On Translators and Soapbox Orators

Soapbox Orator

Over 4100 people subscribe to this blog. As the author, I find that number quite humbling. I know that not all 4100 people will read every post I write. When they receive my post in their inbox, many people will simply delete it without opening it, some will let it sit for a few days only to delete it later, while others may choose to unsubscribe if they don’t like what I have to say. But most will read it over the course of the week. Many will share it on social media. Some will leave comments. Others will PM me and start a private conversation and some of those conversations will blossom into e-friendships. That’s how this blog has worked since day one.

Despite the numeric success of Translator’s Digest, a few months ago, I was convinced that it was time to pull the plug on it. Why? Well, back then, I could have written a book with all my well thought-out and perfectly articulated reasons. Yet today, I can barely remember any of them.

Quite some time ago, a friend I deeply respect and admire was about to start a blog of her own. Naturally, she had some doubts, mainly because her blog was going to be in a language other than English, and given the predominance of the English language over the blogosphere, she was concerned about whether or not anyone would read it. At the time, she said bloggers sort of reminded her of 19th century soapbox orators desperately yelling into idle and indifferent crowds.

At a time when the translation world was flooded with dishonest gurus, veiled attempts to monetize the intellectual graveyard that has recently reinvented itself as the next wannabe translation workplace, and aggressive and petty attacks on colleagues who have been fighting the good fight against commoditization and deprofessionalization, I was ready to get off the soapbox and go home.

In the two years and half since I started this blog, I’ve had many chances to monetize Translator’s Digest. From companies contacting me to advertise on my blog to sponsored content “opportunities.” All of which I politely turned down. (For those who are wondering, the ads you see at the end of my posts have nothing to do with me. Apparently, it’s the price I pay for using a free WordPress plan.)

With 4100 readers, why not jump at the opportunity to monetize? Well, for many reasons. Because words matter and nobody’s going to put words in my mouth for a couple of bucks. Because I earn enough as a translator so that I don’t need to mooch off my colleagues to make ends meet. But, mainly, because I firmly believe in the power of rational thought and deliberation to reshape our world, and a small part of me believes (or wishes) this blog serves as a tiny and humble attempt at a habermassian public square, which is, naturally, not for sale.

As someone who measures time not in terms of money but in terms of life, I told myself I prefer to invest what little free time I have in things that are edifying, that make some sort of difference, or that, at least, make me happy. So, I stopped writing, stopped participating in social media groups, stopped trying to reason with people, and focused my attention elsewhere. But the only true constant in life is change and, in the words of the [cool-turned-corporate-sell out] punk band I loved in my youth, “dammit, I changed again!”

Something happened recently in my personal life that forced me to rethink my priorities, something that reminded me of why I used to like writing this blog in the first place. I remembered that, although I often feel like a soapbox orator, every now and then there are good days when someone stops to listen. On great days, someone answers back. And on even greater days, we engage in stimulating conversations about our profession. Sometimes our words float across the internet and start new conversations elsewhere. Sometimes those conversations challenge today’s dominant and destructive narrative, and translators are reminded that translation is not a commodity but a valuable intellectual service that, among other things, helps businesses grow, advances human rights, and serves several critical social purposes.

In Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality (what is arguably one of his most thought-provoking and controversial essays), American philosopher Richard Rorty postulates that the classic human nature debate initiated by Plato and still unresolved to this date is moot.

“We are much less inclined to pose the ontological question “What are we?” because we have come to see that the main lesson of both history and anthropology is our extraordinary malleability. We are coming to think of ourselves as the flexible, protean, self-shaping animal rather than the rational animal or the cruel animal.

One of the shapes we have recently assumed is that of the human rights culture.”

He then goes on to analyze how the human rights culture, so installed in our minds today, is a post-war construct that was made possible by our inherent malleability. We can build worlds, he claims, just like we can build bridges. We can shape our own sociopolitical systems, making our reality not a product of an uncontrollable inherent nature, but of our own self-shaping, collective desires. In other words, things don’t just happen to us. We have a say in the world around us because we’ve crafted the systems and networks that make our existence possible.

