Beware the Pompatus of Doom: The Translation Borg

If there’s one thing translators are good at, it’s words. Sometimes, though, we’re too good for our own good.

The economic crises, the vexed question of rates, debates over whether or how translators and interpreters should organize have led to a literal tsunami of opinions.

But they have also given rise to what I call the “Translation Borg”: the blogger who busily surveys what others are doing in the field and, from a self-conferred position of authority and a pretense of objectivity, undertakes to tell you why it’s all wrong and will never work. (And he does it for your own good, mind you.)

Resistance, in other words, is futile.

As we confront the day-to-day difficulties of earning a living as translators, we need analysis of our efforts and of the marketplace, we need broader points of view, and we can certainly learn from the experience of others.

What we don’t need are self-appointed gurus who attempt to defraud their readers with claims of “objectivity,” “impartiality,” or “experience.” We don’t need “experts” who haven’t translated in years (if they ever did) and who’ve never actually tried to make ends meet in today’s market.

I’d be willing to bet Translation Borg bloggers exist in just about every language, though the blogs I personally follow tend to be limited to English and Italian. Either because of that limitation—or maybe because it’s an accurate reflection of a genuine social phenomenon—I seem to find a disproportionate number of Translation Borg writing in Italian.

In his latest book, Il Caratteraccio: Come (Non) Si Diventa Italiani (“The Petulant Italian: How (Not) to Become One”), the Italian journalist, U.S. correspondent, and online editor of La Repubblica, Vittorio Zucconi, attempts an analysis of the modern Italian social malaise. He sums it up in a few words: “The Italian character may be defined this way: ‘I disagree, therefore I am.’”

I don’t know if Zucconi is right about Italians as a whole, but he scores a bullseye when it comes to Italian translation bloggers.

On the site of one prolific blogger, for example, this typically acid comment recently appeared:

[I wonder about] the gasbags who open their mouths just to hear themselves talk, take up their pen just to use up the ink, or bang away at their keyboards just to make sure they’re still working. If that shade of green one perceives in their words isn’t just the color of spite and envy, they’ll surely appreciate this new research, ‘The Italian Language Services Market,’ published by Common Sense Advisory. Let’s see whether they read it or whether, as in the fable of the ‘Fox and the Grapes,’ their only comment will be that it costs too much.

This same blogger later confirmed, in a private message, that he hadn’t actually read the report either. The reason: because the download is available only to annual subscribers to the Common Sense Advisory site and a subscription to the service … wait for it … costs too much. (Calling it a “research report,” by the way, is a bit much: it’s a four-page article).

That’s the kind of hypocrisy we’re dealing with.

Elsewhere we read:

Rather than talking nonsense about translation rates, especially other people’s, and tossing advice around right and left, I’d like to see the actual invoices of some of these know-it-alls. What’s more, I wish they would put an end, once and for all, to the absurd pretense of educating clients and their colleagues. Clients certainly have no desire to be educated by their service providers, and translators, if they have the humility it would take to ask, know where to go for help if they want it.

Such as straight to the blog writer, one supposes, whose personal humility oozes from every post.

Italian has a number of great phrases to describe approaches like this one (which, if we remember the old canard about Eskimos and fifty words for snow, suggests that Zucconi may be on to something).

One of my favorites is “bastian contrario.” The origin of the expression is slightly mysterious, but its use in modern Italian is clear: Whatever direction you’re going in, the bastian contrario is going in the other, just for the sake of being able to brag about how “independent” he is. If you ask him, the bastian contrario won’t hesitate to tell you (and tell you and tell you) that he’s an iconoclast and a free-thinker and a nonconformist, but mostly what he is, is a crank, a fault-finder, and a naysayer.

Bastian contrario is sometimes translated into English as “devil’s advocate,” but it’s a translation that doesn’t quite hit the mark: the bastian contrario doesn’t advocate for anything other than his own ego.

Meanwhile, you don’t have to be Freud to understand the bastian contrario blogger’s psychology: he’s defeated, frustrated, dissatisfied, and cynical. What’s harder to understand is why he would dedicate his life to disempowering others.

And that’s where another Italian coinage becomes useful: “benaltrismo.” However you’ve chosen to respond to a problem, whatever action you’re taking, the benaltrista wants you to know that you’ve got it all wrong. The “real” problem is “ben altro” – something else entirely.

But it isn’t as though the benaltrista has an alternative solution. Not at all. The benaltrista is allergic to solutions. He just wants to keep on demonstrating what a genius he is for having understood the “real” issues better than you. And what are the real issues? The benaltrista is always vague on this point. After all, if he made the mistake of offering specific proposals, the next benaltrista to come along would just start picking holes in them.

And so: Does the benaltrista writer of the post above have any idea what should be done, given that he finds the idea of “educating clients” so “absurd”? No, he doesn’t. Does he take any position at all on the problem of constantly falling rates? For that matter, does he take any position on the issue that prompted him to blog in the first place – lively online criticism of a translation agency owner who was recently invited to lecture on the subject of “How to Earn a Living from Your Work As a Translator” despite the fact that his own low-balling of translators is both well-known and well-documented?

No, because it’s easier to launch an ad hominem attack: people who criticize low rates should make their invoices public. (It’s a red herring worthy of the Tea Party–and perhaps he’d like to examine our birth certificates as well. If we’re earning badly, it’s precisely because clients and agencies pay badly. If we’re earning well, it means that resistance to low-rate practices is possible. But what does either have to do with our right to point out hypocrisy and falsehood when we encounter it?)

The problem with the posts like the ones I’ve mentioned here—and they’re typical in both Italian and English—is that the only possible reaction to them is inaction, immobility, paralysis.

Translation Borg bloggers don’t want you to do anything, change anything, learn anything. All they want is for you to know that whatever you’re doing is pointless. (Talking of people who “bang away at their keyboards just to make sure they’re still working.”)

There is no hope, they tell you. You can’t grasp the situation fully (only they possess The Special Teachings and know The Secret Handshake, but they’re sure not going to share them with the likes of you—at least not for free). You haven’t put in enough years; you aren’t yet teaching at Great Big U. (although, at least in Italy, questions about nepotism, favoritism, and competence ought to, as they say, “rise spontaneous” whenever you encounter someone who holds a permanent professorship in a university); you don’t represent the Association of Supremely Sublime Holders of Language Expertise and Savvy.

I’m reminded of the old story about crab fishing. Once you’ve got them all in a bucket, you never have to worry about any of them running away. The minute one crab tries to climb out, the others instantly latch hold of him with their claws and their combined weight drags him back down.

Unfortunately, a lot of translation blogging is like that. If it were only hot air, it could just be ignored. But Translation Borg actually succeed in stealing initiative and energy from translators who propose new ideas, who are looking for a better way. They suck it all down into the black hole of the “collective” (which consists of them and their cronies, those happy few who have “arrived”). No light ever escapes from that gravitational force.

In another context, they’d be called “reactionaries,” but the word “action” in the middle might mislead you. Action is the last thing on their minds.

When you read translation blogs, especially those of translators who claim to have “long experience in the field” or who seem to have impressive credentials, you need only ask yourself: At the end, do I feel more or less powerful? Am I more or less frustrated? Am I more or less convinced that things can get better for me in the profession I’ve chosen?

If, after reading, you feel less hopeful and more discouraged, step away from the bucket and leave the crabs to themselves. You can rest assured, meanwhile, that raising issues like these with benaltrista bloggers is useless. Their problems are truly ben altro.


Posted on 13 July 2010, in Crimes Against Translation, Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. >Disfattisti, nichilisti, supponenti; hai perfettamente reso l'idea. Non sono solo fra i traduttori, temo… l'Italia ne è piena, di questa gente inutile che alla fine non vuole vender altro che sé stessa.

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