Welcome and Let’s Go!

Standing Out

I started travelling before the Internet was born. To book a flight ticket or a hotel room, you had to go to a travel agency; to learn about a country, to a bookshop. As the Germans say, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude” and a thrill of anticipation (“better than the real thing”) materialized in front of shelves with travel guides arranged alphabetically.

In line with the saying, the “real thing” usually turned out to be far less colourful than the pictures in the travel books. The pictures reframed the reality so that most of the “real thing” remained outside the frame. Usually, it was the less thrilling part.

At that time, I discovered that travel books fall into two categories. The predominant type was books that described an ideal world or dealt with the country’s heroic history, extant monuments and age-old culture. Books offering practical advice were few and far between, with only a handful standing out like a sore thumb due to their no-bullshit attitude and deliberate understatement or mildly ironic undertones. I developed an immediate liking for Let’s Go, The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet, which seemed to celebrate the bright side of travel for easy-going, positive-thinking and low-cost backpackers.

Today, I can understand the criticism of the “lonely planet-ization of travel”, though I still prefer no-frills, feet-on-the-ground paperbacks over all the academic, glossy or kitsch panegyrics so popular during those pre-Internet travel days.

It was the “lonely planet-ization of travel” that became the object of a parody in 2003 when a book by three Australians was published. The book became a huge success in Australia and a cult classic elsewhere provided that Monty Python had already become part of the national cultural DNA.

The guide’s three authors made up an entire country – and wrote a seriously hilarious travel guide about it. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Molvanîa opened to foreign tourists, though the risk of visa denial for vegetarians was still high, as was the risk of leaving the country with only one kidney. The Great Wall of Lutenblag, Molvanîa’s ancient capital and home of the bubonic plague, fell down (due to inferior construction materials), meaning backpackers can now follow in the footsteps of invaders from the past: Molvanîa was previously conquered by Goths, Tatars, Huns and militant Spanish nuns. The Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanian women and the taste of the national beverage – a mixture of garlic brandy and beetroot juice.

If you have never heard of Molvanîa, you will now have an idea of this country. You may also guess how the sequels to “Molvanîa” unfold – mock travel guides for Phaic Tăn (a country that went through many political changes from Enlightened Feudalism to Post-Communist Yoga and Pilates) and the Democratic Free People’s United Republic of San Sombrèro (where you can get arrested without a warrant for calling the country just “San Sombrèro” as an abbreviated form).

From a linguist’s point of view, all three countries are quite interesting. In Molvanian, for example, articles change their form depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, neuter, or a type of cheese. Phaic Tănese is a tonal language with quite a few unusual sounds (the use of certain tones is governmentally restricted) and an average speed of 192 syllables per minute, whereas San Sombrèran is a fascinating dialect of Spanish that is spoken really, really fast (it is considered impolite to take a breath during a sentence).

However, it is not linguistic idiosyncrasies that motivate me to recall these books. My memory of Molvanîa is tied to a number of bookstores where “Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry” (Jetlag Travel Publishing, 2003) landed on the shelf alongside travel guides for Mongolia and Montenegro or among other books in the “Balkans” section.

Yet, my brightest memory of Molvanîa goes back to a further education academy in Germany where I used to work as an interpreter for foreign students. One day, the Head of the Eastern European Department discovered the book in the staffroom. Why didn’t we mention Molvanîa in our image brochure, he asked the teachers who were grading their students’ papers or drinking coffee in front of their computers. “Actually, the Molvanian students I met at the reception ceremony a month ago would make for a perfect cover picture if we want to update our booklet next time,” he added.

I have no remembrance of the reaction of the faculty members in the staff room. Quite probably, there was none. The Boss may be wrong or even embarrassingly wrong, but he is still the Boss. Perhaps, you had better keep a serious poker face if your boss seems to take this or that seriously. Or sit on the fence and wait until someone else spots the bluff.

Molvanîa is a very clear-cut case, though. A clearing in the jungle of far more intricate cases and borderline stories. Today, you never know if the emperor truly puts on his new clothes or puts on an act and plays an haute couture spoof.

Similar to "Vorfreude" ("joyful anticipation that comes from imagining future pleasures"), another German word that you have to describe verbosely in English is "Fremdschämen”. According to the Wictionary it means “to be embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn't notice)”. It was certainly embarrassing to take Molvanîa for a country somewhere in the Balkans, but far more embarrassing to witness your boss praising the Molvanian emerging market. My feeling of “Fremdschämen” would have probably been most acute, if someone had tried to sell tickets to Molvanîa. Or if I had happened to encounter people willing to buy some.

No industry is immune to selling and buying into the Molvanian stuff. Ittakestwototango, like they say in San Sombrèro. Regardless the industry, it takes both sellers AND buyers to make it happen, preferably more buyers than sellers. In the translation business, for example, a rough how-to guide for selling tickets could be like this.

Start up a forum for freelancers, welcome your visitors as friends and colleagues. A community of colleagues is great for recruiting customers. But first, you should show that you can teach them a few things.

Your fellow translators might not realise that teaching something may be easier than practicing something. Contrary to what they may think, teaching is possible with no expertise in the subject. You don’t have to talk about the nuts and bolts of translation, you can craft your pitch like a translation guru with any translation-unrelated, general, positive and uplifting insights. Cues like "invisible energy" or "secret toolkit/mindset" won't impress those who are way too familiar with motivation teachers (or esoteric book shops). But to tap into a new, unspoiled Molvanian market, they will be the real thing. Call it personal development.

Personal development works much the same for aspiring real estate agents, amateur traders of the E-Mini S&P futures or freelance translators just starting out. Start teaching your colleagues (now hopefully followers). Teach them Attitude. Teach Authenticity. Throw in a couple more “A”s (but avoid “Amateurishness” or “Agency”). Now you have a philosophy with a nice combination of the “A” characters in place.

You can never be too generic or hollow. Turn your style, your mood, your pitch up to 11. If your followers are willing to stand out, they should stand more. Feed them truisms about a life-enriching freelancing lifestyle (with or without dabbling in translation). Keep the advice to hug trees to become better translators for later, though.

Use images, ignore what professional photographers and graphic designers tell you about Terrible Photography Clichés Like That One Full Color Item In a B&W Photo and other no-nos. Kitsch works. Share some of the Molvanian art.

Use videos. Some people might take them for a parody of psychobabble. Others, more impressionable, will take them at face value. Add some easy-listening sounds – someone will find them Zen or phaic-tan-tonic. Compile reviews and testimonials. Still better, essays. Your followers would be happy to contribute: when you are done with coaching translators you can start teaching feel-good copywriting instead. Or wholesome typesetting. Or Traveling through the Seven Circles of the Freelance Mandala. Above all, capitalize the opportunity to sell books and webinars. Later, you can think of diversifying into therapeutic gardening. Or growing olives and making goat's milk cheese at home instead.

Now you are all set and ready for the journey. Tell your followers (now hopefully your clients) that your journey will be a fascinating one. Say: “I want you to come with me to Molvanîa. We will travel through your Inner World first. Then we will go to Phaic Tăn. I think that Phaic Tăn is a really good place for us to travel together.”

You can add, as an afterthought: “By the way, did you know that the country’s name means “fruitful ground deep beneath the waterline” in Molvanian? Actually, they grow nice olives there. Be sure to taste some. In Phaic Tăn they grow papaya. Green AND black. We should try both.”

  1. Rose’s avatar

    Wow. Nailed it, Valerij.

    And bloody well written, too.

    There's nothing I can really add to that, except that you made my day. I am in full and total agreement, and could not have done this any better myself.


  2. Audra’s avatar

    love this. I know exactly who you are talking about, too.

    This person is as much of a professional translator as I am a ballerina–that is to say, not at all! I'm glad at least someone else sees it.

    Now take my hand as we travel to The Seven Circles of the Freelance Mandala together. Hopefully snickering all the way.


