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 in Athens about Translators Without Borders and other language service charities such as the Rosetta Foundation, 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.


The first part of this series, which raises questions of possible conflicts of interest, is here.

The third post in the series, with details of the ACCEPT project, is here.

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.

The third post in the series, with details of the ACCEPT project, 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

Oct 17, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day six: hands

By Sardaka (talk) 09:54, 10 September 2008 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aboriginal hand stencils in Red Hands Cave, Australia
The sixth day post in this series was delayed by a day as my attention was absorbed by medical tests of the nerve responses in my hands. Many translators have chronic issues with strain injuries in their hands; although I complain a lot about mine, they do not even approach the misery of experience for some colleagues I know. I also cannot say that my hand troubles are due to my work as a translator, because they predate my current choice of profession by many years.

I take too many things for granted, things that seem small, not so important, until something goes wrong with them. I never gave my left thumb much thought until I cut it off one day when a donkey nudged my shoulder to remind me that she wanted some of the zucchini I was free-hand slicing for my sheep. After it was sewn back on I remember needing assistance buttoning my shirt and performing other minor tasks, but as the nerves slowly regrew in the years after and the numb sensation subsided into something approaching normality I forgot the experience.

My health classes in school covered a lot of subjects, among them the need for exercise, good nutrition (the definition of which keeps changing, but an experiment with rats in the sixth grade showed me clearly that man should not live by cornflakes alone), how metabolism works and how not to get syphilis, but I don't remember any discussion of occupational health and the need to protect our bodies from the consequences of work. Later safety instruction in the laboratories where I studied and worked emphasized short-term protection against accidents, such as chemical spills, sprays and gas releases, but ergonomics were never really a topic. I hope that has changed now.

As readers of this blog know, I have many disagreements with the promoters of machine pseudo-translation and especially with those pushing HAMPsTr processes. Aside from the fact that I cannot abide profiteering liars who overpromise and underdeliver with a technology that will never live up to its sales pitch except on the broken backs of the disposable human labor assigned to cover up the inadequacy of six- or seven-figure engineering investments, I am mostly concerned with the physical and psychological consequences of disastrous work ergonomics in the post-editing of machine pseudo-translation. Time and again I have presented data to show how dictation processes routinely far exceed the best productivity currently claimed for trained post-editors on optimized machine pseudo-translation systems. Some MpT researchers like John Moran are aware of these productivity issues and helpfully point out that there are ways in which these different technologies can be usefully brought together (by the use of speech recognition to reduce strain injuries for keyboard-using post-editors, for example), but so far I see little willingness on the part of capital investors to invest in human health protection as long as custom and the law allow cheap laboring humans to be tossed like coal and wood scrap into the furnaces that fire their profit engines.

I feel a little sick sometimes when I read discussions of speech recognition for translation which emphasize possibly greater speed of production. I've started a few of these, and my little video demos on YouTube which show some rather impressive translating throughput in three-minute tests certainly promote that topic of discussion. But the best value in this alternative or complementary technology to the keyboard is the potential for improved digital health... the "digital" in this case referring to the digits on one's hands.

When that digital health is degraded to the point that holding a small dictaphone up to catch some important words from a conference speaker becomes unbearably painful after a few minutes, it is easy to focus on the disability and the disadvantages of it. These can be fixed or not, by therapy, surgery or perhaps even time. But what I cannot forget is how lucky I am to have these numbed hands, and while they do not always do my bidding, they do enough. I have met people who have lost their hands or parts of them in accidents or have been born without them, and while I would of course adjust to the loss of mine, I am grateful that this is not my present need.

When I was 15 I had an experience that I remember often when facing some incapacity. I lost my sight. For a week I was blinded after an accident with a hot nitrating mixture in the lab ate my face and sealed my eyes in the swelling of burns. I accepted quickly that my sight was lost, there was nothing to be done about it after the 3:1 concentrated sulfuric and nitric acid mix did its work. I sat in bed for most of the Easter holiday, listening to the television and wondering how I would go about learning to read Braille. Somewhat uncharacteristically, I wasn't thinking all that much about what had been lost, but when, after a week, the seal on one eye dissolved, fluid ran down my face and I saw light - just a little and nothing in focus, I felt a gratitude that I will never forget for that gift of limited sight.

