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.

Googling for Ahab or E-Bookville revisited

Published in SAJIM, Sept 2007 Vol. 9(3)

In 2001, which seems like pre-history in Internet time, I wrote a research report about e-books in which I said, inter alia, that

E-books seem to have a chance of success if a number of issues are addressed by all involved sectors: the publishers, the hardware manufacturers, the legal sector and the writers.... To succeed, electronic books must be widely accessible by all segments of the population. Educational institutions should play a large role in improving society’s technological literacy, while ensuring that the content remains strong and valuable. Manufacturers and content owners should put the general benefit of the society above their profit making schemes, and assist in making their products available to the public domain (Berner 2001).

Only a year later, Google launched its 'book search' project and took the world by storm. The whole idea seems totally mad: to digitize millions of books currently gathering dust in the world’s largest academic libraries. The aim? To enable the millions of info-hungry Web-surfers to Google '+Ahab +whale' and find the required lines in Moby Dick. It was a dream that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had in 1996, 'that in a future world in which vast collections of books are digitized, people would use a "web crawler" to index the books' content and analyse the connections between them, determining any given book's relevance and usefulness by tracking the number and quality of citations from other books' (Google 2007). The project started in 2002, and in the first two years managed to hook not only the Bodleian with its one million plus manuscripts, but also a number of printing presses of world renown: Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, the University of Chicago Press, Houghton Mifflin, Hyperion, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Penguin, Perseus, Princeton University Press, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Thomson Delmar and Warner Books. Then Harvard, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library, Oxford and Stanford come on board with over 15 million books ready for digitalization. In 2005, Google started similar partnerships with other countries, namely, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

Everyone started talking about Google Books, and the issue is still a hot topic on-line. Blogs are being dedicated to it; legal turf wars are fought over it, and it might even cause the start of the Franco-Anglaise Language War, if we are to take the French seriously (the battle has been flickering since last year). In 2006, the president of France's Bibliothque Nationale, Jean Noël Jeanneney, wrote a book in which he shared his fears of the impact of Google Books on European culture, stating that 'by the very nature of the library collections that Google proposes to put online, American and British works will dominate, leaving behind that portion of the world's hundred million books not in English' (Knoblauch 2007) So for Jeanneney, Google Books, far from being the beneficial instrument of spreading knowledge, will damage the world’s cultural heritage, presumably because it is in English and thus will 'extend the dominance of American culture abroad'. So for the French, it is either 'cultural diversity' or no culture whatsoever, not if it is in English! Possibly the greatest tragi-comic aspect of this debacle is the fact that Jeanneney’s book is on Google Books (here) in, of course, English translation.

But of course Jeanneney is totally out of date. In March of this year, the Bavarian State Library announced a partnership with Google to scan more than a million public domain and out-of-print works in German as well as English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. A week later, they were followed by the Cantonal and the University Library of Lausanne, and the University of Mysore announced an agreement to digitize 800000 books and other documents, both those on paper and ancient ones on palm leaves. At the same time, the Boekentoren library of the Ghent University will participate with 19th century books in the French and Dutch language, and just last month the Keio University became Google's first library partner in Japan with the announcement that they would digitize at least 120000 public domain books. Other US universities are coming on board as well: the California System (34 million volumes), Wisconsin-Madison (7,2 million volumes), the University of Texas at Austin (one million) and Cornwell (500000 books). One just wonders where the time and energy to scan all this will come from – not to mention finances. Apparently, some of the books are already poorly scanned, if we are to reason by the feedback mechanism for reporting illegible or missing pages that Google Books provides.

