Oct 29, 2014

Translators Without Borders: some projects

As can be seen from some of the responses to the first blog post in this series, the response of some to a "need" is too often rooted in emotions which override logic and rational consideration. Something must be done! is a common refrain, and when questions are raised as to whether the actions taken are in fact correct and proper and serve their presumed objectives, the questioner may be surprised by the unhinged vitriol of some responses.

Nonetheless it is important in any relief efforts to consider not only how well the path to the goal is paved with good intentions but whether in fact the path gets to where it should. There is a long and unfortunate history, for example, of food aid to many parts of the world not only wasting resources in the logistics involved, but doing actual harm in the communities where there is an intent to serve. This is also a matter to be considered in "translation aid", particularly in cases where there is no immediate humanitarian disaster on the scope of a tsunami or hurricane where the overriding principle is clearly to move fast and furiously before the death toll rises quickly higher through inaction.

In the presentation about Translators Without Borders and other language service charities such as the Rosetta Foundation in Athens, insights were offered into a number of past and current projects and what clearly worked well and what was perhaps less successful or sensible. This is the sort of review which should take place anytime one considers how to get the most out of the time and resources available.

An example of a clear, best practice success was presented with the translation training center established in Nairobi, Kenya. Here, the objective was to establish local resources not only for volunteer work but to serve the ongoing commercial needs for translation in the local communities. The training was launched with one of the finest translation technology experts I have the privilege to know, (English to) Polish colleague Marek Pawelec using state of the art translation environment tools; the result has been a great number of people trained in modern approaches to translation and full time employment for a significant number of them. Unlike the sometimes questionable efforts for food aid in some parts of the African continent, I don't think there can be any rational objections to what was done here; on the contrary, it is a model to be repeated (without discounts).

An example of a project less well considered in some instances might be the Wikiproject Medicine, which was not actually (AFAIK) launched by Translators Without Borders but which is significantly supported by the organization.

My impression of this project is that it is unnecessarily obsessed with the silly symmetry of articles and languages in a matrix without really considering where the most critical needs may be. It wasn't clear in the presentation whether TWB was involved in recruitment and execution for the full matrix here, but I think it is safe to assume that the real impact in Sweden, with its reasonably functioning health care system, will probably not be worth the effort. The situation may of course be quite different in some other language like Pashto.

The Automated Community Content Editing Portal (ACCEPT) was given as an example on the far end of the spectrum.

Once again, this was a project not launched by TWB (or in this case, the sister organization, TSF) but where resources were provided. And here there was a clear, and to my mind ethically questionable, use of corporate materials in the training phase, with the translated texts benefiting a corporation represented on the TWB board. This is smoke - is there a fire?

In a world with so many needs, it's a rare organization that will get it right every time. But some limits should be clear enough to those with good ethical standards and common sense. And for those inevitable gray areas, well-considered codes of ethics and other guidelines can be helpful. These should be subject to honest, critical review on an ongoing basis so that the worthy objective of helping those truly in need can be met effectively.

Oct 25, 2014

Translators Without Borders: cui bono?

For years I have felt growing unease at the calls for translators to donate their services to "good" causes like Translators Without Borders. It's not that I'm opposed to pro bono work; I have engaged in it often enough myself over the years in translation and other professions. But with the exception of sustainable projects like the development of sustainable translation capacities for the Maa language in Kenya, with technology support provided by Kilgray and instruction time donated by colleague Marel Pawelec, I have not found the appeals particularly convincing.

It was at the IAPTI 2014 conference in Athens that I heard the concerns I had been able to articulate presented in another's convincing words, with many more ethical issues to consider. About halfway through Attila Piroth's talk, the slide above summarized the greatest of my misgivings in a rather humorous way. My first reaction to the "new Board" for "Report Without Borders" was rib-breaking laughter and no f-ing way! But really, does the composition of those calling the shots at Translators Without Borders look much better?

Not really. We have the Silvio Berlusconi of translation and a host of others representing companies with significant interests in the commoditization and sometimes hampsterization of the translation profession and markets encouraging their service providers to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts. As the presenter expressed it, large buyers of bulk market translation, some of the largest translation companies, agenda-setters for the bulk market and providers of related services. What's wrong with that?

Climate change affects not only our planet but the character of charity in its landscapes. In the territory of traditional charities, material profit motives are considered not to be part of the works and the charitable acts typically involve either in-the-moment services or goods to address immediate needs or fixed-long term assets usually managed under strict guidelines and localized in communities. Examples of the former are food, medicines and medical care, the latter might be hospitals, schools, clean wells or power facilities. Transparency in many cases serves to encourage donors with the expectation that the gifts will be used for good, non-profit purposes.

With translation, the picture is a little different. The work donated to TwB not only covers short-term needs and frees up funds to pay for administration, information technology services and other more professional, compensation-worthy needs, it comprises long-term intangible (language) assets which are not localized to the charity recipients but which can be stored, replicated and perhaps transferred to commercial applications by its curators, those who control the organization. There is no special legal regime to regulate the use of such assets; translation work which is given today in good faith for disaster relief might tomorrow find its way into the resources for paid pharmaceutical projects ordered from one of the large companies represented on the TwB boards.

In a series of posts to follow, I'll examine some of the issues and ethical questions raised this year in Athens with regard to Translators Without Borders, so you can decide for yourselves cui bono?


The second post in this series is here.

Oct 20, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day seven: free will

The choice of subject for the last post reflecting on things for which I am grateful was delayed by what my German friends sometimes call die Qual der Wahl, the agony of choice. As I grumble my way through the daily routine, feel the sore muscles from last Saturday's hunt with the dogs in the mountainous terrain of an enormous Eucalyptus forest plantation and the mild indigestion burn from one too many spicy calzones for lunch I am not particularly conscious of gratitude. What I do notice, however, is a relaxed optimism about a very unknown future in a country and a culture that will take me several decades at least to understand in the depth I wish to. There are days when the decision to leave Germany might seem as daft as some of my German friends considered it, particularly on days when I have to have anything to do with monolingual medical office personnel in Évora, who do not understand that faster repetition of what I did not understand the first time will not lead to quicker understanding. There are more than a few things missing in my present life, which I used to take for granted; sometimes hot water for washing and fire for cooking are among them when I fail to understand the trick for connecting a new tank of butane to supply my water heater and stove. But although friends in the UK and elsewhere have often expressed great admiration for the quality of public utilities, water pressure and bathroom fixtures in Germany, I find less satisfaction in these than in the feeling that I am among reasonable people of good will who treat others with good, basic respect. If the state of household technology is sometimes not much above that of a primitive campsite, at least I am camping with people I would be pleased to call friends.

Coming to Portugal was a choice. A good one I think; many of the choices in my life have certainly been less good or at least less satisfying, but they were mine to make, and I am grateful for the control over my own life which enables me to make a very wide range of choices and act on them. One of the greatest difficulties I have with German, Germany and German cultures comes down to a single word: muß. Or "muss" after the not-so-new spelling reform. Must. Some days it seems to be part of every spoken sentence in that language. When I used to hear that word too much, sometimes I would reply acidly that to live I must breathe, eat and drink, and some day I must die. Everything else is optional. Until they go abroad for a while or make the acquaintance of many people from other cultures, a great number of Germans seemed to feel that there was really only one way to do anything. Former neighbors of mine in rural Brandenburg certainly felt that way about feeding chickens, a task which must occur on a regular schedule at specific times of the day and always include boiled potatoes. Without those potatoes the best quality poultry feed will fail to meet a chicken's fundamental nutritional requirements.

I think it's a sad life for those who feel their choices are determined by others. Made with the finest cloth and decorated with masterful embroidery, a straightjacket is still an article of clothing of no good use to one wearing it with a healthy mind. The sick, crazy ones may indeed derive benefits from the straightjacket of social or political convention, but I prefer to let my own free will make the final decision after evaluating the consequences of action by my own standards.

Even in risk-averse cultures like that found in Germany, there is some acknowledgement that success often has many failures as its prerequisite, and many failures - or success - require many choices.

I am also grateful to have lived my life in political environments where the consequence of my choices are generally less critical than they might be more repressive, less stable parts of the world. But in these places the ones who often sacrifice themselves for things that I and my readers take for granted probably have a deeper understanding of why the exercise and defense of their rights of free choice are so important, perhaps more important than their lives.

As a freelance translator I have opportunities to exercise my free will with great scope in business, market my services or not and pursue my own visions of service and quality. And when the nattering nabobs of false positivism tell me I should be grateful for the chance to use Vaseline in my business relations with Linguistic Sausage Producers (LSPs), I gratefully exercise my free will and ignore this stupid advice and choose to associate myself with other service providers instead. You can choose to do the same, and I hope you do.

This is the last day of my written reflections of gratitude for the many blessings in a sometimes subjectively difficult life. I am grateful to my friend Teresa, a young veterinary behaviorist and fellow dog trainer, for the challenge to take the time to think in a more structured way about what constitutes the real wealth in my life. In the time I have lived in Portugal, becoming ever less a stranger in a strange land and more one discovering a heart's home, she and other friends have provided many occasions for such reflection. And in a poor region of the country, in an economically distressed city where I have often seen people dumpster diving for food or making complex life compromises to survive, much less thrive, I am often comforted by observing how Portuguese people respect their rights of choice and choose to live.

So on this seventh and last day of gratitude I choose to express mine for free will. Because I can.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands