Invitation to the Dark Side

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As paredes têm ouvidos.
The walls have hearsay.
— From Fonseca & Carolino, English as She is Spoke (1883)

What seems like an enthusiastic expression of interest comes in about engaging my services as a freelance translation editor and editorial consultant for a certain multinational investor relations consultancy.

In other words, I have, as we say over beers in the journalist trade, what seems like a pretty fair prospect of being “summoned to the Dark Side.”

This bar-joke is, of course, often simply an exaggeration for comic effect — an instance of the “folklore of the evil corporation.”

There is nothing intrinsically shady, dark, skeevy or murky about working in public relations or investor relations, or advertising or marketing, or any field lumped under the general heading, as Brazilians are wont to do, of “social communications.”

I have done it often, and gotten plenty of professional satisfaction from it, too — including the pleasure of working with smart, decent people who are extremely good at doing useful, meaningful things.

I did a stint once, for example, editing, producing and distributing fixed income research for a league-chart firm. I found it extremely educational and technically challenging — though challenging mostly because of the incredibly ancient version of Quark in use on the underpowered production machines at the shop in question, and its reliance on Lotus Notes as the distribution platform.

I am sorry to say so, but as an end user, I have a deep-set prejudice against Lotus Notes — or at least against the incarnation in use at the shop in question at the time, which was several generations of continuous improvement ago, I imagine. (I hasten to add that I have similar grudges against competing products as well. I tend to be something of a picky power-user from Hell.)

The people were great to work with — I have copious character notes on a certain chronically exasperated Russian database programmer that are going into a play or short story some day — and the editorial mission of the operation was more or less simple and straightforward: Crunch the numbers, interpret the numbers, make decisions based on those intepretations, and justify those decisions clearly and succinctly to a specialized readership of like-minded number-crunching decision-makers.

Translation, meanwhile, in theory, is a simple profession, from an ethical point of view. Your client has labored to craft their message in their native language. They now need to communicate that message to an audience that speaks another language.

At the very least, the impact of that message can be seriously undermined when delivered in “English as she is spoke.”

In the worst case, the information it conveys can get distorted beyond recognition.

Which can lead to serious misunderstandings.

I always think, in this connection, of that photo op in which Paul Wolfowitz is shown standing in front of a campaign poster in Baghdad and crowing about the “democratic renaissance” then flowering in Iraq.

The poster showed Moqtada al-Sadr. And I could read what the poster said. Which bilingual irony made me laugh. Bitterly.

The message, on the other hand, is the entire responsibility of the client.

Your job, then, is simply to filter as much extraneous noise as possible out of the client’s conversation with their audiences and interlocutors.

Ideally, if a given press release is written in a voice that reflects an excellent command of the source language, the voice that its target audience hears should be that of someone with an excellent command of the target language.

Rather than, say, Speedy Gonzalez.

It gives me an almost physical pain to read substandard translations of the “English as she is spoke” variety.

“Whatever you paid that translator,” I think, “it was too much” — although as my wise and wordly friend the Enigmatic Mermaid points out, in the blunt terms for which she is justly famous, there is a tendency in the current market for translators for the “crack whore” effect to predominate.

Maximum cheapness trumps quality, in other words.

In investor relations, however, there tends to be more awareness of the fact that you get what you pay for, and that words matter. The field tends to pay well in order to attract the best talent and achieve the best possible results. Which often makes working with people who are good at it a pleasure, professionally speaking.

In some cases, of course, the client’s original message may contain a certain amount of native noise, such as, say, high doses of the “rhetoric of the technological sublime.”

After asking, diplomatically, if this noise is really what the client intends to transmit — transmitting noise and calling it signal being a common rhetorical gambit in this day and age — you simply pass it through.

A good poker face is essential in such situations.

The customer is always right.

The important thing, however, is to get explicit acknowledgement from your client of their own responsibility for the message they are sending.

You are General Shinseki. The client is Bush, Dick, Rummy and Wolfie. When asked for your considered advice, you give it, on the record. If it is rejected, you salute and execute the policy as settled upon by the command authority.

Because there are those moments when the traduttore traditore effect — “the translator is a traitor,” or “blame the translator” — can come back to haunt you. Your reputation as an honest broker must be carefully defended. Never let them say you failed to tell them so.

(I, for example, gave the “$100 laptop” fair warning, albeit as free advice: Choosing the brand name XO for the gizmo could make you the butt of unwanted jokes, because in Tupiguese, xô! means “shame on you!”)

(A smart client understands the value of a good, hard red-team review before the release goes out the door. But not all clients are that smart. )

Which is why the important thing is for you and your client to have a clear understanding of your respective roles, and their boundaries.

Why am I pondering aloud on the topic today?

Call it a dress-rehearsal for the negotiations to come, I guess. I feel as though I am now reasonably well informed on the local business ecosystems, as well as local editorial standards & practices and working conditions.

Local editorial standards & practices and working conditions can, in certain circumstances, be just jaw-droppingly abysmal.