Not just the information nerds, but some publishers and lawyers went up in arms about it, albeit on opposite fronts. Jason Epstein preached, 'embrace the Internet or die' to publishers. The whole notion of 'fair use' got whacked on the proverbial wall and dismantled – no one is sure yet what it will become after this deconstructionist exercise, as the courts are still discussing the matter. Farhad Manjoo, the Cornwell graduate who now writes for Salon, raised a very important question. To quote him, 'if copyright law stands in the way of Google's grand aim, isn't it time we thought about changing the law? … The company … is poised to create a tool that could truly change the way we understand, and learn about, the world around us.… Can we really afford to let content owners stand in the way of Google's revolutionary idea?' (Manjoo 2005)

In October 2005, the Association of American Publishers, which represents large publishing houses, sued Google for copyright infringement and also for costing the book industry a great deal of potential revenue. If the publishers worry that the perceived infringement of copyright by Google Books will adversely affect the sales of their already out-of-print books, then one worries about their sanity. OCLC, a non-profit library research group, set out to count and catalogue the books Google would capture in its project and determined that at the five research libraries with which Google had formed deals, about 80% of the books in the stacks were published after 1923 and were still under copyright, but only a small number of these books are currently in print (Lavoie 2005).

As for books still in print, Google made it clear in Frankfurt as early as 2004 that 'for each book found, a user would see several pages of the book with the phrase or subject of the search highlighted. The page would also offer links to several online retailers, where the book could be bought. Publishers do not pay to participate in the programme; rather, Google would make money from the service by selling advertising on the search pages, and it would share those revenues with the publishing companies' (Webb 2004).

Maybe the only way publishers think a book would sell would be to maintain as much secrecy about its content as is possible. Disclosure might drop sales, and it will have nothing to do with being able to read it on-line. This whole notion is ridiculous and yet, in 2005, when Google Books became public news, the American Authors Guild sued Google on the premise that 'it's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied' (Mills 2005). Take this legal individualism to its logical end and it will be the author’s right to decide which library carries his books, where they are sold, and who reads them. This is the proverbial 'shot-in-one's-foot'. As one of the un-offended writers said,

'the large majority of current author fear regarding digitized, accessible versions of their work is based on two primary factors: Ignorance and ego. The ignorance is the lack of understanding that for the vast majority of authors, the ability to pop up in an Internet search on a subject would be a good thing: It's free publicity and also acts as a taster for people who (very likely) have no idea who you are and what your writing is like. The ego is the assumption that a whole bunch of people are just gagging to steal one's work at the slimmest opportunity' (Scalzi 2005).

Not to be left behind, in 2006 the French joined in the legal bullfight, when the French publishing group La Martiniere sued Google for 'piracy'. It seems that La Martiniere owns interests in the US.

Fred von Lohmann, an attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said that the Google Books lawsuits were a one-sided situation, and that the publishers had no argument to prove that it harmed their sales. And while a significant number of library books are protected by copyright, they are also out of print – 70% or more by some estimates. Someone owns these books, but since they are perceived to have no commercial value (because they are no longer sold in stores), publishers do not have any incentive to promote and market them, let alone to go through the expense of scanning them and making them searchable on-line (O’Reilly 2005). So why not let Google, and why not let the knowledge-hungry world have them for free? Or at least get to know about their existence? Apparently, according to the media expert Siva Vaidhyanathan of the New York University, there is no national registry of copyright holders in the United States, as there is a national registry of patents. 'It's impossible for a company like Google, or a historian, or a documentary filmmaker, or anyone to find out who owns what. Even publishers don't know what they own. It's just impossible' (Manjoo 2005). And they are suing Google demanding that it does find the unknown and asks their permission.

The Court cases are still dragging and no one is saying much about what is happening. But it looks like a bit of a paradox is happening: first politicians pontificate about the need to provide life-long education to the masses (both 'education' and 'masses' being undefined concepts) as the 'in-thing' for the 21st century. Then it is rendered impossible by those who 'own' the knowledge as they send their legal bouncers to bash any institution that takes these pontifications seriously, behaving like 18th century luddites.

No one is even considering the benefit Google books would have on the third world. This makes one feel sorry that we are faster at sending in tanks and bombers, than we are at giving the world access to some good books.


Berner, S. (2001) A Review of Current Issues Affecting the Future Marketability of Electronic Books, unpublished report, p.16.

