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.
I’ll be interested to read what the translation studies academics make of all this, a year or two down the track. It seems they’re watching: http://www.jostrans.org/issue25/art_flanagan.php
Here’s another relevant JoSTrans article, this time on signalling mechanisms in the professional status of translators. Again, it’s a bit behind the times, but interesting to see how this sort of thing is viewed by the academics.
Thanks for your two links, Jayne. I didn’t realise there were people studying us like that!
As I said elsewhere, excellent piece. Really hits the nail on the head. I love the way you explored all the various aspects one should consider, while reminding people that essentially, there is a difference between those who view colleagues as customers, and those who view colleagues, as, well, colleagues…
It’s funny. While some of us are busy building our client bases, others are more interested in building their fan bases. The latter is only a viable strategy if you start convincing your fans to pay you money… So it should come as no surprise that that is exactly what many self-appointed gurus have done. Be it donations, fees for webinars of dubious value, or an outright subscription model, it’s all the same thing. It’s all a case of a translator who has made their colleagues their clients, and we can all make a few educated guesses as to why.
I admire the way you can write about this so calmly and in such an elegant style. I hope people take your sage advice on board.
Thank you, Rose. I’m pleased that I seem to have achieved what I set out to do.
Thank you for your article, Simon! I really appreciate your approach to the problem and I think you made some excellent points there.
I’m building The Open Mic all by myself, it’s a massive endeavor and I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement in every single aspect of this platform. If I’m being honest, I’m not really qualified for this job of community builder/web-developer. I barely have any skills. I’m definitely not a guru nor expert of anything. And it’s not like I achieved great success in the profession or gained an ultimate understanding of the translation universe. The exaggerated statements like “Let’s shape the future of the translation industry” “We build bridges and connect nations” “We define creativity” are just a reflection of my own personality and attitude which I have injected into The Open Mic both consciously and subconsciously.
It seems like it works for some people and doesn’t for others, and I think it’s perfectly normal. When creating slogans it seems like it’s almost impossible to create the wording everyone would love (not with my level of copywriting skills anyway).
I wholeheartedly agree with your remarks regarding the quality of the content and I’d love to hear your suggestions of how it all can be improved. I made The Open Mic open to all translators and interpreters out there because I believed we all have something valuable that we could share with the community. As your post have demonstrated not everything that is being published has equal value, more important the whole definition of value will vary from one person to another. It’s very interesting how differently we all react to articles. Some people would clap and cheer and encourage authors to share more. Other will leave disappointed and start dissecting what they have read on their own fora.
All of this, of course, creates a lot of difficulties for me as a developer and a person who can control what goes live and what not. Since I took an initial attempt to build a community where every voice has the right to exist I’m not going to back down and turn The Open Mic into some controlled environment with strict editorial practices only because some of our readers disagree or don’t like the ideas/stories being shared or people behind those ideas/stories).
BUT! I can and I will try to accommodate those readers by offering smarter filtering so you, as a reader could be in total control of what and who you read. It’s a very challenging and it might take a lot of time before I can implement something like this (on the account of me not being a developer and not having the coding skills to build this functionality), but I’m doing my best and I learn a million of new things every day so please bear with me. By the way. I’m already added new Daily and Weekly digests with the plausibility to create personalized digest with your favorite authors only or categories which you like. It’s not perfect, but at least, it’s a start and I suggest you give it a try. Perhaps it would make your reading experience a bit more enjoyable?
May I ask you a question? Why don’t you publish anything on The Open Mic? You obviously know how to present and support your ideas with strong arguments. I also wonder why didn’t you reach out to me as a reader and as a member of our community to discuss the issues that you cover in your post? I’m always try to be open to any kind of feedback because I believe that The Open Mic is a community-driven project. I also find it a bit strange that you didn’t leave any comments in those posts that you didn’t like. Constructive feedback is what moves us forward. It helps us see our weaknesses and fails in our logic or reasoning. You’ve shared some constructive feedback regarding Martina’s post, for example, but have you shared it with her personally?
Thanks for your comments, Dmitry, and for understanding that this post wasn’t a personal attack on anyone. I was in fact using the Open Mic and these two specific posts as examples for what’s available on the Internet as a whole. That’s also really the reason why I haven’t commented, because I don’t want Martina to take this as personal and I don’t really want to get into online arguments with others who might not be as respectful and polite as you are. Also, my advice here is really to readers, not to writers, because, as you quite rightly say, it’s impossible for you or anyone else to exercise strict editorial control. Personally, I don’t post on the Open Mic simply because of time. I have my own blog and that’s where I post. I really don’t have time to copy and reformat my posts in another forum. But good luck to you. Despite the examples I used, and as I also pointed out, there is also some good material on there.
Thank you, Simon! And thank you so much for reading the stories our community shares. I understand your concern about personal attacks, alas, this topic probably needs a separate discussion.
Meanwhile I’ll try thinking of other ways how to tinker our platform to better suit the needs of our readers. In case you have some ideas or suggestion, you’re always welcome to send them over to firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
Have a great weekend!
One suggestion would be to introduce a rating system, similar to what ProZ has. That should help some of the truly excellent articles to shine through. There should be relatively simple add-ons available to do that job.
I also think it’s not practical to introduce an editorial policy at this stage. It’d be gainst everything your site stands for and simply add to your workload. I believe Simon’s piece is only there to remind people to be discerning in the advice they listen to.
Indeed, we should all be discerning with whose advice we listen to and who we ally ourselves to. People can give one impression online or even in person, and then things transpire over time and we realise the person had us totally fooled. This is why it makes the most sense to look at information from a variety of sources, while considering the quality of the source, but ultimately relying on our own experience and judgement where we can.
One thing I might suggest to you, Dmitry, that might perhaps offer a small opportunity to reap back some of the costs of running the Open Mic, would be to integrate an *optional* proofreading service. There are automated proofreading tools, and there are some very low-cost proofreading services available online. Being native myself, I don’t use them, but you could perhaps look at integrating something like that and taking a very small commission (i.e. 10-20% to cover the effort involved in setting it up) on jobs sent to the service through the site. Just a thought. It may be too complex to set up and those most in need of it may still decide not to use it… But something like that could help to improve the quality of content on the site, as linguistic errors can be quite offputting and lead people to take the content less seriously.