Warning: This article is a rant. Read on at your own risk.
For the past few weeks, I have been participating in a very interesting and telling discussion in a LinkedIn forum initiated by a member who was asking of the world whether he should be surprised at all the spelling and grammar errors he encounters there on a daily basis. I usually lose interest in lengthy forum discussions and stop reading after a while, but this one I find particularly interesting. For many reasons, but mostly this one: there are many more posts justifying the errors and even pointing the finger at so-called grammar nazis than people agreeing with the fact that you should be more careful with your writing, regardless of the purpose or forum.
I imagine the way he posed the question was especially tantalizing. By asking whether he should be surprised, he apparently struck a nerve with many users who felt, perhaps, that he was in a way pointing his finger at them. No, they replied, you should not be surprised, and it is unfair of you to ask, as many of us are not native speakers of the languages we post in (mostly English), most of us come here to socialize and relax after a long day of work so we’re not going to be looking at how we spell things. Well that’s an interesting position, since I always thought that LinkedIn was not just another place to socialize and its aim is to be viewed as the very different beast it is from Facebook. For me LinkedIn is strictly a professional environment, not a place I enjoy by any means, simply another platform where I can make my professional presence felt and let interested parties know that I exist, so that they can search for me and view my professional profile. In other words, LinkedIn is part of what I consider “work”. And when the day is done and I’m tired of poring over grammar and spelling and semantic minutiae so fastidiously that there comes a point I can’t even stand myself, the last thing I want to do is log into LinkedIn and let myself go in a flurry of misplaced apostrophes and runaway syntax. Instead I grab a book, or watch a movie. Occasionally I will play a videogame. Whatever it is, LinkedIn will be the last thing on my mind.
But the reaction was telling. It definitely speaks to the widespread laxness about language that exists even among those who claim to be language professionals. The problem is not the misspelling here or the grammatical error there. When you write in a language that is not your own, and even when you write in your mother tongue, you are bound to make mistakes. And I am the first to admit that the interface for commenting in most websites is extremely uncomfortable, with their tiny boxes and minuscule font. The problem is that so many people would readily admit in a professional forum (where potential employers and contractors might be looking at them and, regardless of what they say in their defense, judging them) that they make mistakes and they don’t really care all that much.
What I found somewhat alarming was that so few people actually called for being careful when posting in the forum and offered advice on how to avoid common errors. What I find alarming is, ultimately, the vast number of people that would come out to defend sloppiness, even among those who should be advocating for language correctness, i.e., language professionals and translators. If translators themselves, whose livelihood revolves around communicating things using words, cannot be bothered to at least attempt to write more or less correctly, then who is left to continue advancing the idea that translation is not the province of the merely bilingual, and that without a particular set of characteristics and training not just anybody can do it? And who is left to advance the idea that it is not about purism or grammatical punctiliousness, but about getting your ideas across clearly for the benefit of your reader?
It is definitely symptomatic of the general view already held by society at large that translation is something anyone that knows more than one language can do. That view is responsible for the driving down of translation rates, for the rampant, reckless use of free machine translation tools for professional translations, for the incomprehensible garble that one can find in many a government website supposedly available in Spanish and your translations being returned with “corrections” from the client that make you froth at the mouth.
Caring about language is not necessarily about being a slave to grammar books. It is about eloquence and clarity, about guiding your reader through the course of your ideas. Because you may have something important to say, but if you do not say it in a way that people will understand it then it will be lost. I know. I often read comments in articles, websites, as well as Facebook status updates. And people who ramble on without any concern for the structure of a sentence will bore you out of your skull. You will stop reading, sometimes even before the first sentence is done.
But I must surely be boring you out of your skull. So enough ranting.