A Falling Knife Amazon cover

Judith Deborah: Anatomy of A Falling Knife (interview, part 2)

It’s been quite a few weeks since I published the first part of my interview with Judith Deborah, the author whose debut novel A Falling Knife has garnered well-deserved rave reviews – it’s a terrific read! As was the case last time, I was somewhat tardy in sending her my questions and unfortunately caught her in the middle of a very busy time; still, she answered every question in-depth and her answers are wonderful and very enlightening. As I did with part 1 of this interview, I have published the questions and answers that make up the interview, unabridged.

With apologies for making you wait so long for this, the second part of the interview, let me waste no more time. Here it is: part 2 of my interview with Judith!

A Falling Knife Amazon cover

A Falling Knife by Judith Deborah

Q. Your book A Falling Knife has various different threads that all connect as the story unfolds. Did this book present itself to you in scenes which you eventually linked together, or did you devise the scenes once you had decided the plot (or possibly a combination of both)?

A. Very much a combination. There were scenes I had in mind long before I had a clear sense of the complete story, but ultimately I found I had to put together an outline to get the book to work.

Quite a few of the most important elements in the story didn’t clarify in my mind until well into the writing. As they emerged, I had to stop, re-block the story, and make sure everything still made sense. The logic and chronology of the story were particularly critical since it’s a mystery; you just don’t have the latitude to play fast and loose with either element in this genre. I had to keep checking and rechecking that there weren’t any plot holes and that the various storylines all fitted together in time.

I started writing the book with little more than a minimal sketch of the story — a vague listing of what was going to happen to whom and why — but the story quickly got rather complicated, and I tied myself in knots several times over. Also, I started writing the book before the global financial correction that began in 2008. When I got going, there was still a roaring bull market in the US with one can-you-top-this buyout taking place after another. The original story revolved around an invented version of one of those massive buyouts. Then the bottom dropped out of the US market, everything changed completely, and my storyline was instantly dated. It happened several times that a storyline I had constructed was upended by events.

In the end, to preserve my sanity and increase the likelihood that the book would ever get written, I shifted away from the nitty-gritty of the buyout and focused more on the personal stories and the ways they interlinked. It took me a long time to figure out that this was a good idea, and I ended up throwing a ton of writing (including whole characters) out the window. The final story is so different from the original version as to be scarcely related.

I learned two things from all this: that it’s unwise for me to tether a story too closely to events in recent memory, and that I’m the kind of writer who has to hammer out at least the scaffolding of a story before sitting down to write scenes. Every time I try to just wing it and write without any sure idea where I’m going, I end up either paralyzed by writers’ block or writing myself into a corner and then chucking the work. The outline I ended up constructing for A Falling Knife was never formal — it was always more of a long scribbled list, and I tinkered with it all the time — but it gave me some guidance and relieved me of a degree of writerly anxiety. It was far more satisfactory to sit down in the morning and know what I was supposed to accomplish by the end of the writing session than it was to just sit there waiting for inspiration.

Q. There are some scenes in the book which expose certain characters’ sometimes very raw and painful emotions. I find those scenes gentle, yet uncompromising. Do you find such scenes difficult to write and how do you approach them?

A. I really like writing scenes like that, in part for the vaguely disreputable reason that I enjoy trying to generate an emotional response in the reader. I like writing scenes of characters facing down their demons alone, but also very much like excavating the subtexts of emotion that underlie conversations that are calm and quiet on the surface — figuring out ways to convey emotion obliquely rather than head-on. In the book, during some of the most emotionally raw conversations, nobody raises his or her voice, and in some cases the subject under discussion is something entirely beside the point.

Writing (obliquely or otherwise) about whatever it is that turns a character inside out can be a particularly rich and satisfying vein to work when the character I’m writing about is not particularly cuddly. In Scott Nickerson’s case, he’s a remote, rather austere personality (not toward everyone, but toward most people). In writing him, I wanted to get across why he is the way he is, and to get the reader to care about him despite his remoteness. The detective, too, is an emotionally guarded character. With him, I wanted the connections he feels to other characters in the story — some of which surprise him — to function as clues both to his nature and to the solution of the mystery. For every character, I wanted to convey their emotional states as directly as possible — to convey the sharpness of the pain they feel — but to do so in a way that was respectful, rather than gratuitous or lurid.

As far as method is concerned, I usually start these intense scenes with sensory images in mind (rather than, say, snippets of dialogue). Imagining a visual as it appears in the mind of a character, or a memory of the way something smelled or sounded once to him or her, helps me get inside them and (if they happen to be in company) to put words in their mouths that sound credible.

