make sense, it is intrinsic.

Imagine the good in question were happiness, does it make sense to ask “why do you want to be happy?” Of course, it does not. Happiness, therefore, is intrinsic. Now imagine the good in question were education. Does it make sense to ask “why do you want an education (instead of, say, a job)?” Of course, it does. One may want an education for many different reasons from “having a better future” to “using my knowledge to help others” and pretty much anything else in between. Conversely, one may have no interest in getting an education at all and simply choose to exercise the right to design your own life plan without exercising the right to an education; thus it follows that education is an instrumental good that will help further whatever virtue we are ultimately trying to achieve with that education, regardless of whether our inner motivations are purely personal and perhaps even self-interested or collective and aimed at benefiting society as a whole. (Needless to say, in this example we are assuming the moral agent is not being deprived of an education in any way and that the subject is freely exercising a choice.)

But let us not be fooled, claims Farrell, some alleged goods are neither intrinsic nor instrumental; their moral value depends on how we use them. Take loyalty as an example. We intuitively believe loyalty is a virtue. Some will argue that it is an intrinsic good. We may be tempted to think loyalty is an intrinsic good when we think about loyalty to our family, our community, or other things we hold dear. But what of loyalty to Hitler? What of loyalty to a gang? What of loyalty to a drug cartel? Loyalty can be good or bad depending on the object of our loyalty, thus loyalty is not a good at all, it is a way in which we relate to goods. The same can be said about perseverance. It is one thing to persevere in the quest for finding the cure for polio, but an entirely different thing to persevere in the genocide of Jews, Roma and other ethnic minorities.

This philosophical exercise helps us put virtues in perspective. One such “virtue” is tolerance. While one could argue that tolerance is indeed a virtue, I argue that it is not. Allow me to explain.

Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as follows:

  1. capacity to endure pain or hardship: endurancefortitudestamina
  2. a:  sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own b:  the act of allowing something:  toleration
  3. the allowable deviation from a standard; especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece
  4. a(1):  the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (such as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure developed a tolerance to painkillersalso:  the immunological state marked by unresponsiveness to a specific antigen (2):  relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor b:  the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that may lawfully remain on or in food

For the purpose of this post, only definitions 1 and 2 are relevant. Let’s take a look at number one. While one could imagine the capacity to endure pain or hardship is a virtue, is it still a virtue if that pain or hardship is being endured to advance an unjust cause? It’s not difficult to think of situations in which soldiers, for example, endure pain and hardship, and not necessarily in the name of freedom or justice or any other virtue a healthy society should strive to advance. Now let’s take a look at definition number two, which tells us that tolerance is “indulgence” for (i.e. giving free rein to) ideas or beliefs that conflict with ours; as if freedom to have conflicting views were really ours to give in the first place. In view of these definitions, tolerance seems to have no intrinsic or instrumental value whatsoever. Instead, its worth depends solely on what is being tolerated and why. Like loyalty and perseverance, tolerance is a way in which we relate to virtues, be them instrumental or intrinsic.

What is a virtue, however, is respect. While it may not be clear whether it’s instrumental or intrinsic, I will argue it is the former. The question of why I should respect another human being can often be a legitimate question and it’s at the core of our Criminal Law Systems. Why should I respect someone who is rude to me? Why should I respect someone who hurt me? Why should I respect someone who does not appear to be my intellectual equal? Why should I respect someone whose actions I find offensive or perhaps even abhorrent? Why should I respect someone who seems unworthy of my respect for (insert subjective reason of choice here)? In other words, why should respect someone who deem unworthy of respect? (When you extrapolate these questions to the legal plane, they take forms like “why should States give humane treatment to criminals?”).

While asking such questions may not speak well of us from the point of view of those standing on a moral high-horse, these questions are legitimate because they touch on a core question we’ve been asking ourselves since the beginning of time: What makes us human? Respecting another human being, even one that has harmed us, one that professes a religion with which we disagree, one that seems unintelligent or “animal-like,” even one whose mere existence is threatening, is essential to advancing an intrinsic moral value that benefits us all as a species: human dignity.

It does not make sense to ask why someone would want dignity. Asking “what will you do with your dignity?” is like asking “what will you do with your life.” You may disagree with what a person does with her life, but that does not give you the right to kill her. Similarly, you may disagree with what a dignified human being is, but that does not give you the right to rob a person of her dignity, to treat her with disrespect, to humiliate or belittle her, or to otherwise deprive her of her humanity. Too much of this is going on in the world and look at where it’s gotten us. Too much of this is going on in our profession. And, honestly, too much of this is going on online when translators discuss the issues that matter to them.

Every time we treat another human being with disrespect because we disagree with their views or the way they live their lives, or even the way they exercise our beautiful profession, we are attacking them on an intrinsic human level.

