A special person

I was sitting by the pool a few days ago, working on my “You’re a Greek, stop looking like milk” mission, when another resident of my building came and sat next to me. He was blond and his skin was even whiter than mine. He started talking to me in Spanish; it turned out he was Cuban. When I said I was Greek he said I didn’t look Greek, that I didn’t look like anything, that I could be anything (Should I throw him in the water or should I ignore him?, I thought). I said “Well, you must have thought I was Hispanic, otherwise you wouldn’t have spoken to me in Spanish.” He said that was the only language he knew. He had been in the US for more than fourteen years but he’d been able not only to get by but to work in a hospital even with his very limited English.
After we talked for a while about things of little importance (he was telling me that his tanning accelerator didn’t have any effect, I said I use Coppertone because the smell brings back beautiful memories of my childhood in Greece), he told me about his life. He said he had just moved to the building and that he lived with his mother and his sister, who was a special little girl, “es una niña especial”. I smiled and tried to register this. Whenever I’m not 100% sure about the meaning of something someone says to me, I just smile a little and in those first few seconds I’m racing through my brain’s dictionaries and corpuses to see what it could possibly mean. After discarding the possibility that he just loves his sister so much that at the first mention of her he says she’s a special person, I realized he meant she was a child with special needs. Thank goodness I had only smiled, any other reaction would have been inappropriate and maybe even offensive (think “Oh, what’s so special about her?”, even if said with the best of intentions or out of plain curiosity).
He went on talking but at that moment I had already drifted away in virtual dictionaries and sunk into the Spanish depository in my head, trying to remember if I’d ever heard or read “niño especial” with that meaning. I could only find “persona con necesidades especiales”. I couldn’t wait to go back upstairs and write to my Spanish friends to ask if this term is commonly used to refer to a mentally or physically handicapped person. Of course I wasn’t going to interrupt the conversation or my mission! I jumped from dictionary to dictionary in my brain, in the other languages I know. I stopped at French for a while, then moved on to Greek and parked there. I tried several terms, several synonyms of special, periphrastic and paraphrastic equivalents. Nothing. Was it an Americanism of Spanish speakers? “A special girl.” I smiled again, although the man had long moved on to a different topic.
Eventually I joined him again in the conversation but went back to that special term again and again that day and the next, smiling at the sweetness of it and of those it describes or should describe, and wished that it replaced all other equivalents in all languages and all dialects and all registers and all situations.

Uses and abuses of “heroes”

In the last thirteen years or so, since September 11, 2001 to be precise, the frequency of use of the word “hero” has increased exponentially. (Ouch, listen to me, “the frequency of use has increased exponentially”… I thought I’d left my engineering self in the past…)
Yes, those firefighters were heroes but after that, whenever someone does a good deed, he’s called a hero. A guy climbs up a tree to bring down a cat that has been stuck there for two hours, and he’s a hero. I’m not making this up, the cat story was on the news a couple of years ago. A calf fell into a pit in Flagstaff, Arizona and the policeman that pulled it out was called a hero on the Flagstaff local news. The people that survived the Boston marathon bombing last year were also called heroes; the ones that got injured were greater heroes than the others –the plain heroes. It seems to me that the word “hero” has replaced less extravagant characterizations such as “brave” or “courageous” or “admirable”. For some reason, the first person that comes to my mind when I hear this word is Manolis Glezos, who climbed up the Acropolis and tore down the swastika back in 1941, when the Nazis had entered Athens. That is a hero. To equate bringing down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis with bringing down a cat from a tree is just absurd.

Of course we don’t have go to back to a war to look for heroes. There are many among us. I am a member of the Facebook group “Living Donors Online”. Yesterday a member wrote:
Hi all, just donated a kidney to my cousin 2 hours ago! I feel hopeful my gift can make the recipient better”.

Another member replied:
You are a true hero. I can’t wait until I donate on July 15.. Hang in there, get well and keep us posted.

And then another member said:
Welcome to the real life super heroes club, bro. Speedy recovery.

Now these are heroes. Super heroes indeed.  Giving life, looking forward to taking out part of themselves to offer it to someone else. These are heroes. Let’s use the word where it is appropriate and deserved. 

