Market testing

In innovation and entrepreneurship circles, it is often assumed that the market provides a sure test for the validity of a new project. The logic is apparently tight: if a product or service doesn’t sell, it means that it’s not needed, either because of a core design flaw, or inadequate positioning.

However, the very same circles encourage the development of pitching and sales skills, including a great buzz around storytelling – because this is how you gain the attention of your customers.

There is a gap in this logic that nags me. When a new venture fails, is it because their offer is inadequate – plagued by a fatal flaw or badly positioned – or is it because the people in charge of promoting it have insufficient skills in sales, and all the people in their target market have exhausted their funds and attention on other offers, less suitable, but better packaged?

Or should we then understand that innovation has nothing to do with the development of new services and products, but only the never-ending improvement of packaging techniques?

You never stop

I grew up in a family where people worked a lot. My father was notoriously ‘married to his job’. By the age of 35, he was the CEO of an office real estate company. He then went on from real estate asset management to independent development and consulting roles. When I met with him, he would often say ‘things are hectic these days – it never stops’. After a while, I started joking: ‘you said the same thing last time. Things are just perpetually hectic for you.’

I like having a productive life. I like juggling activities. I like seeing people. But I don’t think it’s a healthy or a desirable model to place myself on the trade mill. Today, I posted on Facebook about an event I’m running on August 27. A friend from Paris wrote in the comments ‘You never stop!’ – ‘Quite the opposite,’ I replied, ‘I stop often. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do all this if I never took a moment to breathe’.

Over the last year, I’ve started practicing Qi Gong on a regular basis. Before that, I’ve done a number of activities that involve breathing –  mainly classical singing. Relaxing is an essential part of those. Breathing is a movement in an out. You can’t hold the air in forever. The same applies to singing. You can’t hold the musical line forever. You need to stop, breathe, and start again. It’s a soothing practice, and a great source of wisdom.

Arianna Huffington ironically invited women to ‘sleep their way to the top, literally’. Rest more. Save energy. But in a society that values efforts more than results, celebrates the ever-busy, and looks on the calm with suspicion, it is a hard line to keep.

On soft and hard skills

At the age of sixteen, when I decided to go for an arts, languages and literature stream in high school, I knew what I got myself into. I was a confident child, and told fellow students opting for safer business, maths and science options: ‘You can have a great career in arts and literature, as long as you’re excellent.’

This perceived need for excellence aligned with my understanding of job opportunities: writing, publishing, academia or the media were desirable; high school teaching was an OK fallback. Nothing else.

Last week, a friend from France  posted a list of the ’25 skills that can get you hired in 2016′. He had none of them, he joked, and so should stay independent – he runs a small publishing house. The list included coding, algorithm design and IT systems management. Virtual marketing, business intelligence and corporate governance appeared in between.

Today, another friend circulated a list of ‘the 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The picture was very different. Complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence: these are the very skills I learnt through long hours of history, classics and philosophy. What a strange cognitive dissonance though. You need soft skills to thrive in the current Industrial Revolution, but they won’t give you a job. Hard skills drive employability.

Luckily, like my publisher friend, I’m not actively looking for ‘a position’ right now. Still, I wonder. Do recruiters really believe that an algorithm designer is by default emotionally intelligence, or can pick it up along with people management over a few PD sessions, but an emotionally intelligent critical thinker couldn’t possibly put an algorithm together once they become part of a team, even with a bit of training? Or should I simply understand that the best way to thrive is not to get a job.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?

On building bridges

“If you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a farmer”. This is what I almost posted on my Facebook wall earlier. But then I caught myself: farmers observe nature continuously, and may be wiser than most of us city dwellers. The better proposition would be, “if you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a gold-miner.”

Over the years, as I presented Marco Polo Project to potential partners, funders, even mentors, the same question came popping up: what sector are you in? When I tried explaining that we spanned across industries and countries, and didn’t really fit in any, eyes rolled. Some wise advisors even told me that we’d better locate ourselves more clearly, because if we didn’t, who would ever consider funding us?

Find a niche, hey? I understand your logic, but now tell me: what’s the use of a bridge inside a tunnel? And if you’re building on air, then don’t you think it’s wise to rest your weight on two pillars at least?

No wonder we don’t fit in any clear-cut category: our very purpose determines our structure. Not hiding in the cave, digging for gold, but anchored across a range of sectors: literature and education, multicultural communities and partners internationally. We build connection between them and – like bridges – are neither here, nor there, but in-between.

But hey – if you’re looking to dig a gold-mine, you shouldn’t think like a bridge-builder.

Space sharing, time sharing: future of work, or existing models?

Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything  outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.

We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:

  • Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
  • Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
  • Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
  • Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast. 
  • Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.

When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.

Please, feel free to share reflections here!

Reflections on translation – an interview with James Friesen

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to  ‘http://marcopoloproject.org’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (http://marcopoloproject.org/online/the-tears-of-animals/)

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something? 

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have? 

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.