I have just come back from the doctor's surgery. Oh, I'm fine - better than I thought in fact, hence the enthusiasm as I sit down to afflict my small audience once again. What it was is not the subject of this debate, but it did bring up in my mind a term heard in many medical conference peregrinations: is it operable?
They tell me epic poetry has a precise function in our brain, and that is to live out an experience without actually having to endure it. Say, understand what war teaches us without the mess. That is good, and I would extend the concept to events we work at. From behind the glass, we are able to experience without joining in, if you see what I mean, and once the tiredness is vanquished, we emerge cleansed, pure and wiser.
Once the tales of heroes leave Greece and reach Rome (I am getting to the point), they seem to acquire another dimension. Romans love heroes too, but they serve better if they are distant, untouchable and, well... dead. If you want to live forever, you'd better get killed first. It is our little way of getting rid of people: it happens with politicians, religious leaders...read today's papers and take your pick.
So what is this post about? Well, I am wondering what latent exposure to all these worlds of words for a day or two at a time does to us. And what will happen next. Sherlock Holmes states that you should "tell a weaver by his tooth", and I'm thinking about the effect I have on my unwitting fellow men and women when we meet in any social context. Okay, hold the irony there. They may meet an eloquent human being, who can probably hold a conversation on most topics for at least three minutes. Cool. Yes, because differently to an airline pilot who can choose to leave his job at the door of any club he is about to spend the evening in safe in the knowledge that he won't encounter a plane there, words are everywhere. And try as we might to lighten the register for the night, the wordsmith will still show - or split personality must ensue.
Then come the reactions. You are seen as the Ferryman of Meaning, the Charon whose surgical precision allows the world to turn and be such a lovely place. Naturally, this will be expressed in more concrete terms than I am able to summon - namely the question "What happens if you don't know one of the words the speaker says?" A more prosaic compliment is "Wow, your brain must have the biggest RAM ever!" Normally, I smile my best Etruscan smile, betraying the melancholy that knows that machines one day will replace me.
No comments, please, they will. The only thing I want to know is what to do about it, given that if machines became just as good, I mean really precisely like a flesh and blood practitioner, the honest thing to do in theory would be to bow out. In addition, far from being what evoked above, more often than not I feel like a wayfarer peddling second hand significance hardly able to re-write history with his lips.
Here's a thought: could exposure to many (or no) truths make us unique? Not in the sense that we will know the Truth, but that we are inclined to pine for it in a loving and transverse way. And people need and love people who in turn to do the same. Think of it: why do you buy hand-made? Or at least, why is it more precious? It is certainly not more perfect, but is endowed with that emotional impact, like the one odd colour in an Arabian weft stating that only God does not need perfecting. Someone has worked for you. Someone at that instant is thinking of you. Of course, it may be a niche church. It's perhaps for fewer than we thought. Some may think of it as a luxury - and I would point out that the current economic climate seems to be sparing this market segment - but this and no other will be the reason the professional linguist may still be alive a few years from now, as far as I can see from here.
You think it's an idealist stance? No, far fetched? Eccentric? Okay, crazy?
Ah, but, yet, however, I mean, you must remember that...
Care to join in?
...so this is the one about when along with an esteemed colleague I was trying to set up professional development masterclasses for interpreters in the United States. The main feature was to be the new sim-consec technique, which I only mention virally in passing. Any reader wishing to know more will certainly display their interest below, and of course I will oblige. More than a year on then, despite ample accreditation from the right Bodies, a decent following and a technology-based solution powerful enough to rock the industry once detonated, I am still preaching this side of the Pond, and my colleague is successfully doing the same at her end. We never did meet, though any start-up is susceptible to turbulence, and we haven't given up.
The big problem was cost: the air fare I might manage thanks to those miles clocked up around Europe (more of that later), but domestic travel, lodging and hiring the venue broke the camel's back. And, my colleague informed me, "you must offer coffee and pastries", presumably to ensure credibility and happiness. We got a few quotes, mostly reasonable. But I could not help noticing that coffee was measured by the gallon. Not that this was a problem: if you take a cup of coffee or two per person per day, measure the mug's capacity and multiply it by fifty, for example, you might come close to or go beyond gallons. I wouldn't know, as back in Rome we do litres, but that's not the point. The truth is that I had never seen coffee as a liquid. By this I mean something you ingest to quench thirst or wash down food or hydrate the body or warm your innards. In Italy (here I virally hint that I expect my compatriots to contradict me), we do not even collocate coffee with the word drink. We take a coffee, imagining perhaps that it goes straight to the brain or the soul in order to readily produce its effect: the final seal to any meal, the subtle reek announcing to the world "Serenely full, the epicure would say, Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today" [Syndey Smith, 1771-1845]. The process is more akin to taking a drug, in any sense of the word you desire.