But the firm in question is not a local firm, and is in a field that tends to value competence — unlike the local general-interest press and general public-relations field, in some startling cases. So one might expect that standards & practices would be coordinated from the home office, and keyed to the standards to which the target audience is accustomed.

In practical terms, what does that mean, for a guy with a modest job like mine?

There are some very simple indicators you look for.

Has the operation selected, designated and implemented specific quality-assurance guidelines? A standard dictionary, for example? Standard terminology sources? Does it have an editorial manual?

Often, in such cases, where you might be working with the terminology of a lot of different industries, your manual might incorporate a standard style manual by reference, with supplementary manuals and sources for specific areas, and then include a list of usage choices that reflects your own decisions in cases where the standard sources do not provide a clear resolution to a recurring editorial issue.

The optimal situation is when the answer to all those questions is “Yes.”

If that is not the case, the next question you want to ask is, “Would you be interested in compiling a formal guide technical editorial standards & practices of this kind?”

This is something I have a lot of experience in doing, so it forms an important part of my pitch.

But it is also a matter of personal survival.

Because the biggest source of stress in this sort of job is being called upon to rule on 10,000 ad hoc technical points a day, interrupting your train of thought at every turn, without being able to say, simply, “RTFM.”

That is, “First, just go and Read the Fine Manual.”

It can be a battle getting your people trained to RTFM first, and only appeal to you as the ultimate decider where the manual is silent or ambiguous.

But you cannot preserve your sanity without getting this done. Having to reinvent the wheel every 30 seconds is the short road to Xanax dependency.
I like to compare some of the situations along these lines that I have encountered in my life and times as an editorial ronin to that scene in Apocalypse Now in which Willard and his Swift boat arrive at the scene of a night battle over a strategically meaningless bridge.

Willard approaches a terrified soldier, smoking a reefer and firing off RPG rounds at hysterical random into the seething chaos, and asks him, “Who’s in command here?”

The soldier stares at him for a beat, incredulous, then shoots back, “Ain’t you?”

Been there. Seen that.

The hard sell, however, can sometimes be convincing these “content manager” types that the investment of time and effort in this sort of standardization will pay off in terms of efficiency, productivity and peace of mind.

So, yes, that is one factor I am also curious about when I go to look at an invitation of this kind, whether it comes from the Darth Side or the Ben Kenobi Side of the Force.

On a personal level, if I were to accept the contract, I would be much busier than I am now, which mainly finds me doing odd and fairly infrequent spot jobs for global clients.

This, on top of fixed rental income from our cafofo in Brooklyn, has been enough to keep the tropical household running, leaving me plenty of time for personal projects, idle thinkathons, composing new tunes for Zebu Cavaco and His Cur-Deus Homos — the (fictional) Doc Severinsen of the NMM(-TV)SNB(B)CNN(P)BS global network — and carrying out halting experiments in the popular poetic forms characteristic of the jornal dos sertões. See, for example

The latter from my Lusophone blogging alter ego, O Bicho-Preguiça.

Which, among other things, would mean less time for blogging.

Blogging is not the only thing I do — off-the-cuff online notetaking accounts for maybe half of my output of exploratory writing — but it probably represents just about the most useless way I have of spending my idle time these days. Aside from my efforts to become a virtuouso performer on the Brazilian cavaco, a miniature four-stringed gitfiddle of sorts.

Useless in an economic sense, but enjoyable and productive as a sort of fertilizing biomass of half-baked notions and boiling, putrefying, mutating commonplaces, transformed through a process of bricolage.

Wise companies these days have a blogging policy for employees in place, I think.

At a minimum, competent corporate message control demands that you required employees who blog on their own time to issue the standard disclaimer: That these are their personal maunderings and in no way reflect the worldview of their employers.

That is how I handled it at my last full-time job, at a company that did not have a blogging policy (I did suggest they get one.)

I confined myself to blogging on practical matters affecting the life of an assignment-desk editor, which was my main role at the time. Like a carpenter might scans the news for stories about other guys like him and how they do their work.

I refrained from referring to any of the companies that my publication covered, or that advertised with us.

I just clipped items of practical interest to the kinds of decisions I had to make in the day to day and put my two cents in based on my past experience — avoiding all mention of the day to day operations of my current workplace, where, of course, blabbing the contents of how the sausage got made would have violated the privacy of my employees and potentially poisoned the work environment.

Some companies simply will not let their employees blog on their own account.

And if it were up to me, I probably would not have let me maintain that blog, in fact.

On the other hand, I did do up a PowerPoint presentation for the bosses suggesting that blogging that did relate to our specific editorial mission could be useful.

I workd up a fancy workflow chart that showed how we could repurpose content in progress for the weekly print run, as well as content in the morgue, in order to make the Web site more of a daily destination.

“XYZ corporation implements ABC solution for the Z business process! It just so happens that we are working on an overview of available solutions for the Z process for our next issue!”

Or leveraging past reporting: “Last month, we surveyed industry opinion on Uncertainty Factor X and found most opinion makers betting on Result Y. As we learn today from New Development Z, they were right! (wrong!) (only half-right!) Stay tuned for our special round-up of Factor X developments next month!”

That kind of thing. Simple. Straightforward. Builds expectation for the print edition, sells the idea that our coverage is on top of the latest developments and “torn from the headlines.” A Web site in which you simply repost the weekly output of the print run is stale by definition.

This, everyone thought, was a splendid idea. It never got anywhere.

At any rate, as the publication in question was relatively insignficant and the blog in question had nearly no readers, it wound up not mattering to anyone but me.

In this case, if I start consulting with this IR firm, the same guidelines should apply, I tend to think: You simply do not leverage insider knowledge your clients or their clients entrust you with for the sake of an outside project. It just is not done. Trust is vital.

“First rule of Fight Club is: Don’t talk about Fight Club.”

I often tell clients right off that I am willing to sign a standard nondisclosure agreement, for example; I find you can often gauge how with-it the client is according to whether or not the person you are dealing with understands what that is, and what it is for.

Other companies, of course, encourage their employees to blog these days — including blogging in ways that scumbles the boundary between their personal lives and their professional role. See, for example,

In the most extreme cases, this takes the form of stealth marketing.

“Yes, I am an Edelman employee, but I am first and foremost a person, a human being! Which justifies me not mentioning that I am an Edelman employee. And as a person, I just happen to be of the firm opinion that the latest widget from Edelman (or Ogilvy, or what have you) client X is simply magical! Best thing since sliced bread!”

I tend to think this amounts to plain, straight-out dishonesty, under certain circumstances.

In this case, of course, my name would not be on any of the work product, either with a byline or on any masthead.

The anonymity of translation work being another important feature of it. Translators ideally should not appear on camera at all, and their presence should only be felt when a linguistic issues arises that requires a metalinguistic clarification. One should issue it succinctly and then scuttle back behind the curtain.

They should be like the actors in The Lion King, who act through their puppets but themselves are camouflaged in a dark shroud. You can see that they are there, but it would bum your suspension of disbelief, and ruin your concentration on the dramatic action, if you were forced to be too aware of it.

At any rate, the notion of spending a lot more time working and less time blogging is starting to dovetail with some thoughts that have been rattling around in my empty brain pan lately under the heading of “whither blogging?”

One thought: I should really start to blog more in Portuguese.

Just for the practice, and because I actually tend to have more interesting interactions with Brazilian bloggers.

Comments on this blog continue to run at about 97% “Would you like a bigger dick?” spam and 2.9% “Your mother blows sailors for crack,” “You are a brainwashed cryptomarxist pseudojournalist in the service of the neopaganist conspiracy!” and crap like that.

I mean, I do love to engage in rhetorical excess, and to make satirical and ironic use of tabloid styles and mannerisms, but I admit it: It can get to sort of a wankfest.

Writing in Portuguese forces me to simplify my prose and get straight to the point, which is actually healthy for me as a writer, I think. And when I get stuck for something to write about, I can always resort to a standard topic: (1) “As a gringo living in São Paulo, a constant source of culture shock is …”

Sometimes I can flip that around and do (2) as a New Yorker reading about New York in the Brazilian press, I am amazed to read …”

The city that you and I experience as Kansas, they describe as the Emerald City. Examples can be multiplied almost daily. (An exception is young Gianni Carta, most of the time.)

Having less time to blog, but wanting to continue the note-taking I have been doing here — under the heading of “how to measure signal and noise in contemporary media using simple concepts drawn from rhetoric and semantics” — might pose an interesting challenge in how to do so while being briefer and pithier.

And possibly even more actually useful to other human beings.

I continue to find the title of this exercise — “The New Market Machines” — meaningful and fun to play around with.

What started as a literal focus on news about “new market machines” — tech Big Digs for processing transactions, which is an extremely geeky but fascinating topic, with real money and big global strategy involved — evolved into an exercise in documenting “the rhetoric of the technological sublime in postmodern technology PR” — a genre I used to get bombarded with constantly at my old job while reading a gazillion story pitches from flacks every day.

It has since branched out from this to other species in the genus of wilful noncommunication gambits. Lately, I find the term “moral panic” seems to cover a lot of these cases nicely.

But whatever. It is just a blog. The world will not likely be measurably worse off if it disappeared from Google Blogsearch, temporarily or permanently. You can also just go start another one. Or not.

DIOGENES: The things you must concentrate on are these: always be bold and reckless and jeer indiscriminately at everything, from kings on down. … Speak in a harsh, rough voice … In word, behave exactly like a wild beast. Forget about shame, propriety, moderation.

BUYER: Get away from me! Everything you’ve said is nauseating. It’s inhuman.

DIOGENES: But, listen. It’s so easy. Anyone can do it. No course of study required, not debates, no nonsense. My road is a short-cut to fame …

– Lucan, “Philosophies for Sale”

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