The Translator Echo Chamber: The Effect of Social Media

As I wrote in a recent article, it appears that translators of a feather flock together in social media groups, and that the grouping is generally in line with their position on the continuum between the bottom of the bulk market and the top of the premium market. Having come together in this manner, it appears that a group mentality is formed, with translators reinforcing each other’s views of what is common and expected in translation and resisting opposing views.

If a newcomer to translation wanders into a group populated mostly by translators near the bottom of the continuum, the takeaway is likely to be that normal and expected characteristics of working as a freelance translator include:

  • inevitably working for agencies;
  • translating without being able to ask questions of the author of the source text or consumer of the translation;
  • working for entities that are so suspicious that you need to ask other translators whether they can be trusted to pay;
  • taking work offered on Proz;
  • getting (and thinking that you can get) “good” clients on reverse auctions such as Proz;
  • thinking that “updating your Proz profile” is being pro-active in selling your services;
  • thinking that being a “certified” Proz translator or a paid customer of Proz means that you are serious about your profession;
  • working for rates of one-third or one-half of those generally paid by translation consumers for translation;
  • using a specific agency-mandated CAT tool in order to get work from the agency;
  • working online using an agency-mandated translation “platform;”
  • correcting bad translations done by others;
  • post-editing machine translation output;
  • working outside your subject-matter field of competency (because that is what you are asked to do by an agency);
  • using a free e-mail service and thinking that it does not reflect poorly on your professionalism;
  • thinking that you must surrender to an agency-controlled market;
  • hoping someday to get direct clients, but thinking direct clients only work with agencies;
  • thinking that there is a “market” translation rate that can be quoted or advised on by colleagues if you just tell them the language direction and field; and
  • thinking that it is useful to spend time complaining about low rates;

Although there are probably few translators who assume all of the above are normal, there are clearly numerous translators who not only think most of the above are normal, but also are faced with them as their reality on a daily basis. The operative word here is their.

Because not a single one of the above characteristics have applied to my translation work over nearly four decades of translating, I can see them for what they are. And most of the translators I know and meet here in Japan can generally say the same thing. One major reason for this is that I know mostly Japanese-to-English translators, and we live in our source-language country. (Just how important living in your source-language country is in breaking out of the bulk-market will be discussed in another article in the near future.)

New translators, however, do not have a body of experience to draw on in performing a reality check when they hear colleagues proclaiming the above-noted “realities” they perceive about our profession. And joining groups of similar experience-challenged colleagues isolates them from the viewpoints and experiences of people who perceive the translation business and their place in it in a very different way. Such isolation makes it easier for translators to fall into the trap of thinking that this is just the way the translation profession is, and that nothing can be done to change or avoid it. On social media platforms, they will find considerable reinforcement of these defeatist ideas, in two forms.

Positive reinforcement. On several fora that I participate in or regularly monitor, translators frequently provide positive reinforcement and validation of the ideas of our profession as noted above.

Push-back in translators’ groups. Translators who pipe up and posit, for example,

  • that you do not need to work with agencies,
  • that you do not need to use an agency-mandated CAT product or online platform, and
  • that belief in Proz as a place to get good clients is simply mistaken

are likely to get considerable push-back from translators who have embraced these aspects of working as a freelance translator as axiomatic and who don’t sense a value in doubting the inherited wisdom of colleagues who belong to what is best characterized as a poverty cult.

I am in a number of translators’ groups on Facebook and regularly monitor a translators’ group hosted at Google. Some of these are restricted to Japanese/English translators, while others are populated mostly by translators working other language pairs. The above-noted characteristics are common to most of these fora.

Although it might be uncomfortable to discover that your way of pursuing your translation career is seriously at odds with the experiences of others, I would advise newcomers to translation to take a look at translators who don’t fit into the mold presented as inherited wisdom. I would additionally ask them to ask themselves why the experiences of some other translators are vastly different from their experiences. The answer to that question could provide some hints as to how to break out of the bottom ranks or, depending upon the translator’s specific situation, a hint that it is going to be very rough going. Either outcome is better than believing things that are not necessarily true.

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