Let's get back to travels in Europe, then. I will come clean. Of course I adore espresso. In fact, I make a little hobby of seeking out the best outlet near the conference venue in any country I visit. I brave whatever weather whilst puzzled colleagues tied into less trivial language combinations smile understandingly at my passport protruding from the wallet where I hope to find just a little local currency, as they mix up a few brown gritty pebbles at the bottom of an enormous vessel and drown them in milky water. Also, I am never shy to advise anyone who cares or is standing too close that cappuccino is a breakfast drink and should not be sipped after midday (I remember doing so last week when I made it my business to check out a new start-up at London's Google University - but this post is becoming too viral). When I couple this with the fact that I also enjoy a beer (no pints, just bottles, and only lager/pilsner as a tribute to my all-German mother), I see we have finally got to the point.
What is acceptable varies across cultures and of course time. Yet coffee is on the rise in the parlance of, say, deskbound translators. In the infosphere, when we ask one to summarize their work in three words, we elicit responses such as "coffee, dictionaries and more coffee". Social networks greet us in the morning with steaming cups and slurpy sounds, and of course it is the safest topic booth-side if we wish to conceal our next assignment or who our contact was for this job. In short, the social function of coffee is exactly what whisky used to be for Lieutenant Kojak. The light side, the offline fruitful talk before the word networking was invented, the pardonable weakness every great man must have, perhaps the secret balm to an invisible wound. Getting drunk was never part of it. Not because they didn't, but because most psychologists will tell you that it's not only about the quantity, but about intention as well. Gone are the days when my Russian colleague had (took?) vodka in the booth (not a slanderous sweeping comment: first-hand experience, the noun is in the singular), but the fact is no one thought he was going to pass the line, starting from him. Now, a drink during the evenings between working days is half-frowned upon; not a good idea after a job, at the airport, as one might get dehydrated; bad if you have worked too hard and are tired; possibly a mistake during networking evenings (nothing viral, my dear London friends). But if I don't go for it during the Christmas bash, or on a Friday night, I'm a spoilsport. Anyway, as a Public Service Interpreter on the police scene, am I ever really not working?
How do people cope? My thought: it's all still there, but change the word "wine" (I never drink wine, I do have morals) with coffee. And if anyone seriously lets the "isn't it time to stop now" phrase escape, you can always seriously look peeved: it's just coffee, for crying out loud. It's not like I'm downing brandy...
Speaking of escapes, I almost forgot. The cigarette crowd seems to be excused. I feel now I have to reassure you it's a vice I don't have. But in their case, an I-know-it's-bad-for-me-but-hey smile will suffice, and leaves us all a little envious about the fact that they are really having a great time under that shelter. No ice to break except on the ground, and all united by a subtle understanding. Enough.
But think about it: it's not what's in our cup that makes us virtuous. One can be dangerously addicted to origami, or loud punk music or work or scented candles. One may be more harmful than the other - I'm thinking about the paper cuts - but it is the relationship we entertain with anything or anyone that makes or breaks us as a person, and by extension our professional persona. The effects and dangers of our habits and talk are not what this post is about, and I am not doubting any scientific evidence, to be clear.
We are about words, and words should dress meaning, never mask it. As culture and time progress, and collective lexis needs to hop away from the derogatory meanings perfectly innocent words seem to acquire by (black) magic, it is worth reflecting on the substitutions taking place as we become absorbed in a global movement of consumption. Where what is in and what is out are not necessarily dictated by health or wellbeing, but by a need to buy and sell - witness the enormous contradictions in packaging trends vs. recycling, taxation vs. smoking, insurance vs. healthy lifestyles, charity vs. war, and the list goes on... In short, we are moving away from alcohol-speak and into an apparently more harmless realm simply because we need to devour something new now and again, as the old becomes unacceptable. Such is the fashion of language, or shoes, or travel, in the consumer age. Along with words, we shift our habits, but we do not become better human beings. And changing shoes may be fun, as they do not have a soul (!), and we can still keep the old ones. Respectively, with words there is a possibility that they might, and we might not be able to.
Perhaps I have gone too far. Not so virally, I feel you will let me know. But thanks for humouring me. I swear I too follow all your posts to the bottom, where I read the dregs, and try to fathom what it is you want to say in the spaces between the lines.
Something's wrong. They tell me my only other blogging experience now cruising at silent altitude is an inhospitable home for poetry. More to the point, my own bigcitymartin persona is stuck somewhere between fiction and friction. Yes, personal. Yet, virally hopeless.
And I agree. Martin Esposito bigcitymartin is a neutral complex. It cannot (but has tried) to muster the thrust of an organisation, whose name must be the resultant of any harnessed good. But somehow some people escape the positive gloss a company can clothe itself in - unless we are evoking a celebrity. We are not.
One thing is certain: language use here cannot be a mere means to an end, nor an additional hobby. More like a keyhole through which the truth is gained, thanks to the interpretative (sorry) key leading to meaning.
Those who will read on and therefore have made it till here may encounter the tales of a conference interpreter and more dealing essentially with English and Italian. A composite, not splintered, identity, though this is true only in a very liquid way - more of a goal I guess. But not many tips, few links, and I'm not sure yet about the frequency either, though I'd love to fill so much of this white.
Of one thing I am certain. I care. I mean comments, mean comments too; and about the stories, necessarily rendered universal for safe fruition, but true and uncut from the cerebral cortex. I suppose it will be about belonging with only a dash of doing - others deal with that wonderfully, and I will point you in the right direction as we go along. Come here for the offline moments, like when Pinocchio needed his feet seeing to after a fire. Sat on a bench, he had to stop and take stock. What happens when you stop?
Where else my shoes will take us we shall see. Like GPS, I track in threes: the requirements of life, my travel companions, and the taste for words as bullets I just won't give up.
See you down here.
This article was originally commissioned by a German translators' blog back in 2009, and then revised for publishing on a Japanese online magazine in 2011. Whilst it deals mainly with translation, an activity I was more engaged in at the time, I find some elements still topical. A few thoughts will display how things have changed - others will do the opposite.
As I age and my temper shortens, I note that the style is perhaps more tentative than I would like it, but here goes that call to arms once again. Just for completeness' sake, and because I'm a sentimental fool...
I'm glad this old piece has now found a home.
Martin Esposito wonders why professional linguists sometimes fail to communicate amongst themselves and at times even with their clients
As I sit in a plane bound for Budapest, I feel the slight exhilaration due to being for a brief day in a condition of absolute repose. For a start, pressurisation always gives that general light-headedness (perhaps enhanced by the excellent bar service) and though usually a tragedy, not being online on this occasion is the perfect complement to the rare predicament where a translator has no work pending, having delivered the previous commission late the night before. It is, as I say, quite the exception, and not always a welcome one, as unpredictable lulls in workflow do not always translate (ha!) into rest, and sometimes degenerate into downright worry.
Yet it is at times like these that I feel we are best equipped to consider our profession and to take stock. Possible reasons for not to doing so during the normal course of business include, of course, too much of the business in question, or simply an attitude inclined to discard the need for a deep analysis - why fix what ain't broke? I believe however that the inevitable condition of constant pendulum swings from linguist/wordsmith to reluctant one-man-company/entrepreneur is mainly to blame for the loss of direction I am feeling and, at least in my case, the lack of preparation for the latter position is mainly responsible for the unease.
In troubled times, it pays to know what's going wrong: should we just accept our fate or reach for new challenges? Most translators will complain about the fact that in this customer-led industry the customer leads so much that the linguist is almost excluded from the production process. This is visible in the setting of deadlines (we're ready for the launch first thing in the morning - all we need to do is get the thing translated); the idea of financial reward (it's only a translation, - it's not like you have to re-write the whole thing!); especially in the discrepancy between source and target language quality (we jotted it down quickly in Italian and there are a few inaccuracies. But can you make sure the English reads well?)...
