Sunday, July 26, 2009

Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, Perennial, 1999.

Spoiler warning!

I confess, this is one of my favourite books ever. I must have read it more than ten times in the past few years, and now the paper covers of my copy are curled back, their lamination peeling... So the purpose of this review will be to explain what I like about it, and what sort of readers I think would enjoy it.

I am aware that Stephenson is an author people either love or hate. He writes long works, with intricate plots and descriptive digressions. I think some readers either lack the patience to follow where he leads, or just don't get it. To me, each work seems well-constructed, the digressions are relevant and entertaining, and the writing is good enough to make the effort worthwhile. I like it when authors assume their readers are intelligent enough to follow subtle and complex plots and to understand the connections between various sections. I feel trusted and respected when authors don't have to spell everything out too much. I am sharing a journey of discovery with the characters, and in some cases I know things the characters do not. In the case of Stephenson, his writing style makes the story-telling feel authentic and honest.

Cryptonomicon is the name of a collection of works on cryptanalysis, the breaking of codes. This theme runs through the two time lines of the novel. One part takes place during WW2, the other in the IT business world of the late 1990's. The use of encryption and data security is important in both contexts, and all the characters become connected to it in one way or another.

The WW2 story centres on three characters: Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician recruited by the US military to work in cryptanalysis and to ensure that the enemy doesn't realize when its codes have been broken; Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine who becomes involved in the project to disguise the code-breaking from the enemy, by staging a series of somewhat absurd "coincidences" that are supposed to explain the Allies' remarkable successes; and Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier and engineer, whose endurance and ingenuity, and internal anguish, serve an important role in both parts of the story.

Meanwhile, the story in the 1990's involves Lawrence's grandson, Randy Waterhouse, a programmer involved in a high-tech project in the Philippines, which develops into more than he expected, and also the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. These stories are interconnected not just by the attempts of the younger generations to learn about the actions of their relatives during WW2, but also thematically, with the relevance of data security in modern-day business being revealed as just as important as it was in warfare.

A quick note on the historical nature of the story: While some real-life characters appear in the story, including Alan Turing and General MacArthur, and many real events are portrayed, this is a subtly different world, as can be deduced from the existence of two fictional island countries: the Sultanate of Kinakuta near Borneo, and Qwghlm, north of Scotland. So it can be counted as "alternative history", although unlike much of this genre, the point here is not to guess what caused the divergence from our reality.

The novel is well-constructed. It alternates between characters and periods, but the segments of each time line are in chronological order, so we watch the development of the WW2 plot in parallel with the 1990's business plot, and gradually learn thing about what happened in the former and how they are relevant to the latter.

During my many readings of the novel, I was interested in different strands of the plot each time. The world of 1990's IT business was fascinating to me at first, though the technology discussed has since become a bit dated (inevitably). There are adventures in the forests of the Philippines, and under the ocean. The war stories show a wide range of experiences, from amusing and absurd, through real nightmares, heroic survival schemes, to self-sacrifice and redemption. The plot strands map a rich spectrum of human experiences, from pure survival to fighting, competing in business, falling in love, self-sacrifice, and even seemingly trivial things like dental pain and the world of role playing games.

While so much of the novel contains humour and entertaining writing, it maintains a core of honest, sincere morality. This makes the story more important than a light read. It obliges the reader to think about issues like avoiding a future holocaust and the most moral and appropriate use of gold stolen from war victims. The idea suggested here, forming a system of educating the potential victims of genocide to protect themselves, is not elaborately described, and some characters allude to its weaknesses. I wonder if the author plans to write about it elsewhere.

I enjoy reading this novel because it has a balance of everything: humour and sincerity; well-developed and authentic characters along with an exciting plot; interesting ideas and good writing; historical flavour and cutting-edge technology (at the time of writing). I recommend it to readers who enjoy long, wide-ranging stories, and who are patient and open-minded. I will write about Stephenson's related trilogy, the Baroque Cycle, in later posts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Being a life-long learner

You are what you know. No matter what happens in your life, the knowledge you gain is yours to use to your advantage and to share with others. Since the world is changing so rapidly, it is worth assuming that there is a vast amount of new knowledge out there. It's up to each individual to seek out and acquire this knowledge pro-actively.

