Sunday, November 02, 2008

What are corpora for?

I get this queestion every time we talk Translation Memories, so here are a few links to good reading materials for translators:

Exploring corpora with concordancers can help translators to improve the quality of their translations by, for example, providing them with information about collocates; by helping them to choose between terms; or by enabling them to confirm intuitive decisions. But corpora also allow unpredictable, incidental learning: the user may notice unfamiliar uses in a concordance and follow them up by exploratory browsing. The article discusses the potential of corpora to throw up previously unknown information that may be relevant to a translation assignment, and illustrates how advanced search strategies can increase the likelihood of “accidentally” finding relevant information.

Abstract: Translators and editors who work in a specialised field—a particular branch of medicine, technology or finance, for instance—may find it difficult to acquire (or enhance) their domain-specific knowledge other than by learning as they go or going back to college. Both strategies can be slow and costly. Our paper describes a faster, more economical way to climb the specialist learning ladder, namely a corpus-guided approach to translating, revising and editing. We describe two tools for analysing a corpus of model texts: on the one hand, a user-friendly concordancer with an intuitive interface; on the other, an equally easy-to-use desktop-based indexer. Finally, we propose an approach to the issue of corpus size (sampling adequacy) that provides a practical solution for the working translator: we recommend creating a carefully chosen, cleaned text collection that functions as a reliable substrate corpus for language pattern guidance and adding to it an ad-hoc ‘quick and dirty’ corpus to further narrow the topic focus as needed.

Why you should wear the right footwear!

Daniel James, born Ismail Mohammed Beigi Gamasai, 44, is a corporal in the British Army who has been charged withallegedly passing information to Iranians. James was formerly the interpreter for British Army Lt.Gen. David Richards , who commanded the NATO forces in Afghanistan. James speaks fluent Pashtun and Farsi.


Well, the reason HRM forces felt there was something wrong with Corporal James was that (a) he was not deferential enough for a corporal; (b) wore a weird sunhat and (c) had different footwear. In addition, he also used magic (!!!)

The Guardian reported that:

"An army interpreter accused of spying for Iran was "strange and eccentric" in both his appearance and behaviour, his former commanding officer told a court today.

Tehran-born Daniel James, who also worked for the British military commander in Afghanistan, wore "distinctive and odd" headgear and did not act in the way expected of a low-ranking soldier, Colonel John Donnelly said (...) "His attire wasn't what I would normally have expected of a junior NCO," he said. "He had a very distinctive and odd sun hat with a cape down the back of his neck, and he wore slightly different boots."

Two weeks later the same paper stated that: "James explained that his interest in salsa had led him to Cuba. While there, he was introduced to the Yoruba faith. "I actually did black magic for General Richards, praying to God to protect him from the Taliban," he said. "

Interestingly enough, on his first appearance James said it was racism in the British Army that led to his downfall..

The guy needs a good shrink and a pair of regulation boots.

Linguistic Anecdote Award of the Year

Thanks to John Rawlins of

Supposedly Madame de Gaulle, the wife of the former French president, was asked at a diplomatic dinner what she desired most in life.

'A penis', she tartly replied, causing a stunned and embarrassed silence around the table.

'Ah yes, Madame', said a quick-thinking diplomat once normal speaking became possible, 'I'm sure all of us wish for happiness'.

"So who is your mother sleeping with, Sir?"

This is better than the Welsh sign board:

The incident occurred in November last year, when a standard request for advance questions from the Dutch Foreign Ministry turned into what an officer in the Israeli Foreign Ministry called a "major, major incident." As the Jerusalem Post reported earlier this week, a group of Israeli journalists attempted to use an online translation tool to translate their Hebrew questions into English. The results were less than precise.

"Helloh bud," began the e-mail. "Enclosed five of the questions in honor of the foreign minister: The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian, and on relational Israel Holland."

The e-mailed questions were more than simply an embarrassment for the reporters. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Dutch Foreign Ministry is now considering canceling the entire trip and filing a formal complaint over the incident.

After the questions were entered into the online translation tool, questions like "What, in your opinion, needs to be done regarding the Iranian threat to Israel?" Became: "What in your opinion needs to do opposite the awful the Iranian of Israel." Additional translation errors included "bandages of the knitted domes" instead of "Dome of the Rock" and a question that read "Why we did not heard on mutual visits of main the states of Israel and Holland, this is in the country of this."

Write Your Out of Office Note in English

From the BBC

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed.

Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".

Apparently, this is not the only time Welsh has been translated incorrectly or put in the wrong place:
• Cyclists between Cardiff and Penarth in 2006 were left confused by a bilingual road sign telling them they had problems with an "inflamed bladder".

• In the same year, a sign for pedestrians in Cardiff reading 'Look Right' in English read 'Look Left' in Welsh.

• In 2006, a shared-faith school in Wrexham removed a sign which translated the Welsh for staff as "wooden stave".

• Football fans at a FA Cup tie between Oldham and Chasetown - two English teams - in 2005 were left scratching their heads after a Welsh-language hoarding was put up along the pitch. It should have gone to a match in Merthyr Tydfil.

Oh, well.. we shouldn't blame them. After all, we only speak Australian :-)

Monday, September 22, 2008


As a new leaf is starting for AUSIT, and we move our National Administration to PAMS, it is time to pay tribute to the person who had, for so many years, been the voice of AUSIT. We all know Georges Mayes as the Administrator, but few know him as the networks engineer and technical translator. And although he will no longer answer the 1800 number, he is not leaving AUSIT – just changing hats.
For me, this was a bit of “re-discovering Georges” whom I only got to know personally at the last AUSIT Awards and immediately sensed there was more than met my eye in those half serious utterances. I was right. This interview was done in a hurry, as Georges is about to be beamed up by Scotty to Mauritius, and I am glad it went as smoothly as it did, the hardest part being Georges’ hesitancy to provide a mug shot “so that the guys at Port Hedland don’t find out I escaped”.

SB: I used to think you were French, but you’re not.
I was born in Mauritius - a colony that had been French for a very long time before being taken over by the British. So I am bilingual because although technically the official language was English, both English and French were spoken in the parliament, and the French-speaking Catholic Church had more weight than the English-speaking Anglican Church.
When Mauritius became a British colony, Britain was interested in the sugar produced by the French settlers (on the backs of African slaves, of course) and kept amicable relations with the sugar producers, so Mauritius remained very French. I spoke French at home, but at secondary school the HSC exam papers came from England. I therefore studied Shakespeare and Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) towards the end of secondary, after having become familiar with Molière in the earlier years of secondary schooling.

SB: So being bilingual led to translating?
Not immediately. I am a relative late-comer into this industry. When I left secondary school I joined Cable and Wireless who had the monopoly on overseas telecommunications. C&W had a branch in Australia, and in all British colonies, before they gave way to the OTC in Australia. In 1962 they sent me to their technical college at Porthcurno in Cornwall, and I spent 18 months there before returning to Mauritius to work as a telecommunications technician. In 1968 I was involved in a very severe car accident and in 1969 I went to England for advanced treatment and I eventually resigned from C&W and started a career in Computer Technology.
From England I came to Melbourne and worked in mainframe computers and then with what they called super mini computers. Later I returned to my previous preference for telecommunications when I joined Victoria Police to work in mainframe communications, before joining the Crime Department to work in Local Area Networking. When Jeff Kennett became premier of Victoria and started to privatise everything I returned to the private sector and worked for the ANZ bank in the same field of Local Area Networking.
I was short of my 60th when ANZ informed me that my position no longer existed. At that time there was a slump in information technology and finding a new job in that field was not easy. That's when I started enquiring about translation and found out about NAATI from l'Alliance Française in Melbourne and then about AUSIT. I emailed a few AUSIT members enquiring about how one "became a translator" but got no responses. Then my ex-wife sent me a paper clipping advertising Translation studies at Monash University. It was early Translation study days at Monash and eventually I came to the UWS Bankstown campus in Milperra in south-western Sydney, because they had a good track record, having been responsible for interpreting and translation during the Olympic games. The intent was to go back to Melbourne upon completion of my studies at UWS. However my wife (Josiane) and I were lucky to find this little "garden flat" to rent in East Hills. It was next to the Georges river and within 5 minutes by car from the UWS campus, . It was a delightful and memorable time; the equivalent of a little stay EN PROVENCE. During my working life I had always studied for my employers, but now I was studying for myself. At UWS I had Felicity Mueller, Sandra Hale and Vivian Stevenson amongst my lecturers. They are passionate about their profession and they are still active members of AUSIT. Felicity gave me the application form to join AUSIT as a student, which I did. The rest is history.

SB: OK. I know this sounds theoretical, but which is your “native” tongue?
Being Mauritian means being multicultural. In the translation field there are, as you know, domains. In the technical domain English is my first language. In the personal domain, French is my first language, and so on.

SB: You must have worked on some fascinating technical bits as a translator..
I have not done a lot of translation to date. The fascination is when the text being translated leads into research that takes you into the thinking behind the text. Sounds a bit pompous, I know, but that’s what I like most about it. I will be getting back into translating again when I return from my holidays.

