Beyond translation

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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.”

IAPTI Athens - 000 - TitelbildIt didn’t cross my mind that there is something I would like to change about the agenda of the second conference of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) that took place in Athens, Greece, on September 20 and 21, 2014. The program was as balanced and well-rounded as the Doric columns in the conference logo. Presentations on important aspects of the translation and interpretation business were held parallel in two conference rooms, crowned by general sessions with keynote speakers (e.g.. Kevin Lossner’s “Confessions of an American MpT User” and Aurora Humarán’s “Cons and Cons of Post-Editing for Third Parties, Pros and Pros of Post-Editing for Our Own Business”), insightful and inspiring reports (including a major survey on translation into a non-native language by Attila Piróth and Maria Karra) or topics of general interest like an entertaining final act with Nikos Sarantakos, a seasoned translator for the European Parliament in Luxembourg (“Loanwords, Idioms, False Friends and Other Curiosities in a Translator’s Life”).

It was a great conference attended by great colleagues many of whom I had known previously only through emails or Facebook groups. There will probably be more detailed (and far more comprehensive) reports on the topics and issues discussed at the conference. So it didn’t cross my mind that there was something to be improved about or rather added to the conference program until I found myself listening to Maya Fourioti speaking about “The Secret Code and Meaning of the Greek Alphabet”. A casual question from Aurora Humarán, IAPTI President and mastermind, concerning the Greek letter in the word “taxi” made me realize, all of a sudden, “Hey, we are actually in Athens, Greece”. The demonstration in Syntagma Square only five minutes from the conference venue could mean using a taxi instead of public transportation (yes, the Metro station was closed), but what was the demonstration about? Didn’t the recent discovery of a sensational tomb rescue Greece from all economic worries? What is the name of this popular coffee drink that everybody seems to sip at? And does the Greek for “taxi” have something to do with the Greek for “taxes”, which might be similar to a linguistic revelation that I made in Italy two years ago?

In short, I suddenly felt that some background information about the here and now could be welcomed. “Translation is not about words but about what words are about”, as Kevin Hendzel put it. Greek might be the richest language to describe the cosmos according to Maya Fourioti, but what about more simple, casual things?

Since the tour of Athens was set for the day after the conference and I already had other plans for that day (read on…), I thought I just had to guess “the secret code and meaning” and rely on personal interpreting. After all, translating is interpreting, so, for the lack of better knowledge, why not try and translate the visual into the verbal myself?

In retrospect, a more timely opportunity to compensate for the lack of trivial information was perhaps the only thing that I would like to change about the conference agenda, but in the meantime I managed to somehow bridge the information gap. I cannot guarantee any accuracy of the results. The future of our profession lies “beyond accuracy”, here I totally agree with Rose Newell (and her presentation “Writers Worth Paying For” in the Business/Marketing panel).

So much for the disclaimer, now on to the facts!


  1  My arrival in Greece started with a few serious disappointments. There was no VIP pickup service on arrival.

001 - Black Limo Pickup Service with IAPTI Logo

At the port of Piraeus, we were offered only very basic means of transportation.

IAPTI Athens - 002 - Donkeys

Against all expectations, the donkeys were completely unbranded, so that not every donkey driver was in the know about the IAPTI conference that was to take place (“Conference? What conference?”, as quoted by Marta Stelmaszak immediately upon arrival).

But the worst thing was that IAPTI had to change the conference venue. Greek construction workers, true to their unfortunate reputation, simply failed to rebuild the Acropolis by the 20th of September. Instead of overhead projectors and LED displays, overhead cranes and scaffolding still dominated the site on the conference eve. We had to move.

IAPTI Athens - 003 - Acropolis

  2  One of the poshest hotels and the former residence of Aristotle Onassis were proposed to serve as an alternative conference venue. The hotel management were smart to incorporate the hotel’s USP into its name – Electra Palace Hotel. Since most of Greece’s electric power resources are used to operate the lighting equipment at the Acropolis building site at night, not every hotel in Athens can boast of electricity in its rooms. Luckily, the power outages during presentations in the Electra Palace Hotel conference halls were few, and even if they were, I finally learned how to use my iPhone as a torch (that came in very handy when dealing with the Greek menu during the night dinner, the menu was fully enjoyed).

  3  Greeks are an Olympic nation. Once, I had a translation job for a German lawyer firm specialized in sports betting. The lawyers were approached by a new betting company from Russia to help them set up offices in Cyprus and Greece. As far as I remember it was vital for the Russian client to have “Olympic” in their company name. I didn’t realize at that time it was more a local target group than a figure of speech. A typical Athenian day starts with a visit to a sports betting office and ends when the lights of the “Play Zone” go out. (Unluckily, there was no “Play Zone” at the Electra Palace Hotel.)

IAPTI Athens - 004 - Play-Zone

  4  The next big thing among the Olympians are bicycles. The IAPTI conference was by far the most important, but not the only show in town. The bike festival at Technopolis/Gazi not very far from the conference venue was huge.

IAPTI Athens - 007 - Bicycle Festival - Technopolis - Fuji

This year, over 34,000 visitors were reported to be fascinated by a novelty called “bike helmet” (more than 250 helmet brands were featured at the exhibition). Rumor has it that the tremendous success of helmets for bike riders may even force the Greek government to lift the ban on helmets for women riding on the back seat of scooters and motorcycles in the Peloponnese part of Greece.

  5  The Greek translation market is huge. Virtually everything ever published abroad is already translated into Greek. But not the other way around. I didn’t find a single book in any language other than Greek at the Book Festival in Zapeion (also within a five minutes walk from the Electra Palace Hotel) that ended on September 21st simultaneously with the IAPTI conference.

IAPTI Athens - 005 - Book Festival

  6  The only exception for translations from Greek into other languages is the poetry of the great Konstantinos P. Kavafis (1863-1933). On the second day of the conference, Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez (“Increasing Quality in Retranslations? Cavafy’s Swift Conquest of Spanish”) compared 8 various existing Spanish versions of one famous poem and arrived at a conclusion that no one translation was perfect. Provoked by the remark that it took a translator of Greek classics, Robert Fitzgerald, 11 years to accomplish his work, Mr Kirti Vashee immediately announced in his blog (“eMpTy pages”) that his company, Asia Online, already achieved, through use of a special Kavafis-trained MpT engine in combination with automatic pre-, post- and meta-editing, more efficient results. Once again, as numerous times in the past, Mr Kirti Vashee was proven wrong. The Acropolis Museum's collection of stone carvings with Greek letters convincingly shows that post-editing was never an option, not now and not in the past. Many botched post-editing jobs done by Alexandrian scribes could be remedied only by a new translation from scratch.

  7  Asia Online’s machine translations of Kavafis will be touched upon in an IAPTI webinar to be held soon. This time, Aurora Humarán and Valeria Aliperta will join forces to give an informal presentation under the working title “Pros and Pros of Post-Editing Kavafis for Your Brand, Cons and Cons of Post-Editing Kavafis for Nescafé”. Registration will be open soon!

  8  For translators in a very competitive environment like translating into Greek (see above), there is no better place for studying marketing than the Central Market in Athens. Whereas the famous Fischmarkt in Hamburg, Germany, stages workshops only on Sundays, between 5 and 9 a.m., the Athens fish market provides courses in a variety of disciplines, including diversification and anti-commoditization techniques, each day with a focus on direct clients.

IAPTI Athens - 006 - Fish market


  The Day After  

As soon as the conference was over, Athens returned to its serene and peaceful self. There was no better time to start a healthy lifestyle change!

Sara-Colombo

On the last conference day Sara Colombo came to Athens from Tokyo London to persuade the audience of the “Business Benefits of Living a Healthy Lifestyle”. After hearing about various relaxation techniques, I was now confronted with a dilemma (δίλημμα): what should I do? Go fishing or go to Mt. Fuji Olympus. I chose the latter.

The way up Mt. Olympus was a very steep way. It was also scorching hot. But advanced origami techniques and a Greek paper make a great combo!

IAPTI Athens - 008 - Valerij Tomarenko

The view from the top makes up for everything. From here, Greece looks as if the conference never took place, although to state this would be the most blatant inaccuracy in this reportage.

IAPTI Athens - 009 - Greece

In order not to multiply inaccuracies, I will refrain from claiming that this was the mountain where they usually light the Olympic torch to transfer it to another city to host the next event, in our case the IAPTI 2015.

All kidding aside, it was a great conference, and as a conclusion I would like to say a big thank you, ευχαριστώ, to all those who made it such a tremendous success. I am looking forward to meeting you at the next IAPTI conference. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!

IAPTI Athens - 010 - Colleagues - Heidi

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