On Socrates, Sophists, and Translation Gurus

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Socrates is known to many as the first martyr of moral philosophy. After being accused by his fellow Athenians of “impiety, worshiping new gods, and corrupting the young,” he was convicted by a narrow majority of the jury and sentenced to drinking the poisonous beverage of hemlock. Whether or not there is any truth to the accusations that resulted in his conviction is, of course, relative, and depends on how you define impiety. In his dialog with Euthyphro, for example, not only did Socrates put forward a compelling and virtually irrefutable case against polytheism, but he established the logical basis for calling monotheism into question as well, thus shaking the moral foundations upon which Ancient Greece had been built. “The discovery of truth,” claims Arthur Schopenhauer, “is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.” In a society led by myth and prejudice, the truth could very well be that Socrates was guilty as charged.

As Socrates awaited his execution, or so Plato tells us, he was visited by his loyal friend Crito who had a proposition for him. As a wealthy and powerful Athenian, Crito had arranged for Socrates’ escape, unknowingly placing Socrates in the moral dilemma that would forever define his place in history: to live out his remaining years as a traitor or die a martyr for the truth of philosophy. Socrates chose the latter, and thus went down in glory as an example of virtue, integrity, and moral consistency.

In addition to his accusers, Socrates had many enemies among the Sophists. Unlike Socrates and his disciples, the Sophists did not believe in objective truth and, to add insult to injury, were willing to charge for their service, often attaining riches and fame by offering the wealthy young men of Greece an education in aretē (a magnificently elusive term used by the Ancient Greeks to mean roughly “virtue” or “excellence”). In the eyes of Socrates, Plato, and later Aristotle, the Sophists were morally unscrupulous, intellectual charlatans who deliberately resorted to fallacious reasoning to defend unjust causes for a fee. They were a different breed of philosopher who cared more about wealth than truth.

But the truth again seems unattainable and this negative account of the Sophists was later challenged by intellectual heavyweights such as Hegel, Grote, Derrida, and Francois-Lyotard. Today, we’re not as quick to judge that other breed of philosopher, because, whether Socrates and his disciples liked it or not, Sophists of the caliber of Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Hippias, Prodicus and Thrasymachus seemed to have made some sort of contribution to human knowledge, at least by departing from the paideia (aristocratic model of education) and challenging the status quo.

Still, one is inclined to think that even their contribution to knowledge can’t redeem them from having operated on the basis of at least two empty promises: that aretē could be taught to all free citizens of Greece (a claim implicitly put forward by Protagoras in his well-known speech on the origins of justice) and that, assuming one had the capacity to pay their fees, they could provide the ambitious young men of Greece with the power to prevail in public life. So, while Socrates and his disciples employed the dialectic method to search for truth, the Sophists and theirs resorted to eristic and antilogical methods to sell what Socrates would probably refer to as BS if he were alive today.

“We, lawyers, are the intellectual heirs of the Sophists,” proudly boasted a professor of mine many years ago. “How so?” I asked. “We sell BS to the highest bidder,” he replied with a smirk. Although that’s far from the way I conceive of the legal profession, at least in my circles, it still exemplifies the problem with sophism (and, perhaps, with the legal profession outside my circles).

Last week, as I brushed up on the Sophists and began to pick reading materials for my Ethics students to ponder over next semester, I got to thinking of how much the Sophists remind me of translation insta-gurus (or is it the other way around?). Coincidentally, that was roughly around the same time a certain insta-guru led group imploded while another failed miserably to raise an exorbitant amount of money. As I watched these events unfold, I remembered that wise old Abraham Lincoln quote I learned in elementary school, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

But how do we know when we’re being fooled? What separates those who have the best interest of our profession in mind from those who are simply preying on the young, the inexperienced, or the otherwise weak? It obviously isn’t the fact that they charge for their service (or disservice, depending on where they stand). It’s not like Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great for free, and I can certainly think of many respectable translators-turned-mentors out there who charge for their books, courses, masterclasses, etc. without coming off as insta-gurus or otherwise taking advantage of others. It isn’t the fact that many of them focus their efforts on teaching translators how to do business. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with preparing people for today’s complex business world. So, what then separates gurus from mentors?

