Potential Pitfalls: Listservs

What would we do without the internet and e-mail? We really have no idea how our treasured colleagues worked without any of these tools not too long ago. Our hats are off to them! In our modern age, we've really come to rely on technology to help us solve our translation-related challenges, but we still rely on the best resources out there: each other. Now, thanks to listservs (large e-mail lists, usually run by T&I associations), we can reach up to several thousand people at the same time. How fantastic is that? Is you are stuck on a term and can't find it in any of your gazillion dictionaries and the internet only turns up pseudo-answers from not-entirely-qualified translators, you head to your trusty listservs, which are usually limited to the members of a certain group (for instance, the Spanish-language division of the American Translators Association, the members of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association, etc.) It's a great thing. Or is it? Just like with every piece of technology, there are some risks and potential pitfalls. Here are a few in no particular order of importance that we've come across in our 10 years or so of belonging to listservs.
Keep calm and e-mail on. And drink tea. Picture by Judy. 

  • Reply all. While hitting "reply all" (or just "reply", depending on how the listserv is set up) is not quite the equivalent of sending a mildly inappropriate picture to your boss (if you had one), it's still quite mortifying. Think before you hit the send button! We've seen some pretty personal messages that were clearly meant only for one person, and what's worse, sometimes those messages had unkind things to say about others. You cannot really undo that, even if you apologize profusely. A good rule of thumb is to also not put too many negative things in writing -- just in case. Keeping it positive is always a good thing. If you have a bone to pick with someone, the best strategy is still to go out for a beer or coffee is you live in the same area or marking a quick phone call.
  • Asking too many questions. The vast majority of our lovely colleagues are very happy to help and are eager to answer questions. However, if you ask too many questions it might become clear to others that you struggle with understanding the source texts you choose to translate and the source language in general, which is not a good thing for your industry reputation. While listservs are a safe place, they are also a place where people form opinion about others' skills, so think before you ask. 
  • Taking things personally. We've both been in the rather unfortunate position of having to mediate between parties when e-mail conversations got ugly. All these instances were entirely avoidable, a huge waste of everyone's time and energey and probably stem from the fact that translators spend too much time in front of their computers and put too much value on a sentence or two that someone wrote. As a form of communication, e-mail is less than ideal and can oftentimes lead to misunderstandings. It's just very difficult to tell if someone is being sarcastic or funny unless you know them personally, and we've had to witness many unattractive e-mail exchanges between individuals who insisted on copying the entire group. This is never a good idea, so the rule of thumb should be: don't do it. Don't waste the group's time with any personal feuds. If you want to talk to an individual, do so outside the list. Strive to be known as someone who is helpful, positive, friendly and knowledgeable. Your reputation is all you have.
  • Not respecting netiquette rules. Before you sign up for any listserv, you will most likely be presented with a list of netiquette rules that govern everyone's online behavior. It's a sad state of affairs that we need these in the first place, but they come in handy. There's usually even a list master or list mistress (yes, we've seen that term) or list owner in charge of moderating conversations. As much as we like to talk about politics, we don't do it on the listservs where it's not allowed (plus, it's not relevant to the job). On any and all ATA listservs, one cannot talk about rates, so you need to keep that in mind. 
In general, we are very grateful to belong to many listservs, even though we are not quite as active as we'd like to be on some of them. They are a fantastic source for information and a great place to get to know colleagues from all over the world, even though it's only in a virtual way. What about you, dear colleagues? We'd love to hear your experiences. And no, we've never hit the reply-all button--yet. 


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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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