On Translators and Soapbox Orators

Soapbox Orator

Over 4100 people subscribe to this blog. As the author, I find that number quite humbling. I know that not all 4100 people will read every post I write. When they receive my post in their inbox, many people will simply delete it without opening it, some will let it sit for a few days only to delete it later, while others may choose to unsubscribe if they don’t like what I have to say. But most will read it over the course of the week. Many will share it on social media. Some will leave comments. Others will PM me and start a private conversation and some of those conversations will blossom into e-friendships. That’s how this blog has worked since day one.

Despite the numeric success of Translator’s Digest, a few months ago, I was convinced that it was time to pull the plug on it. Why? Well, back then, I could have written a book with all my well thought-out and perfectly articulated reasons. Yet today, I can barely remember any of them.

Quite some time ago, a friend I deeply respect and admire was about to start a blog of her own. Naturally, she had some doubts, mainly because her blog was going to be in a language other than English, and given the predominance of the English language over the blogosphere, she was concerned about whether or not anyone would read it. At the time, she said bloggers sort of reminded her of 19th century soapbox orators desperately yelling into idle and indifferent crowds.

At a time when the translation world was flooded with dishonest gurus, veiled attempts to monetize the intellectual graveyard that has recently reinvented itself as the next wannabe translation workplace, and aggressive and petty attacks on colleagues who have been fighting the good fight against commoditization and deprofessionalization, I was ready to get off the soapbox and go home.

In the two years and half since I started this blog, I’ve had many chances to monetize Translator’s Digest. From companies contacting me to advertise on my blog to sponsored content “opportunities.” All of which I politely turned down. (For those who are wondering, the ads you see at the end of my posts have nothing to do with me. Apparently, it’s the price I pay for using a free WordPress plan.)

With 4100 readers, why not jump at the opportunity to monetize? Well, for many reasons. Because words matter and nobody’s going to put words in my mouth for a couple of bucks. But, mainly, because I firmly believe in the power of rational thought and deliberation to reshape our world, and a small part of me believes (or wishes) this blog serves as a tiny and humble attempt at a habermassian public square, which is, naturally, not for sale.

As someone who measures time not in terms of money but in terms of life, I told myself I prefer to invest what little free time I have in things that are edifying, that make some sort of difference, or that, at least, make me happy. So, I stopped writing, stopped participating in social media groups, stopped trying to reason with people, and focused my attention elsewhere. But the only true constant in life is change and, in the words of the [cool-turned-corporate-sell out] punk band I loved in my youth, “dammit, I changed again!”

Something happened recently in my personal life that forced me to rethink my priorities, something that reminded me of why I used to like writing this blog in the first place. I remembered that, although I often feel like a soapbox orator, every now and then there are good days when someone stops to listen. On great days, someone answers back. And on even greater days, we engage in stimulating conversations about our profession. Sometimes our words float across the internet and start new conversations elsewhere. Sometimes those conversations challenge today’s dominant and destructive narrative, and translators are reminded that translation is not a commodity but a valuable intellectual service that, among other things, helps businesses grow, advances human rights, and serves several critical social purposes.

In Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality (what is arguably one of his most thought-provoking and controversial essays), American philosopher Richard Rorty postulates that the classic human nature debate initiated by Plato and still unresolved to this date is moot.

“We are much less inclined to pose the ontological question “What are we?” because we have come to see that the main lesson of both history and anthropology is our extraordinary malleability. We are coming to think of ourselves as the flexible, protean, self-shaping animal rather than the rational animal or the cruel animal.

One of the shapes we have recently assumed is that of the human rights culture.”

He then goes on to analyze how the human rights culture, so installed in our minds today, is a post-war construct that was made possible by our inherent malleability. We can build worlds, he claims, just like we can build bridges. We can shape our own sociopolitical systems, making our reality not a product of an uncontrollable inherent nature, but of our own self-shaping, collective desires. In other words, things don’t just happen to us. We have a say in the world around us because we’ve crafted the systems and networks that make our existence possible.

