Badsplaining,the Translator’s Curse

Writer James Fell recently shared a Reddit challenge on his Facebook page to Badly Explain Your Profession. The responses are inventive and hilarious, but they made me think about how we translators explain what we do. Hang around any translation forum or group long enough, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to complaints about the misconceptions people have about our profession, like the notion that any high school kid who’s taken a year of French can be a translator.

But really, whose fault is that? I have a nagging feeling that there aren’t any translator contributions to the Badly Explain Your Profession thread because we’re already using all the bad explanations as actual descriptions of what we do.

Here are two examples of another popular meme a while back, where people explained their jobs as seen through different eyes.

Note how these two translators depict the “reality” of their work. According to these helpful images, not only do translators have a simple job that anyone could do, we are incompetent boobs who get overwhelmed by the type of simple job that anyone could do.

“Badly explain your profession”? Please, we badly explained before badly explaining was cool. For people who are supposed to have a way with words we’re remarkably expert badsplainers.

I know, I know, these memes are just meant to be funny, and they are. But it would not be remiss to balance the scales every now and then. So to that end, allow me move to the opposite end of the spectrum for a minute and take a page from Donald Trump, uber-promoter in-chief:

Make Translation Great Again

Translation is a tremendous profession, tremendous. It’s projected to outgrow all other sectors by 2020, because we think bigly and we act bigly. We also have huge support, people love us. They’re standing in line to join. But you gotta have what it takes. It’s about words, of course, huge, huge amounts of words, millions of words a day. But mostly it’s about action. Build that wall of words and make the client pay for it. Because there is money in it. Believe me. Big, big money. Most professions don’t even make a fraction of the money we spend on printer ink alone. It’s sad. But mostly it’s about winning. Winning so much your competitors get tired of you winning. And we’re winners.  Believe me.

A tad heavy on “alternative facts”, perhaps, but I think we have a good start here, yes? So let’s open it up to suggestions. Colleagues, let’s break the badsplaining curse. How would you describe what you do?

10 thoughts on “Badsplaining,the Translator’s Curse

  1. Brilliant post Marie! I agree wholeheartedly. I guess my honest answer fits in with the badsplaining. I often say something like “I’m a translator. You know, magazines, press releases and stuff.” Which is usually countered by the question, “And you can make a living off that?”. What I should say of course is: I help my clients get their message across in a different market – in a different language.

    • Thanks Galina, and yes, I can relate. I am preaching first and foremost to myself in this post, since my response often wouldn’t win any awards, either. But it also depends on the audience I think; just last night I was asked by an acquaintance what I do but they really expect a 2-second answer and after that attention flags, so I can work in something about clinical trials but that’s about it. For an elevator pitch you have a few more seconds, at least. So I guess we should have different versions we can whip out depending on the situation…

  2. Dear Marie,

    I think that there are two main problems here:

    1) There isn’t a specific regulation regarding translators => as you said in your post, anyone can decide to “do translations” to make ends meet or any other reason, simply because they know a little bit of French, English, Spanish etc. Of course, such people aren’t real translators: they don’t always have a good knowledge of the languag(s) from which they translate, they aren’t specialised in anything, they don’t know how the industry works, how much a translator should be paid and so on. But they can still call themselves translators. And logically, this can give quite a bad image of the translation industry.

    2) Many professional translators, with a real translation degree, keep calling themselves “translators”. So obviously, people who have no knowledge of our industry – that means a lot of people, and after all why should they know our industry? – are less likely to make a difference between an amateur and a professional.

    Some translators also call themselves “freelance translators”: what does that mean? Amateurs also do translations on a freelance basis. What’s more, why would you tell everyone your type of company instead of telling them what you do? (I read this – in my opinion – highly interesting article some time ago, and definitely recommend it:
    I know, the point here is to let people know that you’re not a translation agency. Frankly, I’m not sure whether someone who doesn’t know the translation industry nor have the slightest idea of how freelancing works is really going to grasp this undermeaning – so I would leave this detail for later in the discussion.

    I’m really sorry if I sound a bit harsh, but to be honest I can’t recall ever feeling like I wasn’t taken seriously as a translator. I’ve always introduced myself as a “medical translator”, because that’s what I am, whether I’m a freelancer, an in-house translator or an agency. And in my experience, people are always interested, they try to guess what kind of texts I translate, they ask my language pairs and so on. But never how I make a living.
    So my advice would definitely be to introduce yourself as a “[insert your specialty field] translator”.

    Hope that helps – and in any case, thank you if you were brave enough to read all this 😉

    By the way, Galina, these “magazines, press releases and stuff” made me curious so I just googled you: it looks like we might meet in Berlin in a few weeks! I’m also attending Elia Together 2017 🙂

    • Hi Delphina, thanks for your in-depth response! All good points, and I agree with them, but I think you’re reading too much into my post. The point is not at all to let people know that I am not an agency or to explain how I make a living. The only point of this post is to respond in a humorous way to a very common complaint from people on translation forums that they don’t feel understood or respected by the general public. All I am trying to say is this: if you are going to complain about how people perceive you, make sure it’s not because you are presenting yourself poorly. It sounds like you are doing a good job at representing yourself well, so no wonder you have no problem being taken seriously; that is exactly my point 🙂

    • Just forgot one more thing: mentioning your specialty field enables you to distinguish yourself as a professional right away: it shows that you don’t translate anything but that you are an expert in something!

  3. Just seen your blog for the first time, it’s really good.
    The situation is worse in Brazil, as the profession is not yet regulated. Anyone whose wife’s brother’s boss’s lover’s nephew’s grandfather’s friend’s lawyer’s son has spent a few days in Disney says ‘I can do it for free’. This is the big problem, together with the crisis in Brazil over the last five years.
    A very enlightening blog. Great for these days of isolation. I’ll sign up.

    • Hi Paul, thank you! Glad to meet you here. And yes, the “Disney qualification” is the scourge of actual professional translators everywhere, it’s true. I’m sorry to hear it’s been so much more difficult in Brazil the past 5 years. Have you been able to keep working during this Covid crisis since our work is mostly online?

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