Feb 13, 2009

Talking about what works

Having grown somewhat tired of online discussion threads in which worried translators resonate with each other over their concerns about the world economy and their extra capacity in the past months, weeks, day or even hours in a manner all too reminiscent of the wind and the former Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I decided to start a discussion on ProZ.com regarding what seems to be the reasons for the continued success of some translators in difficult times. Some of the reactions are to be expected, including the objections of some who find the idea of discussing anything but trouble offensive or who think that success is all a matter of "luck", but there have been some rather interesting points raised, and I'm curious to see how the discussion develops. I've gleaned a number of useful ideas from the responses, which I'll be thinking about in the weeks to come.

Some people appear more interested in sympathy rather than solutions, which is, of course, understandable. But sympathy won't pay the electric bill. The public woe-is-me routine also exposes the individuals involved and others to a greater likelihood of disrespect and exploitation by present and prospective clients. Some clients have already tried to put the thumbscrews on translators in interesting ways; one I found especially "entertaining" was a claim by an agency in Europe that many translators had volunteered lower rates because of the "crisis" and more should follow suit. No comment on that one except to say that if anyone wants to negotiate a lower rate for my electric bill, a lower interest rate on my mortgage and other loans, lower prices for the same quality of vegetable and meat and... well, that will be enough I suppose... I will give that person some super-favorable rates and probably a big bouquet of flowers as well. For all others, I'll just offer my best work at a fair rate.

I am in a very fortunate situation so far. I have a language pair with a huge demand, I have in-demand specialties that represent a big chunk of my host country's industry, and I live in a country where my source language is the official language. Not everyone enjoys these advantages, so I find it entirely plausible that some very good translators who have been successful for years and have reasonably good business models (for the past at least) are experiencing difficulty now, even if I see no evidence of trouble in my own situation. Anyone can be caught off guard by events - in recent months, the "experts" have ended up with egg on their faces too often to count. Discussions of "fault" are really beside the point, though analyses of why certain difficulties may exist or how they might be addressed are entirely relevant. And whether "fault" is a word you want to use if nothing changes is something I'll leave up to you, Dear Reader. But I am rather fond of the saying that "a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing all the time and expecting a different result." If the old ways don't work in the new world situation, obviously one needs to find new ways that do. It's so obvious that it would be insulting to say it if so many people were not too dense or insecure to accept that basic principle.

I'm a really big believer in Darwinism as some may realize from another rant here. But I don't subscribe to the so-called Social Darwinist views of some who have a rather different view of human evolution and survival. I think it is important to note that human populations stayed rather small through most of our evolutionary history. Life was not only nasty, brutish and short, but the scope of social contact was rather limited. Only when humans began to organize into larger groups were significant improvements in wealth, living standards and life expectancy achieved. Cooperation and specialization made survival possible on a scale that was unprecedented in earlier hundreds of millenia of human history.

Translators would be well advised to leverage these Darwinist principles and engage in behaviors that promote their survival and well-being, by cooperation, information sharing and positive mutual support which includes looking for new ways to cooperate with and support clients to help buffer them against potential trouble. Let's skip the destructive discussions, and for those who really insist that public breast-beating sessions about how desperate their situations are (which, of course can be and are being read by clients), I would like to remind them that rope is cheap, but cooperation and adaptation have a better future.


  1. By applying Darwinist ideas to social organization, you are by definition a social Darwinist. That is what social Darwinism is. Within social Darwinism, there are various more or less poisonous strains. Of course, plenty of people who have prided themselves as 'scientists' have taken a superficial look at Darwin's theory and immediately misapplied it to society for their own self-satisfaction. The next step of abusing other people based on it is more or less inevitable.

    On Proz, you have led a small clique of loud-mouthed hyper-professionals in deriding any discussion of recession as 'whining' and 'sympathy seeking'. If you didn't have this social Darwinist trope at the front of your mind when you read the posts, you might have seen that their posts were no such thing. But unfortunately, you simply dismissed them as Untermenschen and rudely invited them to wither on the vine. This is most unfortunate, because back channels suggest that there are plenty of pleasant, rational translators with things to discuss who admit to being cowed by this kind of behaviour. I wish that they would simply point out your error and take back the commons, but unfortunately they don't seem able to.

    The result of your initiative in posting that 'success' thread is an amazingly boring recitation of things like "I have a pleasant phone manner" and "I carefully translate every word and check its quality afterwards". All topped off by what you have said endlessly elsewhere. Unfortunately, some people may be thinking that their emphasis on quality is not simply a necessary precondition for doing business, but a full blown biological trait that will ensure their survival even in a harsh environment. They may even take a degree of pride in their own fitness. Personally, I find pride a real handicap to anything, including business success, and I think you may hurt young translators by promoting it.

    So to sum up, you've taken the occasion of Darwin's birthday as an opportunity to devolve into an ass, and it's very regrettable. I hope you'll relent and try to adapt more to human ways.

  2. Collegial greetings to you, too, Mr. Rod Walters. I wish you the best of success in your future endeavors :-)


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