In that same vein, one could argue that the issues affecting our profession aren’t fully beyond our control either. Misuse of CAT tools by the knights of low-end translation may or may not be leading to the commoditization of translation. Machine Translation may or may not be posing a real threat to our jobs. Professional organizations may or may not be doing enough to voice our concerns. Old platforms may or may not have contributed to driving down prices while their copycats may or may not be making professional translators look like babbling baboons. Regardless of where we stand, individually, on each of these issues (even if our stance is that of indifference), they shape our world. So, we need to continue to talk about them. And as a good friend recently pointed out, I need to write about stuff I actually care about, and there are few things I care about more than the future of our profession.

However, despite my firm belief in the power of deliberation, I tend to lose hope whenever I visit any forum where translators are discussing any of these issues. Why? Basically because of the way we treat each other when we hold dissenting views. In light of recent events, I can’t help but wonder: Can we discuss the issues calmly, rationally, and constructively enough to have a positive impact on our own future? Or will all attempts at habermassian public squares be doomed either by the idleness and indifference of those who are only looking out for “yours truly” or the tomato-tossing rage of those who confuse aggressiveness with strength, sarcasm with intelligence, and meanness with wit? For the sake of our profession, I hope Rorty and Habermas were right. I hope we can do better before we condescendingly and aggressively argue ourselves into irrelevance.


26 thoughts on “On Translators and Soapbox Orators

  1. Ana Gauz says:

    Hi, Paula!

    It’s always a pleasure to read your posts.

    Nobody could describe better than you the current state of our profession as well as pinpoint the significant challenges we face as professionals and human beings. If besides all the actual problems and shifts in our careers, we have to face it all in an almost belligerent environment among our own peers, I can’t see a good future for all of us.

    Thanks for keeping this blog alive and for, once again, putting in words what others can also see but can’t, or wouldn’t dare, to write about.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi, Paula,

    First, I’m not a subscriber of your blog, which has nothing to do with whether I agree or disagree with one or many of your opinions. Second, I appreciate the open-door policy here. Third, I could also argue against the lack of civility in forums and elsewhere (Twitterland, Facebook, etc.). For anyone observing online comments to any piece of worthwhile news (even on YouTube), this predisposition to try to shut the other down when we disagree does not just happen to translators (neither is caused solely by them).

    One advice I’ve been given once or twice holds true: “don’t use email [or text] for personal or delicate matters.” Of course, this advice can be amended with exceptions, especially when one needs to communicate with someone who doesn’t use a phone. And so on.

    As much as I profess to be a civil person, I find myself on the other side, being perceived as sarcastic or rude. Why? Whether they’re right or wrong in calling me that doesn’t matter. The real reason is the supporting medium we choose to communicate, and when we choose to do so via social media, email or news comments, we trade off certain things for expediency and convenience. The tradeoffs? We lose sight of how important body language and voice sounds are in a communication, so we risk more misunderstandings.

    Of course, trying to do a phone or Skype conference with everyone who wants to comment on a blog entry, for instance, is impractical for several reasons. So we prefer to create a comfortable space for anyone who meets certain (or no) requirements to comment. Still, we do this fully aware of the consequences: the risk of being or sounding disrespectful, rude, impatient, angry, indifferent, etc. We have all been there, no matter our personality, or demeanor in person, etc. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being misunderstood and try to argue our position back to one we can live with.

    Another good piece of advice I’ve been given over and over: “pick your battles.” My experience has taught me to recover my cool, or if I haven’t lost it, to promote calmness, sometimes by using silence or a sincere and personalized apology. Not the politically ubiquitous “I’m sorry if I have offended you in any way” but something more like “I must have misunderstood” or “That’s not what I meant; this is what I mean.”

    I also keep a blog and I write or start comments on Proz. I’ve lost count of the times I tried to reason a position with someone and fail, or the times I’ve been misunderstood or simply mistaken in an attempt to be helpful, not to mention the times I’ve been upset at someone’s words. This is no confessional, of course, but my point is this: we could easily be the irrational person who mistakes sarcasm for wit. What’s the solution? Mine is more or less this: give the other the benefit of the doubt, and I hope I am given the same benefit in return. Of course, it doesn’t always happen this way. That teaches me a bit of patience.