And so, whether they serve me well or with difficulty, I am grateful for my hands, which serve me well enough and which I hope will always have enough strength and dexterity to serve others in some useful way.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 15, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day five: dissidents

The recording of Glenn Greenwald's TED talk is about one of the most important issues of our day: privacy. That some fail to acknowledge this as a problem in today's society is an indication of how much the assault on privacy and the erosion of social norms has made the abnormal state of things seem acceptable to many, though as Glenn points out, the actions of privacy deniers stand in stark contrast to their words. Many people, translators among them, have been victims of identity theft (I have been myself at least twice that I am aware of), and this problem, too, is intimately linked to modern problems of privacy.

So when an individual stands up to the surveillance state and lays bare its lies about the extreme degree top which the modern infrastructure of our networked society has destroyed our privacy, requiring from us what some would consider extreme measures to hold any part of it out of the jaws of ravenous government "curiosity" and commercial advertising greed, one might think that some would be grateful for that individual's actions, which might involve no little personal risk. Some call Snowden a hero, as I do; some are less generous in their assessment. But I am grateful that he took a stand and upended his life in dissent against a government gone far out of control, reaching far, far beyond its legal powers simply because it can.

This morning I read about students missing in protests in Mexico; apparently their bodies were not in mass graves which were discovered. This time. But this reminded me of students and other people butchered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and others shot years before at Kent State University in Ohio in the USA and others in so many other places. What would our world be like if nobody had the courage to take a stand and risk everything for something of which the majority might even disapprove?

As a child, I listened to a neighbor describe the wars (the best word I can think of for the conflicts) which accompanied the unionization of coal mines in the part of the US Midwest where he had spent his youth. And when I asked my grandfather about the crazy tale of the Bonus Army I heard on the radio one evening, taking it for some sort of fiction because I had never heard of the protest and the massacre in my history courses in school or college, he confirmed that it was all real and related his experience in the army of that time and the contempt he had for MacArthur and Eisenhower for their part in suppressing the protesting families.

Confrontation between Bonus Army protesters and police in Washington D.C.
History is full of examples of individuals and groups who have expressed their dissent in many ways, sometimes with success, sometimes ending in disaster, with few sure predictors of the outcome being clear in the early days. I cannot call all forms of dissent good and I struggle to find legitimacy in any form which advocates violence. I am particularly grateful for the many examples of courage under duress by those who choose non-violent forms of dissent. These are, in my opinion, one of the bet health checks on the political system of any country which aspires to just or even democratic rule.

In the language services professions we also have opportunities which call for dissent from the wisdom offered by certain commercial interests. This dissent does not, of course, entail the great risks of many political or economic dissents in the world, but given the carefully coordinated way in which those who profit from abusive practices sometimes direct their campaigns against those who oppose them, with largely transparent divide and conquer tactics which sow fear, uncertainty and doubt and turn one colleague against another, following a script which was written in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, standing up for good sense, good work hygiene and normal, respectful business relations in language services is not entirely without risk.

I am not really sure if "dissident" is the right word to use, when really what I mean are those who will take a principled, non-violent stand against something perceived as wrong and, being aware of the possible cost of opposition, choose to do what they feel to be right. There is a wide spectrum of courage, and I think that many, once they find themselves somewhere on that spectrum, may find greater courage as and when it is called for. There is a line which has stayed with me for many years in a song by East German dissident songwriter Bettina Wegner: “Grade, klare Menschen wären ein schönes Ziel, Leute ohne Rückrat ham wir schon zuviel”. Be the one who stands straight, with backbone and a clear mind.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 14, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day four: dogs

As a child, I hated and feared German Shepherds. They were the pit bulls of the 1960s, trained by the rather harsh methods of the times and very often abused by idiots like Mr. Rolf, the white trash next door who engaged in a number of questionable exercises to make his dog fierce. He certainly made it good at biting neighborhood kids in the ass.

So for quite a number of years, the only good GSD was a dead one as far as I was concerned. I carried pepper spray with me on my paper route and used it to fend off many an attack, and later I learned to deter the attack of an aggressive German Shepherd by charging it directly while growling and barking myself and striking it on the nose with an umbrella or convenient stick.

When my wife suggested a German Shepherd for the old farm in Oregon, I was horrified. "I seen them dogs b'fore," said an old man at a sheepdog training class a few years later. "Theyze stock killers." I wasn't so much worried about the killing of livestock as I was about the killing of myself or the kids by some evil beast only barely distanced from its wolf ancestors. So when Colin vom Distelfeld came into my life I waited for an inevitable doom that never came. He was the first dog with which I was engaged in training of a serious kind; my first lessons in training dogs came from a sort of family tradition learned with the Wehrmacht.

The methods I learned were generally brutal, even when they were not intended to be. The technique of discipline in which I was taught to take the puppy by the scruff of the neck was said to be how the bitch disciplines her pups, but it is instead rather more like the way my hunting dog Ajax kills a raccoon, cat or small dog which tries to bite a piece out of him. The puppy Colin must have been terrified. He spent many a night alone and crying on the end of a line outside by his doghouse in the everlit courtyard. A bit like a concentration camp, with the flag of Lower Saxony flying over the farm and training and discipline vocabulary which I innocently absorbed and learned later bore an uncomfortable similarity to forms of addressed used with prisoners in a KZ.

By the time Colin passed away in another land 13 years later, I had learned that kinder methods were far more effective for teaching dogs as they are for human, but the obvious truth that consistency and love are better motivators than screaming and beating is not always so obvious when the early fears in a relationship are not well resolved. Colin never became the killer I feared he would be, because despite abusive training methods, the family environment in which he spent his first years was one of general affection and play, and offered a diversity of experience with many kinds of animals and people. Like many people who grow up with diversity and tolerance of it, the dog grew to love creatures of every kind, and treated all of them, from baby mice and young chickens, to lambs, geese, cats and equines with gentle and playful friendship. This dog taught me the value of forgiveness and second chances and that even the wrong methods with the right intentions can succeed.

The dogs I have had since him have been trained increasingly by positive means, and the differences in behavior and responses which I have observed in that transition of method have amazed me and times and humbled me more often. They have made it clear to me how much people share with their fellow mammals psychologically and how much more we can achieve with each other through kindness, rather than brutality.

In the course of the last century, animal behaviorists have helped us to understand the value of positive reinforcement as a motivator as well as the risks of harsh "discipline", which is better called abuse. And old habits are not always easy to break in the same way that those raised in violence often struggle to break the violent cycles in their lives. I have watched with no little satisfaction as police department K-9 units and military trainers have abandoned old, hard methods and picked up clickers and bags of treats as they recognize the validity of the science which has proven that a dog trained with love means greater reliability and safety in the field. Even some German hunters have realized that the best performance in the hunt comes from dogs treated with love at home and in their training. Paul Schrader, a leading dog trainer in Germany with many top results in championship trials going back to the days of the GDR once observed to me that the best dogs he had seen in some 50 years of work with them were inevitably those raised as part of a family, not confined to a kennel. Klar.

When I expressed my gratitude for teachers on the first day of this series of articles in response to a challenge by a young Portuguese veterinarian, who is herself quite an inspiring example of positive training methods and behaviorist practice, I should have included dogs, because as I have "trained" them, they have taught me, reminding me time and again of the value of kindness, loyalty and quiet companionship. Communication with dogs is sometimes the most complex form of translation or interpreting I do, but its successes have given me valuable insight into many diverse failures of communication.

Hunters have a particular method they like to teach dogs who retrieve, the Zwangsapport or forced fetch. That people continue to practice this particular bit of idiotic brutality is somewhat amazing; positive alternatives are demonstrably better and their superior results are quickly apparent in the field.

When I began training my dog Ajax vom Bernsteinsee to fetch under the direction of my hunting mentor, his breeder, I was taught that I must pull his ears and strangle him so that he would eventually learn how wonderful it is not to experience pain by obeying my commands. German society often runs a bit like that as one can see from the rather negative tone still found too often in its schools. These focus more on elimination, weeding out the weak, rather than encouraging all to make their best contribution. In the old German dog world I was told that perhaps six of the ten German Shepherd puppies born to my bitch in Oregon would have had to be killed so that the strongest four could thrive. Though killing puppies is now frowned upon in the Vaterland, there is still too little concern about the waste of potential domestically or in relationships with the country's EU partners. While the German government chastises the weaker countries in the union and calls for tribute to its banks and emphasizes the virtues of austerity and beggaring your neighbors, my German dog teaches me the real virtues of loving acceptance, patience and the occasional tasty chicken in my jaws.

In my expressions of gratitude thus far, teachers, story tellers, a frying pan and dogs abide, these four: but the greatest of these is dogs.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 13, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day three: this old frying pan

When my young veterinarian friend challenged me to write for seven days about things for which I am grateful, there was such a spontaneous flood of topics in my mind that I could not order them properly and decided not to try. When I think of the big subjects, one greater always occurs to me, and then some small thing will come to mind with butterfly wings which, in beating, swirl the air around me and propagate their effects sometimes somehow to start the hurricane. So what is most important? As translators so often say, it depends on the context.

I found this simple iron pan at a yard sale in Southern California more than thirty years ago. I think I paid two US dollars for it. Maybe less. It has outlasted so much finer functional equipment for cooling and accompanied me on a culinary journey which began in graduate school and continues to this day. Its size and stability facilitate use in so many ways: on the stovetop, in the oven, on a small portable burner or a campfire or on top of some deserving head.
A number of times, this old iron pan has enabled me to cook meals where I have had no kitchen fit for use. It has also inspired me a number of times to consider simpler, alternative ways of making a meal and sharing it with friends. It's small size is just right for a quick, small batch of biscuits, nachos, corn bread, pan pizza or a stovetop calzone to share in a simple meal with another. It has been the medium for many a killer bechamel sauce.

And since I am long overdue to keep my promise to a Portuguese friend to share a quick way of making bread on the stovetop when she has nothing in the house, I'll share my pan-baked spelt biscuits with egg here and hope that some of you will try these or a variation and break this good bread with the friends and family for whom you are grateful:
2 cups of spelt flour (about 250-300 g)
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (about 60 ml) butter
3/4 cup (about 180 ml) milk
1 egg

Mix or sift the flour and baking powder thoroughly, then mix in the butter thoroughly with a pastry cutter or fork. Then beat together the egg, milk and salt with a whisk, pour the liquid onto the flour mixtures and stir for a bit until everything is thoroughly wetted. Knead the soft dough for about a minute on a board, then form biscuits and bake. For crisper ones, keep the formed dough thin, for fluffier, softer ones form them to about 3/4 of an inch (about 2 cm) thickness.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes at 450 °F (230 °C).

To ensure greater softness and height for the biscuits, place them in a small iron pan or baking dish rather than on a baking sheet as usual. Serve hot with jam, cheese, olive oil or whatever else sounds good.
Of course this recipe works well with other flour too, such as ordinary or whole grain wheat flour, rye, etc. or some tasty combination. 
Feel free to share your own favorite uses for such a small pan and I'll gratefully try them out with friends in the kitchen!


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 12, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day two: the storytellers

My ex-wife used to react with fury when I listened to tapes of interviews with mythologist Joseph Campbell. "That old man just likes to hear himself talk!" she exclaimed in disgust. Well, I like to hear him talk too. As many others could say during and after his life. His analyses of the role that narrative has played in the course of human culture reflects some of the deepest universal truths of the human mind and heart and offers these insights in clearer language than most of us can achieve on our own.

Yesterday I expressed my gratitude for teachers, giving a few examples of the many who have helped me achieved a better understand and mastery of the world and its complexity. These teachers often conveyed this understanding in stories, even in subjects of science and math, which some who do not understand those disciplines might think were rather far from a good story line. But tales like that of Kekulé, dreaming of twisting snakes in the fire to discover the structure of benzene, prepared me for the intuition and dreams which most often guided my own creative activity as a programmer and scientist and taught me to trust my instincts and cope more effectively with the ambiguity that accompanies the best science.

The stories that have shaped me have come from many places and people: readings from my parents or stories of their experience; tales from far-back generations transmitted through a great aunt who, together with her father, my great grandfather, recognized my interest in the past and composed a written and photographic record of genealogy and transcripts of family writing from the past which occupy me to this day researching the stories and lessons these contain. Sometimes they are shared casually by friends, who do not realize the value of the gift shared. Sometimes from books or historical reports and interviews heard by chance on the radio. These storytellers use every medium: the spoken and written word, song, poetry in every form and images. Each shapes the story in unique ways and often reveals messages not or not easily apparent in other media.

I am grateful for the storytelling translators, colleagues like Susan Bernofsky, who revitalize old tales from German literature, infusing them with new life in my language in ways that surprise and delight me. So many translators whose names I do not know have carried the world's literature on many long and difficult journeys, sometimes at deadly risk, to share tales which inspire them. We cannot thrive by contract and patent translation alone but need those sparks from far places to light our minds and hearts and burn away the misunderstandings which bind our spirits.

Reflect if you will on the stories which have influenced your thoughts, feelings and choices throughout your life and how you have shared or can share these to enrich the lives of others or achieve a better understanding with them or can do so still. The gift increases in the giving.


Day One – Teachers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 11, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day one: the teachers

Marianne had a birthday yesterday, and I neglected to write. So I suppose this post is my own version of the late electronic birthday card. Real ones are for dinosaurs. Like us.

I started her German class for the best of reasons some 39 years ago: revenge.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Swansong as we called her, had many peculiar habits, among them the pulling of ears. And at that time I was blessed with a short haircut and very prominent ears, which stood out invitingly from the sides of my head, tempting to be pulled like taffy. And she was proud of her two children, so much so that her boasting of them remains more prominent in my mind 44 years later than anything I was supposed to have learned. I'll never forget her telling the class one day how her genius daughter had managed to achieve a "B" grade in German, notoriously the most difficult class at Monrovia High School. So I resolved then to take German and get an A. That would show the bitch.

Five years later my chance came. And my first test results on a German vocabulary quiz. C+. David was delighted. A casual friend at junior high school, he had a burning interest in science and engineering and voraciously read his older brother's texbooks in mechanical engineering from his courses at Cal Poly Pomona (or "Cow Party" as we called it then). He announced to me that my academic reign of terror was over and that I had joined the ranks of the common fowl in the chickenyard and had to scratch now for my achievement like everyone else. I noticed his A+ grade on the quiz and acknowledged that he was now, in fact, the rooster on the top branch over the henyard and I got down to the business of scratching and sniffing my way to success.

Success wasn't to be found in the schoolbooks but rather with a group of older friends who took me as something of a mascot I suppose. I had joined this elite group of germanophiles more or less by accident. I barged in one day to my ninth grade English teacher's class and began my tirade with "Mrs. Rowe" (rhymes with "cow") "the first point I would like to make.... And secondly.... Moreover.... And in conclusion... !!!" as an older girl stood quietly aside, listening to the rant. Afterward, she took me aside and suggested my energies might be better used on the debate team, so I took her advice and joined it. Where I met other friends, including her somewhat gay boyfriend at the time, who inspired my love of blowing things up and making poison trench gas and other suitable higfh school chemistry pursuits. The lot of them took German, a motley crew of overachievers in the advanced course, and I was permitted to tag along on late-night coffee house chats as long as I stuck to the rule: speak German. So by halfway through the year of my freshman German course the reign of terror resumed, I went on homework strike (what was there to learn?), disrupted class by quietly reading novels and Marianne somehow dealt with all of that along with occasional exploding bits of nitrogen triiodide spread on her classroom floor, which brought back ugly memories of her childhood in the Berlin bomb shelters as the Allies filled the skies and flattened the city above her.