In that same vein, one could argue that the issues affecting our profession aren’t fully beyond our control either. Misuse of CAT tools by the knights of low-end translation may or may not be leading to the commoditization of translation. Machine Translation may or may not be posing a real threat to our jobs. Professional organizations may or may not be doing enough to voice our concerns. Old platforms may or may not have contributed to driving down prices while their copycats may or may not be making professional translators look like babbling baboons. Regardless of where we stand, individually, on each of these issues (even if our stance is that of indifference), they shape our world. So, we need to continue to talk about them. And as a good friend recently pointed out, I need to write about stuff I actually care about, and there are few things I care about more than the future of our profession.

However, despite my firm belief in the power of deliberation, I tend to lose hope whenever I visit any forum where translators are discussing any of these issues. Why? Basically because of the way we treat each other when we hold dissenting views. In light of recent events, I can’t help but wonder: Can we discuss the issues calmly, rationally, and constructively enough to have a positive impact on our own future? Or will all attempts at habermassian public squares be doomed either by the idleness and indifference of those who are only looking out for “yours truly” or the tomato-tossing rage of those who confuse aggressiveness with strength, sarcasm with intelligence, and meanness with wit? For the sake of our profession, I hope Rorty and Habermas were right. I hope we can do better before we condescendingly and aggressively argue ourselves into irrelevance.

On the unvirtuousness of tolerance and moral value of respect

martin tricosy

Far best is he who knows all things himself;

Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;

But he who neither knows, or lays to heart

Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.


A very important debate in moral philosophy is that of intrinsic virtues (or, interchangeably, “goods”). In Western thought, the notion of intrinsic virtues dates back to Plato. As Aristotle wrote in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics while attempting to unravel the nature of Good, “[…] the Platonists have not been speaking about all goods, […] the goods [which] are pursued and loved for themselves are called good by reference to a single Form, while those which tend to produce or to preserve those somehow or to prevent their contraries are called so by reference to these, and in the secondary sense. Clearly, then, goods must be spoken of in two ways, and some must be good in themselves, the others by reason of these.” This debate between Aristotle and his mentor sparked a long tradition of attempting to classify virtues (or goods) as either intrinsic or instrumental, where the latter simply advance the former.

When I was in law school, Professor Martin Farrell, one of the most distinguished minds in legal and moral philosophy in the country, taught us a hack for differentiating between intrinsic and instrumental virtues. Farrell proposed parting from the good you are trying to classify and asking yourself why. If the question makes sense, the virtue is instrumental. If the question does not make sense, it is intrinsic.

Imagine the good in question were happiness, does it make sense to ask “why do you want to be happy?” Of course, it does not. Happiness, therefore, is intrinsic. Now imagine the good in question were education. Does it make sense to ask “why do you want an education (instead of, say, a job)?” Of course, it does. One may want an education for many different reasons from “having a better future” to “using my knowledge to help others” and pretty much anything else in between. Conversely, one may have no interest in getting an education at all and simply choose to exercise the right to design your own life plan without exercising the right to an education; thus it follows that education is an instrumental good that will help further whatever virtue we are ultimately trying to achieve with that education, regardless of whether our inner motivations are purely personal and perhaps even self-interested or collective and aimed at benefiting society as a whole. (Needless to say, in this example we are assuming the moral agent is not being deprived of an education in any way and that the subject is freely exercising a choice.)

But let us not be fooled, claims Farrell, some alleged goods are neither intrinsic nor instrumental; their moral value depends on how we use them. Take loyalty as an example. We intuitively believe loyalty is a virtue. Some will argue that it is an intrinsic good. We may be tempted to think loyalty is an intrinsic good when we think about loyalty to our family, our community, or other things we hold dear. But what of loyalty to Hitler? What of loyalty to a gang? What of loyalty to a drug cartel? Loyalty can be good or bad depending on the object of our loyalty, thus loyalty is not a good at all, it is a way in which we relate to goods. The same can be said about perseverance. It is one thing to persevere in the quest for finding the cure for polio, but an entirely different thing to persevere in the genocide of Jews, Roma and other ethnic minorities.

This philosophical exercise helps us put virtues in perspective. One such “virtue” is tolerance. While one could argue that tolerance is indeed a virtue, I argue that it is not. Allow me to explain.

Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as follows:

  1. capacity to endure pain or hardship: endurancefortitudestamina
  2. a:  sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own b:  the act of allowing something:  toleration
  3. the allowable deviation from a standard; especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece
  4. a(1):  the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (such as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure developed a tolerance to painkillersalso:  the immunological state marked by unresponsiveness to a specific antigen (2):  relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor b:  the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that may lawfully remain on or in food

For the purpose of this post, only definitions 1 and 2 are relevant. Let’s take a look at number one. While one could imagine the capacity to endure pain or hardship is a virtue, is it still a virtue if that pain or hardship is being endured to advance an unjust cause? It’s not difficult to think of situations in which soldiers, for example, endure pain and hardship, and not necessarily in the name of freedom or justice or any other virtue a healthy society should strive to advance. Now let’s take a look at definition number two, which tells us that tolerance is “indulgence” for (i.e. giving free rein to) ideas or beliefs that conflict with ours; as if freedom to have conflicting views were really ours to give in the first place. In view of these definitions, tolerance seems to have no intrinsic or instrumental value whatsoever. Instead, its worth depends solely on what is being tolerated and why. Like loyalty and perseverance, tolerance is a way in which we relate to virtues, be them instrumental or intrinsic.

What is a virtue, however, is respect. While it may not be clear whether it’s instrumental or intrinsic, I will argue it is the former. The question of why I should respect another human being can often be a legitimate question and it’s at the core of our Criminal Law Systems. Why should I respect someone who is rude to me? Why should I respect someone who hurt me? Why should I respect someone who does not appear to be my intellectual equal? Why should I respect someone whose actions I find offensive or perhaps even abhorrent? Why should I respect someone who seems unworthy of my respect for (insert subjective reason of choice here)? In other words, why should respect someone who deem unworthy of respect? (When you extrapolate these questions to the legal plane, they take forms like “why should States give humane treatment to criminals?”).

While asking such questions may not speak well of us from the point of view of those standing on a moral high-horse, these questions are legitimate because they touch on a core question we’ve been asking ourselves since the beginning of time: What makes us human? Respecting another human being, even one that has harmed us, one that professes a religion with which we disagree, one that seems unintelligent or “animal-like,” even one whose mere existence is threatening, is essential to advancing an intrinsic moral value that benefits us all as a species: human dignity.

It does not make sense to ask why someone would want dignity. Asking “what will you do with your dignity?” is like asking “what will you do with your life.” You may disagree with what a person does with her life, but that does not give you the right to kill her. Similarly, you may disagree with what a dignified human being is, but that does not give you the right to rob a person of her dignity, to treat her with disrespect, to humiliate or belittle her, or to otherwise deprive her of her humanity. Too much of this is going on in the world and look at where it’s gotten us. Too much of this is going on in our profession. And, honestly, too much of this is going on online when translators discuss the issues that matter to them.

Every time we treat another human being with disrespect because we disagree with their views or the way they live their lives, or even the way they exercise our beautiful profession, we are attacking them on an intrinsic human level.

In disrespecting others, we are ultimately also hurting ourselves. When we fail to communicate our ideas rationally, to listen to others and allow their views to challenge or strengthen our own, we fail as human beings. We fail to exercise the one distinctly human trait that is at the heart of our moral, social, and legal systems: our moral agency anchored in our capacity for empathy and rational thought. Let us not allow the distance and apparent anonymity of social media turn us all into Plato’s featherless bipeds who have forgotten what it means to be human.

On Socrates, Sophists, and Translation Gurus


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’s 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:


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.

The Opportunity Cost of Misplaced Entitlement in Translation

Comprehensive list

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted a picture of “a comprehensive list of everything you are entitled to and that which the world owes you.” The image was that of an empty sheet of paper. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

Later that week, someone in a translation group posted a copy of an incredibly rude, whiny, and ineffective message they had sent out to a potential client who was simply trying to open the door to a negotiation. The translator was insulted, apparently, because the agency owner wanted to negotiate in the first place: not drive down price with a ludicrous offer, just negotiate. Things escalated and got quite ugly pretty quickly once the agency owner went online and came across her name and confidential information about the job (information which had been given to the translator in good faith for the sole purpose of evaluating and quoting the job).