SB: And the Administration part?
Because we felt so much at home in Sydney, we moved there permanently. By the time I completed my Masters in Translation at UWS, we had sold our little place in Melbourne and bought an old house in Ingleburn. The thinking behind translation was that, apart from the intellectual interest, it would allow me to work for as long as I wanted and not be subject to outsourcing, down sizing etc.. In the short term I had bills to pay and I tried my luck at becoming a CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) instructor. I was unable to find employment in that field and Josiane and I spent many many months doing home renovation for friends who had lots of houses they wanted to renovate and rent. Then came the job of part time administrator and I started working in that capacity at Uli Priester's office in Sydney. Eventually it became apparent that working from home was far more practical for this part time job. 2 Hours travel per day for a part time job and the fact that the phone calls interfered with the translation environment of Uli's office made working from home an obvious choice. And so I did. The trouble with working from home is that it is part time pay but full time work and AUSIT has consumed all my hours and very little translation has occurred. What I do is labour intensive.
Still, my years as administrator have been wonderful because I have met some incredible people I would not have met otherwise. AUSIT NSW organised a farewell dinner for me in Sydney last month and Josiane commented about the richness of the very many unassuming, unpretentious, formidable, translators and interpreters who were there. And I would also like to mention my colleague, Bradley Dawson, who unfortunately left as well. I say unfortunately, because he is very gifted and talented, and he is still an asset to AUSIT.

SB: You must have met some wonderful and interesting people throughout the years..
Oh I could mention quite a few, but I won’t, because you can't mention all. So that would be unfair. But what I would like to mention are the unsung heroes. For example, the lady who is visually impaired, can only work 20 hours a week, and is worried because revalidation might stop her pursuing her work as an interpreter. There are many like her who provide an essential community service as well. In her case, her physical handicap also allows her to gently admonish, in their mother tongue, those who give up too easily on the rehabilitation work required of them.
I guess in life there are those who look after number one at the expense of others, and those who look after number one full stop. And then there are the many who are very cognizant of their environment and who have the intellect and the sensitivity to know its boundaries as well as its possibilities, and whose prime motivation is not self but something else, and in the case of my unsung AUSIT heroes the something else is translation, interpreting, the profession, the community.
My unsung heroes are the gentle dignified souls who speak softly but so coherently and who have a powerful message to share.

SB: What will you remember with a smile?
I guess the young mum with her very new baby at the general meeting. In a different setting, I will always recall with a smile the mum who was explaining the ins and outs of administration to visitors whilst attending to the need of 2 very young boys, ushering in the serviceman who came to repair the washing machine, coping with translation deadline and helping run a business. It was all done with a tranquility that would make the Dalai Lama envious.

SB: Where do you see us – translators and interpreters – going in the future?
We do know about very qualified migrants who are labourers because their experience and qualifications are not recognised in Australia. It is possible that very qualified translators and interpreters may become further marginalised by the revalidation process.
And I have in mind the translator who spends "a great deal of time trying to hone my skills as a translator and first and foremost to produce high-quality translations, but not many of the activities in the logbook seem very relevant to what I actually do..........It is almost as if the whole thing is about a DIFFERENT profession. I have been translating for many years and have gathered various qualifications along the way. I did an excellent year-long course in legal translation overseas. A great deal of time was spent on translation skills (in my university degree course overseas) ."

SB: And your future plans?
When I come back I have 2 weeks work filling in for a friend who goes on annual leave After that I am thinking about cryo-preservation. It occurs to me that I am too far ahead of current thinking, which doesn’t help. Perhaps they could bring me back into action in 10 years. It is possible I may not go ahead with that because Josiane gave the concept a cold reception. Plan B is translation and whatever else I can find. Perhaps I am not old enough to go into hibernation.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bruno and the Snake

We had a big drama yesterday.

Dan came back home earlier than usual from work, and that is one big blessing in this whole story.

About 10 minutes after her arrival, Bruno - my remaining dog - was bitten by an adult, 1-meter long brown snake. Bruno unfortunately did a wee-wee on the thing, and got bitten. Not that she let it go. When Dan turned around to see what the commotion was, Bruno was shaking a 1-meter thingy in her teeth, blood sprouting all over her. It is good that she is trained to obey - LEAVE IT means leave it. RUN. UP. STAY. Otherwise we would have had a dead staffie *sigh*

We rushed her to the vet within 10 minutes, but by the time we got there she was losing her back legs and bowel control. God, I was so worried about her. Especially as I run into the vets saying "She is still all right" only to hear Dan screaming from the front yard "STRETCHER! Her legs are gone!"

Her heartbeat was 145 per minute and she was labouring for breath. They gave her one vial of anti-venom, antibiotics, Vitamin C injection, etc. etc. and we drove her (much more perkier, but unable to stand on her back legs) to the veterinary hospital 45 minutes away, where a friend of ours is a vet.
By 6:00 PM she was vomiting, and her blood would not clot. She was given the second vial of anti-venom, and we waited for the next clotting test at 11:00 PM. According to the vet, she had about 85% chance by then.

Today at 9:00 AM they gave her the third vial and she is finally clotting almost normally. As Fiona, the vet said, "she has suddenly metamorphosed into a very cuddly animal; but having said that, I'd rather see the fidgety Bruno back to us again.." She is going to stay at the hospital until Monday..

The pleasure is costing us well over 1500 bucks. I might be found standing on the corner of Queen and Edward, selling Big Issue, or playing the accordion. Just kidding - we have insurance for this kind of stuff.

As if that wasn't a worry enough, this shitty 1 meter snake is still somewhere around the house (I have heard it in the roof of my office before), probably with some injuries as Bruno did manage to get her teeth into it. From what we know, that is something to worry about big time.. Friends are urging snake-catchers, as these wonderful little creatures lay 30-40 eggs and hatch in 4 months. I had two encounters with this snake already - one when it was a babe, and I let it be; and the other late autumn when I moved a green tree frog out of my footpath, and it was doing the Indian Dance about 2 cm from my hand (at night), but thankfully did not strike. It spent the winter in my office, slithering around the ceiling - but I let it be, because I don't believe I have more right to this place than it does. What happened with Bruno is that she peed on it, it struck, she grabbed it in her teeth and shook it badly enough to be splattered with blood. So now I have a potentially dangerous and injured snake somewhere around the house, feeling vulnerable and so not in a mood to behave. We have to be extra careful.

Last week, on the tree outside the car port, we had a dozen miners, the whole babbler brood and our (by now adult) six butcherbirds, plus a crow - making such an emergency racket that it was hard not to notice. They were all sitting up high off the ground, behaving nervously and looking into the shrubs bordering us and the neighbours. I suspected then that they were aware of a snake, but Dan and I couldn't find it. I am glad we did not, Dan shuffling as she usually does in her Christ-like sandaled feet!


I got lots of support from my friends, all begging me to get a snake-catcher (or charmer, or whatever) to get rid of it. But the best email came from my dear friend Rehab in London:

"Hi Sam,I was wondering why I am not hearing from you any more. Now I know. So, you were hearing a snake in the roof of your office where you work. No big deal, eh? I have gone as far as hearing a rat which was enough for me to end my stay and run like a pro. Fear has an amazing effect on a middle-aged, over-weight woman. They should consider it in the Olympics. I hope Bruno will recover well. Let me know what's up with her. Don't do the Big Issue or accordion thing. Bruno gotta have her share in this especially the mess is partially hers. Have her learn some tricks and bring in some cash lol. Snake charming might be an option now that it is the major culprit.

So, we have a case of a poisoned dog and a rabbied snake. I salute you... you came face to face with it twice and did nothing (the snake lol). It only took him a wee-wee over his bald head for him to avenge his honor... I told you it's a he.. and probably of Arab origin lol. "


Thursday, August 28, 2008

I want to marry!!!

Not me :-) presents a young Egyptian female writer, Ghada Abdelaal whose blog turned into a book and will become a sitcome.The blog, for those of you who read in Arabic and understand Egyptian vernacular, is here

I have not laughed so hard in a long time.. As good as The Big Fat Greek Wedding (

After having laughed, however, a question crossed my mind. How do you translate this into English. Translating Ghada's writings would involve (a) translating foreign humour and (b) translating a whole cultural perception totally alien to the English-speaking world. Not to mention that the vernacular will have to be translated into vernacular - i.e. Aussie dialect - or totally exoticised to remain Egyptian. In both cases one loses much of the original appeal.

Any ideas?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Farewell to a teacher... who didn't even know

It is difficult to say what the influence of Sami Khashaba was on me, but he definitely made me aware very early in my life what a great translation looked like.
I was a bilingual teenager when I first got to read Colin Wilson - through my dad's fascination with him - and I read him in translation, the translations done by Sami Khashaba.
Later, in my first years at uni, I re-read Colin Wilson in English, and found him as good as Sami's translations of him. In actual fact, Sami probably made Colin sound more academic than he ever was, without killing the boyish enthusiasm.
Sami passed away last month. Me, far away from the throbbing heart of the Arab intellectual circles, did not even get to hear until today.
I am a translator, Sami. It’s a pity I can’t tell you that, and thank you for what you taught me without knowing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Just Surfing

I came back from Melbourne yesterday more a zombie than a human, but my inert mental state did not stop me from savouring the after-taste of yet another good workshop.

