Monday, February 27, 2012

File management and workflow for translators

workflow diagrams for future product
Image credit: Jessica Mullen
As a freelance translator, it is essential to have good document management and an efficient workflow. Sure, it would be nice if our clients always offered us tidy chunks of work, nicely scheduled so we can keep all our various jobs and deadlines easily organized in our mental filing cabinets, but alas such is rarely the case. One moment you are chugging pleasantly through a few good sized jobs with reasonable deadlines, and then in the space of an afternoon, six clients call you for small jobs with deadlines ranging from “yesterday” to “sometime next week is fine.” If you don’t have a good workflow and file management, one of these will inevitably get lost in the shuffle—until your client calls, wondering when you plan on delivering that document you promised last week. 

So it occurred to me that other translators might find it interesting and/or beneficial if I documented my own workflow, something I’ve honed over the years and that I now find pretty effective. Of course not everyone has the same client mix, faces the same workload, or uses the same programs, so your mileage may vary. I’d be happy if other translators chimed in in the comments.

File management

Let’s start with file management. I maintain a nested file hierarchy that goes something like: Year/Client/(Project Manager)/Project/files. I doubt this is particularly revolutionary. The normal file hierarchy for the current year and that of the previous year go into my Dropbox folder. (The free 2 GB account is generally sufficient for two years’ worth of files; after two years, I transfer the year’s files into my archives.) In my Dropbox folder, I also keep a separate folder—outside of the year-by-year hierarchy—called “Current Projects,” into which I place an alias (or, for Windows users, a “shortcut”) of all current project folders. This gives me quick access to the documents I’m working on: with a couple of keystrokes, I can be looking at all my current ongoing projects. And because it’s Dropbox, I know that my files will be synced between my desktop and laptop.  


As for workflow, when a client emails me a document, the first thing I do (after replying to say I’ve received the file) is hit the keyboard shortcut for “Save Attachments.” In the Save window, I navigate to the Client folder (and PM folder, if necessary), create a new folder for that project and save the file(s) in it. Once that’s done, I use another keyboard shortcut to automatically create an alias of the new project folder in the Current Projects folder. And finally, I open my to-do list (I’m currently using iProcrastinate, but I’m looking around for something more elegant) and enter the project name and due date. The beauty of this system is that with keyboard shortcuts (more on that in another blogpost), all this takes about 15 seconds, so it’s not burdensome in terms of time. This is important, because if you’re already working to a tight deadline, the last thing you need is to spend extra time fiddling with an inefficient workflow. If it takes too much time, there’s a chance you’ll put it off for later, and we all know what lies at the end of that tragic path.

Once the project is finished, I create an invoice and save it to the project folder for easy reference. After sending the completed translation and invoice off, I delete the alias from the Current Projects folder and mark the project as completed on the to-do list. If for some reason I don’t bill the client immediately, I don’t delete the alias and use a colour label on the folder to indicate that it hasn’t yet been invoiced.

I’m sure other translators have developed other systems, and as I mentioned earlier, I’d love to hear from you if you have anything to add or can suggest an improvement. Today’s global economic climate is putting pressure on translators to decrease or at least maintain rates at current levels; one way we can counter this is by increasing our productivity, and having an effective workflow is a step in this direction.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Music = Language

I just finished listening to this week’s Quirks and Quarks, and the last interview was with neuroscientist Gary Marcus, who was discussing his new book Guitar Zero. You can listen to the Q&Q segment here. The book is about music and the brain, and how “nonmusical” adults can learn to become musicians, among other things. 

I should start by saying that I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like an interesting read. That said, I was struck by something Marcus said during the interview. He touched on the idea of whether or not music, like language, is innate in humans. He posited that unlike language, music isn’t “built in”; that while all children learn language naturally at an early age, not all children are musical; he suggested that music is more like reading, something that just about everyone can do given enough dedication and practice, but not something that is necessarily an instinct, as it is in, say, songbirds.  

Listening to Marcus talk about it, he almost had me convinced. If you put a bunch of kids in a beginner band, some will be better than others. Some have more “talent”; or as Marcus puts it, some have more of the genes that predispose people to have musical ability. And all this is true. The problem with his thesis is that he considers music and language separately. 

