Finally, a Vacation

I began packing three days before departure. Contrary to what I’ve heard most people say, I actually love packing. I derive great pleasure from choosing and discarding items, deciding between the absolutely necessary, the preferred and the downright whimsical choices.

Choosing my reading material for the airplane fills me with as much, if not more delight, as choosing my clothes. So many possibilities, and several hours stuck in an an airplane with nowhere to go and, with the barebones way airlines operate nowadays (no movie or TV), hardly any distractions in sight.

The day before departure, I finished packing my suitcase, much pleased with the result. On a last minute reading-binge, I stuffed it with a good backlog of magazines I subscribe to and have hardly any time to read and comic books that I thought would make my flights more bearable if I were to get sick of the current read in my Kindle.

In any case, nothing was going to stop me from enjoying this trip. Beyond resting, spending time with my family and friends back home and catching up on my reading, though, I had set myself the goal of not doing any work at all. I had worked very hard during the days prior to my departure to make sure I would have nothing due to interrupt my vacation flow. I set up my Gmail account with an “Out of Virtual Office Message” that I hoped would be enough to keep any bold PM’s at bay.

The day of the trip, I jumped out of bed at 4:30 am when my alarm rang, got dressed, finished packing and called a cab. It was terribly cold and eery out there, and the streets lit by orange lamps looked familiar but in an odd way stripped of their usual clusters of people as they were. I’d hoped the airport would be equally empty, but when I got there I realized half of San Francisco had had the same idea as me. I checked my bag and made my way through security at a snail’s pace, and when I began to worry that I might miss my flight (a thought that always occurs to me when stuck in that line ready to take my shoes off and spring on those gray bins as soon as the guard checks my identity), I diligently shoved the thought away. I was intent on not letting anything get through my armor of contentment. I was ready to unashamedly gorge on pure vacation joy and nobody would stop me, not even the three layovers ahead of me on my way to my first destination in Alabama.

The first flight, tiny and cramped to the city of Las Vegas was uneventful. The second flight, to Dallas, I had the pleasure of meeting a comedian trying to make it in L.A. who told me all about his career, how he decided to pursue it and what the stand-up comedy business is like (all about networking, sound familiar?).

Finally I arrived in Birmingham. I was to meet a friend there two days later, so I would spend those two nights at a motel, and take advantage of the opportunity to look around. I did not have high expectations, but thought I would keep an open mind.  I’d go to the Civil Rights Museum, spend some time in town, and maybe I’d be surprised. Unfortunately, there were other things in store for me: when I got there, I found out my suitcase had not made it all the way. Dismay is not a strong enough word to describe what I felt. Despair would be more like it. My commitment to enjoyment and tranquility went straight to hell, as I reached my airline counter and found out there was no one there. I waited and railed and complained to the heavens (out loud), until someone finally deigned show his face. When I explained what had happened, the nonplussed gentleman directed me elsewhere, where another nun-plussed, seemingly uncaring lady put in the report.

I took a cab to the airport, with a Jordanian cabbie to whom I threw a couple of phrases in Arabic. “This is very polite conversation”, he said, sounding amused. I told him it was my first time visiting Alabama. He assured me it was a very beautiful place. Sadly, I would not see much of it. My Rodeway Inn room was ok, but offered little comfort and not much of a view: an empty pool that seemed to have been repurposed as a storage area, a gas station, a fast food restaurant.

As I had started feeling sick and needed to wait for my suitcase, of which there was no news, I stayed in the motel the entire day, mostly sleeping, reading from my Kindle and checking for any status updates about my suitcase from my phone. My situation could not be more pathetic: I had left my computer charger in my suitcase. My heart sank to my stomach as I saw work-related emails piling up, some of them asking me to respond urgently. I had visions of my missing suitcase lost in space, as I tried to convince myself that it would be okay.

Deliverance finally came, and my suitcase arrived at 1 a.m. the next day. I answered the urgent emails, delivered what work I could and, making a steadfast resolution not to work again until after Christmas, I closed down my computer and disappeared into the woods of Alabama. Once there, it was utter bliss. My phone had no signal there. I decided to do nothing at all but spend time with my friend and catch up. When the time came for my next trip, I was perfectly rested and replenished. On Christmas Eve, I took off for Puerto Rico, where a traditional Christmas dinner awaited me.