Being a life-long learner is firstly a disposition, and also a decision. Ever since I can remember myself, I have observed the world around me and absorbed as much as I could. I realized that learning new things is fun, fulfilling and essential to my growth as a person. Assimilating the new knowledge and adding it to my previous knowledge gives me a wider perspective on life.

So, what actions do I take as a life-long learner?

I love to read. Every day I spend at least two hours reading. This includes the newspapers and news websites, various blogs and email newsletters, and books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you think you don't enjoy reading, it might be worth reconsidering. Perhaps you can find a particular sort of material you enjoy reading and start there.

I listen to the radio and podcasts. I choose what interests me and devote, on average, an hour a day to listening to this sort of audio content. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, the types of podcasts I listen to include fiction readings, discussions, lectures and educational talks.

I enjoy attending lectures and workshops. Some are in my professional field (translating), like those organized by the Israel Translators Association and other, local groups. I am a member of a networking organization, BNI, and often attend the training workshops they offer. I also attend a Master Mind group, where business people discuss various issues and support each other. I usually attend 2-4 lectures, workshops or learning events each month.

I also spend time talking to people and listening to what they have to say. I learn a lot from the experience of others. The differences and similarities between people and their motivations fascinate me. Active listening, with learning in mind, means that conversation is not just a way of being social and passing the time, but part of my learning experience.

Luckily for me, I learn a lot from my work. I translate and edit a wide range of academic and business material, and each job teaches me something new. Sometimes this material is interesting, sometimes rather routine, but I never find it boring as I decided long ago not to be bored. I also learn a lot about writing and editing and the usage of language from having to think about what I am writing or editing.

One aspect of being a life-long learner is that you must be open minded, and sometimes be willing to reconsider what you thought you knew. I have changed my mind about various things after learning more about them. Being dogmatic and absolutely certain about things prevents real learning and the sort of changes that lead to personal development.

Another way of looking at learning is that everyone who has been a teacher, mentor or inspiration to you in your life must have learned what they knew from others. Once you have learned enough, you can become a teacher, mentor and inspiration yourself. This is how society passes on the knowledge, skills and experience from one generation to the next.

I invite readers to embark on their own journey of life-long learning, in whatever areas interest them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Changing Israel's road signs

Language can be a political weapon. Show me how you use language, and I'll tell you who you are. This is particularly true in the sensitive context of Israel.

Israel's Transportation Minister, Israel Katz, has proposed changing the road signs, which are all written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, so that the Arabic and English will just be transliterations of the Hebrew place names. Until now, in cases where the place had a different name in Arabic or English, this was what was used on the signs.

For example: At the moment, the Hebrew says "Yerushalayim", the Arabic says "Ursalim al-Kuds" (which is the official Israeli-Arabic version of the city's name, while Palestinians themselves prefer just "al-Kuds"), and the English says "Jerusalem". The new signs would transliterate "Yerushalayim" into the Arabic and Latin alphabets. The local Arabic names of Arab towns such as Nazareth would disappear, being replaced by a transliteration of their Hebrew names (so instead of "Nassar" it would say "Nazrat"), and the English versions of place names familiar from the Bible and other sources would be replaced with the modern Hebrew names (so "Tiberias" would become "Tverya" and "Caesarea" would become "Qesarya").

Minister Katz is quoted as saying:

"If someone wants to turn Jewish Jerusalem into Palestinian 'al-Kuds,' it won't happen with the aid of road signs, not with this government and definitely not with this minister," Katz told Yediot Aharonot.

"Almost every Israeli town has a former name," Katz said. "There are Palestinian maps where Israeli towns have Arabic names from before 1948. They refer to these places as settlements. I will not lend a hand to it on our signs."

The political bias behind this idea is obvious from his own statements. This sort of one-sided, intolerant and insensitive thinking will do little to help peace and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Not even allowing the Arabic names of Arab towns to be displayed in public seems like another attempt to deny their very existence.

As a language professional involved in the usage of English, I think they should also keep the familiar English forms, and where necessary, the English should transliterate the way a Hebrew name is pronounced, rather than the way it is spelled.