Q. I have no head for numbers and no knowledge, really, of the financial world, yet I found myself quite able to follow the plot points specific to these issues. Since you move in financial circles as part of your work, was it a challenge for you to write at a level where readers with little to no knowledge of financial trading would be able to keep up?

A. I made a deliberate decision early on that I was not going to simplify the finance talk but would just trust the reader to keep up. It would have sapped that side of the story of all its juice to drain out the language. I was hoping the reader would be charmed by the vocabulary and syntactical rhythms of the industry — as I was, when I came into it as a complete outsider — and would ride the financial plot points like the crest of a wave. (The same pretty much applies to the science and math in the story.) You’re right; it was a bit of a balancing act to keep the dialogue and the storyline authentic and still keep it interesting for readers with no connection to the finance world. I cut a lot, did my best to keep what remained true to the characters, and trusted readers to connect the dots.

Several nice financial double entendres presented themselves in the writing of the book, by the way. One is the title, which has a Wall Street meaning (“never try to catch a falling knife” = don’t buy a stock that’s in free fall) as well as an obvious genre-specific meaning, and which was the original germ of the story. Another is the phrase “red herring,” which is well known to mystery readers but has a completely different meaning inside the finance world. It made me very happy to use that phrase in its financial context within the confines of a mystery.

Speaking of finance language, I had a great time writing the character of Cal Buckholtz, who is a trader and characteristically profane. It was a lot of fun getting inside that head.

Q. One of the plot points of your book addresses a widely debated issue: the interlacing and often overlapping interests of the financial markets and the pharmaceutical industry. Is this an issue close to your heart, or was it simply part of the story you wanted to tell?

A. Hmm. I wouldn’t say the issue itself is particularly close to my heart. I do have a soft spot, however, for mathematicians and scientists, who are quite foreign to me and who interest me because of that foreignness in a deep, almost anthropological way. (I’m a committed anthropologist: I married a mathematician.) I feel a great fondness for the world of finance, too (how’s that for an unfashionable sentiment?) since my time within it introduced me to such entertaining people. I was glad to figure out a way to represent these three worlds — arenas that are all important to me for different reasons — in story form.

Q. I found myself very invested in Scott’s character and found that he truly jumped off the page for me, he felt real; Evan grew on me as the book progressed. To me it felt similar to the way you immediately click with some people, yet take longer to connect with others.  What approach do you take to constructing a character and to what extent do you borrow characteristics, traits, habits, personalities, from people you know?

A. It’s easier for me to tell you what I don’t do in this regard than what I do do. I don’t do any of those elaborate and often-recommended questionnaires about characters (what’s his earliest memory? what’s his favorite food? who was his first love? what is he most afraid of? etc), which strike me, to be honest, as a waste of time. I think I grasp the principle behind this method — that your advance knowledge of the character will provide some kind of authenticity once you finally start writing about him or her — but on the few occasions I’ve tried it, it hasn’t worked out that way at all. All it amounted to for me was pointless busywork, which is the opposite of writing; it’s an extended throat-clearing exercise that produces (at least in my case) reams of ersatz, arbitrary character details that will be largely forgotten once actual writing gets underway and the characters start developing organically. I’ll go so far as to say that for many writers this is an insidious exercise, because it encourages the writer to feel virtuous — look how much work I did today! — while completely failing to advance the book.

I’ve read writing manuals by extremely successful writers who swear by this technique, so obviously my experience doesn’t apply to everyone. But to my way of thinking, you figure out characters by writing them, not by writing about them.

As for what I do do: Nobody in the book is modeled directly on anyone in my orbit. For me, the starting points for characters are vocal patterns and names.

By vocal patterns I mean the character’s active vocabulary and the rhythms of his or her speech. Once I get the characters talking, either to each other or inside their own heads, I can see them much more clearly, and the other elements you mentioned begin to emerge. I find that the words a person uses — the words that spring to his mind and that he assumes his interlocutor will understand, and the rhythm that emerges when he strings them together — can unlock a character much more effectively than deciding arbitrarily that he has green eyes, loves Canadian bacon, and can’t commit. I had the advantage in A Falling Knife that I was writing primarily about New Yorkers — a population I grew up with and which has a distinctive way of speaking. The rhythm of Yiddish-inflected New York speech is very familiar to me.

Character names are also extremely important, and I can’t quite explain why. I had trouble with the names of two of the main characters until well into the writing, and didn’t really get their characters right until I got their names right. In some cases, names were so clearly right from the start — and the accompanying voices were so distinctive and clear in my mind — that the characters were relatively easy to write. (Solly Pinsk and Cal Buckholtz come to mind.) When the name is right, it’s linked in my mind with a vivid physicality.

