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.


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.


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


“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.

On Socrates, Sophists, and Translation Gurus


Socrates is known to many as the first martyr of moral philosophy. After being accused by his fellow Athenians of “impiety, worshiping new gods, and corrupting the young,” he was convicted by a narrow majority of the jury and sentenced to drinking the poisonous beverage of hemlock. Whether or not there is any truth to the accusations that resulted in his conviction is, of course, relative, and depends on how you define impiety. In his dialog with Euthyphro, for example, not only did Socrates put forward a compelling and virtually irrefutable case against polytheism, but he established the logical basis for calling monotheism into question as well, thus shaking the moral foundations upon which Ancient Greece had been built. “The discovery of truth,” claims Arthur Schopenhauer, “is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.” In a society led by myth and prejudice, the truth could very well be that Socrates was guilty as charged.

As Socrates awaited his execution, or so Plato tells us, he was visited by his loyal friend Crito who had a proposition for him. As a wealthy and powerful Athenian, Crito had arranged for Socrates’s escape, unknowingly placing Socrates in the moral dilemma that would forever define his place in history: to live out his remaining years as a traitor or die a martyr for the truth of philosophy. Socrates chose the latter, and thus went down in glory as an example of virtue, integrity, and moral consistency.

In addition to his accusers, Socrates had many enemies among the Sophists. Unlike Socrates and his disciples, the Sophists did not believe in objective truth and, to add insult to injury, were willing to charge for their service, often attaining riches and fame by offering the wealthy young men of Greece an education in aretē (a magnificently elusive term used by the Ancient Greeks to mean roughly “virtue” or “excellence”). In the eyes of Socrates, Plato, and later Aristotle, the Sophists were morally unscrupulous, intellectual charlatans who deliberately resorted to fallacious reasoning to defend unjust causes for a fee. They were a different breed of philosopher who cared more about wealth than truth.

But the truth again seems unattainable and this negative account of the Sophists was later challenged by intellectual heavyweights such as Hegel, Grote, Derrida, and Francois-Lyotard. Today, we’re not as quick to judge that other breed of philosopher, because, whether Socrates and his disciples liked it or not, Sophists of the caliber of Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Hippias, Prodicus and Thrasymachus seemed to have made some sort of contribution to human knowledge, at least by departing from the paideia (aristocratic model of education) and challenging the status quo.

Still, one is inclined to think that even their contribution to knowledge can’t redeem them from having operated on the basis of at least two empty promises: that aretē could be taught to all free citizens of Greece (a claim implicitly put forward by Protagoras in his well-known speech on the origins of justice) and that, assuming one had the capacity to pay their fees, they could provide the ambitious young men of Greece with the power to prevail in public life. So, while Socrates and his disciples employed the dialectic method to search for truth, the Sophists and theirs resorted to eristic and antilogical methods to sell what Socrates would probably refer to as BS if he were alive today.

“We, lawyers, are the intellectual heirs of the Sophists,” proudly boasted a professor of mine many years ago. “How so?” I asked. “We sell BS to the highest bidder,” he replied with a smirk. Although that’s far from the way I conceive of the legal profession, at least in my circles, it still exemplifies the problem with sophism (and, perhaps, with the legal profession outside my circles).

Last week, as I brushed up on the Sophists and began to pick reading materials for my Ethics students to ponder over next semester, I got to thinking of how much the Sophists remind me of translation gurus (or is it the other way around?). Coincidentally, that was roughly around the same time a certain insta-guru’s website failed miserably to raise an exorbitant amount of money for who knows what. As I watched these events unfold, I remembered that wise old Abraham Lincoln quote I learned in elementary school, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

But how do we know when we’re being fooled? What separates those who have the best interest of our profession in mind from those who are simply preying on the young, the inexperienced, or the otherwise weak? It obviously isn’t the fact that they charge for their service (or disservice, depending on where they stand). It’s not like Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great for free, and I can certainly think of many respectable translators-turned-mentors out there who charge for their books, courses, masterclasses, etc. without coming off as insta-gurus or otherwise taking advantage of others. It isn’t the fact that many of them focus their efforts on teaching translators how to do business. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with preparing people for today’s complex business world. So, what then separates gurus from mentors?

Perhaps it’s their ethic. Despite relatively recent attempts to rebrand sophism, we continue to mistrust the Sophists because, on some level, we intuitively know aretē cannot be taught. Just like talent for translation, aretē is something you either have or you don’t. There are no magical formulas for overcoming the threats and challenges our profession currently faces, but being really good at what you do helps enormously, and gurus seem to have little or no interest in helping anyone develop hard skills. Instead, they sell the empty promise that soft skills are enough to get by.

A mentor can show you the ropes, but cannot promise you success. “Success” is to the insta-guru sales pitch what aretē was to that of the Sophists. And as someone who humbly takes part in the centuries-long tradition of seeking excellence by emulating those who have achieved mastery before me, it’s no wonder insta-gurus just rub me the wrong way. They are, after all, spewing false promises, for a fee, in the general direction of people who are genuinely trying to learn, overcome challenges, and improve themselves.

In the interest of helping my fellow translators avoid gurus and find good advice from solid professionals, I’d like to recommend some resources for your holiday reading:


The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban (I never get tired of recommending this one)

Confessions of a Freelance Translator by Gary Smith

The Business Guide for Translators by Marta Stelmaszak-Rosa

Blog posts:

Some Thoughts on Freelance Income by Corinne McKay (for those who don’t think you can earn a good living as a translator)

Business and Ethics by Helen Eby (for those who are just getting started or getting reorganized)

12 Traps Newbie Translators Fall Into by Rose Newell (for newbies and not-so-newbies)

No conflict of interest: In case you’re wondering, nobody’s paying me to recommend these resources.

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. With all the insta-gurus deceiving translators into thinking that all you need to succeed is a “positive attitude” and a “polished image” (one cannot just make this stuff up!), Chris’ view is always refreshing.

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.



On Narratives


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


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.


Paula Arturo