Friday, March 27, 2009

Human rights and "religious defamation"

It has been reported that this week the UN Human Rights Council voted for a resolution declaring "religious defamation" to be a human rights violation.

I have been unable to find the text of the actual resolution, but it has been quoted in several reports as saying:
"Defamation of religion is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence [...] Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."

There are several interesting issues here, matters of principle that seem to have become confused and complicated by people's perceptions of rights.

First, what is a human right? In a philosophy class I learned that we have the "right" to do whatever we want, provided it does not infringe upon anyone else's "right". For example, we were told, we can walk anywhere we want, until we enter someone's private property. In that case, the owner's right to privacy outweighs our right to freedom of movement. This means that a right is what we have permission from society to do. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

Human rights are defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document well worth reading and thinking about. Readers may find that several of the articles are routinely violated by various countries, including signatories. The Declaration proclaims the freedom and equality of all human beings.

Now, let us turn to religious belief. Members of any one of the major faiths believe that their religion is absolutely and exclusively true. Most faiths aim, to a greater or lesser degree, to convert all human beings to their belief. It is implicit in this belief structure that human beings are not, in fact, equal. The faithful often consider members of their faith to be superior to non-believers or members of other faiths. In some cases they consider only members of their own group to be living a correct and moral life, and that only they will be rewarded in the afterlife. They also do not support complete freedom, since they tend to consider people questioning or leaving the faith to be a sin, and have little tolerance for the lifestyles of other religions and non-believers.

In fact, there seems to be a stark contradiction between holding a religious faith and fully supporting the principles of freedom and equality promoted by the Universal Declaration.

Religious freedom, the right to believe and worship, is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration (article 18), seemingly without any awareness of this contradiction, though it does mention the right to change one's religion.

The latest resolution seems to have gone much further. It refers to "defamation of religion", which can be defined as "saying something offensive to members of one religion". The implication is that all individuals must be respectful of all religions, even or especially those they do not believe in.

This is in clear violation of one of the other rights guaranteed, the right to freedom of expression (article 19). Of course, there has to be some limit even to freedom of expression. People are not usually considered to have the "right" to freedom of expression if it incites violence or discrimination. However, the sort of statements some religious people would consider as "defaming" their religion, or "insulting", "offensive" or "blasphemous", do not necessarily incite violence or discrimination. They may merely express the speaker's disapproval of a particular religious belief or practice.

As I have said in a previous post, when people choose to be "offended", they decide that someone is "provoking" them. If religious believers had greater confidence in their religion, they might find it in themselves to ignore the attitudes of non-believers, magnanimously accepting that not everyone has to accept the same set of beliefs and behaviours.

I do not wish to single out any particular religion, since the principle is the same for all of them. However, I believe that the Human Rights Council would do better to work for the creation a universal set of values that would really guarantee the human rights of freedom and equality instead of adopting "politically correct" resolutions that prevent freedom of expression and support proponents of beliefs in clear opposition to the Universal Declaration.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A freelance translator's time management considerations

First of all, there is a limit to how much translating anyone can do in an hour. Of course, to some extent it depends on the translator's skill and experience, and on the nature of the material. Sometimes the translation just flows, but there are times when it is necessary to look up terms, names of people or companies, and this slows down the process. Sometimes the writing style of the original is unclear, and the translator has to spend time understanding it and conveying the same ideas in a clearer way in the target language.

Translators usually charge per word rather than per hour. Being paid by the hour would logically motivate people to work slower, while being paid by quantity should encourage faster work. A professional translator with any integrity cannot just work as fast as possible at the expense of the quality, so it's a fine art producing the best possible translation in a reasonable time.

This means that translators' income is a function of how much work they can do in an hour, times the number of hours they work per month. Most translators have busy times and dry times. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of a freelance career, there can be days or weeks without any work coming in. After acquiring a steady customer base, there can be an opposite problem. There can be times when several regular customers phone up with urgent work all at once, and the translator has to decide which jobs to accept, and in which order to do them. This requires prioritization.

When I started my freelance career several years ago, I first worked with agencies. They paid lower rates, but the advantage was a regular flow of work, and I learned a lot from the edited versions of my translations that were sent back to me. The other benefit of working for agencies is being one of the translators from their pool, so if I had to refuse a job, they found someone else to do it and didn't hold it against me.

Since I stopped working for agencies and have only direct customers, there is the risk of losing regular customers if I have to turn down any work. For example, I haven't heard from one particular law firm since I had to tell them I couldn't do an urgent job for them while I was working on something else equally urgent. Presumably they found someone else and stuck with them.

Another problem is balancing large, long-term projects with short, urgent jobs. When I translate an academic book, this project lasts for several months. During this time, I sometimes accept other short jobs from regular customers. Ideally, I would be able to concentrate only on one job at a time, but in reality I feel some loyalty and obligation to my regular customers, and I don't want to ask them to find someone else and risk losing them. So I take on these small jobs, and this delays my work on the book project.