It’s interesting that you say you connected more readily with Scott Nickerson, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, than with the detective, Evan Adair. I wonder if that has something to do with a choice I made right at the beginning: that in contrast to my treatment of the other characters, I was never going to describe Evan physically. There are one or two oblique references — Evan scratches a salt-and-pepper growth of stubble at one point, and there’s a suggestion that he’s on the tall side — but I deliberately said nothing about the color of his hair, how much hair he has, how he wears it, what clothes he chooses, eye color, skin tone, how he’s aged, or anything. It was an experiment; I was curious to see whether readers would construct those visuals for themselves. What it might have accomplished instead was to keep readers at more of a distance from Evan than I had intended. I’ll have to think about this some more.

 Q. I like the level of detail in the pharmacogenomic and forensic analyses as well as the related descriptions and explanations. Did that require a lot of research, and did you do it all in preparation, or was some of it done ad hoc as you made progress in the story? Did you ever find yourself getting distracted or carried away by your research into this field (this tends to happen to me a lot)?

A. There was a lot of research involved, but I didn’t do it ahead of time. After I was well into the book, I went to New York and spent some time talking to street cops and detectives, and had an extensive back-and-forth over email with a doctor at the New York medical examiner’s office to get all the forensics straight. I also worked closely throughout the writing of the book with a scientist friend in England who helped me construct the science side of the story so it was both internally logical and authentic in terms of detail. On the finance side, I read a stack of memoirs and other non-fiction titles by people inside the industry, and also talked to people. All this was going on while I was writing, not before I started (otherwise I doubt I would ever have written the book at all).

I love research and almost always have to force myself to stop. There’s always something else that can be checked, some other element to learn about that might serve the story. After a certain point I have to go cold turkey or I’ll keep researching forever.

And thus ends the second and last part of the interview. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. It was a pleasure going through the interviewing process with Judith and I appreciate her commitment and dedication in taking the time and showing me such insight into her writing process.

You can also find Judith on Facebook and Twitter.

Judith Deborah photo

Judith Deborah

Judith Deborah photo

Meet Judith Deborah: an asset to the writing world (interview, part 1)

Judith Deborah photo

Judith Deborah, author of "A Falling Knife"

It was not too long ago that my husband tapped me on the shoulder and said: “You have the Kindle app on your iPad, don’t you? You should get this book!” He then pointed me towards A Falling Knife by Judith Deborah. Since my husband has very good taste, I didn’t hesitate and promptly downloaded the Kindle edition, which was free for one day only. I never regretted my download: A Falling Knife is an engaging, intelligent and well-written book; for testimony besides my own see this review from Kirkus Reviews, as well as Amazon’s review page.

In addition to being a talented writer, Ms Deborah is also a very gracious woman. When I asked her if she wouldn’t mind me publishing a short interview with her on my website, she promptly agreed, and was subsequently very patient with me when I sent her my questions somewhat later than I had initially told her I would.

She has really given my questions a lot of consideration and her answers are thoughtful and offer a good deal of insight into Judith’s writer’s mind. I have published them, unabridged, in this, my first of 2 interviews with her. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting the interview.

Q. What do you love best about writing?

A. It feels very good to read something you’ve written that you know you can be proud of — something you know you’ve worked on very hard, that you’ve polished until it gleams. Also, positive feedback is a huge positive. When you’re writing a long piece, you’re all alone for very long stretches, and it’s easy to lose all sense of the quality of the stuff you’re churning out. It’s a tremendous relief to come out of the cave with the book and have people say nice things about it, especially when they’re total strangers.

Individual pieces offer their own pleasures, too. In A Falling Knife, I enjoyed constructing the plot of the mystery, and had a great time writing two characters in particular — the Orthodox Jewish finance blogger Solly Pinsk and the foul-mouthed trader Cal Buckholtz — because I enjoy the way they talk. In my earlier writing days, I was a big descriptive scene-setter, and tended to lean on that at the expense of interactions between characters. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to enjoy writing dialogue best.

Q. What do you find the most difficult about the writing process?

A. In terms of process, there’s a world of difference between putting a plot together and actually writing scenes. Every time I start a new scene, I’m thrown off badly by the blank screen. (I’m never more industrious a doer of laundry than when I have a new scene to write.) Part of the reason the book took so long (three years) was because I procrastinated so badly every time I had to start a new scene.