Perhaps it’s their ethic. Despite relatively recent attempts to rebrand sophism, we continue to mistrust the Sophists because, on some level, we intuitively know aretē cannot be taught. Just like talent for translation, aretē is something you either have or you don’t. There are no magical formulas for overcoming the threats and challenges our profession currently faces, but being really good at what you do helps enormously, and gurus seem to have little or no interest in helping anyone develop hard skills. Instead, they sell the empty promise that soft skills are enough to get by.

A mentor can show you the ropes, but cannot promise you success. “Success” is to the insta-guru sales pitch what aretē was to that of the Sophists. And as someone who humbly takes part in the centuries-long tradition of seeking excellence by emulating those who have achieved mastery before me, it’s no wonder insta-gurus just rub me the wrong way. They are, after all, spewing false promises, for a fee, in the general direction of people who are genuinely trying to learn, overcome challenges, and improve themselves.
——

In the interest of helping my fellow translators avoid gurus and find good advice from solid professionals, I’d like to recommend some resources for your holiday reading:

Books:

The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban (I never get tired of recommending this one)

Confessions of a Freelance Translator by Gary Smith

The Business Guide for Translators by Marta Stelmaszak-Rosa

Blog posts:

Some Thoughts on Freelance Income by Corinne McKay (for those who don’t think you can earn a good living as a translator)

Business and Ethics by Helen Eby (for those who are just getting started or getting reorganized)

12 Traps Newbie Translators Fall Into by Rose Newell (for newbies and not-so-newbies)

No conflict of interest: In case you’re wondering, nobody’s paying me to recommend these resources.

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12 thoughts on “On Socrates, Sophists, and Translation Gurus

  1. anagauz says:

    You just drew a compelling parallel here, Paula. I hope it reaches many of our colleagues and inspires them to look for genuine guidance alongside specialized knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 2015ttstart says:

    Thank you for brushing up and sharing with us.

    What do you think about Socrates also being resigned to his death in the way of the stoics, he had reasoned so much that escaping wasn’t even an option for him. Thanks for bringing this all up!

    Will you be using Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with your students? Highly recommendable! Saludos desde México.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment, Jesse! I would turn your statement around though. Any Stoic who may have resigned to his death did so in the way of Socrates, not the other way around. The Stoics came several centuries after Socrates, long after the fall of Greece and rise of Rome, and were heavily influenced by Greek virtue ethics.

      We do read fragments from Nicomachean Ethics in class. It’s a must in any ethics curriculum. However, despite the impression one might get from my post, I’m actually not a fan of virtue ethics at all.

      Like

      • 2015ttstart says:

        Great food for thought, thank you. I would be interested to hear more about what ethics you are a fan of. One of my favourite modern books on ethics is The Good, The Bad and The Difference by Randy Cohen. Thanks again for your post.

        Like

  3. I agree with the cautionary advice, but at the same time we need to consider that one person’s “Instaguru” could be another’s “mentor”, and vice versa. Or in other words: The relevancy and value of the content are debatable, while motives and intentions could be a matter of personal interpretation.
    There are no categorical Good or Evil, just interests.

    I might contribute to a longer post exploring this issue, and if I’ll do that I post a link to it here, but to sum it up: One should approach colleagues (note that a number of so-called “trainers/mentors/gurus” masquerade as translators), or anyone else for that matter, selling advice with caution and diligence.
    For the very least one should read up on the author/presenter/expert; check how long they are in business (or were in business at the time of publishing) and if their track record is even relevant to the advice they offer, and if they are still actually working as a translator/interpreter and haven’t got so involved in their “diversification” and “entrepreneurship” (writing books, speaking at conferences, running other businesses etc.) that they feed from the translation community instead of supporting it.
    The so-called “Professional Community” seems to have embraced style over substance, replacing reliable signals with superficial ones; the information people provide about themselves and other unreliable signals such as social media “stardom” seem to be enough to crown someone an “expert” or an “authority”. Be duly diligent and exercise common sense.

    Liked by 2 people

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