The trip was even more delightful than I’d planned for it to be. Even though I did do some work (it is almost impossible for a freelance translator not to have to do something), I was able to rest, sleep in every day, enjoy the sunlight and gorge on happiness and peace of mind. I have many projects and goals for 2013, and the energy will be much needed.

Happy 2013!

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A Week in Links – 12/17 – 12/21, 2012

1. New age pundits have inundated our brainwaves for decades with countless nuggets of wisdom for better living. It is difficult to trace the origins of such euphoria for self-help tidbits and methods to achieve happiness, success and good fortune, but one of its precursors may well have been Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Now psychologists are beginning to realize that positive thinking may not be that positive after all, causing people to set themselves up for disappointment when things just don’t work out the way they wanted.

>>The Wall Street Journal – The Power of Negative Thinking

2. Leave. That’s the message this Spanish blogger has for his compatriots. If you’re so tired of Spain and the situation there, just leave. No money for airfare? He’ll buy you the ticket. On December 25th, he will announce the “winner” of this unconventional campaign. Contrary to what one might think, people have responded very positively, and there have been more offers for help (an iPad, accommodations, among other gifts) than actual applicants.

>>Vete. Yo te pago el billete.

3. What’s the easiest way to stop others from expressing their beliefs? It as well be talking, over them, non-stop. The art of obstruction has been developed especially in the U.S. Senate, where senators have occupied the floor for up to 24 hours in order to block unwanted bills from passing.

>>BBC Mundo – El arte de la obstrucción o cómo hablar 24 horas sin parar 

4. Newark, NJ major Corey Booker has spent an entire week living off of food stamps, as part of a Food Stamps Challenge he decided to record in order to show what it’s like to depend on this government benefit to eat, i.e., not the walk in the park many people imagine it to be.

>> Linked In – A Movement Towards Food Justice

5. Victoria Soto’s story has already travelled across the nation and probably farther beyond. She is now known as the heroine who gave her life for her students. She had hidden her kids in a closet, and when the Sandy Hooks shooter came looking for them, she told him they were in the gym. Not convinced, he opened fire on the closet, while Victoria threw herself in front of the rain of bullets to block them from reaching her kids.

>>Voxxi – Victoria Soto: The Heroine of Sandy Hook

A Week in Links: 12/10-12/15, 2012

1. It may rarely happen that the translation surpasses its original. It may be even rarer still that the original author himself would admit to this. This is the case of Gabriel García Márquez, who probably afflicted by a case of excessive modesty has declared Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude much better than the original.

Diario Kafka – One Hundred Years of Solitude

2. Videogames, shunned by many as the cause of juvenile violence and attention deficit disorders the world over, have undeniably become the new form of artistic expression and storytelling. Most works celebrating and studying this new art form have been relegated to the English language. However, a new publication by Errata Naturae, a Spanish publisher, seeks to celebrate the games that revolutionized the medium.

Público.es – 10 videojuegos revolucionarios

3. And talking about multitasking and the ability to focus (see featured article this week), it would seem the inhabitants of the overpopulated city of Sao Paulo have become victims of a new scourge: helicopters overflying the city at all hours of the day, as millionaires and celebrities seek to avoid the infernal traffic by using helicopters as a mode of transportation.

BBC Mundo – ¿Pesadilla o solución?: el traca-tá de helicópteros en Sao Paulo

4. When tragedy strikes there is never a lack of helping hands. Unfortunately, opportunists also abound. This blog post examines images that have circulated the internet in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, their origin and import on our minds.

Archaeology and Material Culture – “Hurricane Porn”?: The Aesthetics of Authenticity and Nature’s Wrath

5. The recent announcement that Twinkies would disappear from U.S. convenience stores, supermarkets and gas stations has caused consternation among a population nostalgic for the days when they could both lambast and praise this quintessential junk food item. This blog post celebrates the now by-gone days of Twinkiedom.

-roach life – Goodbye, Twinkie the Kid

The Traps of Multitasking

Injury Prevention, a Seattle journal, recently published the results of a study regarding the habits of pedestrians while crossing the street. The study found unsurprisingly that people who text while crossing the street are four times more likely to ignore traffic signals.

While I do confess to the impertinent habit of texting or checking my phone while otherwise engaged, I always tell myself I am not like all those other people texting frivolously, this message actually is important (it isn’t, at least not so much that it can’t wait the five seconds it will take me to make it to the other side safely), and then I make a mental note not to allow myself to do it again. Of course, I always do it again.