In disrespecting others, we are ultimately also hurting ourselves. When we fail to communicate our ideas rationally, to listen to others and allow their views to challenge or strengthen our own, we fail as human beings. We fail to exercise the one distinctly human trait that is at the heart of our moral, social, and legal systems: our moral agency anchored in our capacity for empathy and rational thought. Let us not allow the distance and apparent anonymity of social media turn us all into Plato’s featherless bipeds who have forgotten what it means to be human.

On the OMT Conference

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“Have you noticed that translators don’t read for pleasure?” asked a smiley blonde woman (who later turned out to be the owner of a notoriously bad-paying translation agency) at a translation conference not so long ago. No, I haven’t noticed, actually. But maybe that’s just me.

When I was in the fifth grade, our teacher asked us to make a list of all the books we’d ever read. My list was so long she actually accused me of lying in front of my whole class. “You’re already an A student, Paula. You don’t have to lie to impress anyone,” she said. It wouldn’t be the first time I went home crying, I was after all a huge nerd. But it was only one of two times my parents intervened in my defense by talking to my teacher about how many hours I would spend reading every day after school (when I wasn’t collecting and classifying bugs with my friend Alvin).

Books have the power to elevate the philosophical wonder of human existence to new heights. In our everyday lives, we are who we are. Nothing more. Nothing less. I’m Paula, a random person experiencing existence in a vast continuum that is beyond my comprehension. I’m also Paula, the translator. Paula, the silly person who likes bugs, but not spiders. Paula, the professor. Paula, my mother’s daughter. Paula, the blogger. All these labels say nothing and everything about me at the same time. But sometimes, I’m Paula, the anonymous reader; and someone somewhere in time and space reached out to me through their writing.

In that quasi magical moment when I read what they wrote, when I loved or hated their writing, when I was inspired or frightened by it, when I thought I was reading a load of BS or felt the author pierce my soul, in that second, we were connected. Reading is, to me, the rawest form of genuine communication with that “other” who is or was as real as I am, but has been reduced to words on a piece of paper and at the same time transformed into whatever my mind makes of those words.

Reading is simultaneously as empowering as it is humbling, like looking up at the stars or contemplating a mountain. It shows us that our deepest thoughts and feelings have been felt and thought millions of times before and will be felt and thought millions of times again. It reminds us there’s so much more to the human experience than just mere survival; that our individual lives, though unique, are subject to the same endless cycles as those of everyone else; that being human means being mortal, living with wonder, and perhaps dying with regrets; that our hearts will be broken; that our faith will be tested and sometimes even shattered; that our questions will go unanswered; that we are all part of this huge mess called “life” and nobody really understands it, but we all have strong opinions about it, some of which are frozen in time in the form of books.

As you can see, I like books. So when I was invited to the Guadalajara Book Fair (FIL) to participate in a panel discussion for translators and publishers, I was thrilled. When I was then asked to also submit a proposal for the OMT Conference, which actually takes place at the book fair, I was even more delighted! Now, almost two months later, I still think the OMT Conference was the best translation conference in 2016.

At the conference, my friend Mercedes Guhl received a special recognition for her hard work and dedication to the conference and to the Organization itself. It’s always nice to see someone you care about and admire receive the recognition they deserve for their overall awesomeness. I was happy to see Mercedes accept her special recognition with her characteristic combination of grace and genuine humility. I’d like to see other organizations to which she’s made equally significant contributions follow suit one day (hint hint, ATA).

I also had the honor of participating in two panel discussions. In the first panel, moderated by Mercedes Guhl, Tony Rosado, Helen Eby and I discussed translation and blogging. Tony’s is perhaps one of the most influential blogs on Interpretation and Helen actually runs several excellent blogs including, among others, the Saavy Newcomer and Cuatro Mosqueteras.

In the second panel, moderated by the brilliant English and Spanish to French translator and journalist Catherine Pizani, I had the chance to discuss best practices between authors, publishers and translators alongside Lisa Carter, Stacey McKenna (both from Intralingo), and English to Spanish literary translator Patricia Oliver.

My mind was blown away by some of the sessions, which were intelligently organized by topic into what appeared to be groups of 2 to 3 thematically linked modules. So, for example, one three-session module analyzed translation as follows: translation as communication, translation as reading, translation as writing. Other modules were translation and academia, translation and technology, translation from regional points of view, etc. There was not a single session in which the words being spoken were not well worth my time. From Francisco Navarro’s opening speech to Marta Stelmaszak-Rosa’s closing address I was captivated. I knew I was in a place where words mattered; books mattered; language mattered; translation mattered; our profession mattered. At a time when it seems our profession is drowning in attempts to deintellectualize, commoditize and deprofessionalize what we do, the OMT Conference was a breath of fresh air.

My Take on ATA57

Atrium as seen from the 15th floor.

Atrium as seen from the 15th floor.