So there were 20 in Brisbane, 20 in Melbourne and over 60 in Sydney, and then some more in Hobart and Launceston. Maybe not what the Pope got, but for AUSIT, this is not bad for a PD performance. What was even better, was the fact that people were really interested, that the workshop was full of participant's questions, and that people had fun as well as learning new information.

I call it making holes in brick-walls. Love the sunshine that comes in afterwards.

Once the clouds of sleep depravation and hurting feet lifted, I started thinking about what one VIC/TAS member had said - we are an aging industry in Australia, and no one is preparing the younger generation. I have to admit that it was a bit of a shock to the system to find out how many seasoned (and often BBQed) translators, with many more years of expertise than me, battled with the world of new technologies, and how many missed on what it could offer them.

So maybe the book is in order now. NOW. Before I, too, become too tired and old to teach. But a book that stays updated, not one that is obsolete before it even hits the offset press. So maybe a hyper-book? A book written by more than one person, by all of us, together, as we learn? An interactive book, full of good tips, and laughter?

I think I will start it with a Google Group first, and a dedicated blog for my longer epiphanies.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pommies Making Fun of Kiwis?

Only on Sky Sport (,19528,12325_3680560,00.html) can you see such lack of tact towards other "Englishes":


All of us here meanwhile are still coming to terms with the cultural differences between New Zealand and dear old Blighty. Here, and at no added expense, is a quick guide to the language and the customs:

To start with, "chicken" is something you do when you arrive at an airport.

The "flight-dick" is what the pilot sits on.

A "pin" is what you write with.

A "pun" is what you pop balloons with.

I don't know how you say "no pun intended".

Three times two is "sux".

Honeymooning couples are expected to have "six".


Which woodwork did this ignoramus come out of? Two by three is sex, as I can ascertain from my wonderful osteopath.. "See you at sex, Sam, next Thursday.." I wish! Instead, I get a good cracking of my spine, but no sex :-D

If anything "sux", it is the writer of the above article.

Not fair dinkum at all. The Poms better get their interpreters with them when they come to the country of "where the hell are yeah?"

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Heart In Its Right Place

A very humane description of a day in the life of an interpreter. And so refreshingly reflective.

Lost for words on a migrant's final journey

Moreno Giovannoni
June 7, 2008

IT'S the same every time. I wait on the footpath, or in the car, for the Royal District Nurse. Or the council employee. When they arrive, I introduce myself and follow them inside. I feel and follow the pecking order. I do a Prince Philip, one step behind the boss.
Waiting in the house is the old woman, or the old man, or both. Sometimes there's a daughter, a tired-looking woman in her late 50s, who says she speaks Italian (so I wasn't really needed) but that for some reason "they" said they wanted an independent interpreter. I say: "That's fine. I'm here if you need me."
"Signora, le faccio da interprete, va bene?" I'll be your interpreter. Is that OK?

To read the whole article (and it is well worth the effort) visit The Age

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sudan's Census Promises to be Sexy

Should someone inform the Ministry of Whoever is Counting - can't remember who it used to be - that if they continue to do this every time they "stand up" there will be many more to c**nt/count in the next census???

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Sam Berner interviews UN translator & interpreter, and AUSIT member Riham Youssef

I heard Riham for the first time on SBS, and became an instant fan. But although I am a great admirer of this ‎feisty young Egyptian, Riham and I never met in person, although we intended to. By the time I had ‎organized myself, Riham was back in Cairo and on her way to where her heart has always wanted to take ‎her: New York, and the UN. I was lucky, however, to be able to maintain contact with her online, and this ‎interview took place fully on Facebook, where we are both members. ‎

SB: Riham, it is often said that people come to translating - or that translating comes to people - in ‎amazingly different and fascinating ways. What got you into it?‎
Riham: It was all a happy coincidence. My background was actually in Tourism at the Guidance Department ‎of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management. ‎
Soon after my graduation in 1994, the Cairo Opera House put an announcement asking for ushers from ‎among our students/alumni to travel to Luxor and assist in the production of the Opera Aida. Being an opera ‎lover, I decided to volunteer, just to have access to the performances for free. ‎
During the interview, the famous Egyptian tenor (turned actor) Hassan Kamy was the production manager. ‎He noticed that I had all it took to be his personal assistant!!! So I was "promoted" on the spot. One of the ‎main tasks he entrusted me with was translating the official catalogue of the opera from and into the 5 ‎languages I speak. (As proud as I am of this book today, and of my name on its cover, I wish I had the ‎chance to redo it today, after having gained much more experience!) This experience made me fall in love ‎with translation. Thus I decided to make it my career. So I enrolled in the translation and interpretation ‎programme offered at the American University in Cairo (AUC), in which I studied 42 specialised subjects of ‎translation/interpretation. This program made me familar with interpretation, too, and I realised I have a ‎passion for it as well, but that's another story.

SB: There is a trend among many translators that theory is not a necessity for making or breaking a good ‎translator. You yourself decided that it was a good idea to do a course. What were your experiences than, ‎and do you think you could have been as good a translator as you are now without the AUC course?‎
Riham: Absolutely not. I believe a good translator is a combination of theory and practice. ‎
The course I did at AUC, the BA in Translation and Literature I completed at Cairo University, and the MA ‎in Translation and Linguistics I completed at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), have all given me a ‎very solid foundation I have been building on throughout my career. And a tall building cannot rise without ‎such solid foundation. ‎
However, I don't think that good courses alone make good translators/ interpreters. On the contrary, a good ‎T&I is very rare to find. He/she is born with it, as people are born with all sort of abilities, e.g. being athletic, ‎having an ear for music, etc. You either have it or not, and courses don't do miracles. I've had so many ‎students in our AUC program whom we could not help, as they simply did not have what it takes.

SB: You have gone through the three stages of amateur, student and teacher. If you could go back now to ‎stage one, the Aida catalogue, and start anew, what would be the one major thing that you would change? ‎
Riham Translating from and into languages I'm not sufficiently proficient in, i.e. French and Italian. ‎Specialisation is vital in translation, and merely speaking a language isn't at all enough to translate from it, ‎let alone into it. ‎

SB: Lets put your teacher's hat on: what do you see as the main problem faced by majority of young people ‎undertaking the course? And what would be your advice to anyone thinking of doing, say, a BA in ‎translation?‎
Riham: I would mention the following, ‎
‎- That they believe that their (often partial) proficiency in English is enough to make them good T&Is. ‎
‎- That they are often not proficient in their own LOTE (in my case Arabic). They make embarrassing ‎mistakes in Arabic, in terms of grammar, word choices, sentence structures, punctuation, etc. I had to teach ‎them basic grammar rules in class to mend this deficiency. ‎
‎- As conference interpreting is a lucrative, glamorous career that involves traveling around the world and ‎often meeting with celebrities and dignitaries, it has attracted many young people who are only after what ‎they believe is easy money earned in a fun job. ‎
That's why I advice anyone who wishes to become a T&I and embark on studying it to think of it as a ‎profession that requires a lot of skills and hard, ongoing work. So they have to be honest with themselves ‎and decide whether they really have what is needed, and whether they are ready for all the hard work and ‎stress this job entails. They have to love it, otherwise they will never succeed in it. ‎

SB: Speaking of lack of proficiency in their own language, do you see this as a global issue? Does it in some ‎way, in your opinion, tie up with the fact that the younger generation does not read enough, or does it have ‎something to do with the education they receive prior to their university careers? ‎
Riham: I think it IS a global issue, though I can only speak with certainty about my part of the world, i.e. the ‎Arab world. You are right.; the young generation in general reads much less, and books have generally taken ‎a back seat in the age of modern technology. Everything moves at a much quicker pace, so activities that by ‎nature are known to take time and require patience in developing, such as mastering a language, be it a ‎foreign one or your own, are no longer this interesting. ‎
Young people are always in a rush. They want to send their messages across quickly, not eloquently. They ‎aim to make people understand what they want to say, rather than be impressed by their style. They choose ‎to use a language full of cool jargon, not giving much attention to all the linguistic rules they are thereby ‎breaking. ‎
And you are right about the second part of your question, too, because school and tertiary education in the ‎Arab world is declining at an alarming rate, too. Many school teachers and even university professors lack ‎the basics of Classical Arabic. So how do you expect those to impart knowledge they don't even possess?

Sam: You are both a translator and an interpreter - which one gives you more satisfaction? Why?‎
Riham: I personally find much more satisfaction in interpretation. To me, it's much more interactive and ‎lively. Interpretation, and conference interpretation in particular, takes you to the most interesting places, be ‎they in your country or overseas. It introduces you to new people, many of whom you would otherwise only ‎know through the media. Interpretation makes you feel you're part of the action... You're inside of it and not ‎just watching from a distance as is the case with translation.

And the actual process of interpretation itself is something I enjoy a lot, too: all the instant decisions you ‎need to make as to what to keep and what to drop (yes, in conference interpretation you do sacrifice some ‎non-essential words and fillers for the sake of keeping up with the speaker's pace and delivering all the ‎essentials!)... the fact that you have to be 100% alert and cannot afford to be distracted even for a split-‎second... the way you cope with speed, poor command of English on the part of the speaker... thick accents... ‎bad acoustics... interruptions... all that adrenalin rush... all the excitement!

As much as I enjoy translating, I find it to be quite lonely and isolated in comparison, especially as I'm not a ‎conformist... not a nine-to-five person. Thus conference interpretation is definitely the job for me. ‎
Sam: What skills would you say are transferable between the two - translating and interpreting - and which ‎do you find is harder to do?‎
‎ ‎
Riham: This question is a bit hard, but I'll try to give it my best shot:

Both translators and interpreters have to be highly proficient in their mother tongue and at least one foreign ‎language. They both have to love what they are doing and be ready to make use of any opportunity to ‎develop themselves professionally and acquaint themselves with whatever knowledge necessary to make ‎them do a better job, be it specialized terminology, additional information about certain disciplines, modern ‎concepts, etc. They have to accept that it's a lifelong learning process, and not just a course to complete or an ‎exam to pass. ‎
I believe conference interpretation is harder than translation, due to the many skills that need to be readily ‎available, all at the same time and almost subconsciously. It requires, inter alia, an enormous amount of ‎concentration, an alert mind, a quick response, sound diction, a perfect command especially of the target ‎language, good sentence structures and an excellent knowledge of the TL grammar, so as to produce ‎grammatically correct sentences in no time. ‎

SB: So where does Australia fit into your translating journey?‎
‎ ‎
Riham: It's due to my association with Rotary. Initially, I've always had Germany in mind. This is until I ‎went on 6-week a Rotary Group Study Exchange (GSE) trip to Australia in 1998. I was hosted by 9 senior ‎Rotarian families in 9 cities and towns, all in NSW. This is when I saw that moving to Australia would be a ‎better idea. ‎
And two years later, I went to Sydney on a "fact-finding" trip, to see how things are and if there would be a ‎chance for me. This is when I was told about NAATI. So I went and sat all 3 NAATI level 3 exams in two ‎days. ‎
So when they mailed me my certificates to Egypt a few weeks later, and when I found that I passed with ‎flying colours in all three of them, I realized that I probably have what it takes to work in the Australian T&I ‎market.‎
‎ ‎
SB: How does the translation/interpreting scene differ between Cairo and Sydney?‎
Riham: In Egypt, the vast majority of interpretation functions are between English and Arabic, rarely in any ‎third language. I was qualified to work in German, too, but it was a skill I rarely used. ‎
There's much more conference interpreting there than there is in Australia, probably owing to the central ‎geographic location Egypt is endowed with. ‎
As Egypt is a developing country, there are numerous development projects taking place there, which is a ‎goldmine for translators and interpreters: endless reports, case studies, recommendations, etc. to be ‎translated... and endless workshops, training sessions, lectures, meetings between Egyptians and non-‎Egyptians, etc. to be interpreted. ‎
We also do a lot of chuchoutage in functions where there is only one or two non-Egyptians present. It ‎happens a lot that an event is sponsored by a foreign agency/ development programme. So someone from ‎that body, usually its resident representatives or a senior staff member, attends at least one day of the event, ‎where he/she gives an opening remark (to be consecutively interpreted). Then he/she sits back and seeks the ‎assistance of the interpreter to whisper into his/her ear what is being said at the function. ‎
Community interpreting doesn't exist in Egypt. Translators, and especially interpreters, are held in very high ‎esteem and are very well paid, especially as compared to the low average incomes in Egypt. ‎
As much as I love Australia and the Australian lifestyle, I have always felt professionally frustrated. ‎Although I am highly qualified and well trained in translation/ interpretation, I never found what I was ‎looking for. Throughout my 4-year stay in Australia, I did not interpret at a single conference, whereas ‎conferences had almost been the order of the day for me in Egypt. ‎
I even had to plan my holidays back to Egypt around times where I could interpret at a conference or two, ‎just to maintain my skills at least partially. I kept myself busy with other jobs and activities, e.g. SBS ‎subtitling, working as a journalist/ broadcaster for SBS Radio, and teaching/ marking at NAATI, but I have ‎still always missed conferences and the substantial translation work I have been doing. ‎

SB: And then came the UN, like a knight on a white horse?‎
Riham: Sort of. I was glad to hear that the UN was having a competitive exam for Arabic translators. I ‎applied, and was subsequently convoked to sit their (full-day long, highly technical) exam at the closest ‎examination station, which was Bangkok, Thailand. ‎
A few months later I received an email saying that I passed the exam, and am now convoked to an interview, ‎this time in Cairo. A panel of four scrutinized me, and a few weeks later I was advised that I passed and that ‎my name was placed on their roster for future vacancies. ‎
And this future vacancy presented itself around 8 months later, and here I am, a permanent staff member at ‎the Arabic Translation Service (ATS) of the UN's Department of the General Assembly and Conference ‎Management (DGACM).

Meanwhile, I have gone through this same process with interpretation (but at least this one did not involve ‎any travel, for I sat both the exam and the interview at the UN headquarters, where I work). I am now on ‎their roster, too, and within a few months, I will be moving there permanently.

Worth mentioning is that UN exams are only offered between English and the five other official languages of ‎the UN: Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.

SB: Just to wrap up, where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years?

Riham: Having a full-time job at the momenr, I don't think I can make a relevant answer to this question. In ‎‎5 years, I will be working here (and hopefully till my retirement age at 62). Nothing else!‎

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Mother

In Memoriam
Lidia Gawronska
02/01/1941 - 13/02/2007

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Public Profile

I have always had my photos online, from Yahoo! Photos to Flickr, but they were my photos of others, of other things, of nature - never of me. I shied away from putting myself online, partly because I am not photogenic (very mobile face) and partly because, well, I am a humble sort of person and would rather have other sing my praises, blah, blah, blah..

But in the past two years, as I attend more and more conventions and conferences outside my home territory, I keep meeting people who have read me, whether on the AUSIT eBulletin, in the Newsletter, in SAJIM or somewhere else, and exclaim, "Oh, my God... sorry, I thought you were male!" Which irritates me to nth degree, because, well, I am NOT A MALE, and as a female, I am still - as Shania Twain sings - "alright".

I am not a firm believer in oracles and crystal glasses, but when I am in two minds about something, I play a game of Freecell, and if it opens, I do it. It's not that I believe in it, but it makes me feel better, simply because it proves I am mentally clear enough to beat my computer in a game of cards, and therefore I can make objective decisions.

I did it last night. The question was, is it OK to put my public face online? So I am all over Facebook, currently only visible to friends, until I have sorted out what it is that I want to do with Facebook as a marketing tool.

I am open to suggestions...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sharing knowledge, sharing words

Translators might tell you that they know of knowledge management (KM) as a term they translate – but many of them are doing precisely that on any of the kudos boards, e-cafes or blogging spaces, not just occasionally, but almost on a daily basis. Yet just over 50% of translators polled on the question are consciously aware that they are engaging in KM, and over 30% of those polled did not know what 'knowledge management' meant.

Knowledge is 'information with guidance for action' while 'management' includes supervision and leadership. Looking at both, we clearly see that there is a significant social aspect to it: guidance, supervision and leadership are all aspects of mentoring. Mentoring, in turn, is the act of passing on one’s expertise and knowledge to others – a cyclic process. Mentoring is as old as the Odyssey – Odysseus leaves his son Telemachus in the care of Mentor, who for the next 10 years teaches the lad all he knows, to good end, too. If it were not for Mentor’s mentoring, Penelope would have been someone else’s wife pretty early in the story.

No profession can exist without some form of knowledge sharing among its practitioners if it is to survive the information explosion provided by ICT and manage the fast-paced change under which it functions. Translators work with language, and language is a living organism that changes rapidly. Translators living abroad can attest to the fact that when they go 'back home' after five or six years, they are immediately picked on by taxi drivers and other tourist-related service providers as someone who has lived overseas because of the way their spoken language has become 'stilted' in the time they left their countries of origin. English is very quickly overtaking the other languages and English words creep into them at extraordinary speed. New technologies and inventions create new terminology, making any dictionary obsolete before it is even published. No single translator, no matter how experienced, will have full mastery of his or her language for long. Being information literate, having the tools to acquire new knowledge and grow it, is as essential to any translator as is his or her ability to construct correct sentences and have an eye for detail.

Beside the increase in terminology-related information, translators also need to become more than just conversant with the increasing number of CAT (computer-assisted translation) and other software tools: from word and character counting, to localization software, to DTP specific, to one’s languages, to electronic dictionaries and bookkeeping programs. The most expensive and comprehensive CAT tool, Trados, is also one that can cause the most problems to translators inexperienced in its use, and the availability of mentors and communities of practice becomes crucial where deadlines are tight and googling is just not the right solution.

