Marketing advice for translators? Enough already!

As I’m sitting here at home admiring my minuscule Christmas tree and just relaxing after submitting a painfully long translation on this Tuesday afternoon, I suddenly remembered Christmas in 1999, which I’d spent in my laboratory, back in my science and engineering days: a Christmas I spent looking at an oscilloscope instead of looking at a Christmas tree, working late instead of being with my family. It is a Christmas I will never get back. I miss a lot of things from those days but spending endless hours in the laboratory is not one of them.
One thing I do miss is that in that field an expert was really an expert. For someone to get recognition and, most important, to become an instructor, he/she needed to have the necessary background: extensive research, publications in reviewed journals, acknowledgment by colleagues, contributions to the field. I don’t see this in translation. In translation I see a lot of “facebooking”, a lot of “tweeting” and retweeting of the same unoriginal idea or advice going around. This seems to be one’s extensive research here: find something interesting a colleague said—or copied—and repost it and get some Likes; the more Likes you get the better known you become. How many publications in reviewed journals do we read or—God forbid—write every year? Sure, translation doesn’t lend itself to breakthrough research and publications of new findings. Translation theories are already formulated and published, and unless one of us comes up with a new theory now, we can’t expect to find many new original articles on the topic. We can conduct other types of research, the equivalent of scientific experiments, if you will, e.g. run surveys and publish our findings to share with the community. I wish we’d see more of those, more carefully designed and objectively interpreted surveys, not like the ones we see run and published by private companies that are self-proclaimed survey experts in the translation “industry” and which have already caused tremendous damage to the market.
No, we don’t see too many articles on translation. What is the general theme of the articles and posts we do see? Advice, marketing, more advice, more marketing, and last but not least, marketing advice. It seems a huge number of our colleagues are marketing experts. And it seems a huge number of them are eager to share their expertise with the rest of us, sometimes free of charge, sometimes at a price, and sometimes free of charge first and then at a price. But who are they, really? When I see a new expert sprung up like a mushroom I take a closer look. One expert has just graduated from college and yet presents himself as a successful and experienced professional (when did he have time to become that? It’s just impossible timewise). Another has been sharing his frustration in the forums of online portals for years, saying that he keeps lowering his rates to be “competitive” and that he’s had too little work to survive, yet on facebook he posts as an expert in translation groups and brags about his success (I mean, if you’re going to project a fake image, at least be consistent). I tend to sign up whenever there’s a new translation group on FB and LinkedIn, and I like following new colleagues on Twitter, but I get tired after a short while, tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. Advice from self-proclaimed experts who cannot back up their expertise except with the quantity of their social network posts. The same names, posting and reposting, trying to establish their presence in our heads (basic psychology) and consequently in the translation field.
I remember one such frequent poster trying to motivate colleagues (yes, we have lots of “motivational speakers” in our field too; they call themselves “coaches”), telling us to aim high, to have big dreams and goals, who even shared his dream of buying a house by the sea. This just seemed wrong. Frankly if I want advice and tips on how to buy a house by the sea I will go to someone who already has a house by the sea, not one that dreams about it. I mean, spend some time actually translating and establishing yourself, buy that house, and then lecture your colleagues on how to become successful. OK, this may be a bad example because it doesn’t really apply to me, I am blessed to live by the water, plus I have different goals in life; my point is that if I did share a goal with someone giving out advice, I wouldn’t want to see his plan for getting there in the future, I would like to see his strategy that already got him there.
So where are the people who got there? Where is their advice? My guess is they are busy translating or enjoying their house by the sea, not in social media trying to make a name for themselves by retweeting and reposting and advising. Others are teaching in recognized institutions like universities and well-established translation schools. Some others write books; though I see a trend in the last few years where self-proclaimed experts publish or self-publish their books; even the word “author” is starting to lose its meaning and its prestige. Translators didn’t start this trend, though. Anyone can publish a book these days. Way too many novelists out there. On the other hand, a new novelist usually doesn’t try to give out advice to other novelists, and the books we see on “how to write a novel” (I have one on my shelf, though I realized after reading it that writing novels is not for me) are written by authors with a proven track record, i.e. with quite a few successful books on their list of publications. And finally, other real experts are actually out there, in social media and at conferences, sharing real expertise and often trying to warn us against the phonies. They are a rare bunch, but they’re there, and I, for one, am grateful that they are brave and altruistic enough to try to warn less experienced colleagues and protect our profession.
So what does all this mean? To me it means that I should be very careful on whom I should dedicate my time listening to or reading. It means being critical and knowing whether someone really has something of value to say or teach me or whether he is just regurgitating information I read last week anyway on another “marketing expert’s” blog (who also copied it from another “expert” who found it on some marketing website and so on and so forth). It means looking at who is handing out advice. It means seeing one’s presence in social media for what it is and not as an attestation to someone’s expertise. It means exercising critical thinking now more than ever, now that the trend of seeing translators as a niche market for “expert” marketing advice has caught on.