This is also my opinion regarding transliterations on road signs and English language maps in Greece, where they seem to use a transliteration of the Greek spelling, which doesn't help English speakers unfamiliar with Greek letter combinations (like "mp" = "b").

Road signs should help people find their way around, in the language they are familiar with. I object to the introduction of political considerations into this area of life, and hope that this idea is dropped.

Note: Please forgive any mistakes in my transliterations of the Arabic place names, as I am not an expert and based them on my best guess of how to write these words. If anyone wishes to correct me, please leave a comment.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Haifa tourism threatened by military construction

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, there is a plan to build a large building in the Haifa port, 150 meters wide and ten stories high, just below the Bahai gardens (a Unesco World Heritage site) and the German Colony, two of the city's main tourist attractions. This building would block the view to the sea.

(See picture of what it is expected to look like).

This week it has been reported that construction has started, but that later another site further east will become available for this naval building, where it would not overshadow any tourist sites. So they will first build it in the original site in the Haifa port, then tear it down once the new building is ready. No estimate was given of how many years this would take.

This seems ridiculous. If they admit that it will have an impact on the city's tourism, they should not build it at all at this site. If they build it here, the chances that it will ever be relocated to the other site are lower than if they just decided to start building in the other site as soon as possible. It is true that planning permission takes a long time to obtain in Israel, but in this case the procedure should be speeded up in order to prevent a mistake that will cost millions. But they argue that this building is urgently needed for military reasons.

One of the main problems with this story is that the purpose of this building, known as the Polynom or Polynomial, is shrouded in military secrecy. Presumably some members of the municipal planning board are allowed to know why it is so important. There have been public protests against this construction, including some led by the two green parties that stood in the recent municipal elections. But in general, the Israeli public tends to think that protesting against such decisions is likely to be hopeless, and to accept that military reasons outweigh any other considerations.

Readers of this blog considering a visit to Haifa are invited to come as soon as possible, before this blot on our sealine is completed!

Charles Stross - The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives, Ace, 2004.

Spoiler warning!

This novel tells the story of Bob Howard, who works in the Laundry, a secret government department devoted to containing the contacts between our world and other worlds. These worlds are reached through arcane mathematics (or magic), and contain various monsters, powers and spells which can all be explained in scientific-sounding terms. This is all based on the Turing Theorem:

[...] everything you know about the way this universe works is correct - except that this isn't the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back [...] (p. 17).

Bob was enlisted in the Laundry after coming across some mathematical formula that could have led to the destruction of his city. People who "know too much" have to join the secret organization that controls this sort of knowledge. This reminded me of the film "Men in Black", except here there is no memory-erasing option. Imagine your life being changed in an instant, when you discover something of great importance, and as a result are forced to work in a strange but bureaucratic job for the rest of your life. Bob seems to embrace this change and tries to develop a useful career. He starts out working in tech support, and as the story starts he is promoted to active duty.

Bob's first major mission involves rescuing Mo, a British academic who is being refused an exit visa from America. For me one of the things that most stretched my suspension of disbelief was that Mo taught in a philosophy department, and her research there brought her to the attention of the American defense establishment. The idea that philosophy scholars could produce theories of any practical interest to the Defense Department or the Laundry seems incredible in my experience. Perhaps the author was more familiar with science and technology departments than the humanities.

Bob meets up with Mo, then discovers that things are more complicated than originally thought, and decides to leave the country before things get worse. In the one major inconsistency of the book, it seems that he phones Mo to tell her about this, only to discover that she has been kidnapped. This phone call is presented, throughout the remainder of the story, as having been initiated by Mo, but it doesn't seem like it at the time:

"Hello? Who is this?"
"Mo? This is Bob."
"Bob -"
"Yeah. Look, about this afternoon."
"It's so great to hear -"
"It was great seeing you too, but that's not what I'm calling about. Something's come up at home and I've got to leave [...]"

I found it very strange that this was later presented as Mo calling Bob, and that it hasn't been corrected in later editions of the book. But this is just a minor mistake.

The story develops, with Mo being rescued, recruited to the Laundry, then kidnapped again. Bob and his team have to rescue her from a very strange location, and Bob demonstrates his wide range of knowledge and skills.