One of the most successful Web sites for the translator and interpreter community is Proz ( Proz meets a multiplicity of needs within the translator community, some of which, although important, are not related to sharing information or mentoring. Proz started as a 'jobs board' – somewhere online where freelance translators and their clients could meet, post jobs and offer bids. Once translators join Proz, they can create a Web page that comprehensively covers all aspects of their trade: the languages they translate, their fields of experience, their qualifications and years of experience, their professional affiliations, links to their private Web sites, and the opportunity to send other translators an e-mail (which Proz staff filters for spam). It shows how many Kudoz points the translator was awarded, and how much they charge per word/page/hour of their work. It also allows translators to upload their own résumé and provide a portfolio of their work for viewing.

Translation agencies and outsourcers can also become members in Proz, and their pages allow for a spiel of the company, the languages they translate and a link to their corporate Web site and to the Blue Board (see below). Once a member of Proz, agencies can post translation assignments and wait for translators to confidentially propose bids. Proz also provides a very comprehensive directory of translators that can be searched by name, languages, specialization and country of residence.

In those aspects Proz is not unique, for there were quite a number of such online boards prior to Proz, and many more followed: Aquarius, Translatorbase, Translator Café, Go Translators, etc. – most of them differing very little from one another, and only a few being anywhere as comprehensive as Proz in what they offer.

Proz, however, differs in a number of ways:

Its Kudoz system allows anyone, not just Proz members, to ask professional translators for the meaning of any word in any of the languages represented in Proz. More than one response can be provided and the asker can choose the one that is most correct/useful to their needs. Other translators who do not want to participate by providing answers themselves can contribute to the discussion by either agreeing or disagreeing with the provided answers. The answer with most 'agree' contributions gets to the top of the answers and is often chosen. The translator who provided the chosen answer is then awarded points, which show on their personal Web page. The asker has the option of adding the chosen term to the general Kudoz glossary, which can be searched by term, part thereof, language direction and specialization field. Kudoz is a moderated environment, and a moderator can quash any answers or comments that do not fit with the rules of the site. The most fascinating part of the Kudoz process is often not in finding the term, but the linguistic discussion that ensues between various translators as to the use of the term. This advice is much more valuable than the term.
The Glosspost feature allows translators to share with their colleagues URLs of online-based glossaries. The Glasspost is searchable by subject, part of the URL and language.
An important knowledge-sharing tool on Proz is the Blue Board, where the paying members evaluate their experience of any particular client they worked for, thus providing an early warning system to other translators in case an agency is phony or has poor payment practices. Agencies have the right to respond to these postings. However, if an agency consistently scores low on the Blue Board, it is 'banned' from posting any further jobs.
Proz has extensive fora, their subjects ranging from translation-related software to literary translation, and from chasing up non-paying clients to conferences and events pertaining to languages. All Proz members, paying and non-paying, can access and participate in these fora. A search for a particular term can be done across all the fora or just a chosen number of them. The fora are moderated by a group of volunteers from all over the world. Their task is not easy, as their membership is extremely culturally and socially varied. Frictions occur occasionally, but unlike many other CoP fora and mailing lists, Proz is almost devoid of 'flaming'. This is mostly because of the very strict professional guidelines.
Translator members of Proz can create teams, and can bid for larger jobs as a team. Paying members in Proz can access 'community rates', which is an average fee their colleagues in a particular language pair charge. This helps them determine if their charges are too high or too low.
Members of Proz can upload articles they have authored relating to the various aspects of the translating industry. It furthers the sharing of knowledge among translators, provides resources for professional development that members can use outside of Proz and provides the authors with an additional marketing tool.
Members of Proz are in no way restricted to cyberspace for their interactions with others. Proz organizes real-world conferences that are well attended, as well as various POWWOWS, which are smaller informal gatherings of Proz members held at a city or town level. These CoP gatherings encourage networking and facilitate discussions of local issues pertaining to the profession. Lately, a number of European based translators have also been organizing a Stammtisch – an even more relaxed but more regular event than POWWOWS, usually in a pub.
The Translators Exchange is an online 'flea market' where translators can offer or request services and goods from their colleagues. Offers vary from language classes to second-hand dictionaries, CAT tools and advice on travel to certain destinations. This is, in my opinion, an underutilized feature of Proz, and would benefit from a bit of advertising. In addition, Proz has an online store, mostly for new books and software.
It must be noted that the staff at Proz are very aware that rewards facilitate knowledge sharing. There are two main awards systems on Proz: the 'brownies' and 'points'. Brownies are granted for accepted glossaries, articles, contributions to fora, polls, entering terms into glossaries and either answering questions on Kudoz or agreeing/disagreeing with them. Brownies can be exchanged for money towards the payment of one's membership fees. Points are only obtained when one's answer to a Kudoz question is chosen and the asker awards anywhere between one and four points per answer. These points are shown prominently on the answering translator’s page, and a tab leads to a Web page where all the answers of that translator that were chosen are presented. Clients looking for translators often take care to choose those who show their mastery of the language or specialization by accruing a high number of points. Points are also used to move the translator’s position up in the directory – the more points, the higher the position.

Has Proz been a successful tool? The testimonials on the Web site stress the value of the shared information and expertise gained, as well as the increase in productivity and client base:

'Peers have often helped me with difficult terms where all dictionaries failed.'
'What I like most at is the relationship between the staff and the members. I felt that you really care about us and about the way you can help us.'
'Every year, our membership generates new business contacts which result in tangible job opportunities.'
'I am much better informed about translating issues in general.'
'I understand as the meeting place for translators, a place where we can exchange ideas, help each other, broaden our horizons, improve our networks...'
'I can always count on it for useful information and interesting linguistic and cultural tidbits, as well as insights into my colleagues’ backgrounds and thought processes.'
'This is simply the best, most comprehensive support network and best moderated Web site I could wish for as a translator.'
There are, of course, other cyberspaces where translators share their knowledge with each other and the wider community. Proz seems to be, however, an excellent example of what a portal for translators, or any other community of practice, should be like.

Where's the life we lost in IT?

A few years ago, as a postgraduate student and a KM consultant, I made continual fun of my less-than-enthusiastic colleagues and clients who just did not feel as excited about the potentials of information technologies as I, in my almost proselytizing zest, did. To me, life then would have been impossible without the Internet, the network, the humming of my laser printer(s), the ever faster USB connections to my scanner and all the other gadgets, both hard and soft, that I so zealously accommodated in the years of my IT-hooked middle age.

From a dot-matrix to an ink jet to a laser, my photos looked better than ever. Photoshop helped where age shook the hand, and the endless buttons on the brand new Pentax digital camera ensured that any mistakes my slightly befuddled post-stroke brain made were duly corrected. The camcorder permitted me to indulge in the fantasy of home-made Spielberg – one and only one cable and large RAM and you have a whole video suite on your laptop for less than 200 US$. Oh what bliss! Shall we mention all the recording equipment that I spent money on, to indulge in the nostalgia of saving second-hand LPs, often bought at Sunday markets and garage sales, from total oblivion by converting them into MP3 and recording them on CDs for posterity? There were a few hundred dollars involved in that, too, and no one is sure whether my newly born grand-daughter will want to listen to these 1920s nostalgias. I am sure, though, that the good old canine perched on His Master's Voice records would not feel as comfortable trying to squeeze onto the CD. And just as I thought I was oh so cool, my youngest sister arrives for a mid-semester break with a mobile that does everything – including, probably, making a cup of coffee. It immediately made me feel redundant, promising to send photos by e-mail or CD ('Don't you have infrared, Sam? I'll just upload them on my mobile.')

I have to admit, however, that this techno-euphoria is beginning to wane. Over the past six months something new is beginning to happen. I still carry my mobile around everywhere, but I switch it off more often than not, and only check messages at the end of the day. I am still e-mail obsessed, but if it were not the nature of my 24x7 work, I probably would not be doing it that way. At this point in my career it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction – sit, click, check, read, respond. It does nothing to endear Outlook to me; I feel like an automaton. I still take heaps of photographs, but I am switching my digital camera to manual and going through the same old motions I used to with my first ever Russian Leica. I feel that the lack of worry about the film running out and the cost of having it developed has led to my just 'shooting' unthinkingly and that the discipline so important for a good photographer has somehow evaporated.

The biggest difference, however, is occurring in the area of writing, which is what I do these days for a living. Over the past three years – ever since I went back to translating full-time – I would look at my translation and cringe. It was correct. It was equivalent (drastically so). Community members would say that it was eminently readable. I kept getting more and more work, so I assume the agencies and their clients were satisfied. I was not. My language was dead. Like a corpse floating on muddy water, it had but a semblance of what is used to be.

