Jun 3, 2012

Ask not what your professional site can do for you....

A recent thread on ProZ asked the question "What would your dream translators' website provide?" That's a question with which quite a few have struggled in recent years. And it's one which I suspect is difficult to answer with a single platform or format.

What is a "translators' website" in the sense discussed in the thread? Many things potentially. I think the definition could be applied fairly to online discussions such as mailserve lists or Yahoogroups forums, various Facebook pages with ongoing professional discussions, private forums for professional associations such as the ATA or BDÜ, refuges out of the reach of search engines for private discussions and terminology advice between colleagues and the whole lot of marketplace portals with their often frustrating mix of useful features and slave auction or red light district character.

The simple fact that this discussion began on the world's largest translation-related portal, a virtual workhouse known not only for the repressive policies of its management but also for its residual usefulness as a repository of contact information for translators with obscure language combinations and the breadth of its offerings to an estimated 20,000 paying members indicates clearly that what is lacking is not definable in a set of specifications for development.

Is a jobs board critical to the theoretical dream site? I think not. Some of the most useful and successful sites I know have none such, and the professionals who spend their time there are familiar enough with how to market themselves. Even those new to the profession would benefit more in the long run from interacting with experienced colleagues in the forums of professional associations and engaging in mentorship programs such as that of the ITI in the UK than they would from years turning tricks in the linguistic alleys of Argentina, New York and Ukraine. Mind you, there is a lot of interesting experience to be gained in those alleys, but the good life and sunny meadows of the profession are elsewhere. The noise level of frustrated newbies - crying over a broken Crados project or asking what information is needed on an invoice and how to set a rate for a job (often after the translation has been delivered!) - is deafening.

So what is the ideal translators' website? I can only answer that question for myself. Your answer may be very different and is just as valid if you are speaking of your own needs. But one principle does seem to apply: the best sites will likely not be free (good programming isn't cheap), and the hidden costs of the ones that are might be considerable. Technical maintenance of a good web-based platform is not trivial; as a former software developer with experience in web development, I would not dare to "diss" the skills required to develop and maintain a site like ProZ or even a much simpler one. No matter how good the team, there will always be glitches to cope with as browser technology evolves or hackers develop new strategies to steal our data and identities.

A recent advertisement I received from a commercial portal struck me by how very much it and other commercial portals are aimed at people with a consumer mentality. The advert even offered “prizes” for becoming a paid member. Reminded me too much of virtual bread and circuses. But as with most aspects of life, the greatest satisfaction is not to be found in consumption, but rather in contribution to a community. If you want to find your perfect site, you must contribute to its creation and evolution. Add value to your translators’ site as you are able, and you will likely find much more in return,

The very public character of the professional lives some of us lead can be a real problem. I've had my identity hijacked twice that I know of off the ProZ site (though the problems were handled quite satisfactorily by the management once the scope of things became clear), and until I began using a pseudonym there, the amount of search index spam created by the site's language instance strategy (indexing every page in every language one can think of regardless of what language the content is actually written in) was drowning out more important information I tried to make available on the web. I've seen stolen resumés re-used with other names and other mis-use of data.

Public discussions can also be good... or rather bad... for business. Some of those who vent about a particular client might not be aware that said client monitors their posts on ProZ or Twitter. I say some rather tactless things in public, but I do so with a full awareness of where those words might be read. Not everyone thinks about this. Or they think about it a lot and fear to ask for help when they need it or offer a suggestion, because they don't want to look "stupid". So really, privacy would seem to be important.

Privacy is one of the features of my professional association's member site ( And of many others. But in a large organization like the BDÜ (about 7000 members I think), the volume of traffic can be overwhelming. I'm not a guy for big parties and noisy events - my hearing difficulties usually cause me to seek a quiet place where I can have an enriching discussion with a limited circle of very good people. I do the same for the translators' sites that get most of my attention.

It's important for me to keep an overview and not feel like I'm lost in a crowd at the circus. Important to know whom I communicate with and that this person is worthy of respect for his or her character and professional competence. Important to know that the discussions I have with these people stay private or in a limited circle of our choosing. While this can probably be done ad hoc in some way with Google+ (if you feel you can trust Google Not To Be Evil), I like the structure of a programmed site. I need discussion forums with a decent structure and usable search function, and I need a means of seeking and offering help on critical terminology issues completely out of the reach of Google and Bing or other indexing services. This is not completely achievable using the social network sites with which I am familiar.
As professionals engaged in an activity which often requires a great breadth of knowledge, research skills and access, we will never find everything we need in one place. But if we have one place, one good place, where we can share our questions and ideas securely and respectfully, it may be easier to find those many other places when we need them.

Some of what we seek in online platforms may really be better found in the physical world. I have found that all the webinars and podcasts I have heard seldom reach me as well as personal attendance at a conference lecture or local workshop. Discussions at my monthly Stammtisch are usually more enriching than threads on a discussion board, and the food shared at the table beats an apple and coffee at my desk. Of course I can’t be everywhere with all those with whom I would like to share my professional life, but I probably could be in more places and be better for it.

Nonetheless, the online world has become a critical element in the lives of a great many translators, and this dependency will most likely increase in the years ahead. So some thought – and action – regarding the kinds of translators’ sites  we need is worth the investment in our futures.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, I'm not sure what my ideal translators' website would be like, but a thread on TC over the weekend - - helped me decide what I really wouldn't like to see on a translators' website: a corner for lonely hearts. The mind boggles. What sort of job opportunities would stem from it? The PoliZ do have their use at times...


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