Too much informations [sic]

Just recently in a translation facebook group we were talking about “informations”, that monstrosity we’re hearing all the more often. Well, on my Delta flight a month ago, the flight attendant -a native English speaker- said through the intercom: “For internet service look in your Sky magazine for informations on how to connect”. Is this going to be yet another case of widespread misuse leading to widespread acceptance? Like …/nucular/ instead of nuclear? Of course it’s not as painful for me to hear as my pet peeve –actually, calling it a pet peeve makes it sound cute. It’s not cute. It’s closer to a knife than to a pet. Not a knife sitting in my cutlery drawer but a knife being stabbed in my chest. So my “stab knife” is …aircrafts (surprise surprise). And spacecrafts. As if mounting an engine is an activity of arts and crafts.

On the same flight, a couple of rows behind me, a mother –native English speaker- was teaching new words to her little baby daughter. I could hear her say over and over again: “Where’s the keys?”, “Where’s the books?”, “Where’s the bus?” (she got one right, sigh of momentary relief), “Where’s the girls?” (back to stabbing). I felt the need to turn around and stop this, I wish it weren’t inappropriate to intervene in cases of linguistic abuse, or to put it less mildly, language butchering.

On a more recent trip, right after I landed in Boston, I received a phone call from a guy claiming that I was in legal trouble and that I needed to pay him two thousand dollars to settle the matter in a friendly way right then and there, over the phone, instead of going to court. You guessed it, he was a scammer, but a professional one! Very well prepared, he had answers to all my questions. “I’m calling from your local police department, ma’am”, he said. When I asked him which police department that was, he said Cambridge. (I don’t live in Cambridge; I used to, many years ago.) He kept saying to me in his Indian accent: “We got informations on you ma’am. We got informations. According to our informations on you, ma’am,…”.

I’d had enough.  The grammar freak in me was getting palpitations, so I interrupted him and said: “First of all, it is information, not informations, there’s no s! Speak English damn it! And second, if you were really calling from the police department you would know that I don’t live in Cambridge!”
The guy went on: “Well, where do you live ma’am? We can transfer this to your local police department…”.  I hang up. I probably should have referred him to some English-language trainings (ouch, I stabbed myself).

CEO, freelancer, or what should you call yourself?

Over the years I have seen many colleagues just starting out and presenting themselves as CEOs, Directors of their “company”, Owners, etc. I think it is great to be CEO if that’s what you want. But is that what you really are? And is that what you really want?

In order to present yourself as CEO, i.e. use it as a job title in your resume or your social-network profiles, you need to actually be a CEO. Being a freelancer / having your own business/ working for yourself is not the same as being a Chief Executive Officer. Chief Executive Officer means you’re someone’s “chief”, that you have people under you. Calling yourself a Director implies that you have people to direct. Directing yourself does not qualify. Does anybody report to you?

Several times I’ve seen the title of CEO under the names of colleagues that had just presented themselves in a translation forum to say they were new in the translation world and needed advice on how to find new clients or what to charge. This makes me very skeptical. There’s a discrepancy here that simply makes those translators look somewhat unreliable or insincere. The above titles require experience, some prior steps/titles, and usually people under you, and I don’t think they should be used lightly.

“Owner” is somewhat different. You can be the owner of a company and be a sole proprietor. If you have your own business, you are a “business owner”. For example, I do business as “FRESNEL technical translations”, I have registered this as my business name in Massachusetts. I am a sole proprietor, so I don’t have anyone reporting to me. I have regular collaborators (e.g. for large projects or for when I don’t have time or when the language pair requested is not one I work in); when I offer them a job the PO says FRESNEL, when I pay them the check says FRESNEL, my bank account is under the name FRESNEL technical translations. To cut a long story short, this is a registered business and since I own it, I can call myself its owner (not that I do, really, it’s of no use to me, but I could). But I wouldn’t dare call myself a CEO. And frankly, I don’t want to. It would be bad for my business. Why?

Because I don’t want to run the risk of having clients see me as an agency. I am not an agency. In fact I state this clearly on my website: “FRESNEL is not a translation agency. There are no intermediaries or non-experts ever involved in your project. In order to handle large projects with tight deadlines, FRESNEL has a small, highly reliable network of expert translators and editors.” And it is for the same reason that my team consists of freelancers and not CEOs or Directors or Chiefs of any kind. Also because I want to make sure that what I pay them goes directly to the person that does the work.

So to be brutally honest, when I see CEO, Director and the like next to a colleague’s name, I stay away. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use such titles; but if you do, make sure they reflect reality. When you ask in a Facebook group how to do a word count in a PDF file or what the cheapest CAT tool is or how to determine your proofreading rate, and at the same time write CEO on your resume or on your online profile (or on your website, if you have one; many people don’t, and that’s even worse because if you’re a CEO of a company, the company should have a website), how do you expect a potential client not to be skeptical? And if the client is skeptical about your title, how do you expect him to trust your description of your qualifications, skills and experience?

What does it mean to “know” a language?

I’d like to share with you an excerpt from the book Interpreting for International Conferences by Danica Seleskovitch. I recently reviewed this book for my medical-interpreting course and I bookmarked things on every single page. I think it should be -if it isn’t already- mandatory reading for all interpreters.
I found it to be not only full of useful information but also very inspirational. I have always admired interpreters and their ability to switch “from one mental universe to another”, and when some years ago I wanted to learn more about how they do it, how their mind performs such a complex task, I inquired in an online T&I forum about book recommendations on this subject. This book by Seleskovitch was the one that was most highly recommended to me by many colleagues. Among the numerous things that are worth quoting, I’m copying here a passage that discusses what it means to “know” a language. How many of us have been asked “How many languages do you speak?” when we told someone we are translators? Of course the number of languages is somewhat -though not entirely- irrelevant to how good a translator is, but I have long stopped trying to give long explanations about this, it’s just easier to answer with a number, or give a vague answer like “a few”. However, my answer always varies; first of all because I’m never happy with it, I find it inaccurate, so I keep changing it (inaccurate because… do I include the languages I’m currently learning and which I can speak moderately well? Is “moderately well” good enough?); and second, because my level of knowledge of each language has changed with time. French used to be my second language; now I think it is my fourth. I used to speak Dutch fairly well but now I can barely utter a grammatically correct sentence without first thinking about it for 30 seconds. Should I include Dutch in the languages I speak? Do I call it a “passive language”, forcing the other person to ask what that is (assuming he’s not a linguist) and to think “gee, who cares, all I wanted was a number”? So now I just say “I speak a few”. If the other person insists, I say “I work with four, but I speak a few more”. And then I usually change the subject. I think I’ll print out this excerpt by Seleskovitch and carry copies of it with me. Here is what she had to say:

Nothing is more difficult than defining linguistic knowledge. What does it mean to “know” a language? A language is not a finite or clearly defined mass, which you either possess in its entirety or not at all. You do not “know” a language in the same way you know a theorem or poem by heart. You can only know it more or less thoroughly. Some speak two languages with perfect ease, yet have a very limited vocabulary in both. Conversely, philologists or authorities on theoretical linguistics, for example, who do not study languages for the purpose of speaking them, may have a very thorough knowledge of the languages they study, but would be unable to use them to communicate. Their knowledge is thus also limited.

Anyone who has to deal with the realities of today’s world has some knowledge, however minimal, of a foreign language, either because his job requires it or because he comes from a country where the language is not widely spoken beyond that country’s borders (the Dutch, the Swedes, the Poles and, increasingly, the French are finding themselves forced to learn another language). But neither the scholar with his literary or theoretical knowledge nor the expert with his specialized knowledge, nor the polyglot can be considered to have an exhaustive knowledge of the language, but merely a working knowledge. Acquiring a foreign language is so difficult that few specialists in linguistics are at the same time practicing linguists.

Seleskovitch, Danica. Interpreting for International Conferences. Pen and Booth, Arlington, VA 1998. (Translation and adaptation of L’interprète dans les conférences internationales – problèmes de langage et de communication, published by Minard, Paris 1968).