    1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

      Love your blog, Audra (beautiful pictures, too)!
      In the end, it all adds up as we know 🙂


    2. Allison Wright’s avatar

      Ach, wie gut…
      What a very well-crafted piece of writing this is, Valerij.


    3. Kevin Hendzel’s avatar

      What a masterful and clever parody of an appalling practice that a surprising number of people have fallen for hook, line and sinker.

      Talk about drinking the Kool-Aid. These people have begun guzzling it.

      An interesting corollary is what happens when people with REAL expertise show up.  You know, the scientists in the crowd of charlatans and mystics.  Why, they drive the scientists out, of course, with malace, anger, dimissiveness, and an amazing sense of self-assurance.

      This self-assurance is really jaw-dropping since their own real experience can often be measured in nanoseconds.

      Great job Valerij! 🙂


      1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

        Thank you, Kevin! Well, the original title was “Welcome to Charlatanstan”, but I am really fond of Let’s Go. The number of people falling for blatant self-promotion IS a surprise, but it happens in all walks of life, I am afraid.


      2. Nigel Wheatley’s avatar

        Are you sure it's self-assurance Kevin? Seems more to me like the sort of "self-assurance" I get when I know I'm in out of my depth and I just *have* to wing it. Real self-assurance wouldn't worry about the detracters, and yet these people obviously *do* worry about them, because they feel the need to attack them and drive them out of the cult. That surely is the sign that the cult is one of personality and not substance.


      3. Amy Bryant’s avatar

        I love reading your insightful pieces. This one is particularly enjoyable.

        You write:
        "Use videos. Some people might take them for a parody of psychobabble"

        Or they might think you are higher than a kite to go by one video of said person babbling on while attempting to play the piano. I can't remember seeing something so cringe-worthy.


        1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

          Thank you, Amy.

          Well, you cannot prevent certain persons from displaying their dubious taste on the youtube, but to make believe that it would qualify as CPD is even more cringe-worthy.


        2. Audra’s avatar

          Please, please tell me you have the link to this video!!


        3. Diana’s avatar

          This is genius, Valerij, such a well-written parody!

          PS: ''higher than a kite'' is exactly what I was thinking, Amy! 😉


        4. Shai Navé’s avatar

          Brilliant Valerij. Hats off.

          This post comes in a very timely manner because the amount of unqualified, misguided, and bad advice – and even pure charlatinism – targeting translation communities seem to be on the rise.

          Some would argue this is a sign to how much the "industry" has "grown" and became more "repectable" and "professional", but to me this is quite unfortunate.
          The blind leading the blind.


        5. Jeanette Brickner’s avatar

          Fantastically well-written! You put into words something I had been thinking might be going on for awhile but couldn't quite put my finger on. And added just the right amount of humor to drive the point home. Thanks for this!


        6. Andrew Morris’s avatar

          Very well written and I'm genuinely flattered by the amount of time you must have taken over this. And the picture is quite brilliant. Bravo!

          Now who fancies an olive?


        7. Andrew Morris’s avatar

          Although I might allow myself in passing to dispense a little spelling lesson to the learned commentators, despite their unquestioned eminence as linguists, compared to my callow inexperience.

          It's 'malice' Kevin, not 'malace' (I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on the 'dimissiveness'. And Nigel it's a 'detractor' not a 'detracter'. Shai, try 'charlatanism' rather than 'charlatinism'

          Dearie me, work to be done.




        8. Kevin Hendzel’s avatar

          Aw, Andrew, "dimissiveness" was my special invention just for you. 🙂

          You are indeed correct on "malice," a word I regretfully felt was necessary, given the broadside and totally unnecessary unilateral and unprovoked nuclear strike that blew me right out the doors with not a single option for commentary or recourse.

          This leaves aside the fact that the debate that preceded it resulted in the other gentleman not only graciously admitting that it was wrong of him to speak of people who "spoke poor English," but thanking me for outlining the linguistic theory on whose basis that very statement would never (ever) actually be uttered by a real trained (scientific) linguist.  

          Incidentally, it's not expertise as "linguists" that plays the decisive role here among the commentators — although you are as picky on spelling as you should be — it's our advanced specialty knowledge in hard-won domains (science, law, technology, etc.) as well as long-term and exceptionally valuable expertise gained from collaboration with our colleagues with even greater expertise. Nobody has been corrected more than I have. 🙂  

          And, of course, our willingness to concede that it's expertise, measured in years, that counts over all other aspects of the craft.

          Unlike programming or hackers or even artists, there are no young "great" translators.  And I measure "young" both in years on the planet and, alternatively for those who have come to the career late in life, years spent on the piano composing your symphonies, with a learned instructor peering intensely over your shoulder and guiding you at every turn.



        9. Andrew Morris’s avatar

          Well then Kevin you'll be gratified to know that my two biggest clients are now schools of education, in which I spent 20 years of my life, including at international consultant level for ministries of education in at least half a dozen countries.

          Perhaps it's true there are no young great translators. And yet among the company you keep in this thread alone many of the most 'self-assured' commentators are young enough to be my children. Doesn't quite add up.

          Anyway, I'm off now. I just wanted to pop in and say hi. Have a great independence day.




          1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

            Yes, I am with you. That further education academy I mentioned was one of my biggest clients, too. Schools of education need to periodically update their country programmes, especially when their bosses discover new country guides 😉


          2. Kevin Hendzel’s avatar

            Andrew, no challenge from me if you've successfully aligned your long-term expertise from a previous career with your translation practice.  It's how many translators leap-frog into the big leagues, especially in technical fields.

            I would encourage you, FWIW, to advocate for the benefits of that practice in your forum and your comments, e.g. specialization, rather than what has traditionally been your message, at least as interpreted by many observers quite independently, even in this comment section, and that's that (I'm paraphrasing you) "Expertise counts for 20% of success while enthusiasm counts for 80%."

            With respect to my comment that there are no great young translators, I'm referring to the fact that in many fields, "greatness" comes at an exceedingly young age — Mark Zukerburg's mastery of programming at an advanced level was obvious in his teens, as was the case will Bill Gates.  Chinese violin prodigies emerge in early adolescence.  That doesn't happen in translation.

            Our field has plenty of great translators in their late 20s and early 30s who have completed rigorous translation training under close supervision (as per my piano example above) which was essential to their success.  They didn't just hang out a shingle one day.

            Most also collaborate — as in revise each other extensively every day (not just "proofread.").  They also specialize in one or two fields.

            So collaboration and training just came earlier to them, and success was the result of those three important factors (training, collaboration and specialization).

            BTW, there are those who argue, quite convincingly, that great translators can't emerge before age 40, after having devoted their entire life to the craft.  So I count myself as a moderate on this particular issue. 🙂



          3. Stefan Gentz’s avatar

            Chapeau! It's a pleasure to read, Valerij! Not sure why, but when I read it it sometimes feels like reading something from Christian Kracht.


          4. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

            Thank you so much, Stefan. Wow, now I am impressed. I cannot possibly imagine what something like above could have in common with CK besides "a common interest in provocation (and a common concern not to be stereotyped as Neo-Dada Neo-Nazis)“ (Christian Kracht & David Woodard, Five Years, Briefwechsel 2004-2009).

            Or had the state founded by Mavrocordato’s Grandfather common borders with Molvania ("Ich bin Rumäne. Mavrocordato, guten Tag. Mein Großvater gründete an der Schwarzmeerküste einen utopischen Kleinststaat, zeitgleich mit d’Annunzios Fiume. Tristan Tzara soll dabeigewesen sein“) 🙂

            But of course, everything CK writes is pure poetry. Especially "1979".


          5. Tom’s avatar

            Hello 🙂 I found your blog few days ago. I'm a polish translator and your site is now in my favorites bookmarks ! I'm still learning my profession, but it's a pleasure to read your texts !!!



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