By way of exception, this post is not about translation. Though while I am writing this, translation or translators are still at the back of my mind.

Many years ago, at the Language Olympics in St. Petersburg, I was introduced to a scholarly book by an unfamiliar Russian author. The book was a present from a Byelorussian student, another Olympics participant. Never mind the author or the subject, she told me when she gave me the book. Read it, I think you’ll like it.

So I did. In fact, this book is still on my bookshelf today. I read it in Russian back then, but I heard it was also available in English, Icelandic and Japanese. However, I never came across this book or any other books by the author since then (mine was published in 1984 by Nauka, the main scientific publisher in the then USSR, with the venerable Dmitry Likhachev as senior editor). When I google up the author today, the English edition still appears on Amazon though. An antiquarian, out-of-print book. And at a ridiculously high price!

A couple of months ago, I did receive a rare copy, published by Odense University Press. It isn’t trimmed properly and its pages aren’t cut apart. I don’t think I ever cut any book open before!

There are very few references to the author of the book, the Soviet scholar Mikhail Steblin-Kamensky, on the Internet. According to St. Petersburg Encyclopaedia, he was “philologist and Scandinavia specialist, Ph.D. (philology) in 1948. A professor at Leningrad State University from 1950, he founded and headed the chair of Scandinavian philology from 1958. His major works are on the history of Icelandic literature and culture, Scandinavian languages, and general linguistics. He translated and published Old Icelandic records including Icelandic Sagas, Elder Edda, and Younger Edda. He lived at 17 Mokhovaya Street from 1903, 25 Podkovyrova Street from 1920s, 27 Kolpinskaya Street from 1957-60, and 12 Martynova Embankment in 1960-81. Buried at Serafimovskoe Cemetery.” His story “The Siege of Leningrad” was published in 1980 in Granta.

M.I. Steblin-Kamensky, source: http://relstud-hist.spbu.ru/en/articles/en-steblin-kamenskij-mihail-ivanovic

The Saga Mind is a scholarly book about Icelandic sagas, the emergence of literature and the history of authorship. However, the subject serves as a pretext to explore more universal themes: consciousness, perception, experience of time and space (in the context of sagas, time is referred to as a “chain of generations”). Facts and fiction. Steblin-Kamensky’s ideas on the origins of writing (and re-writing) and his distinction between “historical truth” and “artistic truth” sound astoundingly modern and may resonate with the insights of today’s public intellectuals like Eric Weinstein with his “metaphorical truth”.

Here’s the table of contents. It looks strangely unscholarly. Trust me, there’s not a whiff of esotericism or some popular psychology stuff about this book. It is still rather academic, but with tongue in cheek and a knowing wink to the reader (particularly in the last chapter):

Re-reading the book with translation or translators at the back of my mind, I can’t help feeling that it has a certain relevance for our time. While a traditional approach with a focus on “accuracy and faithfulness” will give way to machine translation, it’s such aspects as authorship or creativity that I expect to come to the fore. Terminology is tricky: I am not sure how to refer to that kind of writing (or re-writing, since I dislike the term transcreation) that is so close to translation and yet so different from churning out more or less verbatim copies of the source-language originals. But I digress… 🙂

I scanned and OCR’d a few pages (which I had to cut through first 🙂 ).

Remember this meme?

I happened to find the ur-author of the footnote in the last chapter:

“Suddenly the author distinctly felt that someone had appeared behind his back. Turning away from the window, he saw, in the depths of the room, near the wall, a strange figure with sad eyes in a pale face and a grey beard; he was dressed in a long, wide garment. The stranger was the first to break the silence. Unfortunately, there is no tape recording of everything that he said that night.”

The strange figure turns out to be þorleifr, a visitor from the 13 century. “He had been disturbed in his grave during the laying of a pipe from some hot spring, and since then had not been able to find rest”. After making a few interesting observations on what he finds around, he turns to the subject of “sagas” as he prefers to call books and newspapers in the author’s hotel room.

