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That we might stroll where unicorns graze

Just to recap, the previous post in this series, “In for a penny” ended with the conclusion that translation rates in the bulk market are not increasing because translators are becoming more and more efficient, at least on average. It also pointed out that competent human translators are relatively rare in comparison to the demand for their services, and so that translator incomes were unlikely to collapse in the near future.

However, that’s still not a very rosy image of the future of our profession, given that speech recognition software is delivering a new productivity boost in many major languages and that stagnant rates would mean stagnant incomes over a large part of an individual translator’s career. Is there any way out of this hole?

Fortunately, I think there is; but, before I say what I think the solution is, I’d like to burst a few balloons. Firstly about business skills. These days it seems that everyone and their dog is organising a translators’ conference, or giving a presentation at a translators’ conference, about the importance of business skills for translators. Hell, even I’m doing it: my talk on “Financial Fallacies for Freelancers” will be part of the Translation and Localisation Conference in Warsaw on 11 March! But business skills aren’t everything. Yes, they can help some people in their businesses, but on their own they won’t make us better translators. They can help our professional (and personal) development, but they are not an end in themselves.

And so what will help us become better translators and achieve higher rates? Well there’s another group of sirens who would have us believe that it’s all about a professional attitude and positive thinking. That we’re holding ourselves back because we’re not acting like professionals and we’re complaining too much. This one’s a little trickier to address, because obviously the proponents will accuse me of negative thinking! But let’s think for a second. I’m supposedly being held back because I’m thinking in a manner that’s too negative… So what should I do about it? Buy course X, read book Y! And if that doesn’t work? Buy additional course ABC, and certainly don’t listen to the nasty people on that other Facebook group!

I will assume that most readers of a blog about professional translation are adults, and have been in adult relationships. And I apologise in advance if what I’m about to write contains triggers for survivors of relationship abuse. Because that is effectively what the purveyors of “positive thinking” are trying to sell you: abuse. The “positive thinkers” are telling people that they are not good enough, but they can get good enough by changing the way they think, and in the way that the guru tells them to. It doesn’t work? It’s because the person isn’t trying hard enough, not following the rules! It’s always the person’s fault, not the guru’s. Now imagine being in a personal relationship with someone who is always telling you to improve yourself, that you aren’t good enough because of your attitude and the way you think… and that whatever you try to do, it’s still not good enough… No clear goals, no idea that you have achieved what you set out to do, just a constant tirade that you should be “more positive”, i.e. that you’re not good enough, but we can try to help you.

It’s well known that many people get trapped in emotionally abusive personal relationships, many more than get trapped in what we would formally describe as cults. But I think translators are particularly prone to this sort of abuse in our professional lives, because so many of us work in one-person businesses and so don’t have colleagues close by to bounce ideas off and to provide a psychological balance. There are some outlets for this isolation on social media, but also other sites that will try to sell you a better way of thinking against your euros or your dollars.

Some people reading this post will be clinically depressed, i.e. depressed to the point that it affects their everyday functioning as an adult. If that’s you, you don’t need to be told to think more positively: you need to speak to a doctor and probably to discuss your situation with a professional counsellor.

Thankfully, most people are not in that situation: they don’t need to be told to think more positively either, because they’re already thinking positively enough. If that’s you, GREAT! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

7 Responses to "That we might stroll where unicorns graze"

  • Lloyd Bingham
    February 26, 2016 - 11:21 am Reply

    I don’t disagree with you, Nigel, that positive thinking alone gets you nowhere in business or indeed life. I do think that you’re labelling a host of translation professionals (the positive thinkers, as you put it) as daydreamers with their head in the clouds, but I think there’s been some sort of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misrepresentation on an industrial scale of what these people actually believe in.

    What many believe in is not positive thinking, but constructive thinking, in finding a solution to a problem (be it communicating with, negotiating with or dumping a client) rather than dwelling on a problem. No-one should be made a pariah for encouraging this idea (and this is not ‘telling people what to do’).

    Let’s talk frankly about the problems in the industry (another myth being that ‘positive thinkers’ want to cover them up or pretend everything’s dandy). Let’s thrash them out, but let’s also think about what we can do to sort them out.

    • Nigel Wheatley
      February 26, 2016 - 12:13 pm Reply

      I think the difference between our viewpoints is nuance more than anything else Lloyd, but I don’t think you get out of the problem I describe here by relabeling “positive thinking” as “constructive thinking”. You can’t tell someone to “think more constructively”, because nobody wakes up in the morning saying to themselves “Hey, today I’m going to think really unconstructively for a change! Let’s see where that gets me!” In our own self-image, each of us already thinks we are thinking constructively.

      If there’s a different and potentially more constructive way of looking at a problem, this needs to explained. That’s basically what education is all about – it’s less about learning “facts” than about learning ways of looking at the world. As you’ve probably guessed, there will be a third part to this little series, so I won’t try to put in 100 words that which I’m going to spend 1000 on; but I would actually go further than saying “let’s think about what we can do sort [the problems] out.” In the words of the famous prayer:

      O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
      The courage to change what can be changed,
      And the wisdom to know the one from the other.