Google (2007) History of Google Book Search. [Online]. Available WWW:

Knoblauch, M. (2007) Book Review. [Online]. Available WWW:

Lavoie, B. et al. (2005) Anatomy of Aggregate Collections. [Online]. Available:

Manjoo, F. (2005) Throwing Google At the Book. [Online]. Available WWW:

Mills, E. (2005) Authors Guild sues Google over library project. [Online]. Available WWW:

O'Reilly, T. (2005) Search and Rescue. [Online]. Available WWW:

Scalzi, J. (2005) Google Books. [Online]. Available WWW:

Webb, C. (2004) Google Books It To the Finish Line. In Washington Post, 08/10/2004. [Online]. Available WWW:

Words, but not translators

Not surprisingly, our team has been eyeing this from the moment of its inception. Not any longer.

We have slowly come to the conclusion that the project, as many other projects done with petro-dollars and in petro-culture, is overfunded and totally disorganized. The CEO is a sleek, young Egyptian. The money is Al Nahiyan's. One of my German friends asked me "Is this some kind of PR exercise to make us europeans feel that the ME is after all not backward and does have an intellectual side other than finding 1001 means of killing each other?".

If it is a PR stunt, then it is rather useless because making translated works available does not mean that they will be read. A far better PR stunt, and one that would have longterm positive consequences, is to have programs in place which encourage kids in the ME to read. The reading should be encouraged with appropriate incentives. This would at least create a generation of readers and thinkers.

Even if we do not mention the fact that Talal Assad and George Saliba wrote their originals in Arabic, some of the books on the Kalima list have been translated in Lebanon and Cairo many years ago (granted, before copyright law, but why not just purchase the copyright, then?) and almost ALL of them are of zilch interest to the Arab reader. Missing big time are books by women writers of Arab origins who wrote in languages other than Arabic - such as Ahdaf Suweif or Fadia Faqir, not to mention Mernissi, Yvonne Haddad, or Sabbagh. Actually, I can't see a single female writer on the list!! Missing also are vital books on Arabic culture/history etc. by such prominent writers as Ira Lapidus, Keppel, Fisk, Esposito, Tariq Ali, Zia Sardar, or even Tariq Ramadan. Missing also, very clearly, are any books on non-Arab, or non-Muslim, minorities in the ME: the Kurds, the Christians, and of course the Arab Jews.

When we look at the proposed titles, one can only marvel at the number of copies of Umberto Eco's The Sign that will sell in Arabic. It is a history of semiotics, very old by the standards of this fast-advancing world (1971) - that is Eco minus 36 years of knowledge, so why not translate his newer books on semiotics? Why not translate something more accessible to the masses? Who is this aimed at? Not me, who will read the English version. The same applies to such specialized titles as "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat" which is hellishly difficult to read unless you have a postgrad in physics, or SJ Gould's "Punctuated Equilibrium" out of the 20 very readable and delightful books he wrote, but which will not be translated because the guy is poetically Darwinian. Amazingly too, there are no books by Paul Davis - do I need to explain why :-D ? To make things even more obscure, in the same year Kalima will translate two books on Quantum Mechanics, one by Dirac and one by Heisenberg - is that because Quantum Mechanics is going to solve the problems of the Middle East, or because most of the guys that join Al-Qaeda are graduates of exact sciences, and we need to educate them more???

Then there is the first batch of "classics" - my God, I read the Aneid in Arabic in the 70s!! So why not translate, say, the history of Flavius Josephus? Why not Rabelais? Why not Augustine, or John Chrysostom? Because they are Christian Fathers? Well, then there is not need to translate Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" either. Or is Harold going to be censored? It would be interesting, as I have the book in original English, and guess what - he makes no mention of the debt owned by Europe to the Arab/Jewish centers of learning in Spain.

And what about censorship? As a Syrian colleague of mine wrote, "If our Mufti says that such and such book is Haram, and reading it is Kufr, how many people will actually be motivated to read it? And how many teachers will even dare to ask why is it Haram, how did it insult our religion? How many teachers will inspire their students to read and find out why? None I daresay. Most of us have been conditioned into fear and obedience; we do not even dare to question authority. Like many other people, I see that the emperor has no clothes, yet when I go home I toe the party line, and shrug my shoulders. Why shock the rest of these people when they are secure in their ignorance? I have no similar security to give them in return, once you start questioning, it does not end. You cannot go back to the comfortable cushion of blind conviction."