The next few pages are the best that I ever read about the emergence of authorship. Or about professional writing or just writing for any other purpose than simply stating the facts, including writing about somebody else’s writing that I am doing now and that, were we to believe the author and his guest from the past, might be the most incomprehensible thing of all:

“þorleifr simply could not understand what either literary history and criticism, on the one hand, or a literary historian or critic, on the other, could be. Is the latter somebody who tells sagas about sagas? If he simply tells sagas which have already been told by somebody else, then how is he different from other saga-tellers? After all, any saga has already been told by somebody before, though perhaps in a different way – more expansively, more briefly, and so on. Or maybe, instead of telling a saga, he only says that he is going to tell it, but actually does not? Such a thing did happen to þórir, þorleifr's greatgrandfather. þórir was visiting a man named Ásgrímr (here þorleifr recounted Ásgrímr's family tree). Instead of feeding þórir, Ásgrímr only told him about food. Finally, þórir killed Ásgrímr.”

Like many years ago, the book still provides much food for thought. It‘s safe to only tell about it. And it’s still fun to read, too 🙂 

 

 

 

One ongoing topic on translator’s forums is a comparison of translation agencies and direct clients. Due to the nature of these forums, this is often conflated with the question of how to win clients – agencies, direct end-clients, both or either kind.

A recent “sales story” about one less-than-ideal way to hook a new customer stirred up a bit of discussion. Allison Wright, one of the most thoughtful critics, summarized its main ideas and expanded her initial comment into a blog post.

It is titled “Fifty ways”, but it is, basically, about three criteria that must be met when a translator decides to take on a job. In the course of the discussion, Allison nudged me gently about my look at the issue and that prompted me to write this post.

“Fifty ways” is a fitting title, because it makes sense to differentiate. When you decide about a new translation job, there is something that I feel shouldn’t be left behind. How much time/effort do you need for your first job for a new client (discounting the effort and the non-billable time to land the job)? How much time/effort do you need for a comparable job, once a future-proof, long-term working relationship has been established?

The answer is obvious: the longer you have been working for one client, in one specific domain, the less effort and time each subsequent job for that client will cost you. There is a certain coherence to your work that benefits your growth (call it capacity building, if you will) – you acquire a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience, and your resources are efficiently used. However, these precious, laboriously acquired assets tend to become rusty, if not applied frequently, and fade away. This is the case with one-off projects.

A translator becomes a specialist through working for specific clients, in specific domains. Specialization is key, but traditional specializations – like technology, finance, marketing or law – are way too general for today’s world. Companies – your clients – strive for differentiation. This also applies to communication and linguistic context. One company’s terminology may be taboo for a competitor. No universal, industry-wide vocabularies (or all-purpose guidelines) make much sense any longer, the value lies in the client-specific, customized use.

Working closely, long-term with regular corporate clients, you get to know their business inside and out. Also, you learn to look at things from the entrepreneur’s side. That translates to the quality of your work, too: you deliver a better service when you have the inside view of the purpose which your translations contribute to.

Needless to say, all this applies, almost exclusively, to direct clients.

With most agencies, the time/effort isn't worth the outcome. You will rack your brains to figure out a cryptic acronym while translating a sophisticated, jargon-filled corporate presentation – only to find out, after several emails to your agency (and a couple of days after the delivery deadline), that the acronym stands for the first and last name of one of the presenters. Had you contacted the end client directly, you would have saved yourself hours of "research" (and delivered a far better translation).

After working with various translators, I found that those who are used to working predominantly with agencies are less likely to feel responsible for their work. They regard their translation as a semi-finished, intermediate product to be checked, corrected and completed – by someone else ("and for the price they're paying me, what else they should expect?!"). This attitude doesn't resonate well with direct clients.

For a typical "agency translator", it's hard to see the wood for the trees: while direct clients expect deliverables which serve a particular purpose, they are served a more-or-less verbatim rendition of their "source text" – that comes out when you hastily translate everything the client "said", sentence-by-sentence, instead of working out what the client had "meant".

Then again, specialization… With agencies, even those that you may happen to work for on a regular basis, there is more jumping around – from one subject, one end client etc. to another. Learning curves are frequent and steep, but they take you nowhere. Typically, you gain shallow, fragmentary experience at the cost of more effort/time and less productivity, see above.

Let alone prices…

Pricing is another topic that ranks high on on translators’ forums. I believe that a close, lasting business relationship with dedicated corporate clients may change your view of pricing, because it changes your view of competition.

If your business relationship is based on a long-term contract or a general agreement, you no longer have to provide quotes for each project or bid for a certain job. Many projects and jobs would hardly find any takers anyway – without your inside knowledge, your special experience and skills, a random competitor would fail to deliver on their bid.

However, competition is still there: if you get inside the head of your client, you may start to compare the cost of your service to the cost of a potential staffer who would be needed, as an alternative, to take on your job.

At the first glance, the cost comparison doesn’t work in your favor. Your service is far more expensive. Extrapolate your hour rates to a month’s salary – and the result will appear three or four times “too high”. There is no chance you can end up with such an unrealistically high position in your client’s hierarchy, if you apply for a salaried job. But there is nothing wrong with your numbers – they reflect your cost on a per piece basis.

(On a side note, if you never heard about the 3x rule, there has been another recent blog post that is worth reading – especially if you don’t feel comfortable about your “too high” prices. Or “too low” prices – the post may make you reconsider your attitude toward agencies, too, if you think they are synonymous with “greedy exploitation”, but I sidetrack.)

In terms of unit cost, you seem to cost your client a lot of money. However, the reference number for your client – I am still referring to long-term, regular clients that ensure a steady flow of work – isn’t your unit price. Their reference number would include the hypothetical staffer’s annual salary plus social security contributions and the like plus the potential dismissal cost. With this in mind, if looking at the total cost, you as a contractor are saving your client money as compared to you as an employee.

While it is unlikely that you'll find a salaried employment commensurate with your per-job prices or your hour rates, you still can set yourself ambitious financial goals. In terms of working hours, the total amount of work done on a contractual basis for one client doesn’t relate to that of this client's FTE employee – typically, you put in a lot less work. In other words, you still have enough time/resources to put to sustainable, profitable work – and I definitely prefer a dozen of so of regular and committed clients to hundreds of random, one-off jobs.

Sometimes less is more. It is the quality ingredients that are a deal-breaker. This applies both to the quality of your service and the quality of your clients. If this two-way mix is right, you don’t have to chase new clients all the time. Given a sustainable stream of work, a dozen or so may be ideal.

If you look for new jobs, I believe you should try to choose them carefully. It is not that whatever you have around the house, it is going to make you a great meal. Accepting a new job is just much about the job as it is about the client. It makes sense to be selective about this.

To choose direct clients over agencies is only half the battle. Whether fifty or a hundred ways, I think it is essential to differentiate between two approaches – short-term and long-term. To say it's like day trading vs. investment is something of a metaphor. But perhaps that is also something freelance translators could learn from.


The images were taken in Hout Bay, South Africa.

Borges, Wikipedia and IAPTI

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986), the great Argentinian writer who made it into popular culture thanks to “The Name of the Rose” (remember the blind monk called Jorge of Burgos?), is said to have foreseen the World Wide Web: “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) reads like a prevision of the hypertextual virtual space; “Funes, the Memorious” (from Ficciones, 1944) presages a Big Data world where everything is recorded and nothing is forgotten.

However, the Internet project that Borges is most frequently associated with is Wikipedia. "Collaborative work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers” is presented in Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel”. The subject of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is that of a collective memory of facts and fictions, a precursor of “post-truth” perceptions of today.

Having said this, I admit that Borges seldom crossed my mind when I went to Wikipedia, usually when doing research for translation. That changed a couple of months ago.

A week or so after publishing our letter of resignation from IAPTI I surprisingly found a reference to it in Wikipedia. Yet shortly after, when I looked up IAPTI in Wikipedia again, the reference disappeared. I visited IAPTI’s Wikipedia page a few more times only to find out that this collective memory space was apparently in the process of being actively shaped.

Wikipedia pages have several tabs. Entries once made don’t fade into oblivion: when you click the View history tab at the top, you recall past revisions:

Wikipedia - View history - Past revisions of a Wikipedia page

A Wikipedia contributor Jose Carras added the first mention of our letter on November 2, 2016:

IAPTI International Interpreters and Translators Association based in Argentine

Until November last year the page appeared uneventful: since December 13, 2010 when another contributor, Fadesga, created a Wikipedia page for IAPTI there have been 25 edits in 2010, 2 edits in 2011, 3 edits in 2012, 2 edits in 2013, one edit in 2014 and one more edit in 2015. Another six edits dated back to January and February 2016: on February 24 the same page creator removed a “fake honorary member” from the list (edit summary on the View history page).

Yet since Jose Carras’ entry on November 2, 2016 and within less than 2 months the IAPTI page was edited 140 times, five times more than throughout the entire 6 years period. The reference to the letter triggered unprecedented activity.

The View history feature makes it possible to roll back the page in order to recover earlier versions. Like "Funes, the Memorious", Wikipedia remembers everything and shows the differences between any two edits you may choose. I didn’t have to do many comparisons, since it became obvious soon: the versions alternated between those with a reference to our letter and those where the reference disappeared. Someone stubbornly tried to commit the criticism to the page, while another someone was committed to eradicating any mention of it from the collective memory. In the course of time, however, the censors started making concessions. After 20 alternating edits, IAPTI’s status was stated as “pending”, though the reference to the letter was nowhere to be seen.

IAPTI - Wikipedia page of Argenine association - Revision of 2016-12-01

Then the events escalated. The edit fight peaked mid-December: an editor referred to IAPTI’s board of directors as “self-appointed” and “modifications of [IAPTI] bylaws” as an “attempt to refute accusations of unaccountability and duplicitous practices”. The edit was promptly deleted by another editor, but a reference to modified bylaws stayed. And then the page structure changed…

But wait. Let’s get back to Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges - El Aleph (book cover)

"I do not know which of us has written this page” is the last sentence of a short story called “Borges and I” (here in Spanish and English) where “he [Borges] inaugurates the possibility of erasing the very character he has inscribed” (Sylvia Molloy: “Signs of Borges”. Durham, Duke UP, 1994, p. 13). In “Aleph”, one of Borges’ most famous stories, the narrator fictionalizes his protagonist as “Borges”. Can it be that Borges’ famously divided self found its way to the Wiki article on IAPTI?

I have little doubt that the editor Fadesga, who created the IAPTI page and contributed many edits (and who was continuously erasing the mention of our letter from the Wikipedia page), is the person who the link points to – Fabio Descalzi, a translator from Montevideo, Uruguay, and a member of IAPTI, this Argentine organization "with global reach". What mystified me was this: the same user seemed both to apply criticism (like mentioning the letter or yielding to the unapproved status of IAPTI and, finally, removing "non-profit" from the description of the organization) and to stifle or censor it, again and again.

Whereas one “alter” of this seemingly multiple personality lashed out at the Argentine organisation with “ongoing unaccountability” and “duplicitous practices”, the other one responded with an apologetic narrative (“The registration process was very long, with the Argentine authority requiring lots of extra steps”):

IAPTI - censorship

The “alters” had similar account names – Fadesga, Fadasge… And all of the accounts were linked to the same page, that of Fabio Descalzi, translator from Montevideo, Uruguay, a member of the Argentine organization IAPTI.

A few weeks later, however, I found out that this Borgesian landscape of the “Garden of Forking Paths” had changed: now one link (Fadesga) led to the Wikipedia page of the user Fabio Descalzi, whereas the account “Fabio Descalzi” was blocked. The link to the other “alter” – Fadasge, the constructor of an apologetic narrative and a dismisser of “reckless claims and baseless, unfounded charges by some of [IAPTI’s] former members” – opened a warning from Wikipedia admins:

An editor has expressed a concern

It is unclear why Jose Carras, the initial critic (now also blocked), would take another online identity (“sock puppet”) to censor what he himself previously brought to light. But this is exactly this interplay of paradoxes and elusive self-references that make it so deliciously Borgesian.

Curious about the “explanation” (“Please administrators read the Talk page and also this explanation”), I went to the “Talk page” and found myself in yet another hypertext story, a distant variation of “Borges and I”:

  • 'It is to that other one, to Borges, that things happen… I do not know which of the two is writing this piece' (Borges)
  • 'This is the most strange and embarassing thing that happened to me… Whichever editions you see here or here, are clearly performed by "other" people, as I cannot log in with these users' (Fadesga)

I have no reason to doubt that the "edit war" that Fabio Descalzi, the “real” one, describes on the Wikipedia Administrators' Noticeboard, is true, yet strangely, I have a feeling that the truth doesn’t matter, since “(1) it is impossible to know truth; (2) the personality is determined by one’s experience and therefore changes constantly; (3) language is expressed and interpreted according to experience and thus is unreliable as a means of communication; (4) men build up masks to conceal reality, and thus render real communication impossible” (Mary McBride: “Jorge Luis Borges, Existentialist: "The Aleph" and the Relativity of Human Perception” in Studies in Short Fiction, 1977).