Q. This is a question I think every writer gets: do you have a set writing routine, and if you do: what are its origins?

A. I write every morning from 8:00 or so to about 12:30 or 1:00 pm. Before I start work, I allow myself 30-45 minutes to wander around on the Internet reading random things — movie reviews, news items, blog posts by some fashionistas whose writing I enjoy — and to read and answer email. Once I’ve got all that out of my system, I can focus. I’ve learned from experience that there’s no point in trying to hector myself into writing before I’ve had my world news/celebrity gossip fix. It’s like taking kids to the zoo: you might as well get them the ice cream when you first arrive so they can forget about it and pay attention to the animals.

I write on a Mac. I used to write by hand on legal pads, but those days are long past (although I still fetishize pads a bit — I love narrow rule — and really enjoy a nice dark pen). I make liberal use of the Mac’s Stickies application, and have dozens of virtual Post-Its all over my computer screen reminding me of tasks I have to complete for the project.

I have a tiny, overstuffed office in my apartment, but it’s so overrun with books and papers that I ended up writing most of A Falling Knife at a cafe. We’re building a house, though, and I’m going to have a lovely office in the attic with a slanty roof and plenty of space to shove stuff out of sight. That’s where I’ll be doing my writing once we move in.

Q. You’ve made brief mention on your website of your reasons for self-publication. Can you elaborate a little more on what you perceive is the future of self-publishing and how you think it will affect the publishing industry?

A. Just this morning I read a comment by a friend on Facebook, enthusiastically seconded by a series of other people, about a collection she’d just read of dystopian science fiction short stories by a relatively unknown author. In recommending those stories, she was completely defying the conventional wisdom in the traditional publishing industry that nobody wants to read short stories anymore unless they’re written by established names. The self-publishing movement has revealed that many allegedly nonexistent audiences are alive and well, and hungry for material.

The industry has set up barriers to entry based on quality, which is a fine thing in principle (if tough to pull off fairly when the product is judged by such subjective criteria). Where it gets into trouble is when it arbitrarily dictates what audiences want. I know that as a reader, I’m frustrated by the glut of cookie-cutter suspense novels and the relative dearth of clever, old-school, non-cozy mysteries. When I was trying to publish A Falling Knife the traditional way, I was told over and over again that if I turned it from a straight mystery (where the detective assembles clues and deduces a solution) into a suspense novel (where the detective is put in greater and greater physical peril), my odds of success would be much higher. That would have completely changed the character of the book, and I just couldn’t do it. I had to publish it myself because (according to the conventional wisdom) there’s no audience for mysteries by unknowns, even with contemporary settings, that subscribe to a classical, Golden Age mystery structure.

Now, the joke might be on me — the book’s sales are not exactly busting up the charts — but reviews are consistently positive, and there does seem to be an audience for this kind of material. It’s an audience that I’m convinced can grow, and its growth will not necessarily be predicted by industry professionals. I am much happier getting my stuff out there and serving that audience than tossing it in a drawer because of an industry presumption that the audience for it is too small to matter. It’s true that self-publishing enables the foisting onto the public of a great deal of subpar work, but readers are capable of detecting quality. I firmly believe that the best books will rise to the top by virtue of popular acclaim.

Which brings me to the other huge change wrought by self-publishing: the new pricing model. There are two elements to this: the low-priced ebook (defined as anything up to $4.99, say) and the free book. Both of them depend on word of mouth to work.

I used to think giving away books was bananas, but have come to see it’s actually quite brilliant. If you have a backlog and you give away some work for free, that work — provided it’s good enough — will encourage readers to come back for more. That’s where the sales happen. And if you keep the price of your other books low, those readers — people who already value your work — will be more willing to take a chance on the rest of your material, and to tell other people about it. I like the anti-elitist element of this trend — should anybody really be expected to shell out $26.95 for a novel? — and support the principle of trusting the audience to decide for itself what it wants to read and to winnow out quality work on its own.

Q. A Falling Knife is published as “An Evan Adair Mystery”. Does this mean there will be more Evan Adair Mysteries and can you say anything concrete about Evan’s next appearance, such as an expected publication date or even just whether you are working on a draft, or possibly even something about his next case?

A. The project I’ve been working on since A Falling Knife came out is not a mystery — it’s sort of a comedy of manners — but there is a historical subject I’m interested in that I would like to use as the backdrop for another Evan Adair mystery. I’m going to have to keep it under my hat, though. I’ve always found the brainstorming of ideas while they’re still in the germinal stage to be disastrous. Talking about ideas too early has a calcifying effect on them, at least for me.

Q. Finally, a question that interests me personally: how have you managed to combine work, family and writing a book? (I have a husband and only one child, but seem to be laboring under a permanent lack of energy and time. Any insights into this are more than welcome!)