The fact is, as a 70-year old colleague from Egypt wrote is that there was a flurry of great translations in the 1960s in Cairo and Beirut, and as time passed by they diminished and were swept aside by an incredible amount of radical, unlearned and fundamentally unenlightened writing spawned by what another Egyptian translator called "The Imam who used to be a plumber in Saudi Arabia". Precisely the guys who are giving Arab culture a bad name (and breath). This led in turn to the atrophy of vocabulary in Arabic in humanities and social sciences, as well as more advanced natural sciences such as genetics, biotechnology, etc.

But there is blame on the West as well, who has been studiously refusing to translate the real thinkers of the Arab world, such as Hussain Murwah, Salama Musa, Dr. Louis Awad, and many others. Instead, it translate post-modernist drivel in literature or books that affirm its orientalist vision of the Arab as the "Other From Behind the Camel". Understanding goes both ways, mates.

So I came up with a few titles each that we would like to see translated, dividing them by subject like the Kalima list. Writing (and translating) are highly subversive activities, and I am highly subversive.. both the list of Kalima and mine can be obtained on request. Maybe some far-seeing politician (is there such a thing?)somewhere in the US or UK will be willing to sponsor a venture? Kalima refuses to engage translators and want to work through publishing houses - obviously they will be paid peanuts and so get monkeys to do the job. Good luck, ugh, ugh, ugh, Tarzan.

Culturally Inept Business Cards

I don't mean to be unkind, but I have just finished checking business cards for a few people working at a local government department who would not listen to common sense. So they had the phone numbers left in Arabic script (which is the script we use in the West, just to make things more confusing) instead of having them transliterated into Hindi numerals, while translating their addresses into Arabic.

I assume that the Arab clients who will want to do business with them by mail will write the address on the envelope in Arabic, and our posties - who speak Aussie, not even English - will be able to decipher the squiggles and deliver them to the nominated offices.

Where does my state government get their cultural consultants from? I'll tell you: Hon. Minister is going on a trip to petro-country, and needs to have his cards translated. He asks around what language the "petro-countrymen" use and is told by a blondie secretary who Googles it that it is "Arabian" (we had someone assure us that Yugoslavs speak Yugoslavian, so what the heck). So he tells her to find an Arabian agency whatever to do it. "Do it" not "translate it", mind you. She phones down the ladder until the buck stops at the new recruit straight out of the mind-boggling achievement of having passed Year 12 plus the Public Service Test (i.e. she/he knows who Brad Pitt is), who grabs the yellow pages, phones around with the question "Can you do our Business Cards into Arabian?" and finally lands an agency.

The agent, a bit more knowledgeable but not "Arabian" speaking, gets the cards and finds a translator. The job gets done properly, with addresses left in English. Then the cards get sent to the department's "cultural consultant" - a "new Aussie" from back home who, since he is working for the public service, must be on the lower rungs of IQ, otherwise he would be managing his own business (like me). The question posed to him is "Has everything been translated?" Of course not, and being given the BIG job of holding a red pen, he promptly rewrites the address in Arabic, not thinking why it is there in English in the first place. Not to be outdone, the Minister's secretary who needs to boost her ego gives one cursory look at the card and unable to understand ANYTHING says, "Geez, where are the phone numbers? Leave them in English so we know how to ring them over there.." or something that is meant to be as witty.

Back to the agent, back to the translator, who explains why the address needs to be in English. But to no avail. The agent who explains it back to the Blondie has an accent and she is accent-deaf with the attitude of "whatever".

And we end up with the bewildered postie stamping "Address illegible" on some important documents which are probably worth a few million petro-dollars.


The Book To Bind Them All


Gouadec, D. (2007) Translation As a Profession. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

If I had enough money to buy just a single volume of translation related material, I would gladly spend it on Gouadec’s book and never look back, despite the exorbitant price (US$149, plus postage). I would also probably rarely lift my eye off it, as the book is not only the most comprehensive but also extremely readable to both the newcomer and the veteran to our profession.

I remember sighing in exasperation when I first came across the book. Over the past seven years I have seen all kinds of “books” purporting to be fonts of advice on how to start, and which usually leave me severely disappointment. Most are written by well-meaning freelancers and cover such ultra-essential issues as the need to have a fax, and the fact that there are many types of translation software but – wink, wink – we human translators can do it better so will live happily ever after. What tempted me to pick up Gouadec’s book was the fact that it was a Benjamins’ Translation Library publication, and they mostly publish excellent stuff. Besides, the book was bulky (over 300 pages) so one could assume the writer had something substantial to say. One can’t waffle about ergonomics and carpal tunnel syndrome over 300 pages, can one?

Besides, Gouadec is not just any run-of-the-mill freelancer. He created and currently directs the translator-training institute at the University of Rennes. His thesis was on training translators. In between teaching and research, he managed to produce ten books and dozens of articles and presentations, as well as developing websites on terminography, translation quality, and the professional aspects of being a translator. His current research deals with models of quality of translation service provision. I was suitably awed.

I was also impressed by the range of information the book covers. The book covers past, present and future – it starts with an extensive grounding in what translation is and what are the main categories, followed by a very well written exposition of the whole translation process. Not much theoretical pie-in-the-sky here, but the hands on, down to earth practical advice of how to find work, deciding on requirements, preparation, planning process, and organizing the job, translating it, quality controls implementation (corrections, revisions and editing), all the way to follow-up. In short, as beneficial to the soul and nourishing to the mind as one of Anthony Pym’s lectures.

The writer next moves to defining the profession – mostly female, specializing in subject and language pairs, and rapidly adapting to the technological changes, working in such a variety of positions that Gouadec speaks of “many professions” not just the “translating profession”. He even has a category of “outlaws”: those doing it for “black money” without qualifications, without professionalism, and definitely unethically. Agencies modus operandi is described with the proviso that the market demands are changing the contours of the lines dividing the various categories. These market demands are addressed in a separate section.

After having blessed us with a taxonomy, Gouadec next poses the rhetorical question: “Does the reader, having gone so far, still want to be this species, or have they developed cold feet?” If they have persevered (or worse, belong to the species already), they can jump to the next chapter, the one written for the wannabes, the strugglers, the wanderers and – as the For Dummies series so often remind us – “the rest of us”. Except that this is not a book for dummies, and the writer takes the whole process very seriously and practically: should you specialize? In what? Where do you find clients, and how do you hold on to them? What about rates, invoicing and growing your business? I have to admit that this is the first writer in the field who advises, very early on in his book, all translators to go and do accounting, marketing and management courses if they want to succeed. He even has a section on managing during the “famine” periods, not to mention a whole chapter on buying products, dealing with partners – other translators, agencies, direct clients, your lawyer, accountant and IT specialist.. in short, everyone except, maybe, the tea lady.

I hold it against the book that professional ethics comes as Chapter 10, not 2 or 3 – but I have always preached that if one has to wait for a professional association to teach one ethical behaviour, then it is too late already anyway. It is still good to see that, as quite a few of the other “How to become a God-knows-what” publications that gather dust on my shelves address neither ethics nor cooperation, and both are in my opinion quintessential to success. Next to ethics, Gouadec tackles standards (the ISO variety), qualification, recognition and – oh, my – regulating access to the profession, not because it would solve the problem of shoddy work, but because the “regulated” translators would be obliged to pay taxes. He does say that the title “professional” given to those who have a university degree or enough experience to merit it still depends on translators feeling that such title is important enough to merit them not doing shoddy work. A bit circular, that, and highly subjective.

Chapters 13 to 16 deal extensively with all these new, wonderful – and scary – aspects of the information revolution and globalization that affect us as translators: the internet, the incessant software upgrades, globalization of the market, international competition, inflation and recession, and all the rest. It makes one seriously nostalgic for the quill and parchment era, devoid of copyrights and limited to Latin. And this of course leads, invariably, to the coming generation of translators and how, precisely, they should be trained.

And for those into futurology, there is an Epilogue about what the future (might) hold for us. And it is not good news, not for the freelancers. But I am not into spoiling the movie, so there – you go and read. Not all is lost (yet!).

The book should be compulsory reading for any translation course worth its value (not much in it for interpreters, unfortunately) . And the rest of us, of course. Gouadec has converted me and I will be using what I have learned from him not just to improve my own performance, but in my workshops as well.