But they’re not separate at all. Music is a language. Of course some people will have more musical talent than others; we all have various talents that are different from those of others, and this is true of spoken language too. Some people express themselves verbally very well while others have trouble putting two sentences together without stuttering or stumbling over a word. Not all of us will become great orators, no matter how hard we practice, but we can all speak, and we can all communicate with others. 

The thing is, we are all exposed to spoken language constantly from the day we are born. We practice speaking almost as soon as we are born. Of course we get good at it from a very young age, especially if we’re hardwired for it. But I would suggest that Gary Marcus carry out the following thought experiment. Give a young child a flute or some other small instrument, and limit the sounds to which that child is exposed to other people playing that instrument—in other words, the child’s only method of communication is by way of the flute. How would that affect their musical skills, irrespective of their musical talent? Now, do the same thing with a baby chimpanzee. I wonder if the chimp would learn to play the flute. On the flip side, what if the child were allowed to listen to spoken language but not allowed, or not given the opportunity, to speak. How would this affect their verbal skills?

Obviously these experiments could never be carried out in the real world, and yet in one sense we carry out one of them constantly. Most children are exposed to music all the time (on the radio, at concerts, etc.) but a great many of them never get the opportunity to play an instrument. Music programs in schools are often the first things on the chopping block when budgets are cut, and unfortunately there is an increasing divide between listeners of music and performers of music. Unlike spoken language, where we encourage children to speak even though their first words are practically unintelligible (in fact, we find it adorable, right?), with music, when children try to sing or play an instrument they are often actively discouraged because, surprise surprise, they’re singing or playing out of tune or with poor rhythm—making a horrid racket. 

In the interview, Marcus mentions that while a baby bird will learn to sing in pitch and rhythm in 90 days, young children aren’t usually very good at singing, and even at age two do not really understand much more than consonance and dissonance. There is truth to this, as anyone who has heard a kindergarten choir sing knows. But nor are two-year-olds particularly good speakers. They often have trouble expressing themselves, will mispronounce words or will approximate phonemes. It’s normal because they’re learning. So it seems pretty obvious that although we seem to have a hardwired instinct for language, it’s still something we have to learn—but this is true of music as well.

If we’re exposed to English as children but not French, we’ll learn only English. But as many mixed-language parents of children here in Quebec know, if a child is exposed to both French and English, they’ll pick up both very easily. Similarly, if they’re exposed to music—and they’re encouraged to play music—from a young age, they’ll learn the language of music too. But when you pick up an instrument as an adult, it’s like learning a foreign language. With practice, you can become proficient, but you’ll never speak it like a native; music will never be your mother tongue.

The concept that scientists like Marcus seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around—something that all musicians know instinctively—is that while we think of music as an art, at its very foundation, it’s really just another language. So I find it very frustrating when they say that while language is built in, music is mere something that is learned, when it’s clear that both come from the same place.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Internet and the comeback of live music

A few days ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a 2011 documentary called Press Pause Play. It’s a film about the democratization of art that the Internet has brought about, and it asks the question whether this is a good or a bad thing: does democratization lead to better art, with more artistically inclined people having better access to the tools to create and distribute their art, or does this democratization cause the best art get lost in a vast sea of mediocrity?

Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s a thought-provoking film. Not surprisingly, it deals mostly with the music and film industries, illustrating the many ways in which technology has made it trivially easy to create a song or a film and distribute it online, even for people with limited knowledge of those arts. Some critics, notably the British writer Andrew Keen, say that this “cult of the amateur” (the title of one of Keen’s books) is potentially the downfall of culture, and in the film he states that today, a young Scorsese or Hitchcock wouldn’t make it, that their early creations would “get lost in an ocean of garbage.”

