The curious phenomenon of guruism reflects so many contradicting facets of modern life that it would be impossible to even touch upon most of them in this relatively short blog post.
Guruism it is not exactly a new phenomenon. Gurus of various kinds preaching various theories, teachings and beliefs have been with us for a long time already, and like most people, I ‘ve fallen under their spell to some extent from time to time.
When I lived in San Francisco in the eighties, I once, out of idle curiosity (the same curiosity that killed the cat), went inside a building just off Market Street that sported a huge sign with SCIENTOLOGY written in big letters. I stopped there once and bought a paperback written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for five dollars from an enthusiastic young man. I took it home, but after reading through about 30 pages decided that the whole thing was pure humbug.
Although I haven’t had any more contact with the Scientology crowd since then, after more than three decades they still somehow found me – even though I’ve moved about seven times since then – and last week I received junk mail from them.
So Scientology hasn’t given up on me, they still want me!
Several other gurus have briefly attempted to show me the path to absolute truth during what I might call my early San Francisco period. (If one day I write my memoirs, that’s what I’ll call it).
In the early eighties I became friendly with a guy who was a mid-level leader in a cult called Moonies, named after Reverend Moon, a wealthy Korean who founded something called the Unification Church in the seventies. Incidentally, Reverend Moon founded and still owns a Washington daily called The Washington Times, while the other Washington daily called the Washington Post, the one that I subscribe to, is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of another cult called Amazon.
I once went hiking with a guy who was a mid-level leader in the Moonie organization in the Point Reyes area in Marin County, all the way to a spot overlooking the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean where Sir Francis Drake came ashore in 1579 on his ship called Golden Hind to claim California for England.
We were both fascinated by our respective life experiences, so different and yet similar, and hiking was the perfect medium for discussing what we had been through. I still remember the sweet fragrance of the trees on that hike. The Moonie guy came from a wealthy family in Marin County, one of the wealthiest counties in America, full of Democrats and faux liberals, but detested his parents’ life so much that later he married his Korean wife (who spoke three languages: Korean, Japanese and English) in a mass marriage ceremony in Korea in which Reverend Moon married hundreds of couples in a single ceremony, mostly Western men to Korean women.
I spent one Sunday at a gathering of Moonies in wine country near Napa. About a hundred young people in their teens and twenties were there, talking about all kinds of subjects, playing music and putting on a short theater play – no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, or at least I saw no signs of any of that.
But although I was as young and impressionable as the rest of the young people surrounding me at the Moonie house I visited once or twice in San Francisco and at their retreat in the Wine Country, I did not become a Moonie.
I think the main problem was that at heart I’ve never been a joiner.
Later I was taken by several other gurus who tried to mess with my mind or at least influence my thinking through books they wrote for people like me to read and believe in what they were saying in those books. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is an example, which was published in the seventies but which I read only around 1984. I don’t remember anything about the book anymore, which probably means that it was about nothing.
I remember a little more about the descriptions of near-death experiences from a book by another influential guru: Edgar Cayce, a mystic and spiritual guru who himself had more near-death experiences than any other person. A lot of people who have had near-death experiences have described them mostly in the same way – as a journey through a long, dark tunnel toward a brilliant light. If you get to the light, you don’t go back.
Cayce not only collected the experiences of other people, he also could, when hypnotized, leave his body and recall many of his past lives going back to ancient Egypt if I remember it correctly, which is something that I would so dearly love to be able to do myself!
I know that Edgar Cayce lived in a house on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, not too far from where I live now, but so far I have never been to see the house, which is now an Edgar Cayce museum.
I’ll try to remember to do it this summer on my way to or from the beach.
A kind of guruism is at present also a very popular trend in the field of freelance translation. Many new translators who don’t have much, if any experience, and who don’t know much about anything are establishing themselves as gurus of translation.
One big difference between the gurus that were popular when I was younger and those that are popular in what one might call the modern global translation village is how young and relatively inexperienced these new gurus are.
The new gurus in our profession, or what’s left of it at this point after the unrelenting assaults of the “translation industry” on what not so long ago used to be a fairly profitable and safe job, of course don’t call themselves gurus, that would be laughable. The preferred professional term that is generally used as a designation of an instant translation guru is a professional translation coach.
Some of these professional translation coaches, or instant gurus as I call them, usually propagate their teachings via internet seminars, and many also participate in translation conferences organized by various bodies, such as translator associations, schools and universities, but also entrepreneurial individuals, as is the case in many other professions.
