On Narratives

narratives-2

One of the reasons this blog went silent for so long, as explained in a previous post, was that I felt overwhelmed by the anti-intellectualism in today’s dominant “translation industry” narrative, but another (closely related) reason was the overall lack of genuine informed debate about the state of our profession. It seems one is forced to accept one of two leading narratives: 1) In the translation industry, if one wishes to survive, perhaps one must lower one’s rates and quality standards (the latter was actually suggested by a speaker at a conference I recently attended), or 2) we are all helpless victims of evil overlords who are trying to reduce translators to machine-post cogs. You either embrace change or you are part of the problem. While both narratives appear convincing in their own unique ways, they both seem to have a long way to go in terms of verifiable facts and methodologically solid research to support their claims. Advocates on either side sometimes confuse their opinions, personal experiences, and personal interpretations of significant events with actual facts.

In the industry-oriented “adapt or die” narrative you either buy in or you will be left behind. You have no choice but to embrace the status quo or you will not survive the inevitable new trend. Thus, the only path is the path of acceptance. Meanwhile, in the “evil overlord” narrative you either mix business with politics and join the revolution or there will be no profession left for you to practice. Thus, the only path is the path of resistance. Either way, you’re caught in a false dichotomy between two opposing worldviews that have little or no independent, peer reviewed, empirical evidence to fall back on. In other words, they both require a leap of faith.

On the one hand, the adapt or die narrative is both morally and intellectually neutral, failing to critically assess its own basic claims. It questions nothing. It simply postulates that a) this is how it is; b) because it is how it is, it need not be questioned (or what’s worst, because it is how it is, it is how it ought to be [Hume would have a field day with this one!]); c) let’s just make the best of it and see if we can profit from it somehow. Though adapt or die may seem like common sense in a changing world, this view is problematic. First, because it fails to provide solid evidence of its claims. Second, because it ignores the intellectual aspect of the economic activity we call “translation,” confusing the fact that it is an economic activity with the fantasy that all it is is an economic activity. Thus, it focuses solely on how to do business in a changing world with little or no regard for anything else, especially not mastery or skill. Finally, it forgets that human beings are rational animals and that with rationality comes moral agency and with agency comes self-determination. The adapt or die narrative expects us to simply conform without question; and in doing so, it denies us our agency.

On the other hand, the evil overlord narrative presents itself as being both morally and intellectually superior. And, I’ve got to hand it to them, they have far better writers! But it parts from a claim that is both alienating and self-destructive at the same time: the problem is political (some go as far as to claim the problem is capitalism). It references notions of fairness, justice, and wealth distribution and immediately associates these concepts with the basic tenets of the political left. Thus, if individuals share a certain political inclination, this narrative is naturally appealing to them. But if they don’t share that political inclination, even if they can relate to the narrative’s appeal to our basic human decency and empathy, potential supporters from other parts of the political spectrum are immediately alienated. All issues are viewed through the lens of a particular political worldview; and, therefore, all proposed collective solutions call for political consensus as well. In addition, because this view is often presented behind a veil of helpless philosophical determinism (which I’ve addressed in a different post), it too denies us our agency.

Like many other people, I have no inclination to embrace either narrative. But that does not mean I’m turning a blind eye, or “relegating everyone else to the margins” as I move upmarket. And I know I’m not alone. While I admit that I cringed when I heard the above mentioned adapt or die advocate tell a roomful of professional translators that this is just the direction translation is headed and even premium market translators won’t be able to charge premium rates forever, I also cringed when I read this call to “resist the efforts of the industry to coopt us into cogs or atomize us into fragments” and to “fight collectively for a more equitable distribution of respect and of profit.” Not that I have anything against an equitable distribution of respect; but wealth distribution is a different question, a political question. So when the author suggests that ensuring a better tomorrow “means ‘political’ analysis of the practices and ideologies promoted by such organizations as TAUS, the ATA, and others,” I can’t help but wonder why anyone who doesn’t want to be atomized into fragments would want to further the divide by bringing politics to the table.

Though I admire the writing and argumentation skills of the person who wrote the paper I quoted in the previous paragraph, I can’t help but see a logical gap between the author’s ethical and political analysis. The future of translation cannot be contingent upon our embracing and collectively supporting politically charged views from any part of the spectrum. What we are facing is an ethical challenge; and political agreement is not a prerequisite for advancing on an ethical plane. Of course, one could argue that I am trying to draw an artificial line between politics and ethics; but the fact that all political beliefs stand on moral foundations (or at least claim to do so) does not mean that ethics and politics are one in the same. It is possible to differ politically, while still sharing the same moral values. We may, for example, all agree that “dignity” is a superior moral value, we may agree on which business practices are consistent with this value or how we should draft a professional Code of Ethics with dignity at its core, while still disagreeing on which political policies advance human dignity in our country or even which political model our government should adopt. These are simply different questions. Thus, if we need to appeal to anything right now, it’s neither to industry neutrality nor to the politicization of the business world. First, we need solid research to fully comprehend what’s going on. Without information we’re are all just wading through the darkness. Second, once we have that information, we need to consolidate our Codes of Ethics and basic business practices; and that means engaging, not alienating, every key stakeholder from freelancers to multinational corporations to professional associations to work together.

My readers may note that I left out a third narrative, the “move upmarket” narrative. The “move upmarket” narrative is a minority view that is equally at odds with both the adapt or die narrative and with the evil overlords narrative. The reason it was left out is that minority views exceed the scope of this post. I will admit, for the sake of intellectual honesty, that of all the narratives out there, the move upmarket narrative makes the most sense to me, despite its First World centrism. But that’s probably a topic for an entirely different post.

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8 thoughts on “On Narratives

  1. anagauz says:

    I like your balanced and honest view of a subject that’s been splitting our professional category apart. I’ve been keeping my ears open, and my eyes peeled for all discussions on this issue while maintaining an open mind. However, believing that our fate is sealed, that nothing can be done, and we can only adjust to a situation we do not approve of is preposterous and completely against my convictions.

    The second view you described presents itself, at least as I perceive it, in more flavors, with varying colors or depths. What seems to connect them all is their political nature. Perhaps that’s why I kept my distance, without, however, being able to put my finger on what did not exactly fit my vision.

    I lean towards an ethical approach for the solution (or the attempt of it) of our problems. I believe we can work on the issues with ethics – not politics – being our common ground.

    Thank you for putting your ideas out there about such a sensitive topic. And I praise whoever does the same, regardless of their opinions, as long as they do it in a respectful and ethical manner.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Ana! I wholeheartedly agree. We need to discuss the sensitive issues affecting our profession in an ethical and respectful manner, and it’s a shame we don’t see enough of that. I suspect that, when it comes to our core values, we’ll find a lot of common ground, even among people with radically different worldviews and political beliefs. It’s sometimes hard to look past our difference, control our emotions, and focus on what really matters. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve failed at that myself in the past. However, I know it’s an ability I must strive to cultivate every day. I owe it to myself and to my my larger professional community.

      I believe the two dominant narratives are inherently unproductive and advocates on both sides need to ask themselves how they can do better. Adapt or die advocates need to realize it’s not just business as usual. There are things that need fixing, and we need to discuss them with integrity and intellectual honestly. But evil overlord advocates need to do a little introspection as well. Playing the blame game, pointing fingers, and relying on politics just furthers the divide and defeats their own aim of finding collective solutions. Both narratives are ultimately self-destructive.

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  2. Paula, add me to the list of people who are really glad you are blogging again! I agree with you that both of these viewpoints are ultimately unproductive (not to mention depressing). But they are also getting louder; in the past few months, I’ve had two experienced translators in their 60s, whose opinions I respect, tell me (paraphrasing here), “The translation industry is headed nowhere good. If I were your age, I’d either get out and do something totally different while you still have a couple of decades left to work, or squeeze as much money as you can out of your translation work while it lasts, so that you can afford to stop working when the industry completely collapses.”

    Of course, there are holes in that theory (including the fact that translation is basically my only marketable skill 🙂 ). But I still think it’s notable that this happened *twice*, and that these people aren’t tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists. I’m with you on the “upmarket” approach, and personally I feel little to no *actual* repercussions of the effects you mentioned. I don’t work with clients who pressure me to lower my rates, and I don’t particularly concern myself with things I can’t control, like evil overlords. But still, there’s definitely something going on.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Corinne! There obviously is something going on and we need to pay critical attention to what that something is. As an ATA member, I find your comment very encouraging, among other reasons, because it ultimately confirms that professional organizations are made up of translators who are just as concerned about these issues as everyone else.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your insights on this dichotomy, Paula. I found your summary of the two narratives very perceptive. But I’m glad you mentioned the third, ‘move upmarket’, narrative at the end, as I had this nagging at the back of my mind while reading. In fact, in the article you link to, isn’t this what the author rather disdainfully calls the ‘prosperity gospel’?

    I find the ‘move upmarket’ approach the most appealing, too. I hope you find time to write more about this ‘minority’ narrative and how it contrasts with the other two world views.

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    • Thank you, Jayne! It is, indeed, the “prosperity gospel” narrative. I can’t see how anyone could paint prosperity as a bad thing, especially considering the invaluable contribution that many of its advocates have made to our profession over the past decades. Even though I can see how those of us who come from the developing world need to make an extra effort to adapt the narrative to our somewhat harsher realities, I see no reason for throwing the whole narrative out the window, or what’s worse, demonizing it and its advocates altogether. I will definitely blog about this when I get back from San Francisco. 🙂

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    • Thanks for your comment! I’m currently in Mexico for the Guadalajara Book Fair and OMT conference, so my next post will be about that. But I’m sure I’ll get around to the move upmarket narrative in the near future.

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