I’m not sure Justin Bieber would agree. Neither would niche artists such as Sophie Madeleine (yes, I’m a fan). Of course the Rebecca Blacks of this world will always be there to add ammunition to Keen’s arsenal, but on the flip side, I remain of the firm opinion that across the board—be it in the jazz, classical or mainstream pop genres—the so-called “music industry” (i.e., the huge corporations that have funded a large proportion of the recordings made over the past century) has left a great many supremely talented artists behind in favour of promoting supreme mediocrity (hello, Brittany Spears), and that the current democratic state of affairs offers greater numbers of artists with real talent and determination a better opportunity to rise to the top. 

Another thing the film touches on is that because of the effortless distribution afforded by the Internet, recorded music is becoming increasingly commoditized, to the extent that it has become almost worthless. People share mp3 files without a thought; music streaming services now provide access to millions upon millions of tracks for a trivial fee; even downloading songs from iTunes is incredibly inexpensive in today’s dollars (older readers might remember days when a CD cost upwards of $20—a lot of money in 1985). In parallel with this commoditization of recordings, there is an apparent increase in the value of live performances. A fan might download a group’s recordings, but real fans go out to the concerts. And if you haven’t noticed, the price of a concert ticket, whether for a pop act or for the opera or symphony, has risen enormously. (By way of comparison, ticket prices for a Montreal Canadien’s game range from about $40 for the super-cheap seats to about $400 for the ultra-premium seats; surprisingly, tickets to see the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal have a similar price range, though the upper end peaks at around $240). This is partly because it costs a lot of money to put on a live show; but I believe it’s also because live music is becoming increasingly desirable and valuable. 

Why is this? Partly, it’s because recorded music is an abomination.

Perhaps it's shocking that a musician might say this, but I have believed it to be true for a long time. Music is an ephemeral art. Part of its allure is that no two performances are (or should be) alike. This allows familiar pieces to be heard as if for the first time. It is what allows musicians to play the same song over and over again with delight. It’s why it’s so wonderful to hear songs performed in styles and genres other than their original intent. But when we record music, we trap it in purgatory. We start to focus on eliminating all the small imperfections in tuning, articulation, tempo—all the small, almost imperceptible, errors that a performer might make while expressing their heart. For lack of a better term, we take away the music’s soul. The only exception is the live recording, and even here, I think it’s a musician’s nature to listen to such a document and be disappointed by the “mistakes,” even if the concert was highly successful. The only recording that music deserves is the one in our memory. This is where the truly great performances should reside, and where they did reside for most of the history of Western music. 

The other problem with recorded music is that it removes another, often overlooked, part of music: its social aspect. Most of the time nowadays, when we listen to recorded music, we are alone. We’re in the car, or we’re listening to our iPods, or we may even be at home with music playing on the stereo. But rarely do people sit down anymore and just listen to recorded music with other people. If there are other people around, it’s because the music is playing in the background and we are doing something else. But if we are actually listening attentively to recorded music, it’s very likely we are by ourselves. 

But at a live concert, we are with other people, and we are all listening to the performance. It’s a social event, and there’s no doubt that one of the reasons we believe that a great concert was a great concert is because we experienced it with others: the music brought us together somehow; it was a unifying event; to use an intentional pun, the music touched a common chord. And for musicians, a significant part of the appeal of performing is that you’re doing it with others, often with people who are good friends. The experience of music creates an emotional bond between people that I feel is often overlooked and poorly understood.

Before the advent of recording technology, live music was performed because that’s the only way music could be heard. Even in the early days of recording, you couldn’t create music electronically; it all had to be recorded. A lot of musicians made good livings in the mid-20th century because the only way to achieve the sound of a string section was to actually record a string section playing. As recording, synthesizing and sampling technologies improved in the latter part of the last century, more and more session musicians lost their jobs, and musicians began to wonder if there was any future for them in the “music” business. 

But with the commoditization of recorded music, musicians and the music industry itself would do well to recognize that the whole “recording craze” may well have been a blip on the graph. Music’s very ephemerality is what makes it valuable, and it is only through live performances that people truly experience why music is a supremely human endeavour. The recording industry has had its day, and will likely always have a place, but I believe that the pendulum is starting to swing toward a more balanced position, where live music is once again achieving a place of prominence in our culture. And if the Internet has played a part in accelerating that swing, then I for one am all for it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I just finished reading China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Let me foreshadow my critique by saying that his most recent novel, Embassytown, is already on its way to me from Amazon. It will definitely be among the books I read this year.

Since Kraken is only the second Miéville novel I’ve read, it’s hard for me to know where to place it on the Miéville Weirdness Index. Certainly, The City & the City was out there, but at its heart it’s a detective novel, and once you get your head around the premise, the weirdness fades away somewhat. But I suspect Kraken falls higher on the MWI than The City & the City. Assuming the MWI is logarithmic, like Richter scale, with each successive MWI number being 10 times weirder than the previous one, then if The City & the City is, say, 6.8 on the MWI, I think Kraken must be at least 7.5, if not close to 8.

Which is not to say it’s not a really enjoyable novel. Miéville is just a fantastic writer: so poetic and original, and yet very readable. I particularly love the way he approaches dialogue. So often I feel that writers change the way characters speak to make it easier for the reader to follow. But Miéville’s dialogue is completely and often jarringly natural (if that makes any sense). The effect is that the dialogue seems to flow better, but sometimes it’s harder to follow because he’s using spoken rather than written syntax. It makes the reader work a little harder, but it lends authenticity to the characters.

The novel is set in London, and the characters are unapologetic in their Londonness. If you haven’t been exposed to at least some Cockney rhyming slang, you may find yourself wondering what the hell is going on some of the time. My grandfather was Cockney, so I was able to pick up on some of that; even so, there were times when I knew I was reading a local idiom but didn’t catch precisely what it meant. I love that. Miéville is British, and he didn’t dumb down the dialogue for English readers outside of Britain. This may put some readers off, but I think the novel is far better for it. 

The basic premise is that there’s a vast underground scene where certain people have special powers (or “knacks,” as Miéville calls them), of which the “muggles” are completely oblivious. There is also a plethora of cult religions, among them the “Krakenists” who worship the giant squid (see where the weirdness is going now?). In parallel with these knackers and cults is a special and very secretive police unit called FSRC (the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit) that keeps tabs on all these strange goings on. When the giant squid housed at the London Natural History Museum goes missing, it turns out to be a big deal to the Krakenists (whom everyone suspects are the perpetrators) and a sign of the impending apocalypse. I know it all sounds very strange and improbable, and of course it is, but Miéville has a knack (see what I did there?) for drawing you in and making the weird seem almost normal.

I wouldn’t recommend Kraken or Miéville to just anyone (you don’t end up being categorized as part of the New Weird genre by being particularly accessible), but if you like speculative fiction or fantasy, or if you’re a fan of excellent and highly original writing, then you’ll probably enjoy Kraken. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Translation twilight zone

Primeiro oob - Entrando na Twilight Zone
 Entrando na Twilight Zone - Photo Credit: marcusrg

I’ve been translating for a living for about 15 years now, so I guess you could call me an “experienced translator.” I have a bevy of regular and loyal clients, at least one of whom has been with me since the very beginning, and several others who have been with me for over 10 years. It’s a strange business where you can work with people for years, talking on the phone, exchanging emails, and never once meet with them face to face.

In general, it’s work that I enjoy: it can be challenging and creative, and I greatly appreciate the flexibility of self-employment. That said, after 15 years, I’ve had to deal with pretty much all the common problems, both technical and business-related, that a translator will typically encounter. And while I don’t mean to complain, one of the things that really weighs me down is having to constantly work with at best mediocre, and often downright execrable, source texts. 

Most people are not writers, and as a language professional, I am all-too-often expected to produce silk purses out of sows’ ears. It has gotten so bad of late that I have begun to wonder if I shouldn’t start looking for a third career. As I said, I like my work for the most part, and the idea of going out and finding a “real job” is horrific to me. But I feel a little like I’m stuck in a professional Sargasso Sea, a Bermuda Triangle, a translation twilight zone, if you will, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

So I was overjoyed today to get word of a really exciting project that, if all goes according to plan, I will soon be a part of. I can’t provide any details right now, but once things get started, I hope to be able to blog about it. I can say that it would be a real feather in my professional cap, and my work could be read by hundreds of thousands of people every day.

