Macro/Micro: What the language industry can learn from yoga

You’ll never hear anyone call yoga a matter of life or death. Granted, if you’re a hot practitioner, it can feel like life or death sometimes, the sweat dripping from brow to floor as the room starts to spin and you wonder when you’ll ever tap into your ujjayi breath again. That’s why I only go to hot yoga if I’m really, really mad at the world and need the heat to make it all go away.

Precisely because I don’t like my yoga to feel like a life or death experience, I have a regular Anusara practice. Anusara is a westernized style of hatha yoga that focuses on five alignment principles: opening to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral and organic expansion. The organic expansion part is what most folks think of when they think of yoga — that double-jointed willy-nilly free-for-all where people stick their feet behind their heads. But flexibility, I was surprised to learn, isn’t really what yoga is all about.

While I disagree with those who see yoga as a religion — it’s more of a philosophy, really — fundamentalist naysayers do have one point: When it comes to what yoga is really about there are as many different opinions as there are for what Christianity is about, or Islam, or anything else that allows freedom within a prescribed set of rules. It’s this prescribed set of rules, one involving alignment, that makes yoga so challenging even for uber-limber ladies like me. Even if I can stick my foot behind my head, due to proper alignment, that doesn’t mean I should.

That’s because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can really hurt yourself. More than pulling a muscle, you can sprain a wrist or break an arm. Twist too hard the wrong way for too long and it’s not unheard of to poke a rib out. You can permanently hurt your neck in a headstand or pull your anterior cruciate ligament in Warrior. And then there’s my favorite yoga injury – the all-too-painful “yoga butt.” An injury vinyasa practitioners suffer from, yoga butt occurs when the gluteals and lower back are injured over time due to not keeping your stomach tight when moving from Tadasana into forward fold. Having suffered from it myself, I can say yoga butt is real, my friends, very real, and it is not pleasant.

This is why you can’t teach yoga unless you’re a certified yoga instructor. In the United States, instructor certification is issued by the Yoga Alliance. It takes 200 hours of training to become a registered yoga teacher (RYT 200). That plus teaching 1,000 hours in the two years since your RYT 200 will earn you the credential of experienced registered yoga teacher (E-RYT 200). On top of that, there are specialty certifications for those who want to teach children (another 95 hours training) or pregnant women (85 additional hours). In short, it takes longer to become a practicing yoga instructor than it does to become a practicing translator or interpreter.

One thing yoga and translation do have in common, though, is that they’re both misperceived. Going back to the yoga-as-religion issue, July 1, 2013, a California court had to rule that yoga in fact was not a religion so that it could continue to be taught as physical education in public schools. So, much like translation, there’s misunderstanding out there about what yoga is and what yoga isn’t.

But here’s a major difference that amazes me: you never hear anyone say, “Well, we know Terena’s flexible, so ask her to teach yoga.” Even non-yogis get that you have to be a certified yoga instructor to teach. You just don’t find rogue, non-certified poseurs flooding the yoga market.

On the contrary, translation is full of nut jobs who think a semester of college Spanish makes them qualified to translate. Or worse yet, that working at a Chinese restaurant makes them an interpreter. The first paid language professional in America actually came in 1492 when interpreter Luis de Torres hitched a ride to the New World with Columbus. Yoga didn’t get big in the United States until the 1960s. So how, in a matter of 50 years, has yoga been able to establish itself as a profession more than translation has done in centuries?

Is it the ever-so-dreaded yoga butt? Yes, the possibility of facing physical pain might definitely make a customer take service quality a bit more seriously. But aren’t mammograms, which interpreters interpret for, or patient-facing instructions for an insulin pump, which a translator translates for, even more physically important than yoga butt?

Again, people, I’ve had yoga butt, and it’s not as funny as it sounds. But still, seriously?

Why does the general populace not get why a translator must be a professional, but they completely understand why a yoga teacher should be? What is yoga doing right that we do wrong?

Maybe it’s because in yoga there is no real right and wrong. My sundial will not look like your sundial, and that’s okay. While there are guidelines to keep a yogi’s body safe, as long as you stay in those guidelines, organic expansion allows for you to reach out and shine however your body wants. One day I may lift my foot in side plank, the next I may place it down. But it’s all side plank, and as long as I move my body safely, that’s okay. But wait — this actually sounds a lot like translation: a world where I translate canapé as sofa but you translate it as couch. Two ways of translating one word, just as there are two ways of doing side plank. So that’s not it.

But how well do we in translation convey what’s a known given in yoga — that there’s individual freedom inside universal guidelines? The yoga industry has done a great job at getting people to understand there are different ways to approach the same pose. This is what allows separate certifications for youth and prenatal. If we can get people to understand there are also many rights in our world, they then might understand how difficult it is to navigate the nuances.

This can’t be the only reason, though. To me, the core difference is that a yogic focus inherent to the practice is love. We may love our profession, yes, but do we love one another? Yogis do. Yogis don’t compete, yogis don’t perform to impress. Yogis form community. Once, my Chicago-London flight was delayed by eight hours. The yogis on the flight actually grouped together and started practicing while we waited. Yogis find one another, and when we do, we encourage one another. And if one group decides to break off and do things differently, we let them do it. John Friend practiced Iyengar before founding Anusara. Baptiste yoga was a break-off from power yoga, which takes its roots from basic Hatha. We go our own ways, and if one style doesn’t work for you, then another will.

But this is where the translation industry out and out fails. Not so much language service providers (LSP) but most definitely the freelance community, which is translation’s skeletal system. LSPs may be circulatory, bringing the financial lifeblood our industry needs to thrive, but translators themselves are the bones at the base of it all. And unlike yogis, they sometimes have a fairly negative reputation. January 16, 2014, German translator Kevin Lossner tweeted that a business in our space was “toxic waste” and “a load of crap” because he thought the company had machine translated its site (it hadn’t). A US-based LSP once had a translator respond with “F*ck off” when a project manager asked for a translation sample. Is this love? Is this even adult behavior?

Until we learn to love each other, the outside world will never love us. They will never get what we do and it will be 100% our own faults. How do we expect non-translators to respect us when we don’t even behave respectfully ourselves? Agree with changes in technology, don’t agree with changes in technology. But don’t waste your life writing negative blog posts and tweets about others in our industry. It only makes the profession look undeveloped and makes you look like a jerk.

I fully believe that the reason yoga has accomplished in 50 years what translation has not accomplished in 500 is our lack of love.

Maybe it’s the yogi in me that thinks a little love can fix it all. “All we need is love” and so on. But there is something noteworthy in the traditional yoga salutation Namaste. It means the light in me acknowledges the light in you. So how can we get this segment of the freelance community to see the light?