A. I have three young children, and work is a total impossibility when they’re in the house. That means that my sole work time is the morning hours, when all of them are at school. When they get home, it’s all over. Children are sociable creatures, and it’s just not realistic to ask them to let Mommy sit in her office without being disturbed for any length of time. Nor is it practical when they’re still young enough to require supervision.

I don’t mind the truncated workday for two reasons: the morning is my most creative time in any case (I edit well in the middle of the night, but only seem to be able to do new writing early in the day), and I’m the kind of person who requires deadlines to get anything done. It’s helpful, in a maddening kind of way, to look at the clock and know that I’ve got just one hour left and no more. I’m sure a graph of my work time would show a spike in productivity every day approaching the time I have to go pick up the kids.

I’ve wondered sometimes whether the book would have been written faster if I didn’t have such limited work time, but I’m not convinced. If I had all the time in the world, I probably wouldn’t get anything done at all.

I still (to my husband’s chagrin) tend to collapse pretty soon after my kids go to sleep. When I’m well into a piece, I’ll sometimes stay up late into the night to make use of that quiet, peaceful time (editing in the middle of the night is very pleasant), but I pay for it when I have to get up at 6:15 the next morning.

Check back soon on my site for part 2 of my interview with Judith Deborah, which will focus more specifically on A Falling Knife.

You can also follow Judith on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @JudithDeborah.

A Case for English (Legal) Linguistic Consultancy in International Business

English, or Euro-English?

For a while now I have been working as a linguistics professional, specializing in legal linguistics in Dutch and English. It’s quite the niche: it requires knowledge of both languages, as well as of the underlying cultures and legal systems. Since the Anglo-American legal system is in certain respects vastly different from the Dutch legal system (common law v Roman law), translation is rarely a matter of simply opening up the dictionary and choosing the most appropriate term. Improvisation, creativity and research are required to deliver high-quality work.

While the above is true, the need for (legal) linguistics professionals in Dutch corporate situations actually already begins at a far more basic level.

The Netherlands is a relatively small country. Its native tongue is Dutch, spoken only by the Dutch and a few disparate Dutch (ex-)colonies, and no more. True, the Belgians speak Flemish, which is close to Dutch but different enough that it can certainly not be considered the same language; Afrikaans is related to Dutch and so we can understand certain words and phrases, as those who speak Afrikaans can understand certain Dutch words and phrases.

Being residents of such a small country with such a unique language spoken and understood by few, the Dutch have always prided themselves on their language skills. In school, Dutch children take mandatory English classes and have to learn at least one other foreign (European) language besides.

But there is a difference between speaking a language and speaking it well (not to mention writing it well). A few years ago, the humourous book “I always get my sin” was a popular Christmas gift in the Netherlands. It highlighted the degree to which the Dutch believe that they have mastered the English language well enough to communicate with British and American native speakers comfortably and professionally (I’ve been informed by a professional dealing with international business situations on a daily basis that the British refer to this type of English as Euro-English: it’s understandable, but real comprehension is a whole different issue). Interestingly, the book itself was an example of the extent to which the Dutch are still not nearly as fluent in English as they like to think: Dutch readers cracked up at all the literal, incorrect translations of Dutch sayings, but editors apparently hadn’t caught the translations that weren’t incorrect at all and should therefore have been omitted. For instance: “it speaks volumes” is a valid English idiom and a correct translation of the similar Dutch idiom  “het spreekt boekdelen” and as such not a humorous mistranslation, something an editor should have caught.

Of course, the English and American counterparts of Dutch businessmen and politicians understand that English is not the Dutchman’s native language and that fluency should not be expected, but an unjustified sense of linguistic prowess can quickly become an issue when doing business in an international environment. One faux pas may be amusing, two or three might even bring some levity to negotiations and debates, but a continued handicap in linguistic understanding can sabotage dealings between even the most willing of partners. Even more so if the English or American counterpart in these lacks a sense of humour…

As Dutch companies venture more and more out into the world of international business, it is essential that they be perhaps not proficient, but at least sufficiently skilled in international business (and legal) English, in addition to having a basic understanding of the difference in cultures. England may be “right next door”, but geographical proximity does not guarantee an instant and adequate understanding of the cultural subtext in English communication. Similarly, American culture does not become second nature to a Dutch person simply by their watching American movies and television shows (although that often does significantly improve comprehension, and it has the added benefit of exposing the viewer to colloquialisms, slang and mannerisms).

In the context of the above, I’d like to explore the different aspects of linguistic consultancy.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Translation

Many companies in the Netherlands still prefer to compose their documents in Dutch. When the need arises for communication, those companies will make use of translation services for their Dutch texts in order to present their products and services in English. For advertising texts and explanatory documents translation can be a fairly straightforward matter, but such translations take on a different dimension when it concerns legal documents.

