Picking out the e-wheat from the cyberchaff
The Internet is a great leveller. It gives everyone a space to put across their opinions and it makes all those opinions seem equal. But are they really? And if they’re not, how are we supposed to judge which voices are worth listening to? A couple of blog posts I read last week set me thinking about this problem. Both of them appeared on Dmitry Kornyukhov’s Open Mic platform, and, although they might easily have surfaced elsewhere, the very name Open Mic is a clue to the wildly variable quality of what can be read there. Just think of an Open Mic (how I hate the modern spelling!) comedy night. If you’re very lucky, you might see a hilarious star in the making, but most likely the “show” will consist of a succession of mediocre performers trotting out dreary sex and lavatory jokes, with a sprinkling of tired stereotypes and at least one act that’s just plain weird. So it is with translation’s Open Mic. I have read some interesting posts there (Pieter Beens’ splendidly thought-provoking recent article “Translating 1,000 words per hour: is it possible?” being a case in point) but all too often the pieces display shallow insights and little real thought. And we should hardly expect anything else from a platform which is, after all, a translation-focused microcosm of the Internet itself, where the lack of quality control is almost a defining feature.
So how are we supposed to pick out what’s worthwhile out in a cyber world where value is so difficult to discern? Obviously, we’re not all going to have the same opinions and agree with the same ideas, but I believe one or two general principles can be applied. Firstly, I’m always wary of those who would be gurus. These are people whose main aim isn’t to help or advise, it’s simply to win followers to their personal cause. They are sometimes difficult to spot at first glance, because they may appear to talk good sense, but they usually betray themselves in the end by attacking or silencing opponents and challengers simply in order to mark their territory and rally their followers behind them. The problem with these people is that, in the same way as populist politicians, they can spread unpleasant or wrong-headed beliefs, start witch-hunts and, above all, focus attention on themselves instead of the important issues. As such, they are best ignored.
Secondly, I look to see if the writer is trying to sell me something. Anyone who is cannot possibly be taken at face value because they may simply be trying to invent a problem for which their webinar, or book, or training course is the solution. Personally, I never buy anything from anyone who knocks on my door or pesters me on the phone, so why should I take notice of someone who tries to hijack my computer screen under false pretences to make me part with my money? In the end, it may be that one or two of these people have actually discovered genuine solutions to real problems, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. If they have, I’ll go to them when I’m ready to buy, I don’t want them pressurising me.
Having ruled out the possibility that I’m reading one of these more obvious charlatans, I like to find out more about a writer’s background. Is it someone whose opinion I could or should respect? Is it a person with proven achievements or experience or someone just shooting from the hip or sounding off for its own sake? This is harder to pick out and has nothing whatsoever to do with age. I’ve come across young colleagues I respect and older ones who, in my opinion, talk utter nonsense. Nor is it necessarily to do with traditional measures of success, because it’s perfectly possible to receive wise and useful advice from people who are neither rich nor famous in the translation industry. The critical factor could be the calibre of clients they have, the quality of their insights, their subject knowledge, their convincing arguments or simply their writing style.
But the most significant indicator of all that someone is worth listening to is humility. This much underrated quality is something a guru or a salesperson could never achieve, but it is essential in a translator. We need humility when faced with a text that appears to be full of familiar words but might contain hidden meanings; humility before clients and colleagues who might just be right when we are wrong; humility in a business which is bigger and broader and fuller of niches and specialisms than any of us probably comprehend, and humility before a future that will undermine the certainties of today and offer unforeseen opportunities in unexpected areas.
And a glaring lack of humility is, in my opinion, where the Open Mic too often goes wrong. The extravagant claims made on the website homepage (“Let’s shape the future of the translation industry” “We build bridges and connect nations” “We define creativity”) seem to infect some of the contributors, many of whom are still learning their trade, with a desire to make equally ringing statements. “Why I don’t use bilingual dictionaries and you shouldn’t either” and “Fear of not being good enough? Get over it!” are just two examples from last week.
The first of these is so daft that it requires no further serious discussion, although it does serve as an example of the nonsense on offer to the gullible. The second, though, provides a good illustration of the underlying difficulties to which the Open Mic approach is prone. In her piece, Martina Eco identified the truth that we all need a little confidence to succeed in whatever profession we choose. Without it we’re prey to fear and sometimes paralysing self-doubt and Martina adopted a cheerleading tone to encourage young translators not to be afraid to give their opinions or make a contribution.
Now, I wouldn’t want young, middle-aged or old translators to be paralysed with dread, nor would I want them to be afraid to speak out on issues affecting them for fear of being ridiculed. But at the same time, giving colleagues, especially inexperienced ones, the idea not only that “You can do it, all you have to do is believe” but also that whatever they say is going to be worth listening to is misguided to say the very least. In fact, a lot more than self-belief is needed to make a good translator and a great deal more than confidence is required for an opinion to be worth its place on an increasingly overcrowded Internet.
So it simply isn’t good enough to say “Don’t be scared”. As a translator, sometimes you will be and sometimes you should be very scared indeed. In my experience, what helps is to look directly at the fear and recognise it for what it is. What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid? Is it just nerves or are you not properly prepared for the job you’re doing? Can you, or should you, do something about that? Where can you get the knowledge you need to fill any gaps you’ve identified? I’ve needed to do this many times in a career which I began as someone with proven professional writing ability but no translation training or experience at all. It is this process that has led me, for example, to reject interpreting as a possibility I’m simply not suited to, and to turn down translations in areas that require specialist knowledge I don’t and will never have. The same approach has led me to write a blog based solidly on personal experience and a desire to help others, not making what could be construed as arrogant claims based on false confidence, which an excess of self-belief might have encouraged me to do. Above all, it has led me to want to be a better translator and to work steadily in whatever directions I can to achieve that aim.
My view is that, just as those of us writing about translation need to earn credibility and respect, as translators we should believe in ourselves only to the extent that such belief is realistically deserved. We shouldn’t be brought down by fear and self-doubt, but nor should we be fooled into thinking that a bit of positive thinking is going to solve all our problems. Having and recognising the inner resources to come through and shine wins only half the battle: the critical part is going out and actually doing it.