By this point, you are probably tired of hearing of the SOPA bill. After Wikipedia and many other websites went dark last January 18th, it became the inescapable topic. As we say in Spanish, “me sale hasta en la sopa” (which roughly translates as “it shows up even in my soup!”). And why should we care? With so many protests going on in different parts of the world, so many spaces being occupied and so many things to worry and concern the citizens of this planet, it is no wonder if many of us turn our unconcerned, jaded eyes and look elsewhere, to the problems of the everyday. True, I admit: it becomes tiring. Occupy this, occupy that, corporate greed, famine in Ethiopia, war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, immigration, the war on drugs. It is all a bit too much. Why should we care that SOPA may spell doom for websites such as YouTube and Flickr? It’s all ridden with cat videos and tone-deaf children singing to Britney Spears anyway. Why should I care? The same reason why you should: enactment of SOPA may and probably will destroy the Internet as we know it.
This was going to be a very different column: I was going to talk about how enactment of SOPA would affect us translators specifically, people who depend on freedom of information to effectively carry out our jobs. But I must admit I have wracked my brains for specific examples of how enactment of such a bill would affect my work. After days and days of mental effort, I confess I have come out empty-handed. Not because examples are lacking, but because the effects of such a law would be too far-reaching to reduce to minute examples. I would still be able to consult my favorite terminology databases and online glossaries. The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española would remain, as would its corpus. But translation does not only consist of glossaries and dictionaries and corpora –of words, in short. Translation consists of information, the type that cannot be found within the constraints of a definition, but in encyclopedia entries, reviews and articles. Translation, much as any art, consists of ideas and concepts. It consists of cultural constructs, references and memes that get circulated at such speeds as hardly allow the average citizen to get caught up with them before they evolve and get expanded into something quite different from their original form.
Previous generations of translators like to poke fun at how nowadays everything is so much “easier” for us, with information at our fingertips, and they love to tell stories about the days before Wikipedia and the web. But back then the market was perhaps more adjusted to those particular constraints, whereas today we depend on speed of information within an industry where every project is urgent and content needs to be updated right away. Our predecessors may not have had Wikipedia, but they did not have to work with content that needed to be updated in real time, either. The web has its advantages, but it has also brought in many complications for which it has had to provide solutions, such as more capable translation memory and computer assisted translation tools. And yes, faster more effective research capabilities.
Without a free, unrestricted flow of information, which is what SOPA/PIPA would eventually curtail, those of us who depend on that information will lack the freedom to research the most specific, obscure of topics within our very restricted time limits and become semi-experts on the subject of that paper, manual or conference in a matter of days. We will likewise lack the tools to access the cultural elements that make up the very subject matter of many of our tasks because it is deemed “copyright infringement” to have a videoclip or logo or brand image on a website, regardless of the context around it.
People and markets will adapt. Whether for good or bad is not a question worth asking: all changes bring good and evil with them. Information will find other ways to circulate. But it is a sad day when a government and a group of people that supposedly stand for freedom of speech hypocritically stand in its way when the status quo is threatened.
More on SOPA: