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.