The ATA Conference ended yesterday and tonight is my last night in San Francisco. Tomorrow, I start my road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, where Pablo and I will spend a few nights in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Santa Monica before heading home to Buenos Aires and diving right back in to our usual routines. So, after planning for the conference for weeks, finding someone to take care of Gizmo and the boys (and by “the boys” I mean our dogs) while we’re away, and flying over 10 thousand kilometers (6200 miles, give or take), it’s time to evaluate whether or not it was worth it. Here’s my take:

1) Organization: ATA conferences are famous for being well-oiled machines and ATA57 was not an exception. The whole thing ran like clockwork. William, the AV technician in my first session, was the most helpful person on the planet and I really felt at ease knowing he was taking care of all things techy. The second session was a different story. The AV technician showed up after my session had already started and thought it would be a good idea to interrupt the session. But he was still very helpful in setting up my mic.

2) Venue: I loved the hotel. I got a business pack that included breakfast (instead of the conference breakfast), the newspaper delivered to my room every morning, and a bottle of water every night. I love being pampered, so, naturally, I was very happy with my business pack. In addition, the hotel had a breathtaking atrium that made me feel like I was in an ancient Roman dwelling but with all the comforts of modern day life.

3) Dinners/Lunches: Unlike European conferences, dinners and lunches are not included in the ATA conference. However, many divisions organize special activities at lunch and dinner time. I was finally able to make it to a Spanish division dinner and now I know why they are so famous! We ate delicious Japanese food at a restaurant on Pier 39; and, as chance would have it, I ended up sitting next to not one but three other people from Buenos Aires. The division also organized a raffle and I’ve never seen so many gifts given away, including everything from chocolates to books to a scholarship.

4) Networking opportunities: The conference itself is one giant networking opportunity. Just being there resulted in several new business contacts and two exciting new projects that I’ll be blogging about as soon as they are “officially confirmed.”

5) Sessions: All the sessions I went to were interesting and informative. But there were a couple of sessions that were absolutely brilliant! And if you’ve read my blog before, you know “brilliant” is not a word I throw around lightly.

Even though I’m not a literary translator, I was particularly impressed with Daniel Hahn’s session on literary translation. That session simply blew my mind; but at the same time, listening to Daniel made me grateful I’m a legal translator and don’t have to worry about things like rhythm and rhyme.

I also loved Chris Durban’s session on strategic issues pertaining to translation. As usual, Chris challenged us to leave our comfort zones and strive to do better on several levels from how we run our business to how we develop our translation and writing skills.

I also loved both of “adorkable” Amanda Williams’ sessions. Her session on international trade was fascinating. I had no idea how much work goes into shipping things from one country to another or what an interesting area of opportunity it is for translators.

All in all, the conference was well worth it. But the icing on the cake was my bagful of Smarties from Corinne McKay, proving that our President-Elect is a woman of her word.

Smarties

Smarties

On Narratives

narratives-2

One of the reasons this blog went silent for so long, as explained in a previous post, was that I felt overwhelmed by the anti-intellectualism in today’s dominant “translation industry” narrative, but another (closely related) reason was the overall lack of genuine informed debate about the state of our profession. It seems one is forced to accept one of two leading narratives: 1) In the translation industry, if one wishes to survive, perhaps one must lower one’s rates and quality standards (the latter was actually suggested by a speaker at a conference I recently attended), or 2) we are all helpless victims of evil overlords who are trying to reduce translators to machine-post cogs. You either embrace change or you are part of the problem. While both narratives appear convincing in their own unique ways, they both seem to have a long way to go in terms of verifiable facts and methodologically solid research to support their claims. Advocates on either side sometimes confuse their opinions, personal experiences, and personal interpretations of significant events with actual facts.

In the industry-oriented “adapt or die” narrative you either buy in or you will be left behind. You have no choice but to embrace the status quo or you will not survive the inevitable new trend. Thus, the only path is the path of acceptance. Meanwhile, in the “evil overlord” narrative you either mix business with politics and join the revolution or there will be no profession left for you to practice. Thus, the only path is the path of resistance. Either way, you’re caught in a false dichotomy between two opposing worldviews that have little or no independent, peer reviewed, empirical evidence to fall back on. In other words, they both require a leap of faith.

On the one hand, the adapt or die narrative is both morally and intellectually neutral, failing to critically assess its own basic claims. It questions nothing. It simply postulates that a) this is how it is; b) because it is how it is, it need not be questioned (or what’s worst, because it is how it is, it is how it ought to be [Hume would have a field day with this one!]); c) let’s just make the best of it and see if we can profit from it somehow. Though adapt or die may seem like common sense in a changing world, this view is problematic. First, because it fails to provide solid evidence of its claims. Second, because it ignores the intellectual aspect of the economic activity we call “translation,” confusing the fact that it is an economic activity with the fantasy that all it is is an economic activity. Thus, it focuses solely on how to do business in a changing world with little or no regard for anything else, especially not mastery or skill. Finally, it forgets that human beings are rational animals and that with rationality comes moral agency and with agency comes self-determination. The adapt or die narrative expects us to simply conform without question; and in doing so, it denies us our agency.