Bob is a likable character, with his humour, intelligence, impatience with office politics and impressive adjustment to the needs of his new career. Stross recently wrote a series of posts on his blog about his early career in IT (before he became a full-time writer), and the influences are obvious, including small touches like the management going around removing Dilbert cartoons from the walls of partitions before visits of higher-up bosses (p. 5-6), which was mentioned as a practice in one of Stross's jobs.

The story is entertaining and intelligent, the characters are engaging and the whole set-up, while seeming far-fetched in some ways (the magic and multiverse), is real enough in other ways (the office politics) for readers to identify with.

The book also contains the novella "The Concrete Jungle", another Bob Howard story, which addresses the topic of surveillance with a twist. This contains a memorable description of an unhackable computer:

Didn't they know that the only unhackable computer is one that's running a secure operating system, welded inside a steel safe, burried under a ton of concrete at the bottom of a coal mine guarded by the SAS and a couple of armoured divisions, and switched off?

I recommend this novel, and look forward to reading the next Laundry novel, The Jennifer Morgue.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Added value in academic translation

[The following post is based on a short lecture I gave at my BNI chapter meeting this week].

Some translators are only willing to translate the text they are given, as is. If any changes are required, they expect the author to make the changes in advance, in the original text, or afterwards, in the translation. They don't want to make too much of an effort, and have a minimalist definition of their duty.

My policy is different. Once I accept an academic translation, I consider it my role to do my best to ensure that the text is published to the author's satisfaction. I collaborate with the author to make the text publishable, with each of us contributing our own skills and expertise. My skills extend beyond just knowing two languages. I see myself as an intelligent reader, capable of understanding the research I translate (obviously, if I don't understand it, I don't accept the job), and I also have some experience with the requirements of publishers and journals. The author's skills are related to the research subject and the awareness of what is most important in the text.

One major task I sometimes undertake is editing the text. Many translators are willing to do what is known as "linguistic" or "stylistic" editing of work in their target language. Here I am referring to something more demanding - actual content editing of a text.

A book I translated about four years ago started out as a Ph.D. dissertation. It was accepted for publication by an academic publisher, but the author knew it would require some editing, apart from being translated from Hebrew to English. I read the dissertation, understood the main points being made, and realized that one of the main problems it would have as a book was the emphasis on secondary literature. Students have to prove that they have read the previous research in their field, and have to build on it, agree or disagree with opinions and methodology, adopt or disprove conclusions, of previous researchers. This sort of writing took up the first two chapters of the dissertation. The author and I discussed what to do with this section, and decided to rearrange the material, selecting only the most important previous research, the parts relevant to the later discussion. These would be rearranged into a chapter entitled "Methodology and Terminology". I was given complete freedom to decide what to include and where to place it. I did this editing while translating, building up the new chapter as I went along. This work led to the author recognizing me as the Editor of the book, with my name on the inside title page, which is more than the usual recognition translators receive, at the end of the Acknowledgements.

A more common type of added value is adapting the text to the formal requirements of the publisher or journal. There are style guides or instructions for authors, and when the translator knows in advance to which publisher or journal the book or article will be submitted, this makes the work much easier.

Among these formal requirements: the length of the text; the method of referring to other work (footnotes, end notes, references in parentheses in the text); the form of bibliographical references; the use of US or UK English (which goes well beyond spelling differences); most now require gender-neutral language, which can be challenging when translating from Hebrew, where such neutrality is more difficult and less socially required; and much more.

When preparing a book as a "camera-ready copy", it is also necessary to adjust the size of the printed area, the font size, the indentations and the headers to the exact measurements required by the publisher, and other such adjustments related to the final appearance of the printed page.

Some of the work I have mentioned is intelligent and interesting (especially the editing), while other aspects are mechanical and boring. However, even the boring aspects get easier with practice, and providing an all-inclusive service does impress customers and create return business.

My advice to academic translators is to consider whether they are willing to offer such services, and if so, to price them appropriately. Some simple things are easy to do during the translating itself and don't take up much more time (especially for those who know how to use their word processor's full range of features), while other jobs are more complex. If seeing the end product in print is a good motivator for you, the extra effort may be worth it.