I happen to know both parties involved. The translator does a lot of online bragging about his rudeness to agencies who just don’t seem to get how special he is; and the agency owner is actually a really great person, who pays well, on time, and is an absolute pleasure to work with. I have in fact recommended several colleagues in other language pairs to this boutique agency and they have the same impression as I do. So on the one hand we have a serial agency basher and problematic translator and on the other hand we have a boutique translation business owner who was looking after her client’s interests and her own business. How dare she?!?!

Had the translator not been betrayed by his own Ego and misplaced sense of entitlement, he would have landed a great client, as the agency’s concern had more to do with the translator’s proposed deadline than with his price. Had the translator focused on interests instead of positions, he would have realized the agency was willing to pay his proposed price (and even a bit more, according to the agency) to get the translation a couple of days earlier and have enough time to review it in-house before final delivery to the end client. Instead, the translator took to social media to list all that to which he is entitled on the count of his self-perceived sheer awesomeness (paraphrasing Po the Panda).

Of course, there’s more than one way to understand the concept of entitlement. If by entitlement we are referring to our legal entitlements (i.e. the rights we each have in virtue of being human), then the empty “comprehensive list of everything you are entitled to” is flat-out insensitive to the entire notion of justice and clueless as to the many sufferings of the world. However, if by “entitlement” we are referring to some people’s unjustified belief that they have a right to certain privileges or special treatment just because they are who they are (i.e. white, rich, etc.), then the idea behind that picture is well worth promoting and the translator in question should learn from it.

I have insisted in many different posts that professionals need to watch their online behavior at all times. It’s oftentimes the first thing people see and you never know where in the web a potential client is waiting to be discovered. In today’s world, opportunity no longer “knocks at your door,” sometimes it IMs you or pokes you on Facebook. So when we go online to brag about how rude and rough we got with a client or to troll other translators in forums or blog comments, what we’re really doing is telling the world there is a side of us that feels it is better than other people, that others owe us this or that because we are SO cool, that we know better, that we are smarter, that we own a thesaurus, that we read some business guru and bought into the hype, that we can write complicated sentences, etc. You get the point.

What we’re not doing is helping to promote professionalism in translation or in any way earning other people’s respect. One could argue respect is a given. It’s not something you earn. Perhaps in everyday life that is true. We say “please” and “thank you” to absolute strangers on a daily basis out of respect and those are givens. But the kind of respect that comes with placing value on a person at a professional level, with wanting to pay their fees and to accept their terms and conditions are not givens. Professional respect is earned. You don’t respect your doctor’s professional opinion simply because he or she wears a white coat and has a stethoscope around their neck, you respect their professional opinion once they have proven to be qualified, reliable professionals who know their stuff. So why should translation be any different?

How to handle stress in translation… like a dog

peeing dog (2)

A translator’s life can be stressful. We quote jobs, plan out our workflow, research terms, translate, make invoices, market our services, study, read, take care of our loved ones, run our homes, run our businesses, train hard, and some of us even try to have a social life. Lots of responsibilities often result in lots of stress. A few years back, I discovered that, for me, running is a big help in coping with the physical and psychological toll of translation. But there’s more to managing stress than simply releasing it through some sort of physical activity or hobby. Effectively dealing with stress requires a certain kind of attitude toward life in general.

In difficult times, people who are admirably good at handling stress remain like Hollis in Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope (in The Illustrated Man): “objective,” even when he feels himself “falling” toward Earth, knowing he’ll go up in flames when he hits the Earth’s atmosphere. Remaining emotionally detached and objective helps keep stressful situations under control. The calmer and more objective one remains, the more quickly and effectively things can be dealt with. But this calmness and lack of emotional reaction to even the most stressful situations is not an easy skill to master, which is why I think we could learn a thing or two from dogs; or at least the oldest and wisest of my dogs, “Cosquillitas” (roughly, “Tickles” in English).

Aside from being the sweetest and most ticklish dog in the world, Cosquillitas is the epitome of canine wisdom. He’s a Boxer we adopted right off the street a few years ago after he laid down in exhaustion on a pile of leaves on our front lawn on a very cold winter’s day. He was bone thin and had a large tumor protruding from his testicles. He had a lazy eye, was missing a piece of his right ear, and had scars and lumps all over his body. It was the most heartbreaking sight we’d ever seen. So we fed him and brought him water; and when we had earned his trust and he was strong enough to stand up on his own, we invited him inside the house. He did nothing but eat and sleep for the first few days while we made accommodations for our new friend and found a vet. Shortly after we took him in, he began to show signs of recovery, but the vet believed he had suffered prolonged physical abuse and had possibly been used as a fight dog. He had an untreated spinal injury from several years back and by the time we got him there was not much to be done about that other than manage his pain and discomfort. Because of that old injury, his legs are crooked and he walks a bit funnily now.