On the other hand, the evil overlord narrative presents itself as being both morally and intellectually superior. And, I’ve got to hand it to them, they have far better writers! But it parts from a claim that is both alienating and self-destructive at the same time: the problem is political (some go as far as to claim the problem is capitalism). It references notions of fairness, justice, and wealth distribution and immediately associates these concepts with the basic tenets of the political left. Thus, if individuals share a certain political inclination, this narrative is naturally appealing to them. But if they don’t share that political inclination, even if they can relate to the narrative’s appeal to our basic human decency and empathy, potential supporters from other parts of the political spectrum are immediately alienated. All issues are viewed through the lens of a particular political worldview; and, therefore, all proposed collective solutions call for political consensus as well. In addition, because this view is often presented behind a veil of helpless philosophical determinism (which I’ve addressed in a different post), it too denies us our agency.

Like many other people, I have no inclination to embrace either narrative. But that does not mean I’m turning a blind eye, or “relegating everyone else to the margins” as I move upmarket. And I know I’m not alone. While I admit that I cringed when I heard the above mentioned adapt or die advocate tell a roomful of professional translators that this is just the direction translation is headed and even premium market translators won’t be able to charge premium rates forever, I also cringed when I read this call to “resist the efforts of the industry to coopt us into cogs or atomize us into fragments” and to “fight collectively for a more equitable distribution of respect and of profit.” Not that I have anything against an equitable distribution of respect; but wealth distribution is a different question, a political question. So when the author suggests that ensuring a better tomorrow “means ‘political’ analysis of the practices and ideologies promoted by such organizations as TAUS, the ATA, and others,” I can’t help but wonder why anyone who doesn’t want to be atomized into fragments would want to further the divide by bringing politics to the table.

Though I admire the writing and argumentation skills of the person who wrote the paper I quoted in the previous paragraph, I can’t help but see a logical gap between the author’s ethical and political analysis. The future of translation cannot be contingent upon our embracing and collectively supporting politically charged views from any part of the spectrum. What we are facing is an ethical challenge; and political agreement is not a prerequisite for advancing on an ethical plane. Of course, one could argue that I am trying to draw an artificial line between politics and ethics; but the fact that all political beliefs stand on moral foundations (or at least claim to do so) does not mean that ethics and politics are one in the same. It is possible to differ politically, while still sharing the same moral values. We may, for example, all agree that “dignity” is a superior moral value, we may agree on which business practices are consistent with this value or how we should draft a professional Code of Ethics with dignity at its core, while still disagreeing on which political policies advance human dignity in our country or even which political model our government should adopt. These are simply different questions. Thus, if we need to appeal to anything right now, it’s neither to industry neutrality nor to the politicization of the business world. First, we need solid research to fully comprehend what’s going on. Without information we’re are all just wading through the darkness. Second, once we have that information, we need to consolidate our Codes of Ethics and basic business practices; and that means engaging, not alienating, every key stakeholder from freelancers to multinational corporations to professional associations to work together.

My readers may note that I left out a third narrative, the “move upmarket” narrative. The “move upmarket” narrative is a minority view that is equally at odds with both the adapt or die narrative and with the evil overlords narrative. The reason it was left out is that minority views exceed the scope of this post. I will admit, for the sake of intellectual honesty, that of all the narratives out there, the move upmarket narrative makes the most sense to me, despite its First World centrism. But that’s probably a topic for an entirely different post.

Translation Contracts Survey

contract

Dear Readers,

I’ve created a survey for gathering information about translation contracts and business practices from the point of view of translators. What I’m basically trying to figure out is how translators view contracts, how many have their own T&Cs, and which contract clauses are deal breakers for translators working with intermediaries (in the broadest possible sense of the word).

If you’d like to complete the survey, please click here. All findings from this survey will be shared on this blog and in my two upcoming presentations at the ATA Annual Conference in San Francisco this November. For more information, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail: paula(at)translatinglawyers(dot)com.

Your input is greatly appreciated.

Best,

Paula Arturo

On translation and anti-intellectualism

intellectual-marty

Chandler: “You didn’t read Lord of the Rings in high school?”

Joey: “No, I had sex in high school.”

…and the audience laughed.

I get why it’s a good comeback. But I also get why that, in itself, is a problem.

Don’t take me wrong, Friends was one of my favorite shows in the mid to late nineties. Back then I was a teenager with a lot to learn about life, yet even then I knew (at least intuitively) that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world as Friends portrayed it (starting with its lack of ethnic diversity). I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I came across this thought provoking post by David Hopkins where he makes a compelling case against Friends and what the show’s success says about us as viewers. While the initial premise that a single American sitcom triggered the downfall of western civilization is a gross oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon (which is obviously not meant to be taken literally), Mr. Hopkins’ description and critique of American anti-intellectualism is not only spot on, but easily applicable to other cultures and walks of life.