    Finally, here’s a quote from a Mr Rogers’ book, in an intro by his wife: “There were many times I wanted to be angry at someone, and Fred would say, “But I wonder what was going on in that person’s day.” (The World According to Mr Rogers, p. 8)”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think we may be dealing with more internet trolls in the translation field lately. As we have a larger online presence, we naturally have more participation from a larger spectrum of people. One article I read was that people are more likely to write aggressive responses when they are rushed, short on sleep, etc. Oh, and that replying to such posts just creates a snowball effect. I can’t find the article, but it was enlightening. Since then, I have stopped worrying about these issues quite as much.


    • Thanks for your comment, Helen! I wish I could take some of these comments as lightly. To be honest, I think that if we can’t even discuss the issues, we can’t really strengthen our professional community enough to counter some of the current threats to our profession, and that’s what really worries me.


  4. Amy Stevens says:

    Hi Paula,
    I enjoyed reading this. I’ve been freelance for almost two years and while it can be stressful sometimes, your article helped me to remember why. The love of the profession! I previously worked in house where the conditions were… less than desirable.

    For me, I’ve chosen this career not because of the money but because I love what I do. And this is why when I have other colleagues who want to know how to get started, if I can I will help. I’ve had some really valuable and much appreciated advice from colleagues with more experience than I have. I hope I can help and contribute to the translation community in a way that will improve the industry for us all but also, to improve cultural understanding. The most valuable aspect of translation, in my opinion, is not further reaching marketing, but helping to bridge a gap between cultures on issues where we might otherwise fail to see past our differences. There is definitely a culture of shouting each other down recently. In politics (whatever the political persuasion), in religion, even in some cultural projects I’ve seen people be rather aggressive, trying to shut each other down when they don’t agree.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I enjoy translator’s digest and I appreciate the efforts that you and other colleagues make to share ideas and insight about our profession.


  5. Lía Díaz says:

    Hi, Paula,

    Although I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now, I’ve never thought I could contribute with a meaningful comment so far… well, I still fail to consider this a meaningful comment, nonetheless, I dive.

    There are two ideas that surrounded my mind while reading this post. First, I believe there is hope. I am not, in general, permeable to the ideas of “end-of-the-profession-mongers”, so to write, and of those who do not think alike, or do not even carefully think about it, but believe it convenient for them to follow those opinion leaders. That is one of my points: I believe there are people who feel it safe to copy and paste other people’s comments, and others who feed their thoughts with other people’s views beyond the general rant. Perhaps, much as I generally do, they do not comment. But we are here thinking about what you all say and change our views or feel encouraged to change aspects of our practice we do not feel comfortable with thanks to those smart and helpful ideas. That’s why, although I can relate with the image of the soapbox orator mainly because I am a University professor, sometimes I am surprised to find many of my students remember special classes when we talked about the translation community.

    Second, I want to say thank you for bringing this topic to light. I have a blog and sometimes I sort of fight against it. When talking about it with other bloggers and colleagues, the general idea is that the effort behind having a blog is not worth it if you do not post regularly. But this view makes me think about it as a burden rather than a fun and challenging thinking and writing practice. I don’t want to be a slave of the blog, I just want to write when I find something interesting to share or, as Amy said, to help others. Right now I have some unpublished articles and posts, sometimes I want to pull the plug on it, as you say, sometimes I don’t want to waste all these ideas… And then I find this post. Timing is everything.

    Thank you once again, it’s a pleasure to read you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lía,

      Thank you so much for your comment. It’s nice to hear from so many translators who believe there is hope. I got several PMs today along the same lines of your comment. 🙂

      BTW, I’d love to read your blog. What’s your URL?