One afternoon a month or so ago, I hit upon a crazy idea. I took out a notepad (me, of the paperless office fame), pens, pencils, an eraser, my dictionaries and a book I randomly selected from the shelves. I left my laptop, with its computer assisted translation (CAT) tools, my translation memory (TM) and my nifty electronic dictionaries and glossaries behind. I unplugged the Internet connection, disconnecting myself from my communities of practice (CoP) and Kudoz Boards where I could logon, type in and have half the world's linguists answer my query in minutes. Like a monk from some medieval monastery, it was the text and me. The tools were in my head, not on my laptop. I was the tool. I was the information creator, processor, manager, storage facility – the lot.

Within an hour I had produced five pages in an elegant language, as smooth and as concise as my Arabic has always been. And it has not been a painful process at all – I sweat far more over a brochure about occupational health and safety than over the sociological introduction to mixed religion marriages that I was working on. Where was the difference then? I was not using my word processor. Because handwriting, especially the Arabic script, is an act of aesthetics, I needed to concentrate on what I was doing. I wrote first in pencil, then inked it. As I inked, I re-read the sentences and changed them. With word-processing, in ugly Arial or Times Roman, I glance at the text, check for spelling and send it off to the client. No art involved, no art produced. Isn't that a bit like the GIGO principle?

There are those who strongly and unequivocally stress that IT actually (1) needs creative people to make it and run it, and (2) promotes creativity as such. For me, unfortunately, software and PCs did not enhance what I already possessed. On the contrary, they seem to have detracted. And in the way they took away from me tasks to which I had to pay attention, they disenfranchised me. My attention span is now shorter, not longer. My attention to detail is almost all but obliterated. The spellchecker makes me a careless writer. And there is no romance in reading an old manuscript from the LCD screen – after all, where is the musty smell of old paper on the molding pages? Why should I bother practicing my drawing if I can have any kind of artwork, from oil on canvass to coloured pencil sketches, with one click on Photoshop? They are called 'filters', those little nifty instructions. I wonder how many other such 'filters' has the computerization of our world embedded in our heads? I remember not that long ago being able to declaim my favourite poets by heart. Not any more – now I do not have to go through bookshelves groaning with heavy volumes. All there is to the trick is to remember the title of the poem, or the first line, or the poet's name, Google it and voilà, here we are. If this is happening to a person with 35 years of 'pre-computerized' education where learning by rote was a large segment of what one did as a student, what kind of a memory, if any, will the 'post-computerized' generation have?

'Oh, but computers make life so much easier and faster', is the response. In a way they do, and I have no intention of embracing Luddism full scale and denying the vital role computerization plays in our lives. But please tell me, how often does any one of us pick up a pen and then write down on a piece of paper something we did not fully intend to? Or write it in the wrong spot on the paper? Or in the wrong language? Every time I switch between translating (which I do in Arabic) to respond to an urgent e-mail (which is done in English) I usually have the first line in garbled lingo. Since I use the same Latin-lettered keyboard for both Arabic and English, I often forget to do the Alt+Shift trick before typing. And how often do I press Alt+Tab instead? Enough times to drive the time-starved self insane with frustration, I assure you. How often would I do that with pen and paper? My mind has no need for Alt or Tab keys and writing is much less time consuming than keying in, especially if one has a keyboard in one script and types in another.

A friend of mine, a solicitor, has spent the last ten years being compu-savvy. A few months ago, disaster struck. Sent to a tiny Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory of Australia, he found himself computer-less. Everything, from forms to submissions to taking down statements needed to be done by hand. They have no court clerks up there, the only access is by plane and the court itself is a police station where the court shows up every fortnight or so. 'I no longer know how to write', my friend wailed. 'I make spelling mistakes and my handwriting is illegible. And I get cramps after 15 minutes of holding a pen.' I feel no pity, somehow, because by embracing technology so zealously we have abrogated our right to control our most precious activity, word-smithing. And without word-smithing, we amount to little in this information-crazy, brave, new world of today.

IFFF generation and the demise of good reading

Published in SAJIM Vol8(1) 2006

Two separate incidents led to the writing of this issue's column.

Incident one: I was walking my dogs one night when a couple in their mid-forties passed me by. In the two seconds during which my airwaves were overlapping theirs, I heard a fragment of a sentence, '…and she gave me a whole heap of Web sites'.

'A whole heap of Web sites.' This was an interesting usage of English, albeit unconscious. A heap denotes a large number of things piled atop each other. Web sites are virtual, not corporeal, but they were perceived by the speaker as something one could heap: an information glut, an overload of junk data, just as junky as the food the prosperous modern world is feeding to its children. Information fries and fried fish. For the sake of elegance I will call it IFFF.

Incident two: While browsing through the shelves of a public library, I surreptitiously watched a class of 3rd grades and their teacher being introduced to the facilities. The kids had glazed, bored faces. The teacher, standing at the top of the contingent, was bawling monotonously at the top of her voice: 'This is the re-fe-rence section, boys, and here is where you find the en-cy-clo-paedias. Can anyone tell me what an en-cy-clo-paedia is, boys?' From the back came a clever response. 'It's something that comes on a CD, Miss, and has lots of pictures which you can use for your classwork, Miss!'

Gone are obviously the days when I, a young aspiring education undergraduate, would be unceremoniously ordered by the library staff to take off my high heel shoes before entering the precinct, so as not to disturb other scholars. Gone, also, are the days when we would lovingly pull out the 50 odd gilded volumes of Britannica and ensure that the African termites, so hungry for any reading material, did not get into the family heirloom. Why bother? When I was growing up, an assignment meant going into the school library and finding information on the reference shelves. Home was, for as long as I can remember, a place of shelves filled with books. Eastern Europe might not have been the best place for intellectual freedom in those days, but books were extremely cheap and this is where I read all the world literature classics. On the other hand, if I want to find a book by the likes of Kazantakis, or Proust or Balzac in Australia today, I need to dig deep – both in the shelves and in my pocket – at a place aptly named The Archives, where they rub shoulders with vanilla romance and gory horror books.

Has the glut of data in electronic format killed our ability to enjoy book (but also newspaper and magazine) reading? Has Internet 'literacy' led to book 'illiteracy'? How does the perception of this Internet generation differ from ours when it comes to savouring words, respecting the work that goes into producing them and absorbing/retaining information from flickers on a screen that are here today and gone tomorrow? And what changes when knowledge becomes demoted from a 'quest' to a 'search': does it lose some of its value which was inherent in it because of its scarcity and the effort that needed to be exerted in obtaining it, or does it retain that value?

At the risk of repeating this ad nauseam, reading any long text off-line is, up to date, ergonomically impossible and opthalmologically detrimental. There is no lack of books in electronic formats – some best world literature is on Gutenberg for free, and there are others who provide this service for a fee (Questia being one). However, one will eventually have to print the material (so much for saving trees and abiding by copyright) to be able to read it at any length. Unless you are very determined (few are), this will mean that only snippets will be read, creating a 'cut-and-paste' mentality in the younger generation so totally dependent on the information (or otherwise) provided on the Internet – too overwhelming, and yet too patchy.

Children are visual, and so the Internet feeds excellently into their modus operandi. Unfortunately, language, reading and especially linear reading use a totally different set of brain wiring to that used by visual perception. Erica Wagner, a publisher at the Australian Allen and Unwin, says: '[Books] are a private experience, and you enter into a world imaginatively that is different to sitting in front of a computer where it's all there in bright colours.' Children are not born readers; it takes discipline, patience and diligence to learn how to enjoy reading. It is also natural for humans to go down paths of least resistance, and if information is available in an IFFF format, why should one bother about wholesome quality, especially if the majority of people surrounding the child do not have a clue about how to estimate that quality in the first place. Wagner seems to be seeing a compromise, 'Children … are used to using the Internet and darting here and there, so we (Allen & Unwin) are publishing quite a lot of junior novels with lots of illustrations where the cartoon content is read within the story' (Haywood 2004).

I do grant electronic formats the benefit of being more compact. After decades of collecting books and not being able to find a Books Anonymous organization to cure me, nor a magic wand that would expand the available wall space, I am faced with two options: convert them into electronic formats or buy a larger house. I think the first is cheaper, and I have been storing most of my work materials on CDs; but as for books, I am open to property offers. Being more compact, it also means that I can share them with friends overseas much faster and cheaper than I would if they were in paper format. I have yet to come across any of my friends, however, who would prefer me to send them an e-book rather than the hard copy.

One cannot attempt to look at all the possible implications of the 'online reading' trend, or the lack of it, in an editorial column. But apart from patchiness of information, the developments of new forms of language usage due mainly to online communication also beg the question: What kind of literature will the world have in the coming 100 years? With the use of emoticons and abbreviations, and a lingua electronica that bridges world languages creating a special class of the e-savvy cosmopolitan young, will we be seeing the slow demise of language as we have known it? With the great ease with which we can now verbally and visually communicate online (chat software coupled with camcorders and cable Internet is just the tip of an iceberg) will we slowly move away from written language and back to verbal communication? How will that, if it happens, affect the creation and dissemination, not to mention storage, of information? Oral societies have very long memories, whereas the modern world Internet user has an attention span of about 15 seconds.