When a fellow university professor found out the Ethics course I teach involves actually reading Plato, he looked perplexed and asked “why not make them read more modern authors like Putnam?” (as if modern authors and classics were mutually exclusive). “Can’t my students appreciate both Plato and Putnam?” “Sure, but can they really understand the classics?”

There it was, the assumption I feared most coming from a fellow professor: that our students are too ignorant to fully grasp complex philosophical works. And, yes, as education continues to decline, every batch of new students has a harder time understanding these works than the last. Yes, I often find myself teaching my students things they should have learned in high school. Yes, at first they are reluctant to read because reading is no longer cultivated in school or at home. And, yes, it terrifies me because, as a law professor, I am educating the next generation of legal and political leaders. The fate of my country is in the hands of these young men and women in my class who have been raised in a culture that embraces harsh anti-intellectualism. And, yes, we are indeed “at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.”

What’s even scarier to me, as someone who is also a professional translator, is seeing this anti-intellectualism invade a profession that was once intellectual par excellence. This is, in part, what caused my long silence and retreat from the online world. While attending various translation conferences in Europe a while back, the anti-intellectual tendency in translation hit me like a ton of bricks and it’s taken me months to recover.

It wasn’t the insta-gurus using scare tactics to get people to buy their products or the presentation that was so poorly researched it was hijacked by the audience. In fact, it wasn’t even the 50-minutes of social torture where I politely listened to a fellow translator blab on incessantly about why she not only evades taxes, but also uses her tax evasion as a “clever marketing strategy.” No, it wasn’t any of that. What terrified me in Europe was the mortifying unquestioning acceptance of what is becoming a dominant narrative that reeks of BS. It was that moment when a self-proclaimed big fish of some sort jokingly compared those of us who don’t feel threatened by “changes in the translation industry” to ostriches hiding our heads in the sand… and the audience laughed.

But here’s the thing with the ethics of humor as illustrated in this brilliant article by sinologist, philosopher, and editor of Philosophy Now, Anja Steinbauer:

“At first glance it seems that there is little work for ethicists to do. It is great to laugh: Humour can help you deal with the often inevitable awfulness of life.[…]

[However, t]he very definition of humour has been associated with a moral issue. Next to Immanuel Kant’s incongruity theory, the idea that things are funny when something doesn’t quite fit, and Freud’s relief theory, stating that humour is a release of tension mechanism, the so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, it has been so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson. Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own, formerly.” If he is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. […]

I would suggest that the two most serious problems […] are these: Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements.” (Emphasis added.)

I’m not advocating against laughter and humor. But I do think we need to pay more critical attention to what is being said, more or less jokingly, about the future of translation and about those of us who reject the two equally harmful dominant narratives, which I will be discussing in my next post.
—–

On a lighter note, I would like to thank my friends Mercedes and Ana for encouraging me to come out of my shell and start blogging again. Thank you both for reconnecting me with something I love.

2016 European Tour: My take on BP16 in Prague and Wordfast Forward in Nice

I know this blog has been silent for quite some time and the reason for that is everything leading up to and following a three week trip to Europe where I spoke at two different conferences: the Business Practices Conference (BP16) and the Wordfast Forward Conference.

One of the reasons I get so excited about conferences in general is that they give me a chance to treat myself to some time off my regular routine, to go somewhere I’ve never been before, and to meet new people. Because I live in the most southernmost country of the American continent, it’s not always easy to just pick up and go. For those of us in the developing world, going overseas is quite an investment. Currency exchange rates combined with tax and other government restrictions don’t help much either. So going to Europe sets you back several tens of thousands in your local currency. Naturally then, when looking back, one of the first questions I ask myself is whether or not it was actually worth the investment. So here’s my evaluation of each event.

BP16 in Franz Kafka’s Native Prague:

Kafka

At BP16, I attended Chris Durban’s masterclass on building high-end client portfolios; and that, in itself, made the trip worth it. By the end of the masterclass, I was able to identify several areas of my business that need improvement; develop a strategy for improving them; and identify a market niche I had been neglecting simply because I did not know how to use my connections and competitive advantage in that niche. Now I do. I will report on the actual results at the end of the year.

As far as the rest of the conference, here’s my take:

1) Organization: A++. The conference was so well put together it’s hard to believe it’s an independent event.

2) Venue: A+. I really liked the hotel. My room was very comfortable, with all the essentials and then some. Hotel staff was always friendly and helpful. The hotel was located right by a tram stop and subway station; so after the conference, I was able to quickly get to all the sights I wanted to see in Prague.