  6. mercedesguhl says:

    Back in the road again, Paula!! I’m so happy to read again your thoughtful ideas and well constructed arguments!
    I’m tired of having the incredibly diverse conversation about translation restricted to business and marketing tips, advice on technological tools and all that!
    I’ll follow your example and pump some time and writing effort into my own blog which has been more or less abandoned for several months, while my mind is bursting with ideas to write about. I will still feel like the soapbox man (el loquito gritando en una esquina), but I will be hoping to start a different conversation or to convey a different approach, or simply to enjoy the ripples in the Internet’s surface, while my post sinks to the bottom like a stone.
    Thanks, thanks, thanks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. giolester says:

    I have curated blogs for entities. Right now I am in charge of the NAJIT blog. My own articles I publish elsewhere. No blogs under my name. Thought of doing it once or twice. Gave up because of the commitment. I never thought I might no do something I love because of other people’s reaction until interacting with individuals online. Many times I will write something and erase it. I see no point in eliciting abuse against myself. So, I can understand your position.

    I have to say, Paula, that reading your pieces has always made me feel like I have gained something. So, my recommendation is for you to keep on writing. You have 4100 reasons to continue. 41001 if you count the pleasure it gives you.



  8. Dear Paula,

    First of all, let me say how happy I am to find that you decided to keep blogging. I’ve repeated it over and over again, but it’s never too much to say how much I love your writing. It would be a terrible loss to our profession if you quit blogging.

    Secondly, although I am not part of those more than 4,100 email subscribers (I don’t subscribe to any blogs by email to avoid cluttering my inbox), I am a faithful follower (I do follow it through WordPress). Your blog is so fantastic I know I will hear of a fresh post somewhere on social media. And I always do indeed.

    Thirdly, as a blogger myself, I know how you feel. However, my opinion is: if I can touch or help one single person somehow with what I write, even if that person does not come out and “say” it, my job will be done. And how do we know it? Because people sometimes give us clues, they say it in one comment they love what we write, PM us, or tell us in person that our blog is great. And by that we know people are indeed quietly reading at least most of the things we write, if not everything. If we can help one person it’s still better than not making any difference at all, don’t you agree?

    Lastly, because I’m almost writing a post here myself, we must strike a balance in life regarding good and bad things. Facebook translators’ groups, for example, piss me off and steal my valuable time more than add value and help me, so I decided to stop following them. I may be a member, but I do not engage. I prefer engaging personally with people who are worth my time. The same holds true with Facebook “friends.” If someone does not add value and I can’t stop being friends I simply stop following them. Life is so much easier, happier, and worth it when we focus our attention to what matters: and you are one of those people who matter. 🙂

    Stay strong and keep up the lovely work!

    From your country neighbor and big fan,


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Carol! You’re the sweetest, and very wise for your young age! I appreciate your kind words and support and look forward to seeing you in person again soon. Will you be at ATA58?


      • Yes, I will! =D It will be my first time at the ATA conference and in the US. Very much loooking forward to it, especially now that I know you will be there.

        And I also look forward, as always, to your talk at ConVTI. I was glad to hear you will be one of the speakers.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Reed James says:

    Please know, Paula, that although I am not a subscriber to your blog, I benefit from what you post. Is there a way you can ignore the people who do you a disservice and continue with your blog? I sure hope so because I find it useful.


  10. Hi Paula,

    I agree with other comments here on the idea that aggression on the Internet goes far beyond our profession, but I can absolutely also understand how hard it is to avoid being affected by it.

    On the other hand, almost “old-school” (by the very fast standards of the Internet) means of communication such as blogs are still a nice way to share and find ideas in a somewhat calmer environment than social networks. As a matter of fact, I have recently implemented “Friday study afternoon”, meaning that I try and finish all work by midday and then have a few hours in the afternoon to read and reflect on different aspects of my two professions. That’s actually how I got here =)

    Opening such a space is a very valuable initative, and you should know that there are many silent readers as myself that appreciate it.



    • Hi Mariana,

      Thank you for your kind words. “Friday study afternoon” sounds great! With my lifestyle, it’s hard to take an entire afternoon off, so instead I just wake up an hour earlier and have a “daily study hour.” It’s pretty much the same principle, just spread out differently throughout the week. 🙂


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