Whether fictional or factual, the edit war between several “alters” of one multiple online personality or between different users (including their “sock puppets”) did bring about a change I already mentioned. The page structure suddenly changed. The “controversial” statements were pushed down to a new section named “Disputes” below “Honorary members”, whereas new sections, too, appeared above.

The section “Purpose” was introduced as the first one, apparently to convey IAPTI’s marketing narrative:

"Its founder, Aurora Humarán, considered the creation of an association to discuss rates only among professionals, and that would be unique in scope, providing a framework, and with practically unlimited scope, in the belief that the globalized world needed a really comprehensive association able to embrace all translators and interpreters from any language pair, any specialization, and any country".

This, too, was repeatedly reshaped or censured. This time, however, the censuring was being done by Wikipedia admins. The comments (edit summaries on the View history page) speak for themselves:

  • “Purpose: Avoid mission statements”
  • ‎”Purpose: Fadesga, please go easy on the marketing hype, thanks”

The fight for references continued within the section “Disputes”. It is here or rather on its View history page where you can learn e.g. that

Anthony Pym questions true motives of IAPTI

It is here that you see how the passage is being reshaped to fit in into the self-gratifying narrative of IAPTI:

IAPTI

A few edits later “shameless” is redacted and replaced wirh “outrageous”, whereas "many professionals" are elevated to "many outstanding" ones:

IAPTI calls Anthony Pym "outrageous"

In a Wikipedia setting, "shameless" and "outrageous" are probably as close to "yuk, boo, gross" as you can get. A few more edits down the road there pops up another warning sign from Wikipedia admins:

IAPTI on Wikipedia - Neutrality of section is disputed

What is it all about, I asked myself. Why the struggle to rewrite history, cover up facts and apply self-serving adjectives?

IAPTI (initially AIPTI) was started by Aurora Humarán and the translators who worked for her then translation company, the Aleph Translations. In Borges’ story, the Aleph is a microcosm, a point in space that contains everything.

Today’s IAPTI still contains – and largely boils down to – its original microcosm. What was purported to become an “international” organization has been struggling, since 2009, to acquire a legal personality as an Argentinian “intercontinental” (?) association:

IAPTI, intercontinental association based in Argentine

Those who worked for Aleph Translations back in 2008 (as listed on BlueBoard in ProZ) are the same persons who hold positions on IAPTI's board today.

IAPTI and Aleph Translations

No elections have been held, no financial accounts ever produced. With the organization officially unapproved, unaccountable and without a tax number, it means that “any fees paid to IAPTI (such as membership or conference fees)” are likely to be regarded as payments to private persons, not “as business expenses in your own income tax returns”.

In fact, little in today’s IAPTI would pass the checks and balances of a democratic professional association. Some may find it troubling (those of us who already left certainly did), but someone like Borges probably wouldn’t. In one of his recorded interviews (1976), when speaking about politics, the great Argentinian said:

Question: What's your position on democracy?
Borges: What I wrote in the prologue of my last book, it's abuse of statistics, nothing more.
Question: You don't believe in democracy?
Borges: No. But, I may be talking as an Argentine. […] For the time being, my only observation as to what could be convenient would be to delay the next elections about… 300 or 400 years, but beyond that, I can't think of any solution.

So where I am going with this?

There is no personal agenda. Only disillusionment. For me – as probably for most of us, former members, whose only remaining solution was to leave, after heated discussions with the board – it took months to see through the self-glorifying marketing hype of IAPTI. It takes time to only start to sort facts from ficciones. Then it takes time to resolve your cognitive dissonance. In case of IAPTI, the outward image and the inner reality don’t match. You may get familiar with the facts – including those erased from public memory – but you still have, in the words of a German philosopher, to “have courage to use your own reason” and delineate right from wrong.

Borges said that “the man who acquires an encyclopedia does not thereby acquire every line, every paragraph, every page, and every illustration; he acquires the possibility of becoming familiar with one and another of those things.”

In a post-factual culture, our ability to interpret “those things” is getting more diluted. But also more valuable.

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