Almost as importantly as the findings of this study with “1,000 real-time pedestrians” is the answer to the question: why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way over such an insignificant thing as searching for the next track or sending a confirmation message? The researchers in the study tell us that people think they are able to multitask and be completely aware of their surroundings, which is not necessarily true.

It would seem that our ability to focus on only one thing has steadily decreased with the rise of new technologies that allow us to disconnect at a moment’s notice when the present is not particularly pleasant or interesting. Stuck in a line at the post office, I sigh and immediately grab for my phone, where my favorite music is stored. Standing in a full train with no seats available, I will desperately hold on to dear life with only one hand while refusing to let go of the phone in my hand, where I’m reading a juicy article to make the trip seem shorter.

In part this has to do with keeping ourselves entertained, but I believe that is overly simplistic. What it also has to do with is the pace at which information flies nowadays. While we are out here in the real world crossing streets and standing on trains, data is flying back and forth on the internet at almost the speed of light. The idea that there are things happening elsewhere and we are missing out on them can be anxiety-provoking. And so the need to be connected is not so much anymore about staying in contact with friends. Connection means also being plugged into that world of information, being first in knowing, participating, not being left behind.

The confidence in our ability to multitask is difficult to dispel. The allures of simultaneously working towards checking things off our to-do list is too tempting to put aside for concerns such as quality or even personal safety. And it ultimately may have something to do with the way we work.

While this is true for many professions nowadays, translators and interpreters are particularly prone to the multitasking malady. After all, the ability to switch quickly from one task to the next is a requirement of interpretation, as is our capacity to be aware of our surroundings while doing something else. Interpreters must be able to listen as they talk, but aural cues do not tell the whole story, as we also rely on visual cues, such as body language, Powerpoint presentations, and glossary lists to do our jobs. Translators must often “interrupt” their work to research a term, and this research might turn into spending up to an hour reading an article on a particular topic. As most translators are business managers as well, we must be willing to answer calls and emails whenever they come. Interruptions and distractions are the stuff of our work, and we become so accustomed to them that we lose the ability to turn ourselves off.

In this, the only thing that can save us from getting run over on the street or losing ourselves in a downward spiral of work-caffeine-distractions-more work-more caffeine is an active conscious effort to remind ourselves that we mustn’t get sidetracked, that the email hanging on the inbox can wait and the text message on the phone will not suddenly disappear. It can all wait. Your sanity and your safety are more important than responding quickly.

A Week in Links (12/1-12/7, 2012)

1. This week was the Doha Climate Change Conference in Qatar, just as a typhoon ravaged the Phillipines and only weeks after hurricane Sandy wrought havoc in a region of the United States where hurricanes did not use to be a thing. As politicians sit and talk and talk, agreeing only to the fact that perhaps, yes, something must be done, but not right now, several manifestations have been going outside in both Qatar and the rest of the world. One particularly moving protest has the international executive director of Greenpace, Kumi Naidoo, directing a chant with a chorus of followers.

>>Kumi Naidoo: “If not now, then when”

2. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a team of researchers at Stanford University is pondering the answer to the question: is there such a thing as a California accent? Their hope is to find and describe the Californian dialect, beyond gimmicky impersonations of San Fernando Valley girls or surfer dudes.

>>Help us: What does a California accent sound like?

3. Talking about pondering difficult questions: will Puerto Rico ever achieve statehood, or will it become independent, or worse yet, will it remain in its current political limbo? An attempt at a solution took place in these past elections, an event overshadowed by the bigger game taking place up north. A referendum asking Puertorricans whether statehood was their goal in life ended up having mixed results because of the way the ballot was designed but, more importantly, due to the the US’ apparent lack of interest in Puertorrican affairs.

>>Will Puerto Rico be America’s 51st state? 

4. El Cantar del Mío Cid, as the Spanish language’s epic poem that serves as a symbolic marker of the birth of the Castilian language, is mandatory reading for teenagers and college students across Spanish-speaking countries. Passed down through oral tradition and written down around 800 years ago, it belongs to an age when killing as many Arabs as you could was a mark of heroism and men’s swords, which had proper names and are characters in the story, had hilts embedded with relics stolen from the bodies of saints. Interesting the younger generations in this epic of valor, kings and their vassals proves ever more challenging. Mr. Antonio Orejudo proposes a new way to study the classics: lose our fear of desecrating them and start playing with them.

