Beware bad advice
All of us come across awful nonsense written about translation from time to time. I very much doubt, though, that there is as much nonsense gathered in one place as in the LinkedIn writings of a translator called Matt Stanton. Regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t go in for personal attacks. In fact, I have nothing personal against Mr Stanton, a Japanese-English translator, and I’ve never met or interacted with him. Ignoring his unpleasant replies to colleagues who have challenged him, and the rather offensive and sexist nature of some of his posts, all I will take issue with here are ideas that he promotes, which, in my view, would be dangerous and damaging if followed by less experienced colleagues. This is a serious point because Mr Stanton, a Japanese-English translator, has written (and puts in a great deal of effort plugging) a book about translation. He also claims to run training seminars and coaching services for translators. All that takes his misguided ideas out of the sphere where everyone is entitled to their own opinion, because he is not only pushing his opinions at other people, he is persuading them to pay for the privilege. He is, in short, what has become known in the profession as an instaguru. It is on behalf of colleagues, then, and particularly on behalf of anyone easily influenced enough to be tempted to give credence to some of the utter rot I have seen written by Mr Stanton that I discuss it here.
So what does he say that is so reprehensible? My attention was initially drawn to an article about blogging in which he scoffs at the idea that a translator might need to take a whole day to write a blog post. This is a symptom, he claimed, of perfectionism that means the translator in question also takes too long over their work and “IS NOT GOING TO MAKE IT” (his shouty capitals). Well, I’ve got news for you, Mr Stanton. I know who that translator is and that translator is, in fact, one of the most successful I know. Personally, I don’t take a whole day to write a blog post. In fact, my posts are written in the rapid-fire manner Mr Stanton would actually approve of, usually sitting with the laptop while my family watch TV. They are newspaper comment columns, not deep analysis. But I have only admiration for someone who researches an informative post and fills it with relevant evidence, statistics, painstakingly researched links and thoughtful writing. There are not enough of these posts around, probably because of the time they take to write, and they should be treasured, not derided.
Had it only been for him making a fool of himself with his assumptions over the professional prospects of a person who needs all day for a blog post I perhaps wouldn’t be writing this article now. But Mr Stanton has written a whole lot more. Take, for example, a post of his entitled “Just Say Yes”. In this, he boasts of accepting jobs immediately, without even checking his schedule because “If the jobs aren’t that big, we can handle them. We can get up earlier, or work till later. We can put off non-urgent tasks. We need that can-do attitude.” He scorns translators who take time to have a cup of tea, mull things over or worry about burnout.
Well, I’m all for responding promptly to work inquiries too. But those few minutes’ thinking time about whether taking this or that job is really a good idea can be vital in not overloading yourself, or not accepting a job for which you’re really not suited, or remembering that it’s probably not a good idea to work for a particular client who took four months to pay for their last job. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that accepting too much work isn’t only bad for the translator concerned, it’s bad for their clients too. In my case, mulling over a situation can sometimes also actually persuade me to say yes rather than no, so firing off an immediate response might even be counterproductive in Mr Stanton’s own terms. Nor does thinking time even have to be time wasted – I don’t know about him, but I can actually think and translate at the same time.
Then there’s another article, called “Translating Faster Produces Better Quality” (yes, you did read that right). In this one, Mr Stanton actually goes as far as to argue that rushing through a translation and not looking anything up results in better work. This is the case, he claims “because you don’t have time to think”. Now, I’m quite a quick translator, but the idea that “faster is better” is simply crazy, particularly as, in yet another wrongheaded article, Mr Stanton is also utterly dismissive of time spent checking and revising our work.
Perhaps Mr Stanton has superhuman powers. If he does, and if he can churn out word perfect translations in sufficient quantities to fill his pockets, accept all the jobs thrown at him and still find ten minutes to write beautifully crafted blog posts without getting burned out, well good luck to him. But I can assure you that any of us mere mortals who followed this approach would quickly fall by the wayside, rejected by clients sick of our slapdash work and laughed at by colleagues for our ill-considered opinions.
More importantly, Mr Stanton is not unique in the “don’t think about it, churn it out” approach he advocates. This is exactly what machines do too. If clients want fast, cheap, low-quality translations, computers can already provide it for them. As I’ve said before on this blog, our only hope of outdoing them is to work in areas they are going to find difficult, and that means high-quality translations requiring specialist knowledge. No-one can compete with IKEA by producing cheap flat-pack furniture, but they can by producing hand-crafted pieces the Swedish chain can’t hope and doesn’t want to make. And, to extend the metaphor, if IKEA rushed the production of their flat-packs to the extent advocated by Mr Stanton, they would be unlikely even to contain the right number of screws and fixings.
That’s why Mr Stanton’s articles and his book, ironically titled “88 Ways to be Successful as a Freelance Translator”, are so dangerous. I’ve recently heard news that several truly successful freelance translators are withdrawing, or considering withdrawing, from giving other translators advice, discouraged by the way so many appear to follow instagurus like Mr Stanton. Sadly, they seem to feel responsible for people failing to heed their words and depressed by the idea that many translators aren’t going to succeed. I would urge them to shrug off this misplaced sense of responsibility. If people don’t or won’t listen it simply isn’t anyone else’s fault, and the fact that many translators and other business people will fail is mere statistical inevitability. On the other hand, it is surprising how and where words of wisdom and inspiration do manage to get through, even indirectly. I, for one, don’t want to leave the floor open to those giving unwise, unsound and unsafe advice and I plan to continue sounding the alarm about it wherever and whenever I find it, particularly when such dubious advice is being peddled for money. There, I just did it again.
Please note, I have deliberately not linked to Mr Stanton’s articles here because I don’t want to boost visits to his pages. Perhaps merely by writing this piece I have done just that, but I still feel his advice is so dangerously wrongheaded that I am duty-bound to speak up. Look him up and read him for yourself if you must but, if you do, you should know that promoting his page was not my intention. You can find the opinions of some colleagues here.