Remembered rituals from her childhood were an important part of German class and the many social activities of the Deutschverein, and I first heard of the school of languages in Monterey, where many interpreters had been trained for the recent conflict in Vietnam and where the best language instruction in the country was said to be found. I never applied, because anything with military associations was anathema in a popular culture with too many fresh memories of the pointless southeast Asian slaughters. But Mad Marianne was the best face of language and German culture in those days and inspired many with her own crazy mix of grammar, vocabulary and Cat Stevens.

A lifetime later, my research career and my marriage to a German friend behind me, I had taken to translation as a means of disencumbering my life of things that kept me apart from my dog and my daughter, who were my great consolations as an exile in a country somewhat different from the kitsch Gemütlichkeit of high school imagination or the wild exuberance of an academic year abroad in a paradise of archaeological and linguistic rigor with mentors like the bombastic Gelehrter Rolf Hachmann or the shy but brilliant Max Mangold. All of this was possible for me mostly likely only because my high school German teacher, Marianne Campbell, understood that sometimes the best way to teach students is to allow them to find their own path to learning and set aside the structures so effective in most cases, giving the unknown seed its space to grow.


As Marianne and others who survived me in their classrooms knew, I've never been one for following a format, and even when I do it inevitably takes a shape somewhat different from the original intent. There is at times entirely too much pessimism among my translating colleagues, particularly among the Germans it seems, whose social media streams are a toxic river of angst and complaint. But those looking at the bright side of translation often fail to notice the cross to which some professionals have been nailed, not always by choice, nor to appreciate that the darker sides of a matter can illuminate in ways which may prove more instructive. I'm grateful for all of it, for everything, for everyone, though the gratitude is often submerged at the unconscious level.

I am grateful for family and friends, of course; for my animals as well. For the pain in my hands that brings tears as I type - it reminds me that I can - and for the dictation software and the various pharmaceuticals that offer sometimes needed alternatives for professional productivity with less physical distress. For the shelter from the rain when it has soaked me through and chilled me on a day the butane tank is empty and there is no hot water on tap to warm me but blankets and dogs to serve in stead.

But today? I am grateful for the teachers, who take many forms and roles in my life and who sometimes would not know themselves by that name.


Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

Oct 9, 2014

Dragon Naturally Speaking Version 13 - Review!

I've had a number of people ask me recently whether I have upgraded to Dragon Naturally Speaking version 13 for my dictation work in translation. I have not; I am still using the German version 12.5 (which includes English - I sometimes dictate poorly legible source texts in German rather than waste my time with OCR if I want to work with translation environment tools, so I need the bilingual edition). However, a colleague was kind enough to point me to this review of the new version, which gives me more than sufficient reason to upgrade soon:

I have a few YouTube videos demonstrating the use of version 11.5 in memoQ and a word processor, which seem to have generated some excitement because of the ridiculously high speed at which I can translate by dictation (and many others are much faster). However, the point of voice recognition for me is not speed and the possibly higher earnings which can result if my editing afterward is not excessive (dictation requires a completely different approach to checking your work, and there is a significant learning curve here). Also (or really more) important are:

  • greater engagement with the text on the screen, in my case leaving my hands free to point at various parts of long, complex sentences to help me sequence the translated text better as I work;
  • less physical and mental strain during my translation work (I am less tired during and after);
  • relief for hands damaged by too many years of working with vibrating power equipment (tillers and chainsaws), riding bicycles on rough ground and typing, typing, typing (some days I have to wash dishes in very hot water for an hour and load up on pain meds just to use a keyboard and mouse without tears - there may be surgery for that in my future and tools like DNS can give others relief or help prevent the sort of strain injuries too common in this profession and others which involve a lot of keyboard work). 
Dragon Naturally Speaking is currently available for U.S. English, UK English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese. Given the importance of voice recognition for relieving or avoiding strain injuries as well as for productivity (translators working with voice recognition routinely have much higher outputs of good quality than the best realistic claims for crap produced by post-editing machine pseudo-translations), I sincerely hope that Nuance and others will pursue the development of speech technology for other major languages such as Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and Greek. Such an investment is likely to produce far greater benefits all-round than any money flushed down the machine pseudo-translation toilet, and speech recognition could probably also improve the working conditions of some stressed post-editors in the HAMPsTr world.