He was one of the saddest dogs I had ever seen. But before you reach for your box of Kleenex, I have good news: This sad story has a happy ending. He made a full recovery and is now the crowned king of my house. He’s surrounded by people who care for him 24/7. He sleeps indoors on a custom made dog bed and always gets plenty of food and love. His biggest concern at this point in his life is what toy he feels like playing with or which of his humans he feels like hanging out with (but let’s face it, it’s usually me!). Yet all his hardships affected his behavior and seem to have endowed him with what can only be described as Zen-like wisdom. He is determined to be happy and enjoy the little things: napping under the sun, taking morning walks, playing with his toys, giving and receiving affection, being tickled, you know, typical dog stuff. But he also always stays calm in stressful situations, like going to the vet, getting his blood drawn or having to sit still for his ECGs. He accepts the things he doesn’t like, doesn’t fully understand and cannot control, all the time trusting his humans who can do nothing other than tell him things are going to be OK.

The way I see it, my dog is onto something when it comes to handling stress: There is no point in worrying about that which you cannot change or control, all you can do is endure the unpleasant moment while all the time trusting that it will pass and things will work out. When Cosquillitas sticks his head out the car window on the way to the vet, he knows exactly where we’re going and he knows there’s a high chance it’s going to be unpleasant. But he trusts that when the visit to the vet is over, things will go back to normal. So during the ride, instead of worrying about the inevitable, he just enjoys the wind in his face, the smell in the air, the imagery, and the unexplored possibilities of the world: All the trees out there to pee on, the birds out there to bark at, the friends out there to meet. He’s calm and relaxed. He does not dwell on the unpleasantness of what’s coming. He just kicks back and takes in as much of the good as he can so he can endure what he has to endure at the vet, just to get back to enjoying life again the second we walk out of there. And the minute it’s over, he’s back to wagging his tail and doing his happy little dance. The vet is out of his mind as soon as we walk out the door.

Silly though this may sound, I think handling stress in translation is a lot like handling the inevitable visit to the vet. We know there are challenges and difficulties up ahead and we know we’ll have to face them and it won’t be pleasant; but they do not account for the total sum of our day. Our here and now does not have to be ruined by the inevitable moment when things get rough during our workday. It is a single moment (or two) in what can otherwise be an entire day full of accomplishments, wonder, and endless possibilities. To handle stress, we need to understand the irrelevance of the unpleasant moments we can neither change nor control and indulge in the wonderful little things that give meaning to our lives. We need to learn to control our anxiety over what’s coming and let go of stressful events the minute they are over. In other words, we need to learn from dogs: “If you can’t eat or play with it, then pee on it and walk away!

Cosquillitas and me

Cosquillitas and me

My Message to Frustrated Newbies: Finding Translation Clients On Your Own is Good for Your Professional Growth

Marty Growing UP

Another week another debate on another forum I follow. The hot topic this time was why senior translators are happy to share info on bad payers in blacklists, but are unwilling to give out any information on good clients. This is not entirely accurate in my case. I’m more than happy to leave positive reviews for great clients on different sites and platforms if they ask; what I am not willing to do is go online on a public forum with hundreds of translators and just give out potentially confidential information without client knowledge or consent.

In context, the more reasonable newbies were simply expressing their frustration at how hard it is to find good clients and were asking why seniors can’t be more supportive and give them some leads. However, the less reasonable newbies just did a lot of complaining and accused us seniors of being insensitive to their struggles, threatened by the younger generations, or just flat out selfish and petty (not necessarily in those words, though).

These claims were met with polite responses from seniors explaining the importance of client-confidentiality, the principle of fair competition in market economies, etc. But still some newbies were not convinced and others even seemed offended that this valuable information was not simply handed to them on a silver platter. So here’s my message to the angrier and more frustrated newbies in the bunch:

As much as I sympathize with your situation, I don’t think seniors would be doing you any favors by just handing things to you as if you were incapable of getting them on your own.

First, we would be denying you the wonderful sense of accomplishment that comes with experiencing the professional world and achieving your goals. All the seniors in the forum are more than happy to help you learn about marketing and business practices; they are even willing to teach you about market economies and competition. They are simply unwilling to do the marketing and business work for you. The principle behind this is simple: Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.

Second, we’d be robbing you the opportunity to learn from the struggles of the first few years in the translation business. Building a solid client base takes a lot of trial and error and there are bound to be many disappointments along the way. But here’s the good news: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”; and though I’m not a big fan of Nietzsche’s, this one’s spot-on. Every experience, whether positive or negative, is a learning opportunity. If you keep an open and flexible mind, your journey can transform you into whatever you dream to become.

Third, we’d be depriving you of the chance to try to do your own thing your own way. Through trial and error you will learn what to negotiate and how; you will experience the ins-and-outs of the business; you will develop an eye for opportunity and, in the words of one of my favorite country singers, you’ll learn “when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to walk away.”

Finally, by denying you this coveted information (which is guarded for very sound business reasons, by the way), we are helping you leave behind infantile feelings of entitlement that you need to outgrow and overcome if you want to strive and succeed in any professional environment. Because we won’t just give you our client base and tell you which companies we work with (which you could probably find out anyway if you just did the right research), we’re reminding you that you’re all grown up now, you’re a pro. Nobody’s going to give you anything you haven’t earned. So when you do earn it, you’ll be able enjoy and appreciate it. Being told “no” and feeling forced to get out into the real world and make it on your own will help you mature, gain confidence, and write your own story based on your own experiences.

Finding and securing clients is your job; it comes with the territory, a territory into which we have warmly welcomed you. We’ll help you learn how to do it, we’ll warn you about bad payers, but we won’t do your work for you, and it’s in your own best interest to learn to appreciate that and make the best of it.

A Somewhat Existential Argument against Translating for Peanuts


Life is full of difficult questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? Milk or cereal first? Scrambled or sunny side up? Alas, lots of questions, very few answers. In light of all the things we don’t know about life, the one thing we do know for sure should be particularly meaningful: we’re all going to die. We don’t know what (if anything) comes after that. But we know we will transition from whatever being alive really is to whatever being dead really is (or isn’t). One day, we will cease to “be” as we “are” today.

That is a scary thought to many people. To me, it’s the exact opposite of scary. Knowing that I will cease to “be,” that everything I do and deem so fundamentally important right now will fade into memory and eventually become part of the forgotten past of humankind is what keeps me grounded and focused. What today is a big deal will, not so long from now, be reduced to that one time someone somewhere did an incredibly irrelevant and mundane thing no one really remembers anyway. Mortality has a way of putting everything into perspective

“So what does this have to do with translation?,” you wonder. A lot, actually. A fellow translator said something incredible to me the other day. She said, “You work hard so you can afford to have a life, and then when you have money, you don’t have time to live.” This idea of a life reduced to working hard to have money to live and then not being able to live for lack of time immediately conjured up the image of the Ouroboros in my head.

The thought of working to the bone while all the time suffering as life passes by brought back memories of my days as a newbie, when I had no idea how much to charge (or even that I was being exploited). It reminded me of all the sad weekends in front of my computer when life was happening outside my window. But it also reminded me of what inspired me to change that. It was a little quote I read somewhere by “some guy” named Steve Jobs (of whom I knew almost nothing about at the time), but which simply made too much sense to ignore:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

If today were the last day of my life, I would die a pretty happy person. This is partly because I can afford to live and have time to enjoy the fruits of my hard work. I can do that because ever since I learned the valuable lesson of mortality, I realized time is not money, time is life. When we view time as money alone, our cost-benefit analysis can easily lead to accepting low rates as a rational choice (to get by, to pay the bills, to make it to the end of the month, to make a living, etc.). But when we view time in terms of life, then our cost-benefit analysis never results in low rates as a rational choice because the cost is simply too high. Conceived in this way, things look quite differently. “To get by” becomes “to live to the fullest.” “To make it to the end of the month” becomes “to pamper ourselves and treat our loved ones to small pleasures.” “To make a living” becomes “to build a life.” Thus, the rational choice is to work for an amount that, at least, lets us have enough time left over to live… and peanuts simply won’t cut it.