Naturally, an accurate legal translation is essential for good business: a clear agreement on the exact nature and specifics of a business deal and a correct understanding of contracts is key. The difference between legal systems, as already touched upon earlier in this post, adds a level of difficulty here.

But the most interesting element is that of the legal consequences to legal translations. Yes, most companies cover the risks by adding the legal jurisdiction and original text clause, but does that always indemnify against dire consequences? The ramifications of translation mishaps can be very costly indeed! While not exactly a translation issue, what is widely known as “the million dollar comma case” illustrates the possible ramifications of correct language and grammar where two different language versions of the same contract have been drawn up. At the heart of this tale lay a contract drawn up in both English and French. The English version contained one comma too many, which resulted in a very expensive premature termination by one party. The other party appealed, referring to the French language version of the same contract and stating that it contained the correct statement of the intended agreement. In the end, the court agreed to rely on the French version of the contract and so this story ended well, but law professors still use this case as a cautionary tale to impress on future lawyers and translators the importance of correct English usage and grammar.

And in case there was any doubt: correct grammar and punctuation are indeed part and parcel of any translation.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Communication

A good working knowledge of international English – disregarding for a moment the more specific areas of legal and business English – is not only helpful, but actually quite important. As the saying goes: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That first impression can be the deciding factor in whether or not a potential English or American business partner chooses to proceed to do business with a company.

In business the primary objective of communication is for it to be clear and efficient. It is very cumbersome to have to take out 2 hours for a meeting due to communication issues, when half an hour would have sufficed if all persons present spoke good English. And in business, time is money. Therefore, the communication factor will most definitely be taken into account when deciding the pros and cons of entering into a business relationship.

The language element really comes to the fore when deadlines have to be met; if the language barrier slows you down enough, you will simply not be able to perform as agreed upon, simply because getting to a correct understanding will take too much time, reviewing the result on the receiving end will be very work-intensive, and feedback will require too long to process properly.

But even before companies reach the above stage of being in the thick of actually doing business, there’s presentation. Non-native speakers of English tend to assume that presenting oneself in English comes naturally, which is certainly not the case. Advertising texts in brochures, slogans on billboards: these are primary tools used by companies to market themselves, and incorrect English usage or bad spelling will send a message of substandard quality and lack of attention to detail. Even large companies fall prey to such mistakes; take for example Volkswagen’s advertising campaign which featured the slogan “VW. For careless driving”. (italics by me; unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a link to the campaign, but posters with this slogan are still up at selected Volkswagen dealerships) This does nothing to recommend the product, unless VW’s target group consists of drivers heading out onto the road without a care for the safety of their fellow road users. (An editorial glance over the slogan would have been enough to ensure that the word “carefree” would have been used instead.)

But wait: there’s more! Target language distinction matters. Spelling differs between English and American – “centre” v “center”, “valour” v “valor”, “grey” v “gray” – as do colloquialisms, or slang. It’s important not only to know this, but to be consistent in your use of either British or American English.

In formal documentation, the use of colloquialisms is not quite so prominent, but when discussing matters face-to-face, it plays a huge part. One of the standard anecdotes illustrating incorrect word choice is the man making a quick drawing of a schematic on the back of an envelope for his American business partner. They’re in a bar in New York, and he makes a mistake in his drawing. He calls over the waiter and asks for a rubber. Not so strange to British ears where a rubber is a synonym for an eraser, but to everyone else involved in this situation he just asked for a condom. Awkward…

English Linguistic Consultancy & Business

How can linguistic consultancy be useful to Dutch companies operating on the international playing field? The answer lies mostly in training and support.

A linguistics consultant can provide a company with general language training, and specific business and legal English training on a regular basis. If the company specifies the region with which it aims to conduct business, a consultant can also train staff in relevant culture and custom.  In addition, these training sessions can target the relevant area of business and/or law.

The importance of cultural understanding is illustrated rather nicely in the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. During a business meeting with Chinese investors, Jake Moore demonstrates an understanding of what Chinese business custom prescribes in order to express appreciation and respect for one’s negotiating partner, as well as a desire to move forward with the negotiations. His gesture earns him respect, as well as their interest in further exploring the options with which he has presented them. Yes, it is just a movie, but it is most definitely true that there is an added value to cultural sensitivity.

Linguistic consultancy can be applied in a more specialized context as well. Companies, such as trust firms and consultancy firms, often work in teams, with each team responsible for dealing with a specific client or business partner. A linguistic consultant – having signed a confidentiality agreement, naturally – can delve into the specifics of a project, preparing the team for any linguistic eventuality while working on the project. In other words: training sessions would then be aimed at a specific client as well as the specifics involved in the project in question, in order to create knowledge and awareness of business and/or legal terminology that will come up. That way, the team is always well-prepared, even for impromptu phone calls or spur of the moment meetings. This will show the company off as engaged, prepared and professional.

