Do We Always Need to Educate the Public?
The low public opinion of the work language professionals do can be jarring at times. Some of us translators and copywriters have made it a mission to demystify our profession and show clients how much expertise and thought goes into crafting with words. But that doesn’t mean that people won’t still feel compelled to press their disdain of your job on you and any other unsuspecting bystanders.
Question: Can you think of times when it’s smarter to smile and just let it go instead of trying to convince someone that their low opinion is unwarranted?
A little story to set the mood
Last week, I spent a networking dinner trapped next to a woman who turned out to be less than ideal company. When she discovered that I was a translator, she made it her mission to let me know that she possesses such stellar language skills that she would never dream of paying for translation. According to her—and she shared this thought liberally with everyone at the table—most people definitely do not need help with translations into English.
The other people at the table were all perfectly nice, so I stuck to a noncommittal smile and some murmured pleasantries. Not really how I’d pictured my evening.
I’m sure quite a few translators (or designers, or writers, or editors) have suffered through similar conversations.
Why am I telling you this story?
Aside from the fact that it’s bizarrely rude to tell a total stranger how useless their job is, this woman’s casual arrogance was the embodiment of the widespread idea that translating is something anyone can do. While she droned on, I went back and forth in my head about whether I should engage with what she was saying and set her straight.
Some of the many things I could have seized on:
- The usual conflation of spoken and written language skills
- The total ignorance of the cultural aspects of language and translation
- Mislabeling conversational language skills as “fluent”
- The complete lack of knowledge of what translators actually do
- Lumping translators with interpreters
- Speaking English well does not equal writing well in English
- Translation is a different skill than writing (as the many DIY translations out there easily prove)
In the end, I chose courtesy over confrontation. That women was making everyone’s evening unpleasant and there was no need to add to their pain. None of them had signed up for a round-table debate on translation.
Of course, there were plenty of points I could have made, but I am convinced that I would have been wasting my breath. In my experience, most people don’t take too kindly to being contradicted and rarely want to hear that they are wrong. In this situation, it would have been near impossible to add my two cents without making the woman look bad.
Does it make sense to ALWAYS educate EVERYONE?
We can’t get everyone to see things our way and we’d never get anything done if we tried to. This particular woman will never be a client of mine. When I was starting out, I had a few clients (didn’t we all?) who were very clear that the only reason they were hiring me was because they were so swamped with their much more valuable, skilled work and simply didn’t have the time for menial translation tasks? Was working with them pleasant? No, it was not.
Will the dinner lady have shared her opinions about translation with her social circles? Most probably. So, they may never be interested in my services either. Preaching to that woman about how skilled translators need to be would have just made me look impolite and a little uptight. It would have also made everyone else even more uncomfortable.
I opted for a triage approach. After all, the other people sitting at that table with me weren’t necessarily lost causes. When the plates had been cleared and we were finally free to mingle, I headed for greener pastures. A little chit-chat here, some lighthearted banter there, and the conversation naturally touched on translation-related topics. And I was free to choose how I wanted to present myself and my services, instead of someone else forcing me to react to issues they had raised. That part of the evening was much more enjoyable.
What’s the lesson I’m trying to spin out of this?
First of all, manners count. I resent people talking down to me, but stooping to their level won’t get me anywhere. I find it hard to concentrate on what people are saying if how they are saying it gets my hackles up. So, why should others listen to me when I get on my high horse?
Second, pick your battles. I started my evening not knowing anyone at the mixer. That woman had a big “no” written all over her from the start. I could have dedicated myself to wooing her, but I chose not to. When it was time to leave, my scorecard still had her big, resounding “no” on it, but I had managed to add several “maybe’s” and “oooh, that’s interesting’s” from other attendees I chatted with after dinner.
In the long run, those “maybe’s” might turn into a “yes,” whereas I never really had a hope of turning that “no” around. You can’t get blood from a stone.
What do you think? Did I drop the ball? Should I have tried harder? Do you always try to educate people about our profession?