>>El ‘Cantar del Mío Cid’ es un coñazo

5. There is a war happening in the world of computing. Four tech giants are likened to the four kingdoms in the popular novels and TV show A Game of Thrones in this entertaining article from The Economist about the war Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are currently locked into.

>>Another Game of Thrones

Translating Saramago

Saramago was one of those unlikely candidates to become a writer. Born in Azinhaga, a small Portuguese village, in 1922, he was raised by his poor grandparents. He went on to become one of the most influencing Portuguese language writers of the 20th century, finally earning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. The Portuguese government, as any government more interested in political posturing than in the development of culture is wont to do, opposed his Nobel Prize nomination on the basis of Saramago’s religious beliefs. Or perhaps non-religious would be more fitting: the man was a recalcitrant atheist to his very last day. His novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was banned in Portugal, and so Saramago went into self-imposed exile with only his wife, his convictions, and his stories.

Saramago’s story is indeed a fascinating and moving one, and his and Pilar’s are one of the most touching and cherished love stories in literature today. The close relationship they shared was extended to Saramago’s work itself, which was shared by both in the most intimate arrangement a spouse can have with her husband’s creations, short of co-writing them: the man would write in Portuguese on the first floor of their house, while Pilar sat upstairs translating his words into Spanish.

On August 13th, I had the opportunity of meeting the person who has brought much of this great writer’s work to the knowledge of English speakers. Margaret Jull Costa was invited by the Center for the Art of Translation to give a small presentation about her work translating Saramago into English. Reading her excerpts in a soft-voiced British accent, Mrs. Jull Costa described the challenges of rendering Saramago’s particular writing style into English, a language that we have been taught by the keepers of good style is intolerant of long sentences –a problem, as this is where Saramago’s vivid descriptions live. Yet there she stood, the English translator reading long sentences out loud that everybody could follow without a problem, and which never lost their consistency or beauty.

Margaret Jull Costa, English literary translator. Her work includes translations of works by Spanish writer Javier Marías and Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.

Mrs. Jull Costa also spoke of the other particularity of Saramago’s style; namely, the use of only full stops and commas as punctuation signs (all others are barred from his texts). This was dealt with in the simplest way possible: follow the original. Always follow the original: this convention of Saramago’s goes against convention even in the source language anyway, and it is an important element of the seemingly free-flowing Saramagian prose.

My favorite line of Mrs. Jull Costa was her reply to a question somebody asked about the difficulties in the original, and whether she sometimes used her knowledge of Spanish and French to deal with some concept in Portuguese. Mrs. Jull Costa brushed off the question as if the difficulties it assumed were not difficulties at all, and said: “I translate because I love writing in English and I love English.”  She went on to praise the vast and  varied English lexicon, a blessing for translators who need never be at a loss for words.

From All the Names

“One might ask why Senhor José needs a hundred-yard-long piece of string if the length of the Central Registry, despite successive extensions, is no more than eighty. That is the question of a person who imagines that one can do everything in life simply by following a straight line, that it is always possible to proceed form one place to another by the shortest route, perhaps some people in the outside world believe that they have done so, but here, where the living and the dead share the same space, sometimes in order to find one of them, you have to make a lot of twists and turns, you have to skirt round mountains of bundles, columns of files, piles of cards, thickets of ancient remains, you have to walk down dark gulleys, between walls of grubby paer which, up above actually touch, yards and yards of string will have to be unravelled, left behind, like a sinuous subtle trail traced in the dust, there is no other way of knowing where you have to go next, there is no other way of finding your way back… There is an enormous difference between visiting the archive of the dead in normal working hours, with the presence behind you of your colleagues, who, although not particularly supportive, as we have seen, would always come running if there were any real danger or if your nerve suddenly, irresistibly failed, especially if the Registrar said, Go and see what’s happened to him, between that and venturing alone, in the middle of a black night, into the heart of those catacombs of humanity, surrounded by names, hearing the whisper of the papers, or a murmur of voices, for those who have ears to hear.”

Talking About the Future of Interpreting: At the 3rd Annual Interpret America Summit

There is much that stands in the way of better pay and conditions for professional interpreters: a race to the bottom for prices (euphemistically called “competitiveness”), lack of any standard for qualification, and a misunderstanding of interpreting as a profession and a relative lack of recognition from the wider public. However, the lack of good pay and conditions or a standard for qualification are actually a result rampant ignorance about interpreting being an actual career that people devote their lives to, as opposed to just a hobby or volunteering job for people who are bilingual. Even though interpreters are not to blame for this situation, we are somewhat responsible for our image, if not by direct action, then at the very least by inaction.