Yet when the world of work as we know it is undergoing the deepest change since the Industrial Revolution, are people really less in need of good communicators? Or have our clients all rather suddenly become expert users of language? Is this not precisely the time to ensure one final good quality message really gets through so that effective communication takes place, avoiding duplication and therefore wastefulness? Another element worth noting about these times is that never before have workers in any industry been the object of so many welfare guidelines and stringent health and safety measures: ergonomic desks, workstations and telephones, activity and rest alternation, healthy snack options from the canteen, ventilation and lighting standards; to this we can add provisions pertaining to equal opportunity, race, sex and creed flattening parameters, and we get quite a rosy picture. Yet it is certainly true that our era is also the one with the most outsourcing, freelancers in our case, or other kinds of externally appointed staff, and therefore not in any way provided for under the regulations mentioned above.
I have asked enough questions to which I don't not know the answer. All of them though certainly quietly imply that a range of business practices the multiple industries the translation industry is part of need to begin to be questioned, and this can only come from us. A few thoughts: the sale of 'first drafts' for internal use and the excessive use of software as a substitute for knowledge and instinct should both undergo careful scrutiny. What is sometimes blamed most of all though is the lack of a sense of professional kinship among language practitioners. This is simply based, it seems to me, on the fact that we are in competition for the same financial rewards, and our normally naturally complementary skills are rarely exploited for the common good. We are kept splintered by greater entrepreneurs than ourselves, who know their mantra well: communication is key (how many times did you translate this one?), and ensure we disperse after the show, so as not to co-ordinate. The latter good practice is exactly where all big corporate players get their ideas at the highest levels, in an almost incestuous closeness, whilst their outlets fight on the (high) street. It is what keeps businesses alive under an umbrella preserving them from the hailstones of loneliness and the deadly silence of lack of the much-evoked communication.
Alive? Not much these days, you may say, and 'join an association of translators then', another voice might add. Both interesting notions. The second suggestion I may actually follow one day, when I am able to see a selection process stretching beyond mere qualifications and the fees I charge. As to what being alive means...well, read on.
I feel that the shared dimension of our work (the one we choose to talk about with colleagues) focusses on the quantity we get or do not get. Quality is for our own eyes only. So no real progress can be made through pooling and complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses. An example: I have never used translation software, but work in close contact with a colleague who does. We share out the right work for each translating style, or work as a team: he is quick and cost-effective, I supply the final revision without getting bogged down in a document I could never handle efficiently by hand. Another issue: no really unified voice is reaching the big dictionary companies, requesting comprehensive platforms and online/offline streamlined and specialised resources, rather than clumsy CD ROMs or long passwords giving access to the lexis on one machine at a time. But most seriously, clients all too often cannot see our passion through the tiredness and the stress as we say yet another time 'it's actually not a bad piece of writing. If only I had the time to appreciate it'.
What can be done, then? A little honesty would work wonders: yes, my rate may be slightly higher, but look, has my cheaper colleague actually pointed out that the six line headed paper you pay for every time could be pasted on the body of the letter by your clerical staff? Can I remind you that this draft is identical to last season's, and tracking changes might save you time and often more importantly money? It's a start, as are the health tips I get from some of my colleagues with a greater sense of responsibility towards body and soul, which sounds silly, but may actually keep me going for all the years I need before I ever get some form of pension.
Again, I think I can hear a silence... I know I might have puzzled a few, disappointed others. When one's ideas are about to be hacked to pieces, it pays to throw oneself into battle, rather than just one's theories: yes, this is my only job, and both me and my family depend on it. And yes, I have shared these views with students of the profession, more than a thousand, and all asking questions, in Italy, the UK and as far a Taiwan. What's more, over the years the work I do has become less repetitive, more interesting and better regarded, and I am beginning to help younger professionals by passing on the things I choose to do no more, which has the added bonus of not leaving disappointed clients stuck with a refusal and no alternative - another problematic habit. So things are mainly good, at least until now.
Whether I am to be surrounded by a wall of fire or suddenly find myself part of a network of motivated linguists I know must be out there will not depend on me. And for once, not even on clients. I am running on trust here. Silly of me, but it is hard times. And, as the old adage has it (though I'm not entirely certain of the translation), 'If you always do the same thing in the same way, don't be surprised when you get the same results'. Happy the way you are? You probably stopped reading this quite a few lines ago. Want to try something new or just curious?
I may have started asking questions I have no answer to again, though this of course is the good reason for asking. I'm not sure what my readers will choose to do or whether I will ever hear from anyone, but as soon as I'm off this plane and back to (on?) earth I'll be getting online again...
Martin Esposito is a freelance bilingual Italian/English Conference Interpreter and Translator. He currently lives and works in London, but is professionally active and a retains a base in Rome.
He can be reached on