3) Dinners: Another A+. I really enjoyed all conference dinners. The food was great. The restaurants were lovely. The service was wonderful. There was a little mishap with one of the restaurants one night and we ended up eating outside on a beautiful terrace with the most magnificent view of the Vltava River and Charles Bridge. I’m sure you can appreciate why I have no complaints, despite that little mishap.

4) Tote bag and goodies: A+: I really liked the tote bag design. Inside the bag I found a practical little notepad, candy, and a complimentary copy of 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know.

5) The people: A+++. I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: Translators rock! One of the reasons why I love translation conferences is because I get to hang out with other translators, and translators are great people. At the conference, I got the chance to meet many of my favorite online people in real life, and that to me was priceless!

6) Sessions: B+. When it comes to content, I’m picky and demanding. In his blog, Simon Berrill argues that we need to start picking out the e-wheat from the cyberchaff when choosing what to read online. I think Simon’s idea applies to translation conference sessions as well. So, in addition to Chris Durban’s masterclass, here’s the wheat:

* Cécile Charlier’s session on using EUR-Lex. I left early because I wanted to check out another session that was scheduled in the same timeframe, but I thought it was a good introduction for inexperienced users.

* Jonathan Downie on public speaking for translators. If you’re going to speak about how to speak in public, then you have to be a great public speaker; and Jonathan is, indeed, a great public speaker. I enjoyed his presentation a lot.

* Konstantin Kisin’s “opening talk show.” Konstantin was a wonderful host and moderator, with an extraordinary capacity for keeping both the audience as well as panelists on topic. Plus, his witty and intelligent sense of humor kept everyone engaged throughout both sessions.

I was in one of the panels alongside Erik Hansson, creator of TTNS, and “life coach” Christelle Mainagn. Finally meeting Erik in person after “e-knowing” him for so long was wonderful. I rather enjoy how Erik’s group brings humor to serious discussions affecting our profession. The other panel consisted of Chris Durban, who needs no introduction, mad patent translator Steve Vitek, and efficiency expert Gaby Nagy.

I regretted missing Tiago Neto’s session on voice recognition, Alison Hughes’ session on managing your CPD and marketing budget, Joy Philiphs’ session on MemoQ (though, in all fairness, I’m not a MemoQ user), and Kyle Wohlmut and Ellen Singer’s joint session on idiomatic expressions. I heard wonderful things about those and wish I hadn’t missed them.

Going back to my initial question: Yes, it was worth it! I would probably go to another BP conference if I had other reasons to travel or conferences to attend in Europe around the same time. This conference was only two weeks apart from Wordfast Forward, and being able to go to both events with one single trip over the Atlantic was a plus for me this time around.

Wordfast Forward in France’s Sunny Cote d’Azur

Marty in Nice

The second conference was Wordfast Forward. I am a Wordfast user, as were all other attendees, which is how I found out about the conference. Because we were all Wordfast users already, it was obviously not a sales conference, which added a lot of value to each session. There was no blatant publicity, nobody using their sessions to try to sell anyone anything, and no chaff. Now, I know what some of my readers might be thinking, “how much are they paying her to say that?” Not a dime, actually. Other than using their software, I am not affiliated with Wordfast in any way. So this is my opinion as an attendee/speaker with no conflicts of interest. And, as such, I can honestly say that Wordfast Forward was the best conference I attended since ATA56.

1) Organization: A. The conference was well-organized, despite a ten-minute delay in all sessions due to issues that seemed to be beyond the organizer’s control.

2) Venue: B. The hotel had the most amazing view with a nice reception/conference area. It was conveniently located near the Port of Nice. Hotel staff was nice and friendly. But… the rooms were far too austere and lacked basic amenities, such as blow dryers. My shower (which didn’t have a soap dish or shampoo rack) was so tiny that every time I reached for anything, I’d accidently shut off the hot water. It’s not the kind of hotel I usually choose when I travel, but it was OK enough not to ruin the whole conference experience.

3) Dinners/lunches: A. I really enjoyed all lunches and dinner parties, especially the gala dinner. I absolutely loved the food at the Plaza Hotel’s restaurant. However, throughout most social events, I felt bad for vegans, vegetarians, and people with other special food needs. They had to wait excessively long to be served, despite the fact that the restaurants in question had been dully warned by the conference organizers about these guests’ special needs.

4) Tote bag and goodies: not applicable. We didn’t get actual tote bags, but we did get some nice flip-flops, a Wordfast pen, and a couple of other souvenirs.

5) The people: A+++. Unlike BP16 where I knew many people online before the conference, I didn’t know anyone at Wordfast Forward. However, I met the most amazing people there and by the end of the conference, I felt like I had known some of them my entire life.

6) Sessions: A+++. As I mentioned before, I’m picky and demanding when it comes to sessions. Wordfast Forward was all wheat, no chaff. I learned something new at every single session. As far as content, which is what conferences really should be about, it was the absolute best. Even the session about Machine Translation had an intelligent and responsible approach to the topic. There were several sessions in which we had the chance to talk directly to the developers and tell them what we need/expect from their software. In turn, they did an excellent job at telling us about what features they’re currently developing and how to use the existing ones more effectively.