Oct 8, 2014

thepigturd loves you!

I saw the note above from a translation colleague who was obviously distressed to receive "positive feedback" from an infamous bottomfeeding agency best known for its periodic intimidation letters pleading poverty and demanding rate cuts for translators. In years with record profits for the company and fat bonuses for its CEO, of course.

Although Jesus of Nazareth ultimately found success with a business model that involved hanging out with shady characters, associating with historically abusive companies like this one, riddled with incompetence, is unlikely to do much positive for one's translating career, not to mention the state of supply in one's refrigerator. If the wrong people praise you, chances are you're doing something wrong. With thepigturd, sometimes known in court as thebigword, the spiral has been ever downward in any real sense for years.

The discussion in social media continued, and other colleagues revealed that they too had received unsolicited "praise" in the form of ProZ WWA ratings, often mere minutes after making a public comment about thepigturd, even though they had not done business with that bunch for many years. One comment I received indicated that thepigturd had left positive feedback for someone with whom there had never been a business relationship:

Is this some sleazy way to groom new victims? Professionals prefer not to be molested by companies like thepigturd. Some speculated that this was the company's way of letting translators know that they are under its watchful eye.

Unfortunately, many professional associations, whom one would expect to enforce codes of ethics and defend the interests of professional members providing translation and interpreting services, too often include such disreputable companies as "corporate members", very often with a corrupting influence on the organization as a whole. The ITI in the UK currently has thepigturd as one of its members, and pressure from corporate members in the ATA years ago led to the clause discouraging the requirement of free work to be stricken. (IID was it? I used to cite it all the time, but that was long ago.) Some associations of translators and interpreters, like the German BDÜ and the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) do the right thing by recognizing that although they are proper partners in business, the interests of individual service providers and translation companies are best served by separate organizations. Qualified individuals who own or manage an agency can join the BDÜ or ITI, but corporate "personhood" is not considered an eligible basis for membership.

The generalization is largely correct that large translation companies such as Lionbridge, TransPerfect, Capita (the owners of the court interpreting disaster in the UK) and thepigturd are best avoided by translators and interpreters at all levels, as well as by corporate translation buyers concerned about translation quality for their brands. Where the functions of an agency are required, I have yet to see a case where the client would not be better served by a "boutique" translation agency, small companies who are usually specialists in a limited number of fields and who avoid ridiculous claims like "if we don't specialize in it, it doesn't exist!" These smaller, more responsible and focused companies also tend to have project managers with far more experience than the sort of recent graduated cannon fodder that is marched to the front at SDL, thepigturd et alia and falls quickly, in a few years at most, in the battle of bottom-feeding LSPs.

And a great number of successful, experienced translators enjoy excellent relations with boutique agencies as their business partners. I have myself for nearly 15 years now.

In response to complaints about the unsolicited "positive" feedback from thepigturd, staff at ProZ.com quickly removed the potentially damaging content from user profiles. Good for them. But perhaps ProZ management should consider means to prevent such feedback in the first place by free account users like "Mark Ellis" fronting for bottomfeeders.

Oct 4, 2014

Drunken monkey needs German to English translator to translate from medieval Czech!

You can always count on ProZ.com, The Translators' Workhouse, for a good laugh. Here is yet another #FAIL by staff to screen job postings properly, with a clueless agency desperately seeking a German to English translator to work on a 9th century Czech document. Best rates only, please!

Such competence speaks for itself and further makes the case for disintermediation. If you want a job done right, go straight to a qualified translator; don't put a put a monkey in the middle.