On reducing noise

I profoundly dislike the word busy. It conjures up images of scared chickens aimlessly running around the garden. “Busy’s just a polite way to say disorganised,” I often quip. Beside, since I imbibed Seneca’s On the brevity of life in year 12, I would not want to be caught dead describing myself as “busy”.

That being said, I like to be productive and engaged in multiple activities. Sometimes, deadlines overlap. I have identified that I can comfortably juggle three key areas of focus, but start bugging if the number goes beyond three. I have – also – learnt how to deal with this limitation. When too many things pile up, see whether one can be completed soon, and tackle it first. Reduce the noise.

I had to do that today. I am confirming my PhD next Wednesday; the following day, I’m flying to Sweden, and need to present a full proposal for my new role on the Monday. Meanwhile, I have to organise meetings and accommodation in Europe and Asia, and deal with the many little administrative tasks that pop up when you start a new job, ask for leave from a course of study, or travel internationally. Did I mention a podcast session yesterday, a Hackathon tomorrow, and a prototype language peer-learning event next week? Oof!

That was all too much for my little brain. And when it saturates, creativity reduces. So, this afternoon, I ticked off the PhD box, and took advantage of the brain fritter to tackle my admin and email backlog. Tomorrow, I’ll be guided by somebody through the steps of a Hackathon, recharge my extraverted energy, and on Wednesday, I’ll have only three things to focus on. Problem solved, back to manageable.

On sitting and standing

Why have we chosen the sitting position as a modern default?

Last night, I went on a long walk to the beach, and today, I decided I would stand to work. And so I did, at home first, while I focused on tw0 simple tasks: learning how to use Endnote, and sorting old folders of research documents. I put my laptop on a fat book, the book on a stool, the stool on a table, and I stood in front of this improvised platform all morning, happily typing. Result: no sore shoulders, and a nice feeling in my stomach that I got a wee bit more toned.

The slogan of 2014 was ‘sitting is the new smoking’. It might echo still in other ears than mine. But as public places used to favour smokers over non-smokers, our social environment is entirely designed for sitters.

We may hold a fake belief that special artifacts are required for sitting, chairs, couches, or stools, while we can stand on our own two feet. Not so. I sit on the floor whenever I can. And if you stand and read, eat, or type, you want a space to lean the book, plate, or laptop. But not often will we find such standing set-ups, and so, defaulting into the shape that our environment proposes, we sit.

After I finished my morning work-from-home, I headed to my second office, in the QV food court. The place has been recently redone, and has very comfortable tables and chairs where you can sit for a whole afternoon without any cover charge. But there are only three tall tables where you could stand and rest a laptop, hidden under the main escalators, opposite the BreadTop bakery.

One of the tables was free. I pushed aside the white metal-mesh stool, set my computer on it, and stood for a couple of hours, drafting the outline of my thesis. Then I headed back one, and went on a long walk to North Fitzroy. And as I did, I spoke with my partner about replacing a large, red armchair in our living room with a standing station. It would certainly change my daily routines, inviting me to stand for breakfast, maybe dinner, or when friends come over.

But even as I can perfectly visualise the piece of furniture that I would need, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a friend’s place, I have no clue where I could buy it, or what its name would be. So much we made sitting our default posture.



I started a new productivity routine lately that’s working very well for me – and I thought I might share it with the world :-). It’s a simple three-step process. First, every morning, I write a list of the things I want to get done during the day on a new page in a journal. I try to frame these things as activities rather than results – sometimes adding a time limit, e.g. 30 minutes of writing business plan, or writing xx story. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I found that focusing on the goal can freeze me, or cause me to spend way too long on a task, trying to reach a level of perfection beyond what’s required. Conversely, focusing on the process relaxes my brain considerably, and leads to better results in shorter timeframes.  Then I prioritise these activities, labelling each 1, 2 or 3. I work different jobs, PhD research, running a non-profit, personal writing, and incidental other tasks, and I try to balance these components of my professional life – in particular, I make sure at least one writing activity gets priority 1. This, again, has a relaxing effect: it allows me to give myself a large number of tasks for the day – visualising high productivity – but eases the pressure to get everything done, and more, to perfection. I’m only strictly accountable to priority 1. Finally, during the day, I check up on my task list – tick what I’ve done, half-tick what I touched on. Before lunch and again at 2pm, i refocus and, if I haven’t attended to them yet, ensure I complete at least my priority 1 tasks. This is particularly valuable for my writing: now I no longer find myself tired, at the end of the day, feeling sorry that, yet again, I got caught up in things and didn’t take the time to progress a story or edit a blog post.  Let’s see whether this keeps working over time – for now, I love it and strongly recommend!