This is a conference I intend to attend at least every other year or so to stay updated, especially if they organize advanced workshops for developing specific skills.
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All in all, my 2016 European Tour was very productive. I learned new things, visited three of the most beautiful cities in Europe (including a week in Rome in-between conferences), expanded my network of colleagues, and even made a couple of new friends. I came back motivated and eager to put all the things I learned into practice to keep growing and improving my business.

On Direct Clients and Overcoming Geographical Disadvantages

Marty and map

Last month, I published a post on earning six-figures as a translator and accidentally sparked several somewhat heated yet fascinating debates on several business aspects of translation. One of the lingering questions in some of the places where my post was discussed was whether or not geography is a handicap when going after direct clients.

We are always told that one of the secrets to making direct clients is going where they are, and the reasoning behind that is pretty sound. Though not specific to translation, some of the best arguments in favor of location as a competitive strategy can be found in Michal E. Porter’s paper in Harvard Business Review’s HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy (including featured article “What Is Strategy?” by Michael E. Porter) and expanded in Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.

When applied to translation, “going where your clients are” is sometimes interpreted as meaning “relocate to your source country,” another sound piece of advice that is very hard to refute (when based on serious research). But, let’s be totally honest, relocating to your source country is not a realistic option for everyone. This is so for various reasons, including Visas or family/personal commitments. This may be hard to believe, but Visas are not so easy to come by these days. And consulates don’t always deem “moving to your source country to up your game as a freelancer translator” as a genuine reason for granting legal entry to foreigners. The bastards! In addition, some people are unwilling or unable to move their entire families overseas to have a better shot at reaching direct clients. Should they give up? Of course not! So what to do when you’re “stuck” in your target country?

One thing translators do is rely on intermediaries who actually have that geographical advantage. While many are quick to demonize such intermediaries, I personally have no problem with agencies. My problem is with bottom feeders; and believing that all agencies are bottom feeders is just as naïve as believing that bidding wars are in the best interest of translators. In the same vein, not all translators have an entrepreneurial side. Some translators prefer to focus only on translating and let other people worry about all the marketing, client searching, and project management. Again, I don’t see a problem with that, either. We’re all wired differently, we have different talents, interests, and priorities. So if you’re a translator who enjoys working for intermediaries and you’re happy and making a good and honest living, who am I to judge?

For the time being, I’m still combining both agencies and direct clients. I like working with agencies that fit two simple (totally subjective) criteria: i. the people behind the company are likable, and ii. they pay fair rates. However, I also like working for direct clients. I have an outgoing personality with an entrepreneurial spirit. So, I genuinely enjoy the business side of things and love the thrill of the hunt. I enjoy negotiating and closing successful deals with new or returning clients. It’s just how I am. It’s not better or worse than translators who enjoy working solely for agencies, just different.

However, entrepreneurial though I am, I’m also a realist. I’m well aware of the competitive disadvantage of living so far away from my clients and, as if that wasn’t enough, living in the developing part of the world where we often deal with things like this: “I contacted someone in Latin America because you guys are supposed to be cheaper,” true story, someone actually said this to me once! Or, my favorite, “If I wanted to pay American prices, I’d hire an American.” That one was pretty funny, considering the target readership was Argentina. So, yes, we have it rough sometimes and we can’t (or simply don’t want to) relocate, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed.

In some market niches, prospects come to where you are. In my post about how I built my client base without using translation portals, I mentioned some of the ways in which my university contacts have resulted in well paid work. For those who don’t know, I’m also a part-time university Professor of Law. The numerous academic activities held by different universities in Buenos Aires involve receiving visitors and delegations from all over the world almost constantly throughout the academic year. Many of these activities are even free and have resulted in a simple and easy way for me to meet foreign clients directly, without leaving Buenos Aires.

So, regardless of whether you cater to high profile lawyers and scholars or to IT gurus, it is possible that your city hosts international events that are roaming with interesting prospects. If you can’t leave the country to go them, maybe you can find out if they are coming to you. Needless to say, this will not make up for a total lack of geographical proximity, but combined with other strategies, at least it’s a start. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (poor cat!), and this one sometimes gets overlooked.

On Being the Underdog and Earning Six-Figures as a Translator

Underdog

I recently finished re-reading Chris Durban’s book, The Prosperous Translator, and found myself questioning a lot of what I do and how I do it. That’s the great thing about good books. No matter how many times you read them, you always learn something new. This time, what appealed to me the most was the part where she questions why translators are afraid to talk about money. Meanwhile, a few nights ago, while checking out some older posts in Corinne McKay’s blog, I came across a post about translators with six-figure incomes, and one of the things Corinne pointed out is that these translators tend to talk about money quite a bit.

All this, while I was still processing some of the comments on a couple of related posts about premium translation markets in Kevin Hendzel’s blog (here and here). The posts themselves are must-reads, but something else that really caught my attention was a comment by someone who believed high incomes are unattainable for those of us who live in the developing world. I live in the developing world and I hear this all the time from my fellow South Americans. We’re too far. We can’t compete. We don’t have access to direct clients. They only look to Latin America when they want low prices… If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard “I can’t because Latin America,” I wouldn’t be here in front of my computer writing this post. I’d be living it up at some fancy beach resort in Bora Bora while sipping South Pacific smoothies through a curly straw and watching the sun set over the ocean as compounded interests turn my millions into billions.

I was raised in one of those homes where you simply do not discuss money, politics, or religion. My mother would rather swallow a battery than talk about money and my father could not stand braggers or show-offs, so he never dropped the M-bomb either, lest he’d commit the most Heideggerian of pragmatic inconsistencies. Talking about money is, to many people, just “too bourgeois” and “beneath the educated mind.” But money is one of the many things that stand between us and some of our dreams. We think about money quite a bit: how to make it, how to spend it, how to save it, and if we’re smart, how to invest it. We need money for basic essentials and even more money if we’re not the kind of people who are content with the basics alone. So at the risk of offending all the classy people out there who believe discussing money is rude, I’m going to talk about money in this post, because whether we like it or not, it’s there and it’s an issue for many people.

I don’t claim to be a particularly business savvy person and my beginnings in translation were quite humble. My rookie years were rocky and clumsy at best (almost embarrassingly so). When it comes to newbie mistakes, I could probably write the book (though for now all I’ve written is “the post”). I don’t have any magical formulas and I am in no position to tell anyone how to achieve financial success. However, I know what it feels like to be the underdog and, more importantly, I know what it feels like to rise above all odds, both personal and professional. I am, after all, a Latin American woman; and my rocky and clumsy beginnings in translation were due, in part, to the fact that I had bought into “I can’t because Latin America” plus some form of “I can’t because women in Latin America have it even tougher.” For those who are not familiar with current wealth distribution trends, living in Latin America basically means my piece of the pie is statistically prone to being significantly smaller than that of my counterparts in the developed world and even more so than that of my male counterparts. The odds, apparently, are stacked against me. But here’s the thing about stats and odds: they are just numbers. What matters in life is how you play the cards you are dealt.

So, last year I hit six figures and my numbers are still growing. And though I’m light years behind some of the really big names in translation, a six-figure income is more than enough for a comfortable lifestyle where I live. In addition, my numbers defeat all the odds that were stacked against me. Which brings me to my second point, not only is it possible to make a very decent living as a translator, but it’s also possible to do so while running your operations from Latin America. In all honesty, I cringe every time I hear fellow Latin Americans give in on the count of alleged geographical disadvantage. That’s just baloney! In the internet age, geography is not a handicap!

Hitting the six figure mark was not easy, but good things usually aren’t. I did it by simply charging each new client slightly more than the last one, while also dropping older clients who were not willing to renegotiate. This was a slow transition and it mainly meant changing the types of agencies I was working for from large brokers to higher-paying specialized boutique agencies, while also focusing all my long-term marketing efforts on direct clients, as my ultimate goal was (and still is) to work for direct clients only at premium fees. Of course, I’m not saying everybody should do what I did. I’m just saying this worked for me.

Because money is such a touchy subject, I am well aware of the positive and negative reactions that are likely to be sparked by this post. I know some people will crucify me for my rocky beginnings and unwillingness to condemn all brokers on the count of the bad ones. Others may think the aim of this post is just to brag about my numbers. But those who know me will hopefully read this the way it was intended: as an honest challenge against anyone who has ever said there is no money in translation, especially for those of us who live in the developing world. I never set out to be a business guru and I believe that each person has to write their own story. But if you’re in the place where I was a decade ago, working your little heart out 24/7 for peanuts, watching life happen outside your window, and wondering if bigger and better things are possible, I have two words for you: They are!

If this non-business savvy, human rights-oriented underdog can do it, so can anyone else who’s willing to put in all the extra effort, dedication, training, education, and hard work. So in the spirit of encouraging other Latin Americans to reach for the sky, here’s some bibliography I’ve found particularly helpful:

1) The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban

2) Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations by William Ury

3) Mastering Services Pricing: Designing pricing that works for you and for your clients
by Kevin Doolen (still reading this, but finding it pretty useful so far and very grateful to Rose Newell for recommending it)

4) Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (Collins Business Essentials) by Michal Hammer and James Champy

5) The Culture of Collaboration: Maximizing Time, Talent and Tools to Create Value in the Global Economy by Evan Rosen

Special thanks to my friend Ana Gauz (English to Brazilian Portuguese translator extraordinaire) for her help with this post.