Do we really need to be told how to behave?
One of the most talked-about sessions at the recent Elia Together conference in Barcelona was a joint presentation by Lloyd Bingham and Andrew Morris concerning online translator behaviour. It was a session that moved me to react at some length in the part of the session given over to comments and questions – and not precisely in a positive way.
So what is going on with translator behaviour? Well, Lloyd would have you believe that it’s a jungle out there. He presented extreme examples of client-bashing and insults to other translators taken from a random week on a translator’s forum which was not named, but was almost certainly the Facebook group Things Translators Never Say. The chosen examples were quite shocking, full of four-letter outbursts. But what Lloyd didn’t say is that TTNS is, as Douglas Adams once described the human race, mostly harmless. Its page is mostly filled with mild complaints and sarcastic comments that provide the same sense of recognition and release as, say, going to see a stand-up comedian. It doesn’t actually solve any problems but it makes you feel better for a while and realise that other people face exactly the same difficulties as you do.
Lloyd and his presentation partner, Andrew Morris, would say that this unproductive moaning should be replaced by positive thinking. Well, it almost certainly should, as common sense tells us that action to solve problems has to be better than merely complaining about them, but, as the title of this blog notes and as Andrew himself admitted, we are only human. His solution is a Facebook page for like-minded translators which turned into a group and which is now becoming a kind of fee-paying club for zealous positive thinkers, one or two of whom were keen to make their voices heard in the discussion that followed the presentation. Lloyd’s answer is action against those who would dare to blacken the name of translation with unprofessional behaviour.
Personally, however, I would question the need for any kind of “solution”. Firstly, if the consequences of four-letter customer-bashing are as negative as we were led to believe, with clients apparently watching our every move, the guilty freelancers won’t last long. Secondly, I doubt it’s possible for fellow translators to control others’ online behaviour in any case. We can hardly close down Internet forums, after all, and the use of associations’ codes of conduct applies, by definition, only to their members, for all the fire and brimstone breathed by a female member of the audience apparently responsible for the conduct committee of the British Institute of Translators and Interpreters. Lloyd made the fair point that ranting was a waste of energy. But how much more energy would be wasted trying to silence the ranters?
Not only that, it seems to me there’s something rather unpleasantly prissy about trying to impose our standards on other people. At one point, Lloyd talked about himself and Andrew “spreading the gospel”, as if this were some sort of evangelical crusade. But my view is that we’re all grown up enough to take responsibility for our own behaviour. I wouldn’t swear about clients for the simple reason that it seems to me a rather stupid thing to do. Others do it and will have to accept the consequences, whatever they may be. But, however much I broadly share their standards of behaviour, I might easily post something sarcastic or do something else Lloyd or Andrew might not agree with. It doesn’t mean any of us is wrong or bad, just different. Andrew made the point that he found the ranters rather childish, with a “black and white” attitude to things. But trying to stop them is surely displaying just the same attitude: translators who rant – bad; translators who don’t rant – good. I would say that the most mature reaction, if we don’t like what goes on in part of the Internet, is simply to go elsewhere. I certainly have when I’ve felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in a forum or on a page, although I have to say bad language has never been the cause.
There is a final point too. The whole anti-ranting crusade could even prove to be counterproductive, because all it is likely to attract from the “bad” translators is a tirade of ranting and abuse. As I concluded my contribution to the debate, one of the oldest sayings in social media is: “Don’t feed the trolls”. In fairness, the tenor of the debate inside the auditorium following the presentation was more in favour of the initiative than against, although the only really worthwhile argument I heard them use was the possible bad example set by ranters to impressionable young translators. However, outside the hall it was a different story, and several people approached me to say how much they agreed with my views, some of them describing the presentation in much more derogatory terms than I’d have been prepared to use.
Even Andrew conceded that my points were reasonable and it was good to be able to talk to him and to shake hands with Lloyd afterwards. I have nothing against either of them personally and Lloyd in particular (because I know him better) is someone I like and respect as a professional, even more so after he generously thanked me for my contribution to the debate. But however much respect I have for someone, that doesn’t mean I need him or anyone else to tell me how to behave.