The art of name-chopping

The simple is the seal of true.
And beauty is the splendor of truth.
With the words above, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, popularly known as Chandra, concluded his Nobel Prize lecture on 8 December 1983. Toward the end of his talk, he was describing black holes in the astronomical universe, explaining the simplicity in the underlying physics and the beauty of their mathematical description within the framework of Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘They are,’ he said, ‘the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe.’ […]For newspaper journalists and broadcast interviewers, neither the simplicity of the physics of the black holes nor the mathematical beauty of their description was of major concern; the pronunciation of Chandra’s full name seemed to present them with an astronomical difficulty in and of itself.”
This is the introduction of a very good article about Chandrasekhar, which appeared in the December 2010 issue of Physics Today. Although the last statement of the above paragraph is admittedly funny, as a linguist I couldn’t help but find it sad at the same time, because it is true. “Chandra” is a name very familiar to physicists and engineers; in college we learn about the “Chandra X-ray Observatory”, the “Chandra telescope”. I don’t know how Chandrasekhar felt about this but if it were me I don’t think I’d be very happy about people butchering my name. Especially when it comes to someone that contributed so much to science, I think one should make an effort to say and write the full name: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. If nothing else, out of respect. I understand that for translators, who are more exposed to foreign names and complex sounds, names such as Chandrasekhar’s may be nothing extraordinary, but even to the untrained ear the pronunciation difficulty should not be “astronomical”!
Chandra X-ray Observatory (Illustration: NASA/CXC/NGST)
Chandra X-ray Observatory (Illustration: NASA/CXC/NGST)
The author goes on to say: “Being the first son, Chandra inherited the name of his grandfather, Ramanathan Chandrasekhar (referred to as R.C. hereafter)”. R.C., like …J.Lo. And further down he writes: “From his high-school days, […] Chandra had determined to pursue a career in pure science. He had as an example his uncle Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (popularly known as C.V. Raman) […]”. C.V. Raman; doesn’t it sound like M.C. Hammer to you? It does to me.
“In February and March [of 1928], Raman, along with Kariamanickam Srinivasa Krishnan, made a fundamental discovery in the molecular scattering of light, later to become known as the Raman effect.” I know about the Raman effect but I never knew Raman’s full name, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in my textbooks. It was always Raman, could have been any Raman, as in “Raman noodles” (my college roommate’s dinner every single night for four years). This, of course, is fine, it’s his last name, not a chopped version or …an acronym.
I don’t know if I’m too sensitive to “name-chopping”, if I should lighten up, if my lack of sympathy towards name-choppers is because when you grow up listening to names like Hatzigiannakopoulos, Papageorgianopoulos, Hatzipanagiotidis, and Papanikolaou, then a 5-syllable name doesn’t exactly present a challenge.
And maybe Indian people don’t care much anyway. Or maybe they do care but are very considerate of those who don’t make an effort to learn or pronounce their full name. Well, instead of speculating, I thought I’d ask one. I asked an old colleague of mine, a programmer, whose name is Vidyasagar Bhakthavatsalam. At work everyone used to call him VB. That’s how he was introduced to me. Sometimes I was confused and thought we were talking about VB as in Visual Basic. A couple of people would call him “Vidya”. VB (my colleague, not the programming language) didn’t seem to mind, I thought that perhaps he even found it amusing. I used to call him VB too, not only because that’s how he was introduced to me but because I didn’t want to stand out as a know-it-all. But I always felt bad when I called him VB. So after not having spoken to him in a while, I e-mailed him out of the blue to ask if it bothered him that I used to butcher his name a few years ago. And if yes, I wanted to apologize (better late than never, I suppose). He sent me a very nice answer, that if one had to shorten his name, he preferred “Vidya” but that “VB works as well”. Which I interpreted to mean that if you call him VB he’ll still answer, but the more you chop off the worse. Then he went on to give me the etymology of his name, which I found beautiful. He said that in Sanskrit, Vidya means knowledge, and Sagar means ocean. So the full name means “ocean of knowledge”. Let me say that these two words are amongst my favorite, both in terms of phonetics and in terms of what they represent. Phonetically I find ocean, océan, ωκεανός, océano, very pleasing to the ear. Same goes for the Greek θάλασσα(sea). The ocean, the sea, is one of the things I miss most about my home country, two of my favorite Greek songs have the word θάλασσα/sea in the title, blue is my favorite color in all of its shades and always has been, and the thought of the ocean evokes to me the notions of openness, adventure, hope, vastness, possibilities, peace. And knowledge… suffice it to say that one of the main reasons I am a translator is because with every text we translate we learn something new. Knowledge to me is like the fountain of youth, a stimulus that keeps me going.  So these two things, ocean and knowledge, combined in a single word, in a single first name, is something I find absolutely beautiful. So my dear friend Vidyasagar, my sincere apologies. The word does represent you indeed, and I apologize for having butchered it for so long.