The time management questions raised by this balancing act seem insoluble, but if any reader has any suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

TED Talks

One of my favourite activities is listening to lectures. I love hearing people talk about their expertise and experience. Learning is a life-long activity, and our horizons need to be expanded constantly in order to live a fulfilling life.

I recently discovered TED, the conference for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Since 1984, this annual conference has covered a wide range of subjects. The site has recently made freely available a vast range of videos of lectures, usually 18-20 minutes long, from the latest and previous conferences. On the site, you can search for lectures by theme, speaker or other tags.

Having found this vast wealth of knowledge and inspiration, I subscribed to the video podcasts through iTunes (an audio verison is also available, but then you'd miss the presentations...) and downloaded the 300+ video podcasts available (as well as getting the new ones as they are posted), and am currently working through the videos at a rate of 3-6 per day, depending on how much time I have. Please don't do this unless you have enough disk space on your computer! It's also worth deleting the videos you've seen. If you ever want to see them again, visit the site.

Note that I don't have a television and prefer to choose my own entertainment. It always upsets me when people say "Who has time to read a book?", but they still watch 3 hours of absolute rubbish on television every day. I also feel immune to the comment "Get a life!", because for me, not being a slave to television represents freedom and control of my life.

Anyway, this experience is enriching my life, both in terms of the wide range of contents, encompassing science, the environment, art, design, technology, society, music and every field of human endeavour imaginable, and also in terms of the wide range of presentation styles. Part of my journey of self-development in recent years has involved my transition from a shy, introverted person to someone capable of public speaking. I feel I still have a lot to learn about how to speak in public. Some of the speakers are clearly completely at ease, while others are nervous but still manage to get across both their message and their passion for their topic. I am truly inspired by many of the talks.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Weddings and marriage

This week I attended my sister's wedding (congratulations, Ilana and Chen!), and this made me think about the significance of wedding ceremonies and marriage as a social convention.

Human societies are usually composed of family units. A wedding denotes the formation of such a family unit. While it is possible in modern society for a couple to cohabit and start a family without any formal ceremony, it seems that most couples still choose to express their commitment to each other in public, and this tradition seems likely to continue.

Marriage is one of the most pervasive forms of human relationships, and it has developed because it suits the evolutionary needs of some people. Monogamy is one of the patterns that helps us pass on our genetic and spiritual heritage to the next generation. It is not suitable for everyone, however. I often wonder about those people who get married but sooner or later "cheat" on their partners. Do they really believe, during the ceremony when they declare their intention to have an exclusive relationship with one person for life, that they will be capable of this? Are they deluding themselves? Or do they already know that given the opportunity, they will seek other partners and break their vows? It seems to me that some people must know that monogamy is not for them, and they are deceiving their partner and possibly themselves when they agree to marry.

Wedding ceremonies are among the few ceremonies still practiced in many cultures. In some societies the birth of a child is celebrated; sometimes there is a puberty ceremony; while some people in modern society may experience no formal ceremony of any sort until their funeral!

I have attended weddings of three main types: Orthodox Jewish weddings, Church of England weddings, and civil weddings in a municipal registry office (in England). I also attended one wedding ceremony that was entirely invented by the bride and groom (who had previously been married in a civil ceremony abroad). There is a wide diversity in the details of the various ceremonies, but the common elements seem to be a declaration of intent in words, and the exchange of various symbols representing the marriage.

My sister's wedding was a Reform Jewish ceremony. This particular ceremony was much more egalitarian than the Orthodox ones I've seen. In this ceremony, there was an exchange of rings, and both bride and groom read from the Ketubah, which was phrased as an agreement between equals to form a family rather than a financial transaction where the groom purchases a wife. The ceremony also involved all the immediate family members (unlike church weddings, where the bride's father "gives her away" and after that the family is not involved). The parents of bride and groom stood beside them under the Chuppah, and the mother of the bride and father of the groom were asked to give their children the first drink of wine. In this case, for this first time in my experience, the groom's children (from a previous marriage) had a role to play, with his son acting as ring bearer and his daughter carrying a basket of rose petals to throw. They were excited to be under the Chuppah and participate in the ceremony. The ceremony ended with the traditional breaking of a glass, a symbol with many explanations.

I don't know if couples feel a great difference immediately after marriage, but knowing that they have made a public declaration of their love and commitment must mean something. Society still treats married couples differently to unmarried couples (and this is usually reflected in various laws and financial arrangements). Often, cynical people ask "why get married when the divorce rate is so high?". To this I can answer that there are no statistics on the separation rate of non-married cohabiting couples, but presumably it is similar. Couples who are of a monogamous tendency, who have chosen each other carefully and who are willing to work at their relationship, should enjoy a good chance of staying together. Divorces happen when one or both partner are not suited to monogamy and seek the excitement and variety of other partners, or when they are not compatible with each other and cannot find a way to bridge their differences.

I believe in love and I believe marriage can work, and I wish Ilana and Chen every happiness together!