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.

Trust, unilateral decisions and fait accompli.

I announced a series of posts on trust – here is the second. The setting hasn’t changed – we’re still in a bar on Qingdao Lu. This time I will focus on a recent interaction with a friend, to better understand how trust is grown, or eroded. The phenomenon I describe is minor, but I believe, on a very small scale, it represents very clearly what often happens on a larger scale – and therefore presents a very valuable case study.

Few days ago, I had lunch with a friend at the 32 Qingdao Lu café. We discussed a collaborative project, and I told him about my psychological difficulties in China, how I struggled with my energy levels, and what I learnt I should avoid – mostly loud environments and spaces that foster aggressive or competitive behaviour. I was happy to share this and receive support. I really value this friend, but a sense of alienation from him had been weighing on me. We mostly met in settings I was uncomfortable in, and so didn’t have a chance to connect at the level that matters to both of us. The lunch was productive: we clarified ideas and set goals. Then after lunch, we both focused on our respective tasks. I had planned – and announced – a long afternoon preparing for coming meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. He was going to proof-read a book.

I was quietly reading about online literature when, out of the blue, the friend announced he’d invited ‘that girl and her American friend’ to come join us. The goal was not for them to sit and proof-read with us. We’d previously chatted about flirting in straight and gay contexts, and mentioned ‘that girl’ then. I was annoyed. Not only did I have work to do: my energy still wasn’t very high – I had spent the previous afternoon locked in my room to recover some – and flirty straight environments neither energize nor comfort me. I superficially knew the two girls, I found it weird to sit at the next table and ignore them, probably wouldn’t much enjoy the type of interaction that was about to take place, so I packed up my stuff and left, annoyed at what just happened.

Today, I lost a small measure of trust in that friend. It’s not a big measure and repairing it shouldn’t be difficult. But this loss has a cost. It’s interfering with our prospects of collaboration. I like working with him, but if he drains my energy by generating environments I dislike and leave, then I might have to focus on more efficient partnerships – and avoid his invitations. It’s interfering more broadly with my other projects – should I look for another place to work and concentrate, if this café changed its vibe. And I have to think more about sharing information with him in the future – should I introduce him to the various environments or circles of contacts I am building here, or keep him out of the loop to maximize my own energy levels. In other words, it’s added a cognitive load for me, and might lose both of us opportunities.

I wrote before that ‘trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning’. In that case, it’s precisely what didn’t happen – my friend invited two girls over, without consulting me, while knowing I had other plans and may not enjoy the sudden change from a work to social space. My friend imposed his own desire on our shared environment, with no regard for my desires or prior consultation.

This new plan was not presented as a possibility for me to discuss or approve, but a fait accompli – the girls had been invited and were on their way. It was too late, or too complex for my tired mind at the time, to negotiate an alternative. I could either submit or leave. In other words, what only minutes ago was a collaborative environment – two people exchanging ideas to reach a common goal – had suddenly changed nature. At some point in time, our shared space had become open to the first initiative. I didn’t make a move, and I lost the ground. But there had been no warning sign that the race was on.

Such behaviour is by no means rare. Many people may find it surprising I even noticed. What made me lose a measure of trust in this friend is the sudden, unilateral change I experienced from a collaborative to a competitive environment. I believe this is a crucial part of how trust is grown: by explicit disclosure of the rules that apply at any moment in a relationship, and in shared settings. Sudden shifts in these rules, cunning tricks, or simple disregard for unspoken conventions, may win battles and even wars – but they will not grow trust, nor the wealth of ideas, opportunities and material goods that, often, come along with higher levels of trust.

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.