This was a one of the biggest takeaways of the Third Annual Summit on Interpreting, held last weekend (June 15-16) in Monterey, California. After two days discussing the future of the profession, the major conclusion was that we interpreters need to do more for our profession, to engage in making it more visible and demanding better conditions and more respect.

The theme of the conference —Raising the profile of interpreting— resonated throughout the entire two days of discussion about the present and the future of the profession, and how we, interpreters, can and need to take part in what is happening today. There was a definite emphasis on technology, with the first panel focusing on interpreting technologies, mostly for remote interpreting. The technologies often involve what I can only describe as a CAT-like computer environment with buttons and screens. A member of the audience thankfully raised the concern that having to manage a virtual console might be too taxing on interpreters, who are already under a lot of pressure handling several reference documents, such as glossaries and Powerpoint presentations and actually ensuring communication between parties. Above all, the concern was that remote interpreter might limit communication between the interpreting team and that the interpreter might not be able to always see the speaker, something that is definitely a minus for any technology (including telephone interpreting). Technology is prone to failure, and while tech teams might be able to make do when everybody is physically present and come up with creative solutions when those pesky microphones or headphones just aren’t working, in the distance everything becomes incredibly more complicated to resolve. (I can only imagine a technician asking a frustrated interpreter whether they have pressed this or that button —“yes”—, and did they download that new plug-in that is required for version 10.X.2 of the software in question.) It seems that these technologies are still very much in development and that they have not been tested in much depth by actual interpreters, but it is definitely important for working interpreters to be aware that this is taking place and that, in these times of austerity and belt-tightening, many clients might prefer to save on travel and accommodations for interpreters.

By far, my favorite part of the summit were the work groups for shaping the future of interpretation. Each group would discuss one of five different topics: generalist interpreter certification, national consortium for interpreter trainers and educators, moving towards a working technology partnership for the interpreting profession, creating connections with end users of interpreting services and marketing the interpreting profession. As I am deeply interested in the topic of making interpreting (and really, translation as well, of course) known among the wider public, I joined the last group. We were given a two-hour bootcamp on marketing and then proceeded in the last hour to come up with ideas for a core message that we could base a marketing campaign on. The consensus? That the general public is not aware about the difference between a trained interpreter and a bilingual person, or that this is an actual profession, a career, and that it needs to be respected as such.

The second day brought us yet more interesting presentations. I must say that the one that most fueled my fire, so to speak, was the panel on interpreting in conflict zones. The speakers were two military interpreters, a US Army captain and Barbara Moser-Mercer, director of the interpreting department at the Faculté de traduction et d’interprétation, University of Geneva. During the panel, the soldier interpreters shared their experiences on the field and Prof. Moser-Mercer spoke about their interpreting and ethical training. Unfortunately, my biggest burning question was left unanswered: how do they deal with issues of impartiality and neutrality? The cornerstone of interpreter ethics is neutrality, not being on anybody’s side, but that definitely goes out the window for the most part in a situation where the interpreter is on the side of one of the parties involved.

The crowning moment of the entire summit, however, was definitely the final presentation by sign language interpreter Jack Jason, celebrity interpreter. He has accompanied actress Marlee Matlin throughout her career (see them in action in this interview), interpreting for her in front of the cameras and becoming a celebrity of sorts himself. In humorous detail —the audience was roaring with laughter—, he told the moving story of his life as a child of deaf parents (CODA, learning ASL as his first language, and how his mother sat him in front of the TV to watch I Love Lucy for hours every day so he would acquire spoken English.

As a first time-conference attendee, I had the opportunity to meet new people, learn something new and just plain satisfy my curiosity about what professional conferences are like. All in all, the summit was very well organized —thanks to the hard work and furious timekeeping of Barry Olsen and Catharine Allen, InterpretAmerica founders—, deeply enjoyable and more than anything, enlightening. Everybody was very approachable and understanding of younger interpreters trying to make it out in the field. Above all, it is a great way to join the conversation about interpreting. Indeed, one of the biggest takeaways of the conference was precisely the fact that we interpreters need to engage in this conversation, to participate in shaping the future of our profession before others shape it for us.