      • Lloyd Bingham
        February 26, 2016 - 1:02 pm Reply

        I see where you’re coming from. This is not about trying to get out of anything though and I think there is a fundamental difference between the two terms, much more than a nuance. But okay, let’s forget the labels for a minute, because what I would advocate more than any kind of mindset is action – and this is where you’re exactly right that if there’s a different and potentially more constructive way of looking at a problem, this needs to explained. My approach is that whenever there’s a problem, take action, not dwell on it without doing anything. I think we all want less frustration and stress in our lives.

  • Allison Wright
    February 26, 2016 - 12:09 pm Reply

    What makes us better translators is translating a lot, deepening our knowledge of the subject field in which we translate via reading material and other resources in both our source and target languages so that we are better able to apply rigorous examination to our source texts at the levels of terminology, linguistics, message being communicated, and style in order to render all those elements satisfactorily in the target text. This is exacting work, as you well know. No amount of positive thinking, business strategy or improved workflows are going make this basic truth disappear or improve our skills as a translator.
    That certain circles seem to prey upon the low self-esteem engendered by the humbling task of “getting it right” in this job which is demanding on so many level leads me into a tirade of expletives which I will not reproduce here but for which I will not apologise.
    The recent idea being bandied about that the use of so-called bad language is unprofessional, damages one’s positive thinking rating and therefore makes one a lesser translator defies logic and common sense both. The ability to swear like a trooper, and understanding those who do when they do it, has considerable advantages in numerous situations in business and life in my experience. The attempt to bring into the spotlight and into mainstream discussion a topic which to my mind should remain firmly on the fringes is simply one more ploy to detract from where the real focus ought to be: on translation. Nevertheless, I shall remain positive, as I always have – without the assistance of those who call themselves professional translators and would have me pay for that feel-good privilege.
    On the topic of unicorns and language, you might like to read this blog, which has what some would call a swear word in it: http://wrightonthebutton.com/2013/07/14/mushrooms-unicorns-and-little-green-apples/

    • Lloyd Bingham
      February 26, 2016 - 12:29 pm Reply

      I don’t dispute your point at all on what makes us good translators, Allison. Here, though, we’re talking about business skills rather than translation skills.

      I’d disagree about it being a ploy. We have dozens of conferences a year offering plenty of opportunities to discuss a whole range of topics to do with our profession, so we certainly don’t need to discuss one topic at a time. Whether the issue merits debate is very much part of that debate. At the end of the day, any translator has the right to bring up any issue they feel merits debate (which answers the question of ‘who are YOU’ to say that’) and every translator has the right (even duty) to question and challenge another’s ideas. If it turns out that the broad consensus is that this issue merits no (more) debate, then rather than flogging a dead horse, it shall die a natural death, but given the overall response at the recent conference from translators themselves, I’m not convinced this is the case.

    • Nigel Wheatley
      February 26, 2016 - 1:05 pm Reply

      “The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin;” ah yes, religious patriarchy and it’s obsession with virginity! Have they never heard of the saying “those that can, do; those that can’t, teach”?

      But on a more serious note, your blog post underlines the importance of terminology, and the idea that there is a correct way to say something, alongside the infinite number of incorrect ways. And it’s actually our job to know what that correct way is, or at the very least to be able to find out what it is. My favourite example is having to track down the correct English verb to describe the act of sexual intercourse between a bull and a heifer or cow… it’s “cover”, like for horses, but it took me several quite memorable phone calls to find that out! Your own exquisite juxtaposition of “boobs” and “titty dress” should serve as a reference for those unsure of their mammary terminology.

  • Birgit Bonde Jensen
    February 27, 2016 - 10:35 pm Reply

    Nigel, I fully agree with you that siply given advices for how to raise life quality, lower stress and become an overall better person or professional often end up producing the same effect as diets: none, and thus eventually the counter effect that increases the feeling of being unhappy, and therefore you look more always ending up blaming yourself. The ‘think positive’ cult have now for decades been a money machine for gurus with highly developed business skills, and created a lot guilt feelings in individuals (religion could be brought in here). On a lower scale, a lot of advices and homemade solutions are distributed, but they hardly produce anything than a good excuse for procrastination.
    What is happening to the prices on the translation market is not at all different from what is going on in most other business sectors. Prices are stagnant if not going down, taxes, rents and electricity is going up, competition increases and there are less money circulating due to the ongoing financial crisis. The happy hour is over, who never went to a discount supermarket to save money, raise your hands! So does LSPs and clients. Language business, just as any other, is profit driven and there are budgets setting the limit. Take it or leave it.
    Therefore, before marketing and positive thinking, a translator (Allison, I take being a good translator for granted) needs to understand the market, set a target, a benchmark and understand how to boost productivity and how to invest in their business. Even a translator needs a business plan to navigate. It would be great if the conference offer contained more of these practical tools, and Nigel’s conference is an example, but we need more. The first step towards targeting the market and your business efforts is to understand your situation to enable you to make better choices. Thereafter you can act, and you might even feel better.

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