I remember how I was listening to one of these professional coaches at a conference – I will not name names or places to keep my readers in suspense, although many people will probably easily guess what I mean.
A guru, or professional coach if you will, who seemed young enough to be my daughter – and some of them are young enough to be my grandsons and granddaughters, started her presentation by describing the dire state of affairs created for us by what is called the “translation industry”.
From what I could gather from her explanations, she saw translators simply as an integral part of the “translation industry”. There is nothing else but the “translation industry” in this world for us translators, since it is very unlikely that as translators we would be able to find out how to get work without relying on the “translation industry” model and work for direct clients instead. Our job therefore is to try to figure out how we can best serve the hungry “translation industry”.
She came armed with charts and graphs expertly prepared in PowerPoint in beautiful colors, which showed among other depressing things almost equally depressing graphs demonstrating how exponential and rapid the progress in machine translation has been over the last few years. According to her, it is this unavoidable and inexorable progress that is pushing us translators farther and farther from our goal – namely making a decent living from an important, useful and interesting occupation – and closer and closer to total extinction.
Her conclusion was that if we want to survive as translators in a new, digital environment that is hostile toward translators and similar occupations, instead of fighting “progress”, by which she meant improvements and major achievements in machine translation, we need to “embrace change” and incorporate machine translation into our work, by which she must have meant becoming poorly paid robot-like humans, or maybe human-like robots, cheerfully post-processing machine-translated detritus.
Impressionable relative newbies surrounding me (and I must have been the oldest person in the audience) seemed entranced by her reasoning. Given how young and inexperienced they were, quite a few of them probably told themselves that it might be best to give post-processing a try, without realizing that “embracing progress” the way it has been crafted for us by the “translation industry” is in fact tantamount to committing professional suicide en mass.
Many instant gurus, most of whom, from my perspective, have very limited experience, give seminars on the internet on the always popular topics of how to find clients.
Initially I felt very positive about the fact that young translators are willing to share what they have learned during a few years of freelance work, (and in the real world, a decade of on-hand experience as a freelance translator is just a few years), with their even younger and less experienced colleagues.
I try to promote this kind of experience exchange among translators by putting links on my blog to innovative approaches of communicating with other translators through Youtube and other media. On my blog I wrote reviews of publications of instant gurus when asked me to do so, where I tried to emphasize mostly positive aspects, etc.
After all, there is so much out there in the digital universe that translators who are much younger than me understand much better than an old dog like me possibly could, and it’s a good thing if I can learn a thing or two from budding translator gurus.
But it has finally started dawning on me that most of these instant gurus are not sharing what they have learned, and some of them presumably did learn something worth sharing with other translators, out of the goodness of their heart, or because they care about the far-flung community of translators.
They are simply doing it to make money, possibly because they can’t make enough money as translators.
Although most instant gurus nowadays give paid seminars on the internet, I believe that most of them don’t know much about anything. The term “translation” encompasses dozens of different languages and dozens of specialized fields. If you translate only one language, work mostly in one field, and most of your experience is based on working for translation agencies, the only people who can learn something really useful from you are clueless newbies who translate from the same language as you do and who believe that it is best to work for agencies because finding direct clients is just too damn hard, (although even this kind of instant guru would probably feel the need to include a chapter on direct clients to make the seminar look more promising).
Making relative newbies shell out a lot of money, relatively speaking, for the privilege of learning something they would eventually learn in due course on their own anyway reminds me of the slick TV evangelists on American teevee who promise viewers that Jesus will bless them and their family if they send at least a hundred dollars right now by calling a toll-free number in Virginia or Texas.
Nobody has a ready-made, generally applicable recipe for how to make it as a freelance translator.
Our success or failure in a chosen profession depends for the most part on aspects such as our language and subject combination, where we live, and how able and willing we are to learn, especially from our own mistakes.
An instant guru will not help much when it comes to the choices we have to be able to make on our own, because nobody knows us better than we know ourselves.
We may be able to learn a thing or two from instant gurus, but they cannot do the hard thinking that is required from each of us, no matter how much we pay them.
Thirty years ago, people were relying on L. Ron Hubbard and Reverend Moon to do the hard thinking for them and shelter them from the cruelties of life.
But the truth is that we have to do the hard thinking and make the hard choices all on our own.