Rant and the World Rants With You: Translators Should Complain More, Not Less

Recently, Corinne McKay published an article on her Thoughts about Translation blog entitled “Shouting and Moaning about Bad Clients: Productive or Not?

Though there is some good sense in McKay’s points—particularly when she describes the way a persistently negative mindset can poison a translator’s ability to market her or his services—in general her advice is far more troubling than helpful.

McKay begins by giving an example of what I suppose she considers the “protocol of complaint.” She refuses to spend money at Walmart or McDonald’s, she says, because she is “personally opposed to their business models and employment practices.” She doesn’t spend money in those places, but neither does she stoop to “ranting” about them. And that’s because, in her opinion, to do so would be a waste of time.

Just for starters, the analogy is apples and oranges. We’re not talking about a situation in which translators are consumers of the products of bottom-feeding clients/agencies and can choose to boycott those products or not.

We’re talking about how translators are treated as workers and about their participation in the workplace.

But here’s the real point: McKay says she doesn’t spend money in those businesses because she opposes their policies. How does she even know about their policies? How did she learn that their practices were objectionable and harmful?

She learned because someone “ranted.” She learned, actually, because hundreds if not thousands of activists, writers, bloggers, tweeters, FB posters, and others “ranted”—they made such a constant issue of Walmart’s scummy employment practices and the harm McDonald’s does to our diets and to the environment that the media took notice and a wider movement began to coalesce.

To me, that hardly sounds like a waste of time.

Second, on a global level, translators are the least organized and least cohesive group of professionals I can imagine. In fact, it’s one of the only professions I know that includes seasoned experts, fresh-out-of-college beginners, and pin-money amateurs under the same umbrella.

Yet McKay presumes that translators “rant” because they think they can change the practices of clients and agencies that pay badly, create exploitative work environments, and demand unreasonable services from translators.

She misses the point entirely. One important function of “ranting” is its ability to convey shared consciousness and shared struggle. Of course there’s little point in relentless bitching, but knowing that others are confronting the same realities I am–and that they are holding strong–is invaluable.

At the same time, a no less important purpose of “ranting” is to educate others in the field (I hesitate to call them all “colleagues”)—many of whom are, quite frankly, my direct competition precisely because they willingly (or ignorantly) participate in low-rate auctions and other unscrupulous labor practices.

“Ranting” also serves as an effort—regardless of whether one considers it effective—to communicate notions of professional ethics and behavior to the enormous mass of people who call themselves translators and who are, as workers, mostly unrepresented by any organization that looks out for their interests–or imposes upon them clear requirements for professional conduct.

In terms of the question of representation, by the way, I specifically exclude affinity groups like the American Translators Association, which prides itself on being “apolitical” and has never, to my knowledge, lifted a finger to defend the rights of translators as workers.

In Germany, France, and Italy, conversely, translators’ associations recently waged a campaign to educate their members about the detrimental conditions that AmazonCrossing, Amazon.com’s translations division, was attempting to foist on translators via secret contracts. They “ranted” so successfully, in fact, that the normally impenetrable Amazon actually blinked. The result is an historic meeting to be held during the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2014 to discuss AmazonCrossing’s failure to comply with European laws that protect translators’ rights.

We can’t know what the outcome of that meeting will be, but can anyone seriously imagine the ATA conducting an effort even remotely similar? Has the ATA even made an official statement about AmazonCrossing? No, they’re too busy hosting receptions, offering “certifications” ($300 a pop), organizing expensive conferences ($685 if you don’t already belong to the ATA, $475 if  you do), and recruiting new members (at $285/year).

Meanwhile, I find something profoundly distasteful in labeling people’s legitimate complaints as “ranting.” It’s a word that reeks of privilege and of let-them-eat-cake disdain.

No, don’t let your work life get bogged down in things that go wrong or in interactions with the nut-jobs you meet along the road. But when we are treated unfairly and unethically, what is wrong with saying so?

Finally, I hear constantly—in fact, it has become a kind of unshakable-article-of-faith-cum-talking-point among translators who fancy themselves members of a certain echelon—that there are “lots of clients out there who are not only willing but eager to pay real money to a highly-skilled professional who is consistent and confidential and responsive.”

What we are meant to read between the lines is that, if we can’t find them, we’re just lazy or ineffective.

