On business books

Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.

Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.

In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.

My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?

Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:

‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.

What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’

Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.

This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.

Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.

With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.

Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.


The Beijing Series

Today, I’m running a poetry translation workshop at Monash University, preparing for a special event at Montsalvat Open Day next week. We’re going to translate pomes by Katie Key’s @tinylittlepoems, written during her stay in Beijing, known as ‘the Beijing series’

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 6 sept.

We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 7 sept.

I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 8 sept.

Our fragile devices, these pieces of glass, the fingerprints left of ourselves. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 9 sept.

Childless, I am less than woman here – the shapes I make. Homeless, in the absence of my lines. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 10 sept.

Dragon-bourne and read, a two-forked tongue, a way with words. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 11 sept.

I am stuttered. The words come out on the page, not the world, & nobody hears them but me. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 12 sept.

The way the trees hold tight to the smoke haze, greying the avenues, softening the skies. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 13 sept.

A question of water, of art and of air – a question of who we might be. a #tinylittlepoem from China for the @mpoloproject

On reading a poem about Melbourne, Unesco City of Literature

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature‘. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in direct, explicit ways – and expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated very strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalism, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was very moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events Koraly denounces, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe I’m just nice and naïve – or maybe there was, indeed, genuine desire for more diversity.

Yet in all these instances, I also felt a great solitude, as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at any literary forum in Melbourne. But then, literary forums are not home. Except if English is your native tongue, it will certainly feel closer.

I do notice a gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love, or some Shanghai-based blogger. But it’s happened to me so much now, that I sometimes avoid talking about literature altogether – or when I feel provocative, I just say: ‘I don’t really read English-language books much’. It’s a great conversation killer.

Still, it’s a tough game: it’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition – trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept. I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of issues Koraly raises. If I wasn’t invited, maybe I would feel that same rage. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

De l’audace, toujours de l’audace: on creative work and risk

‘De l’audace, toujours de l’audace’ said French revolutionary Danton. His statue figures at the Odeon corner, not far from where I studied in Paris, and I often repeated his words to myself as I passed it. It’s one French trait I have carried with me to Australia, and I have tried to reflect on this part of my heritage.

I recently joined a reflective dinner at Hub Melbourne, where the conversation skimmed over the usual topic of corporate drain vs unpaid creative work, and how to reconcile both. I proposed a different interpretation of the facts, saying that creative work is not ‘underpaid’, but carries a very high level of risk. I was apparently the only one to really believe in that line – and yet I had some evidence to support me. The richest woman in Britain, as far as I know, made her money writing Harry Potter. She took a risk – and won. Many writers fail and remain poor, not because the world ignores their value, not even because they dramatically lack talent – but through the multitude of factors that make any risky venture succeed or fail, and which the classics called luck or fortune. Making large amounts of money from a book, a work of art, or any creative production, is partly talent, partly hardwork, partly good judgement, and partly simple fortune – like making good money from a cycle of the spice trade, on a rough sea.

The point I’m making here does not deny that there may be multiple cases of exploitation, whereby a publishing or producing body absorbs most of the benefits and transfers all risk to the creative agent, but doesn’t share benefits in the same proportion, or keeps them willingly misinformed about the nature of the agreement. More should be said about a fair distribution of risk and benefits across actors in the creative industries – but I believe the inherent risky nature of creative work is a premise that all discussions in this area should integrate. And the recurring ‘pay the writer’ issue could be reframed, at least partly, within the framework of insurance and mutual (financial and personal) risk sharing across the profession.

This is an ongoing theme of reflection for me, and I’ll be coming back to it in further posts – meanwhile, please feel free to comment or disagree – I’m putting this forward as a proposal – it may be quite off the mark.

Fiction-guilt – in defence of TV shows

‘Glee is my guilty pleasure’. A dear friend of mine recently wrote this on a racing facebook comment trail about a new website called ‘help me write’. And I side-tracked into a line of thought I’d like to share here.

I’ve heard the feeling often: watching TV series is associated with feelings of guilt – whether it’s Glee, Gossip Girl, True Blood, Dexter, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, or ealier Friends, Buffy, 90210… watching the lives of imaginary characters and their complex evolutions is experienced as guilt. As if this was a worthless use of our time, as if there was ‘better to do’ than engage with fiction. Or maybe we should read, hey?

Then I realised, this is not new rhetoric – except it once applied to novels. Jane Austen denounces it in Northanger Abbey – others do too. Novels should be taken seriously: they’re a school for emotional intelligence, and they make us happy. So do TV series: they explore moral dilemmas, take us to imaginary worlds, relieve boredom, and make us think. What is there not to like? Sure, they might take us away from ‘productive pursuits’ – but then should our lives be devoted entirely to productive pursuits?

I would like, more precisely, to think about the role of fiction – imaginary worlds and crafted imaginary situations where imaginary characters make ethical decisions. I think in a future post, that’s what I’ll do – for the moment, I shall leave this reflection here.

Language learning and general intelligence

Teachers and students generally think of language learning as its own intellectual bubble, and linguistic fluency as a somewhat unique (and odd) skill, somewhat like wood-carving or tap dancing. But the capacity to read, write, listen and speak in another language, like the capacity to run, is closely intertwined with a number of other, more fundamental set of intellectual abilities, ranging from basic spatial and numerical competence at beginner level to solid understanding of history, geography and economics for advanced learners.

Here’s a concrete example: in one of my classes at Nanjing University, the teacher gave us an article to read about the Chinese economy. Students, in turn, had to define words like ‘GDP’, ‘investment’, or ‘real estate bubble’. My Chinese is possibly the poorest in the class, but I studied philosophy and worked in government strategy, so could compensate my limited linguistic ability with a good general understanding of the concepts and ideas discussed. Sometimes, I did better than other students who knew many more words, made no grammatical mistakes, and had a perfectly authentic accent. Note that is not just an arbitrary classroom exercise, but what may actually happen in – advanced – conversations where people debate and argue, coming back to the concepts and pulling out threads of meaning to support their view, bring others into their world, or just entertain.

Well conducted language classes may be an opportunity to train ourselves in these rhetorical skills, and particularly, go beyond the labels of media talk and management newspeak: empty strings of words often translate badly. In fact, last year, as part of my cross-cultural training during the Asialink program, we did just that all in English: one of our exercise was to define a complex concept from our field of work – multiculturalism, somatisation, risk management – using exclusively basic semantic blocks. Reformulating ideas as if addressing people with completely different assumptions about the world. And in fact, I did that kind of exercise often in my Greek philosophy classes, when we glossed and paraphrased the use of certain words – aletheia, arche, basileus – to understand what different world views and social structures they referred to.

General intelligence and culture will probably make it easier for you to master a foreign language. Conversely, learning a foreign language may contribute to your general intelligence – and therefore, we could make a case for increased emphasis on cross-linguistic competence as a core skill to be developed in schools, alongside mathematics, and native language literacy. What do you think?

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.

Blogging in Chinese

Wow – I just opened a blog on Sina! Thank you Lavender for your help. As a start, I will be re-publishing Australian Aesthetics there – with a bit of help from google translate. WordPress is blocked at the moment, and I think my descriptions of Melbourne would appeal to potential visitors or migrants here. But who knows, I may develop a radically new Chinese online personality, and start blogging away. I don’t quite understand every feature just yet, but I can make it out, more or less – CMS and blog servers become intuitive pretty quickly.

Still – Wow! – that’s a whole new experience :-). Interested? Follow ZhuZhu’s blog.