It all began when one of my occasional clients recommended me for this particular project. The new client in turn asked me to do a test translation. I don’t normally do test translations for free, but I made an exception this time because the project looked interesting. The test had two parts, one more literary in nature, the other more technical. Both test texts were well written and fun to translate, and, not to sing my own praises (well, maybe a little), I really nailed them, especially the literary text.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Then today, I heard from the client, and they told me they were very impressed with my work and were eager to work with me. The hitch, as is so often the case, is that the money isn’t quite as good as I had hoped (though it’s not insulting either). But since I am generally willing to give a discount for volume, and this project will potentially stretch over three years, I told them I’d be willing to be flexible on my rate if they could meet me halfway. I’m optimistic things will work out.

It’s been some time since I’ve been this excited about a project, and I must say that it’s always stimulating and motivational when a client or potential client praises your work. But most of all, I’m very much looking forward to translating some well-written, meaningful writing. I think this contract could be just the tonic I need—a wind in my sails to propel me through these professional doldrums.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The revenge of the mortal hand

By Mariusz Kubik, (Own work, = Kmarius) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And so another month begins, and it begins with the death of one of our great poets, Wisława Szymborska, a Nobel laureate and a fascinating writer. She was 88 and apparently died peacefully in her sleep. Even though she gained much more fame after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, she remains virtually unknown outside Poland. Even among poetry buffs, she is hardly a household name. And more’s the pity. She was a truly great writer.

I still remember the first poem of hers I encountered: The Joy of Writing. There are several translations of this work, but I have yet to encounter one I enjoy as much as the excellent version done by Magnus Kyrnski and Robert Maguire in the collection Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. The poem perfectly captures the incredible feeling of power that can inhabit you as a writer; the amazing world of possibilities open to you, if only you let your imagination run free; and the sense that maybe, in some small way, you are reaching across time to touch the future. I was completely blown away by it. 

I have not the slightest knowledge of the Polish language, but I love this translation. My instincts as both a poet and a translator tell me that it’s fine work. Compare it with this one, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, whose translations of Szymborska seem to be generally well received. And yet there are strange little unpoetic slips in the B/C version. Take for instance “xerox her soft muzzle” instead of K/M’s “copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper”. The latter is longer, but how can one seriously reconcile the word “xerox” with “soft muzzle” in English? There is an alliteration of the "z" sound in xerox and muzzle, but the all those z's and x's aren't very doe-like. Or BC’s “perched on four slim legs” versus KM’s “poised on four fragile legs”. Again, I don’t know what the Polish says, but I know I like “poised” better than “perched” and “fragile” rather than “slim”. I could go through the whole poem like this, but it would get boring. To be fair, I think both versions have their strong and weak points, as any translation of poetry will have; and I have always felt that to truly get a feel for a poem in translation, one should read several interpretations if possible. But the KM version flows beautifully for me and works well in English. I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions. I’ve certainly made mine.

The Joy of Writing
      Wislawa Szymborska (translation by Magnus Kyrnski & Robert Maguire)

Where through the written forest runs that written doe?
Is it to drink from the written water,
which will copy her gentle mouth like carbon paper?
Why does she raise her head, is it something she hears?
Poised on four fragile legs borrowed from truth
she pricks up her ears under my fingers.
Stillness—this word also rustles across the paper
and parts
the branches brought forth by the word "forest."

Above the blank page lurking, set to spring
are letters that may compose themselves all wrong,
besieging sentences
from which there is no rescue.

In a drop of ink there's a goodly reserve
of huntsmen with eyes squinting to take aim,
ready to dash down the steep pen,
surround the doe and level their guns.

They forget that this is not real life.
Other laws, black on white, here hold sway.
The twinkling of an eye will last as long as I wish,
will consent to be divided into small eternities
full of bullets stopped in flight.
Forever, if I command it, nothing will happen here.
Against my will no leaf will fall
nor blade of grass bend under the full stop of a hoof.

Is there then such a world
over which I rule sole and absolute?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence perpetuated at my command?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
The revenge of the mortal hand.