Of course, here too, the culture of the relevant geographical region would be included in the training sessions.

Linguistics consultants also prove their value when providing support, such as additional training in preparation for important scheduled meetings, presentations, pitches, and so on, as well as being able to edit documents on short notice.

All in all, in the field of international, a linguistics consultant can really make an enormous contribution to the professionalism of a company, something that is well worth the investment.

Four eyes (are better than two)

For many experienced translators, what I’m about to say will be nothing new, but I feel it is important enough to devote a blog post to.

In order to deliver a high quality translation, a second reader is a must. Even the most accurate translator will make spelling mistakes, miss a grammatical point or two, even forget to translate the odd word or snippet. It happens to the best of us.

Since a translator is so immersed in their translation – as well they should be – they will likely miss the odd mistake or oversight even on a second or third reading, no matter how much distance they will attempt to take from their own work. Our brain is wired to fill in blanks, to view as complete that which is not complete, to see as correct that which is not correct – this is called multistable perception (at least in visual phenomena) – especially when it involves small, almost negligible points. The likelihood of the translator’s brain falling into that trap increases the deeper they get into their translation. That is why a fresh pair of eyes on a translated text is often the best method of spotting translation errors of any kind. In addition, taking the brain’s quirks into account, it stands to reason that the more comprehensive a project is, the greater the necessity for a second reader.

My experience has taught me that there are a number of things to take into account when using a second reader.

Completeness. When you do decide to use a second reader, it is usually a good idea to present them with the original of the translated document. They may spot certain oversights that you have missed, such as a skipped word or phrase, or a misinterpreted sentence.

Quality. When you ask someone to be your second reader, it is good to be sure that you ask someone whom you know can be trusted to be critical, but kind. That last point may seem superfluous or even wimpy, but I have seen even the most experienced translator be shaken (though perhaps only momentarily) by overly harsh criticism of their work. As it is, a second reader is not there to critique your translation, but rather to help ensure the highest possible quality of the finished work. They are there to work with you – the translator – in the client’s best interest.

Language. If at all possible, use someone who is a little more language oriented and precise than your average person. They are more likely to spot little mistakes which someone who is not so much of a language purist might miss. (In fact, for some people I know linguistic and grammatical precision is almost a game of ‘spot the mistake’ – that can be annoying, but also oh-so-useful.) Particularly in legal translations, the kinds of tiny mistakes I’m talking about can create huge and expensive issues (see, for instance, what is commonly known as The Million Dollar Comma Case. This case didn’t involve a translation, but the person drafting the contract would certainly have benefitted from a nit-picking, grammatically precise second reader.).

Jargon and technical know-how. Especially for translations involving technical terminology, it is extremely useful to have for a second reader someone who is familiar with the specific field the translation deals with. For instance: an essay on the ins and outs of aviation law would benefit from someone familiar with this field, due to certain domain-specific jargon specific. A similar example: when translating a text about a specific treaty, you will likely use certain terms and phrases in your translation because they are also used in the official text of the treaty concerned. A person versed in the field or at the very least aware of the treaty and where to find it is much more likely to take this into account (which will in turn cost them less time in weeding out what they would otherwise perceive as your mistakes).

Corrections. Agree with your second reader how they will provide you with their feedback. It will be tempting for some second readers to make changes directly in the text and then simply hand back the ‘corrected version’ to the translator. In my experience that is not the way to go, particularly when it concerns texts containing technical (in my case legal) language. Certain phrases might seem awkward or even incorrect to a second reader, but if it concerns words or phrases in the specific context of a treaty or contract, for example, it could be correct in that instance. (Again, here it helps if the second reader knows something about the field your translation concerns.) I would therefore always recommend using track changes and/or comments/notes. Also, agree on what needs correcting: is it only mistakes and oversights, or are stylistic suggestions welcome as well?

Context. Just as context and purpose affect your translation choices, so too will it be important for a second reader to know the context and purpose of a translation. This will aid them in their assessment of what may be acceptable and what may not be for the translation at hand. This point goes mostly to the stylistics of a translation and to (using the right words on the right occasion).

Confidentiality. Many of the documents we translate for our clients are subject to confidentiality. It goes without saying that a second reader should also be bound by confidentiality. For that reason, it is good practice to inform your second reader that confidentiality is required for the translation at hand, and to have the second reader agree to such confidentiality – in writing if possible. It may seem like an exaggerated measure, but it is only fair to your clients and to yourself.