While I started this article with the intention of finding at least a few answers to my questions, I ended up merely sharing them with you with the sincere hope that the thread generates further discussion. Before I wrap up, I would like to leave you with a comment from a UK book lover: 'Books have the virtue of being tested. If you pick a text off the shelf you can be confident that no one would have published the thing if it was rubbish. If you look for information on the Internet, especially scientific papers, you end up with endless, untrusted papers written by any old quack with a computer' (BBC 2000). I am not sure if I totally agree with the trust aspect, though. But if the Internet is to stop being IFFFy, then we surely need to think about what skills we are leaving the coming generations of readers.


Haywood, W. 2004. Books of the future. In Connections (48). Available WWW:

BBC. 2000. Is there a future for public libraries? Available WWW:

Bookseller breed – threatened species?

My road to 'information as science' went through 'information as medium' long before I decided to tackle the more academic aspects of it. Through the 1980s I owned a small publishing house and an attached bookshop – my first taste of managing a business. It was also my first introduction to the arcane world of cataloguing, inventories, stock audits and customer service – experiences I took with me when I left the book-selling business for education and started building libraries in schools across the sub-Saharan country where I taught English.

My own standard of a 'livable space' (as many well-stocked bookshops and excellent libraries as possible, coupled with a vibrant café-scene and enough WiFi hotspots to allow me to engage in creative work while not stuck inside an office) made me rather dismayed to find that most of my colleagues and friends considered my wish to establish a bookshop in Queensland, Australia as an act of madness. They shook their heads and produced piles of doom-and-gloom articles, from e-books threatening publishers, to recession, to eBay causing huge drops in prices, to bookshop chains turning the whole exercise into yet another cut-throat supermarket experience. But what was really amazing in all this was the paradoxical nature of the advice. While all of them agreed that it was not a wise investment to open a bookstore, they all bemoaned the fact that there was not one close enough to them, and all of them were sizeable consumers of books themselves.

And while they wrung their hands in dismay and predicted the very Apocalypse of the Book, I kept walking into all kinds of bookshops in my city: independent, second-hand, sell-and-go warehouses, large chains, small chains, cross-selling or specializing, bricks-and-mortar, online or both combined – you name it, I have been in it. If these journeys have proven anything to me, it was one single fact: it is a long way to the Apocalypse.

I am glad that I did the footwork well before engaging in what I usually do when thinking of a business venture: read up on it. I spent six weeks talking to bookshop owners and staff, who were very generous with information and advice once that rapport between booklovers was established and assurances made that no competition will be opening in their nook of the world. I started reading after listening to many a story of success and demise – only to find out that the underlying reason for the predominance of doom-and-gloom stories is the fact that disasters sell better than success stories of hard work and dedication. There simply is no romance in such terms as 'keeping a solid, updated inventory', 'weeding your collection' and 'trips to the diseased estates'. Not unless you are passionate about dead people's junk, anyway.

So are booksellers and bookshops on their way out of the Western world? Are we ready to dump an integral part of what makes us civilized and cultured for the ephemera of electronic text? Will bookshops, with their aura of almost sanctity be replaced with mercenary eBay sellers often not knowing the true value of their merchandise and treating it the same way they treat T-shirts and plastic key-rings manufactured whole sale in some sweatshop in southeast Asia? Are we staring the 'bookseller bubble' in the face?

My research and footwork inclines me to say a qualified 'no'; qualified because bookselling, like any other business, can fail for reasons personal and external which do not necessarily impact similar businesses. Where I can say a strong and resounding 'no' is to the oft-mentioned statement that the Internet (self-publishing, e-books and online selling) has been the main reason for the demise of the bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

I would like to point out here that I am not at the moment interested in huge ventures such as say, Borders. Although I often hang out in Borders or walk into other large Australian bookstores (Angus & Robertson, QBD, etc.), I do so less often than I drop into smaller, independent, second-hand and antique shops. The main reason is that the larger chains all stock the same stuff, very little of which is specialized in any way, and much of which is targeted at the lowest common denominator of readers – one-hit wonder novels, classics of English literature (not many translated works there), self-help for those who cannot tie their own shoe laces, true crime manuals for aspiring murderers and bored wives, street directories and books on how to fish from the lounge in your house. The staff is often overworked, does not express interest in the client and their knowledge of books and reading is equivalent to that of a 16-year-old in a supermarket: 'You right there?'

It is true that a few smaller chains are attempting a 'personalized' touch by adding 'customer VIP cards', offering discounts for loyalty and creating cafe nooks among the books. But whereas I would walk out of a second-hand bookshop with a backpack full of books and need a taxi to get home, I tend to come out of these chains with a maximum of one or two volumes and lighter of step and wallet despite the stack of VIP cards I own. As for buying anything from supermarkets that stock books as part of their merchandise, or from a newsagent, I would have to be seriously desperate. These outlets just do not seem to get the difference between 'book' and 'paper cut to size'. And as quite a few perceptive commentators have noticed, large chains are at a cut-throat battle with each other, selling their stock for so little that it would not make sense for an independent bookshop to try to imitate them unless they were seriously suicidal. While the dinosaurs fight each other in the large metropolitan centres, smaller independent booksellers can find niches in regional towns and more up-market, intellectually oriented and yuppie neighbourhoods where class precludes you from buying from a plastic-feel, neon-lighted chain totally lacking in that form of sophisticated ambience that feeds the intelligentsia's soul.

One of the most common complaints one hears from those specializing in obituaries for independent and second-hand bookshops is the advent of the Internet. Their reasoning runs along the lines that one can establish a bookshop online with minimal overheads, thus sell at lower prices undercutting the bricks-and-mortar competition. That, if anything, needs to be taken with heaps of salt. All of the booksellers whom I have met who still owned a bricks-and-mortar establishment were also selling online, but saw the open door of their bookshops as absolutely necessary. Their reasons? 'It brings in the stock' for the second-hand dealer; 'it lets us get to know the local clientele'; 'it makes the bookshop visible more than any advertising', etc. Not to mention the mantra of most serious book dealers, especially in the field of collectibles, that buying a book is a 'tactile experience'. I have to personally agree that I find much more pleasure in browsing through shelves, reading the dust jackets and fingering through the pages than when I purchase my end-of-financial-year stock of textbooks from Amazon or ABE Books.

So the Internet has not been the cause of the demise of bookshops. True, one is competing against thousands of other sellers, but one also has a potential world-wide market of millions of buyers. Electronic auctions, however, are a different kettle of fish altogether – here the sellers are not necessarily specialists in their field, as anyone can sell their deceased grandmother on eBay, provided she is well conserved and the customs do not mind her being imported. Prices can be absolutely ridiculous, from $0.99 for a paperback, and many perceive this as a competition hard enough to knock any respectable bookshop out of work.

I often bid on items on eBay, but so far have only purchased one book there, a nostalgia item from my teenage years that is out of print and I could not find anywhere else. On the other hand, if I were a bookseller myself, eBay would provide me with a whole range of exciting possibilities – a bibliographically challenged teenager selling his granddad's stack of dusty, moulding books has often been unable to locate a similar copy online for price comparison (provided he cared) and priced a book to the heart's content of a collector or book dealer not so challenged. Priceless gems valued in the thousands of dollars have been known to pop up on the eBay charts for a price in two digits.

So what makes an independent bookshop survive and flourish? The booksellers I have talked to repeat a number of important points: know your stuff, deal in what you understand, hone those people skills and develop trust with your clients. Tailor your stock to the readers, give your bookshop ambience and dare to be different, but not too much. Cross-sell, as long as the other items in the bookshop reflect the philosophy of your bookshop. And a philosophy it must have, just as it must have a system in place for inventorying and weeding your collection, managing your accounts and keeping up to date with the industry. All sheer business common sense.

There are bookshops that go out of business – not because the industry as a whole is doomed, but because the demographics changed and the owner's did not; because they did not grab the opportunities, did not travel with their antiquated collection into the XXI century. I have seen a few of those and heard of others. A bookshop with books on the floor, sagging and broken shelves, dust and an owner behind a stack of boxes, blinking like a bat blinded by daylight and not very sure what a buyer was doing in his little bolt hole from the world will not survive, Internet or otherwise. As a good friend and dealer told me over a beer: 'Sam, lots of people whose bookshops fail have no people skills. They think a bookshop is a great idea for a place where they can sit hidden from humanity, at which they snarl when it crosses their doorway. Of course they close down quickly.'

Oh, yes, one more thing: do not call your bookshop Armageddon! The Apocalypse, if any, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Life-killing speed and the promise of never-never

Published in SAJIM, June 2007 Vol 9(2)

I remember a few years ago attending an IT conference presentation about all the wonderful gadgets that are already available and how they will affect our lives – from microchips under our skin that will carry all our medical information to intelligent e-fridges and pantries communicating with the local supermarket and ordering food or, even more scary, blocking our plastic cards from spending money on the occasional bag of salted chips because of our higher than usual blood pressure. The whole presentation, rich in multimedia, was a chronological tour de force of technological progress.