Frankly, the premise is rotten. What’s more, I seriously doubt McKay has any evidence that isn’t entirely anecdotal to support such an assertion. In fact, I was heartened recently to read an article by a blogger (a frequent commentator on the translation field) who admitted—for the first time I’ve ever seen in print—that he actually had no idea what the vast majority of the translation market looked like.

But that doesn’t stop people from talking about it as if they did. We love to say that there’s an almost unlimited group of clients out there who want the services of skilled language professionals and are ready to pay handsomely for them. Too bad no one knows (A) whether this is actually true or (B) if it is, who they are and how to find them.

What I know is that dozens of my fellow translators—who are experienced, skillful, and a lot less ranty than I am—are struggling because they don’t have enough work or can’t get paid enough for the work they do have. Last year, a long-time Italian>English (non-literary) translator I know left the profession abruptly, describing her reasons for doing so in a series of frustrated emails to colleagues. She had a great résumé, lots of contacts, decades of experience. She couldn’t make it.

Because of publishing-industry politics and policies in Italy, meanwhile, excellent English>Italian literary translators are forced to accept what are—to put it frankly—embarrassing wages in order to work in the field where their training, experience, and expertise lie.

That’s not because they don’t know how to market themselves. It’s not because they aren’t “consistent and confidential and responsive.” It’s not because they aren’t “out there,” teaching and giving lectures and writing on blogs and appearing at conferences and participating in efforts to organize unions. They are.

It’s because they are at the mercy of market realities they do not control—not even with their sunny dispositions and their refusal to “rant.”

Yes, I do think that knowing how to market one’s services successfully and find decent clients is essential.

But I also think that superficial, half-baked ideas about marketing and economics are being used to beat up on translators who are having a hard time.

It’s a little like the Christian Success mantras: God wants you to be rich. If you’re not, it’s obviously because you don’t have enough faith.

I notice something else, too. McKay—like many of the others who harp on this point—is a little vague on the details when it comes to how success is achieved.

In fact, no one who is successful has ever been, at least not in my sixteen years of experience, willing to say specifically what she or he did to achieve such an enviable level of achievement. Nor has any of them ever acknowledged the role that the right personal contacts or a plain old lucky break have played in their success.

Having the money to “attend conferences” and knowing the people who can invite you to give speeches, just to cite two of the examples that McKay names, don’t reflect talent or hard work. They reflect social capital, which is a form of privilege. I’m making no judgment about whether she deserves that privilege, but I am saying that not everyone is in the same boat—and it isn’t because they’re doing something wrong.

Does a translator like Ann Goldstein just happen to be given—over and over—the opportunity to translate the best of Italian literature (including three of Elena Ferrante’s novels and the editing of the complete works of Primo Levi) just because she’s a nice, non-ranting sort of person who regularly checks in with clients and is “out there all the time … writing, speaking, and attending conferences”?

Or is it possible that an undergraduate degree from Bennington (a private liberal-arts college that currently costs more than $60,000 per year), decades as an editor at The New Yorker, and all the social and professional contacts that come from winning Bellagio Fellowships and Guggenheims—it is just possible that those also played a role? (Please don’t mistake what I’m saying for professional jealousy, by the way. Goldstein is a hugely talented translator. I’d love to be given the chance to prove I can do what she’s doing, but I also know that it is not my fault that I never will.)

My point is that we don’t live in a world in which every little boy or girl has the same chance to grow up to be president. We do not all have equal opportunities or equal resources within our chosen fields. No endeavor within the humanities—or perhaps anywhere other than professional sports—is truly a meritocracy. Talent and hard work—along with “consistency, confidentiality, and responsiveness”—are not automatically rewarded.

And we should stop telling one another fables about how they are.

More than anything, we should stop advising each other to respond to inequality, favoritism, impropriety, and unscrupulousness by shutting up.

We should stop counseling translators to mind their own business, put their heads down, and go quietly about their work. We are already entirely too isolated. We already have enormous difficulty seeing our connection to millions of other workers around the world (translators or not) whose ability to support themselves is under violent and concerted attack.

I welcome every “rant” because each one tells me something valuable: there are other people out there who, like me, know they deserve better than they’re getting.

6 Responses to Rant and the World Rants With You: Translators Should Complain More, Not Less

  1. “In fact, no one who is successful has ever been, at least not in my sixteen years of experience, willing to say specifically what she or he did to achieve such an enviable level of achievement.”

    While I agree with a lot of what you said in this post, most of it, in fact, don’t you see that the statement above sounds exactly like the kind of useless bitching and moaning that Corinne is rightfully criticizing in her post?

    I am not sure what you mean by “successful”, but if that means being able to work mostly for direct clients at pretty good rates, then I have been successful for many years and intend to continue to do so until I can no longer work.

    How did I do it?

    I simply started marketing my services to direct clients (instead of to agencies) in early nineties. First by direct mail – I sent thousands of letters and cards to patent law firms over the years, and now I rely on my old clients who have been sending me work since the nineties, referrals from these old clients, and my website, which has been working very well for me for more than a decade. Anybody can do that, but the devil is of course in the details. Details such as your language combination, your interests, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses. And your strengths and weaknesses are very different from mine – the language combination is obviously one of them, and so is your field (literary versus technical translation – these are two different worlds).

    There is no universal recipe that any translator could adopt and imitate. The way I did it might not work for other people, and it might not even work for me at this point because time (read “Internet”) changes everything.

    We all have to figure out what to do about our situation on our own, and some of us do that better than others. That’s just how it is.

    You are quite right to say that ranting has a very positive value, and she is quite right to say that translators who just keep bitching and moaning without also taking a positive action are wasting their time.

    That is how I see it.

    In closing, let me say that I enjoyed your rant very much.

  2. Great piece and a lot to think about. I certainly agree that we should fight against those low paying offers and voice our outrage about them. I also believe that many of the successful people had some luck and connections along the way and not all was just hard work. Even with all the advice, there are many translators out there that can’t get out of that bottom paying group although they struggle and try hard to land better jobs. But would it surprise you if I said both, you and Corinne, have a point? There seems to be an increasingly whiny mood (and often aggressive against people with different opinions) in many of those online groups. The valuable critique that could bring us forward and may even change something is often drowned by the whining and ranting. And that is dangerous too.

  3. Thank you Wendell for an excellent article.
    The part that was close to my heart (and current situation) was on how successful entrepreneurs never truly disclose their secrets for success and how the widely used advise of “being out there” is not always the ‘secret’ to winning clients who are ‘eager to pay real money’.

  4. Funny you mention the ATA, Wendell. As far as I know, Corinne is still on the board. The organization is dominated by sausage shop interests who modify the code of ethics to support their bad practices. (I used to cite the clause against free translation tests, but it was removed due to the politicking of corporate members.)

    I think it is worth making a distinction between the sort of tiresome rants we hear almost daily from some who are “outraged” that some Lower Slobovian agency dared to send them an e-mail about a project paying some ridiculous rate and legitimate rants against abusive practices. But some of the sunshine crowd are intellectually incapable of making such distinctions and would rather see Vaseline quietly added to the wordworker’s toolkit.

    I have no patience myself for whiners who adopt an attitude of “there’s nothing to be done, woe is us” while griping for the millionth time about the fact they were offered two cents per word instead of their target three cents. But it is necessary for us, as you have pointed out here, to raise our voices and challenge bad policies and abuses which not only undermine the perception of services we deliver but often violate laws and good sense. The sort of rant that you, the late Miguel Llorens, Kevin Hendzel, Steve Vitek and others engage in is very much needed and does quite a lot to hold the professional line in some cases. And the special interests that sometimes engage in campaigns of intimidation, bribery, etc. to discredit or undermine them must be opposed.

    And thank you for bringing up the difficulties with the Walmart/McDonald’s argument and how such “informed” decisions for non-patronage come about in the first place.

  5. tanyadvudev says:

    Hi there. I was one of those who congratulated McKay on her blog piece. Because I do believe that some fora and groups in social media enforce the wrong picture of our industry. It’s one thing to name and shame and to put proof of evidence out there (i.e. blacklisting and so on). It’s just the constant “Oh, we can never make it cause all agencies are bad, wicked, selfish, blah blah” that I really dispise. Because it’s not like that.
    I go out and talk about ways that I’ve achieved what I consider for myself a success. I do give examples, name the clients, tell people how much I earn (and also talk about failures, which to me are lessons in disguise). And I agree: The approaches I made will not work for everybody. And I am aware that when I started out freelancing, I had a heck of a contact list and relationships I could build on. I don’t know a single newbie (as in right out of uni) who does. You’re right: It’s not about flashing a great logo. It’s not about always being out there and touching base with clients. But it’s all a part of it. Talent won’t do sh!t for you if you don’t add skills. And there’s many skills that need to be trained.
    I love your post. Every single line. But I guess, as so often, the truth lies somewhere in-between what you wrote and what McKay wrote.

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