Checks and balances in professional associations

Catherine Howard, Maria Karra, Attila Piróth
A society is democratic to the extent that
people in it have meaningful opportunities
to take part in the formation of public policy.
(Noam Chomsky)
In democratic structures (from associations to states), separation of powers (legislative, judicial and executive), regular elections, and diverse checks and balances ensure that no small group can obtain total control over the structure. In autocratic systems, checks and balances are dysfunctional or absent, the separation of powers is incomplete (the person/group in control of one power, e.g., legislative, is also in charge of appointing the people in control of other powers, e.g., judicial and/or executive), and often election rules are tailored to the needs of the ruling elite. Governments with autocratic tendencies are often tempted to declare a state of emergency, in which governing by decrees allows them to bypass democratic decision-making protocols (parliamentary votes). This is akin to suspending the application of the bylaws in an association, allowing the board of directors to take decisions without the regular checks and balances ensured by the bylaws.
Members of professional associations usually have a sufficiently deep understanding of the stakes of their own professional situation and the various factors that are at play. This allows them to make informed professional decisions. Taking an active role in a professional association often proves to be an emancipating experience – and also a step towards becoming an active citizen. Someone who has experience in how small democratic organizations are run will be better informed about taking an active role as a citizen. In the case of an international professional association, the experience can be particularly enriching.
States and local governments grant important privileges to associations and other nonprofits (tax exempt status, sometimes tax breaks for financial backers, free access to municipal facilities, funds, free promotion in local newspapers, etc.) because these nonprofits play a vital role in enabling collective action, creating social cohesion, etc. As a safeguard against the abuse of these privileges, governments impose external checks and require internal checks and balances.
The first set of external checks is imposed when the organization is registered. Only when the registration has been fully approved by the authorities does the organization obtain a legal personality. Tax authorities and banks (or other financial service providers such as PayPal) require proof that the organization has obtained a legal personality to issue a tax number or to open an account. Without a tax number or a bank account registered in the name of the organization, the organization can only function in a rather limited way, since regular governmental oversight is not yet in place. This limitation usually applies to all kinds of income-generating activities, including services provided in exchange of membership fees (there can be no paid service without an invoice, and no invoice without a tax number). Obtaining a tax exempt status usually requires further, even stricter checks – for which the full registration of the organization is only one of the prerequisites.
Once legal personality and the association/nonprofit status are obtained, authorities monitor the organization on a regular (often yearly or quarterly) basis. The external checks include monitoring the formal compliance of the bylaws with the relevant regulations as well as financial reporting obligations.
The internal checks and balances are set forth in the bylaws (which cannot be changed by the board of directors alone, only with the general assembly’s approval). These internal checks and balances include elections as well as publishing the financial reports to members – who understand much better than external auditors what certain projects or items cover. (External auditors can much better check formal compliance.) The financial report put forward by the treasurer needs to be approved by the general assembly of the association.
Internal and external checks and balances are complementary. Members and potential members rely extensively on external checks. If an organization is called an “association,” members and potential members take for granted that its registration has been fully approved by the authorities, it has obtained a legal personality, it has a tax number, it has bank accounts registered in the name of the association, etc. They assume that the possibility of financial checks by the tax authorities guarantees that the financial reporting obligations of the association are duly met.
Authorities, in turn, count on the general assembly of the association to ensure transparency, and if necessary, to exert pressure on the board of directors and the various committees to this end. Committees report their project spendings, the board provides a detailed list of costs related to representing the association, etc. Members of the association, whose membership fee is used to pay these expenses, are thus informed of how their money was spent and can question certain decisions. The verification and acceptance of the financial balance is a key part of the annual general assembly (and always precedes elections in election years).
To inspire further trust from members and potential members, many nonprofits voluntarily undertake external financial audits to prove their transparency. The results – as well as all relevant data – are readily available to members and potential members. This helps existing and potential members avoid the dilemma of whether they should risk the accusation of being distrustful or somehow acting in “bad faith” by asking for information that they are entitled to have access to. Likewise, national and local governments are obligated to publish key financial data for transparency and to answer questions from the public. This transparency facilitates the succession of power – without which the democratic functioning of the structure remains an illusion.
Setting up proper checks and balances in a professional association is a challenge that is crucial for its success but which many have ignored. Especially in the early days of an association, personal ties, charismatic leaders, a shared sense of mission and enthusiasm may lead the organizers and members to overlook many of the principles guaranteeing checks and balances. But, just like new nations that intend to establish democratic states, professional associations must have the vision to set up solid structures that go beyond personalities, friendships, and the fleeting emotions that impelled the creation of a new entity. Power cannot remain in the hands of the founding elite, but must be embodied in the structure and practices of the association, refracted through a myriad of intersecting, overlapping, balancing interests and perspectives. Functioning without external controls, such as formal government authorization to operate or financial oversight from tax authorities and auditors, undermines the legality of a professional association. Functioning without internal controls, such as transparency in the flow of information among the board, committees and members, shared decision making, or elections, endangers the association’s legitimacy in the eyes of its constituency. Officers holding power in a professional association cannot flaunt the need for checks and balances for long without being questioned by the authorities and its members. When such questions are finally raised, it is a healthy sign that those in power should welcome if they are truly committed to the association’s success and longevity.