Behind me was an academic in his sixties, a bit of a greenie with a heart of a conservationist who, if I remember correctly, lived out in some remote part of the country where wildlife is more common than humans. As the presenter reached the crescendo of his performance, talking about the possibility in a few decades of having electrodes implanted in our eye nerves that would permit us to 'see' whatever we want to imagine, the academic behind me sighed in relief and whispered victoriously, 'I won't be alive'.

As I approach my 50s, I too tell myself this sentence. It crosses my mind quite often these days, in fact. As if the drastic environmental changes that will probably make most of Earth uninhabitable in the coming 'few decades', I am staring at another nightmare: the death of time. The death of 'time' for being human: for introspection, meditation, learning in depth, taking in the world before it goes (or we go). In other words, the death of everything we were promised to have in abundance as a result of this great 'IT revolution' that is robbing us of our soul, with our full contrivance – whether we know it or not, whether – knowing it – we like it or not. The death of choice by too much choice. The death of knowledge by information.

It's not that I have been like this all my life. I embraced the fountain pen at the age of seven and a year later the typewriter – and from there on no teacher could convert me into spending my time handwriting school assignments. As the electric Brother came in, out of the window flew the bulky Olympia, to rust in the shed. Pity, I didn't know it would become a collector's item. Then came the first electronic word-processor in the late 1980s, attached to a weighty hard drive of a few megabytes. I fully empathize with Edwards's (1996) words:

'My work as a writer was measured out in the palpable material of manuscripts-typed ink on paper, piled up piece by piece until the finished stack was tamped into a neat rectangle (this small act like a finalizing punctuation mark), put in an envelope, taken to the post office, and sent off like a small wrapped present to a magazine or publishing house…. The digital revolution has changed the nature of that evidence, and the sources of satisfaction. No more stacks of paper to be squared off with a gratifying thump. Now pages don't pile up, they scroll up and disappear. Files are no longer in plain sight on top of my desk (there to chide me for inattention); they are stored on my computer's hard disk. I still have a small pile of newspaper and magazine clips to be used as reference, but one of these days I'll buy a scanner so that these, too, will vanish from the analog world into the parallel digital universe. There are no envelopes to be sealed anymore, no ritual trips to the post office. All these homey signs of work done have been replaced by a small horizontal box on my monitor that slowly fills in from left to right as articles or chapters travel electronically from my computer to the computers of editors hundreds or thousands of miles away.'

And then the PC and the modem took me to a wider world in 1996, soon to be followed by my first laptop and wireless ADSL, a combination that made me a coffee-sipping café writer again. A writer in the backseat of the Volvo, on the train and the plane, the libraries, parks and natural reserves; the writer whose first question when booking a motel for a holiday stay is invariably, 'Do you guys have an Internet connection?' There was a time I seriously regretted that laptops were not water-proof and I couldn't take one with me into the bathtub.

From pen to electric typewriter, there was still time for handwriting, for engaging in drawing with a piece of charcoal, for practising calligraphy but it eroded in direct relation to the advancement of technology. It seemed that the faster my word processing capabilities became, the less time I had to engage in these activities. Why? Wasn't the promise on which all of them were sold, the promise of MORE time to do what one's heart desired? Of more leisure, more introspection, more time to spend in front of the open fire-place with a book?

What has happened instead may have to do with the Protestant work ethic of the bourgeoisie as much as it has with the time-saving technological gadgets, be they hard- or software. We feel guilty if we have too much time on our hands, fear being called lazy good-for-nothings or failures who don't know how to turn every minute into profit. It is not a purely Western disease; the Northern Muslim Africans I once worked with have a saying that 'an idle hand is impure'. As we can now do things faster, we do more and, by implication, work longer hours, instead of having more time to engage in pursuits of the mind or the soul. Not that these last two are taken seriously any longer, since the new technology has permitted neuroscientists and evolutionary anthropologists to say that we are nothing but genetically wired machines. Like computers, but better, which is really questionable – better at what? Maybe at wasting our lives working?

But we have to be. Society is pressuring us to 'not waste time', that is, to be more productive. We are sold all kinds of utterly useless software on the basis that it increases our productivity. Sadly, it doesn't. It crashes, it wipes out data, and it takes time to learn. I can draw a Donald Duck much faster by hand than with my ultra-new e-pen and tablet. But then, I am from the pre-historic 'manual age', the age where kunst mattered.

Apart from the incessant pressure to be more productive since we have all these productivity tools, is the fact that the Internet can be a time sink in a way that books can't. After all, if you pick up a book, you pick up 'a' book, and that is it. You read it, or you don't. But with the Internet options are limitless – visual and textual, group or solitary, educative or entertaining, interactive or proactive. Can someone tell me what it is that we cannot do on-line? THINK. I look with horror at how my partner, who was into IT long before the Internet arrived, flicks through virtual page after virtual page, apparently reading. How? Is anything being absorbed? Don't we need TIME (again and again) to think about what we are reading, shove it further into our already overflowing brains, making sure that it moves past the gates of the RAM and into the hard drive?

It was not always like this. The phrase 'gentleman of leisure' did not imply a dullard, but usually a well off noble engaged in learning pursuits – which were deemed pleasure, not duty. In his elegantly thoughtful article, Mark Helprin presents us with a picture of a middle-class public servant on holiday in 1906 and compares it with that of a high-tech CEO in 2016. He proposes that:

'the vast difference between the two is attributable not to some inexplicable superiority of morals, custom, or culture, but rather to facts and physics, two things that, in judging our happiness, we tend to ignore in favor of an evaporative tangle of abstractions … we require a specific environment and a harmony in elements that relate to us and of which we are often unaware. A life lived with these understood, even if vaguely, will have the grace that a life lived unaware of them will not. When expanding one's powers, as we are in the midst of now doing by many orders of magnitude in the mastery of information, we must always be aware of our natural limitations, mortal requirements, and humane preferences.'

Maybe I could market this as an alternative lifestyle, one of 'productive idleness' where the products are incorporeal thoughts, meditations on the meaning of life? I am sure I can do that. All it takes is a good interactive Web site for the Internet-savvy, sick-at-heart, overworked would-be-time-savers. Because, as Helprin says, we did not have the TIME (again!) to develop protocols to deal with the digital revolution, and so we are being led by it and our untamed desires into excess, into believing that since machines enable us to do something, then we should absolutely do so.

I had embraced the Wild On-line World and the technologies that brought it. Hmmm, not correct. I did not embrace them, for my arms were busy running up and down the keyboard the way they never managed to do it on the piano. It was the technology that embraced me, hugged me to its huge bosom and crushed me, ingested me and is on the brink of spitting out the bones. No fireplaces for me – instead I freeze in winter sitting very still in my office, wearing 'finger-tipless' gloves, typing away at a translation, or an article, or even worse – playing Freecell as 'relaxation'.

The price I have paid is not limited to the few thousands every year spent on endless upgrading and catching up with gadgets. The price I paid are the bills for my acupuncturist and osteopath because of bad sitting posture, the increasing girth due to eating junk food while immovable except from the wrists down, the number of various spectacles I need to wear to see the difference between the screen and the end of the shopping lane at the supermarket, RSI which bars me from engaging in such simple things as cross-stitching or drawing. So what have I gained?

Access to endless on-line reading material but no time to read them; access to everyone in the world via e-mail, but somehow no time and no inclination to write to my mother who is electronically disconnected, and whose neatly written letters litter my desk and make me feel guilty; three digital cameras and a camcorder that have spawned thousands of very good shots and films, but no time to share them with others, no time for an exhibition, no time even to create my own Web site for them; two blogs that have been dead – officially – for over a year; a notebook full of 'work in progress' projects that have been in progress since 1995, including a book on the war in the Nuba Mountains (incidentally over), a manual on linguistics, a few books I need to translate, a PhD proposal, databases for my 5000 plus books and 2000 plus CDs, a tapestry of a Kama Sutra Indian painting, a digitization family history project, and 6000 square metres of land that need maintenance.

I have moved out of the city and into the countryside to avoid being rushed by the endless traffic – another of those great technological inventions that brought us all 'closer', creating a 'global village' of stressed-out corporate slaves in a mad rat-race where they are all losers. I wanted to be back in touch with nature, following Hillis's (1998) advice that:

'Temporal disorientation is an unwanted side effect of modern life. We are dazzled by progress, rushed by events, and disconnected from the stable rhythms of time. Our technology has isolated us from the natural cycles (day, month, year) that once governed the pace of life.'

And yet I continue checking my e-mail every 10 minutes, checking the weather on-line, doing Internet banking, and spending an inordinate amount of time staring into the laptop's monitor, transfixed like a hypnotized chicken, awaiting some cyber-salvation. Maybe it will take a blackout, or a cyclone, to get me unhooked.

But shush! I am busy playing Freecell. And winning.


Edwards, O. 1996. Remembrance of things fast. Forbes ASAP 158(13):114-116.

Helprin, M. 1996. The acceleration of tranquility. [Online] Available WWW:

Hillis, D. 1998. Impatient pendulum. Forbes ASAP 162(12):49, 66.