Fee. When you approach a second reader for your project, solve the issue of payment as early on as possible. I usually have them read a sample and ask how long they expect to take to read the full translation based on that sample. Based on their response, you can then agree on a reasonable (flat) fee. Of course, you have to keep in mind that your having them read your translation with a critical eye should not cost you your entire revenues from the project – a second reading is necessary polish. Don’t be stingy, but don’t give away your entire income either. You have, after all, put a great deal of time and effort into your translation and should reap the rewards.

Interest. Finally, and this may be a point of luxury, see if you can find a second reader that is even moderately interested in the text you present them with, or at the very least with its implications, impact or context. This may sound like a silly thing to remark, but there are certain issues involved here.A second reader who is bored to tears by a text is far more likely to overlook any errors, as they will have a hard time concentrating on their reading and will just want it to be over as soon as possible. The less interested your second reader is, the longer they will take parsing your document for errors, and this goes to economics – the more time they need, the more money you will spend. On the other hand, the more engaged your second reader is, the more likely they will be to think along with you in order to deliver the best quality possible to the product..

So there is an outline of things to take into consideration for the use of second readers.

A final remark: these days I tend to use second readers only for very complex documents, documents that have high impact (such as a court ruling), or for (extremely) lengthy documents. For short, relatively standard documents, I usually wait a little while, then read through them again to ensure that everything has been translated and translated accurately and correctly. I will then ask my partner to read through the document for language to finish the process.

I will now present this text to my partner before posting it up on our blog. He might spot a few mistakes…

Let Purpose Drive Your Translation

In any translation, precision and attention to detail are essential, but translation is more than just moving a set of words from one language into another. Translation is both a job and an art. It’s as important to create an accurate translation of an original text, as it is to maintain – as much as possible – the original author’s voice and the integrity of the text. This holds true when translating fiction, naturally, but holds equally true when doing technical translations.

I am specialized in the translation of all things legal from Dutch to English and vice versa. It goes without saying that the ‘art-part’ of translating is far less important when translating legal documents; the author’s voice really doesn’t come into it all that much. But when translating letters containing legal information, the ‘voice’ already becomes more significant. And when translating the writing of legal scholars, the author really comes into play.

Then there is the issue of readability. There are times when the above mentioned writings are written in a style that suits Dutch academic style just fine, but that will simply not read well for an English or American audience. When that happens, how far are you permitted to go in re-writing the words at your fingertips?

This last issue has almost more to do with communication than with translation. Let me explain.

In the case of our company’s work process, I make sure to find out from the client at the outset of any translation what the purpose is of the translation they want from me, and which audience(s) it is meant for. Is it a translation just for the purpose of handing it off to a few personal friends and family so they can understand what the author has written? Is it intended to be included as a courtesy for potential English readers of a book to be published on the Dutch market? Or is the text intended for an international market, i.e. to be published in England and/or America?

The answers to these questions can greatly influence how much you will be able to or even are required to restyle the piece you are translating. Nowadays I tend to discuss the implications of a translation for a specific purpose, and to indicate what stylistic changes might be required. In cooperation with the client, I will then either suggest or simply implement these changes in the first few pages of the translation for the client’s approval. Then, if we can agree on the style that would best suit the translation of the original piece and benefit its final purpose, the translation can be finished to the satisfaction of our client. Where style changes are significant, we tend to agree on a flat fee for the additional work that’s been done in the process of translating the text.

However this turns out, communication with the client is key during the entire process. Roughly, the three stages we discern in our process are:

  1. preliminary discussions during intake: what is the purpose of the translation, which audience and/or market is the translation intended for, what is required to meet the requirements of a translation that will serve its purpose? Note that during this stage, the author might express a preference to have his text translated exactly as is. If you feel that this is counterproductive to their purpose for the translation, be clear about it. It avoids messy and confusing discussions at a later stage (for instance, when the author tries to get the translation published and style proves to be an impediment to publication).
  2. feedback during (the early stages of) translation: are the stylistic approaches taken by the translation to the author’s satisfaction and can the author agree with your approach? Again, agreeing on what works and what doesn’t can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the long run.
  3. feedback once the translation is done: a final feedback session at the end of a translation can often clear up any remaining issues that might have arisen in the process of completing the work for your client. Be careful to avoid getting into lengthy polishing sessions, though. One run-through is usually the standard for us. Anything more than that should, in all fairness, be billable.

This advice goes as much to translation as to client communications. A clear understanding of what parties want and what is required leads to a clarity that a good and expertly executed translation should provide for everyone involved: client, audience and translator.