Strangers on a train: where words don’t work

Over 25 years ago I was unexpectedly thrown into a travel situation where nobody spoke English. Furthermore, nobody spoke a Latin based language, so my semi-fluent Spanish and any verbal communications were out. For four long days, in order to eat, find the bathroom, know when to get back on the train, do “anything”, I had to find alternate means of communication. I was essentially left to the same devices the Phonecians used when they encountered Etruscians for the first time. It was both an elevating and humbling experience.

But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much.

I’ve been in the translation industry going on 12 years now. Every day SMEs and linguists focus on how to get just the right meaning to transform complex, technical sentences into language that the target audience will grasp, via remote communications. But how do you communicate when neither party has a common language, or any means of verbal communication? For years there have been debates about developing a second “icon/image” based language (think airline safety card.) McDonald’s even created a visual “language” of icons to express nutritional ingredients on packaging worldwide. But overall, little progress has been made in establishing a “standard” set of icons for daily use.

Ironically, left to my own devices, I found out that an astonishing amount of communication can take place with no words, just gestures, images, and perhaps a heart felt connection with a “stranger on a train.”

It was Spring of 1982 and I had just finished a series of cruises across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through the more visited Greek Isles. We were in the midst of a severe recession, I had accumulated 5 weeks of “comp” time and had decided to use it all at once. I had wanted to complete the trip with a visit to friends in the UK and thought “wouldn’t it be fun” to take a train from Athens to Belgium, and then take the ferry to England?

My travel agent had reserved a “first class” compartment on a Greek/Yugloslav train (with dining car) that wouldn’t require a transfer until Munich. Being 1982, this meant going through several Communist countries, including the region that erupted into unimaginable violence after the break up of Yugoslavia. As a result, western tourists were not the norm, and nobody, that is nobody, spoke a Latin-based tongue!  The first class compartment proved to be a cubby hole with bunk beds. Not only was there no dining car, there wasn’t even a food vendor (e.g. somebody in a babushka peddling crackers from a basket) on the train. I soon discovered that I was probably the only person on board without provisions. I had one Greek candy bar to start the trip with.

Being the May day holiday there were about 50 Greek soldiers on board, evidently on some sort of leave. Although none of them spoke a word of English, they were intrigued with the novelty of an American, and shared wine, grapes and cheese. Being a credible artist, I was able to draw a map of the USA, delineate California and draw a bridge for San Franciso. “Oh, Hollywood!” one of them exclaimed. The only English I was to hear for 3 days.

I did have Greek currency, and using hand gestures, pointing at numerals on my watch, was able to decipher how many minutes we would stay at each train station. While sharing the food I’d bought with some of the soldiers, we tried to “explain” to one another what our professional backgrounds were. One young sergeant pantomimed plowing a field (farmer), another was a good enough actor to make make it clear that he had driven a taxi. I was a trainer and sales support person for digital typesetters. Impossible to communicate? Not really … I drew a picture of moveable, metal type (which they all understood) and then drew arrows, putting the type on a computer screen with a keyboard. One young man pretended to type and pointed at the headline of his Greek newspaper. They “got it.”

This was turning out to be too easy.

That trip was memorable for many reasons. Floating through what is now Bosnia / Herzagovia, the passing country side was like a trip back in time. Peasants were dressed in traditional garb; if it weren’t for an occasional automobile, it could have been 1860. Farm women were slaughtering pigs. The apple blossoms were in bloom. It was some of the most heart-achingly beautiful landscape I have seen, before or since.

Ironically, I should have felt lonely and isolated, being the only one who spoke English. But for the next 4 days I made many friends who were determined to draw my attention to points of interest … all without words. As we crossed on bridge, an older man (Slovakian, I think) make gestures to indicate that the bridge had been blown up. Then he drew a swastika and pointed at himself, pushing on the plunger. He wanted me to know that he had been in the resistance and had helped end the war one bridge at a time. I pretended to pin a medal on his breast, and he loved it.

Several soldiers pulled out photos of wives or sweet hearts, and sometimes even used pocket calendars to indicate when an impending marriage was coming. (Gestures showed invisible rings being exchanged.) I gestured throwing rice, which drew blank stares. Oh well, sometimes you do need words when cultural habits vary.

At the end of 4 days, I hadn’t learned a word of Greek / Croatian / Slovakian or Rumanian, and my fellow passengers certainly hadn’t learned a word of English. But in that bubble of time, in the microcosm of that train, we had learned a great deal about one another and had communicated on the most human level I had experienced in my young adult life.

When the time came to change trains in Germany, and we had to part our ways, we said our good byes. One young soldier (the taxi driver who was to get married) took my hand, placed it on his heart, and pointed at me, at him, to indicated that we were friends. And then he used his fingers to indicate “walking” and then pointed up, to “God.” In an instant, I realized that he was telling me to “go with God.” I wasn’t embarassed in the slightest by his kiss on both cheeks. I was humbled and honored. I remember giving him something as a token of friendship. It may have been a keychain, or a trade show chatschka … it may have been worth about 50 cents, but it was American, and it meant something to him. (Does he still have it today?)

Walking towards my next train, I appreciated how important language is. But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much. Not when we are one-on-one with a “stranger on a train.”

My first Fall

Until June, I had lived in California all of my life. Through lengthy business trips over the years, I had spent up to 3 months in parts of the USA where “Fall Colors” occur, usually catching glimpses of the color at the end of day across a Day’s Inn parking lot.

The idea of trees changing dramatic colors and signaling a shift into a harsh winter always seemed an exotic notion to me, perhaps the way “snow birds” feel when viewing palm trees out of their winter timeshare windows. I had so many palm trees in my life throughout various parts of California that they still seem a bit like weeds to me, rather than symbols of an exotic retreat.

No matter how much time you spend around Fall Color, if you don’t actually live there, it’s not the same.

My new home, (Portland, Oregon) has a surprising amount of Fall Color. Not as dramatic as New England or Pennsylvania, but impressive none the less. With a latitude similar to Paris France, we’re far enough North for the Sun to get low and cast a nearly horizontal light through gold, bronze, even heliotrope colored trees that have black/green fir covered slopes in the background. When you live in such a place, the changes in the trees takes on a significance that is difficult to grasp for a visitor from a milder climate.

I went to the zoo last weekend, and the Lorikeets were sometimes difficult to spot amidst the flaming foliage. It was almost enough color to make your eyes wince. Children were dressed in bright Halloween costumes. The experience was almost cinematic, a bit like walking from SUNSET BLVD into JULIET OF THE SPIRITS.

The changing colors (and decreasing amount of leaves) act like a slow motion sun dial, indicating the shift into the dark time of the year. To someone who lived all his life with two seasons (wet and dry) it is a wonder to behold. Some colors almost defy description, or cry out for new names (crimson/scarlet/vermilion). Viewing such outbursts of color through the tinted windows of a swiftly moving rental car is not the same as stepping off your own front porch, feeling the faint warmth of sun and being assaulted by an orgy of color on the way to your mail box. “These are my trees, these are my colors, they are changing for me.” It was difficult to get that emotional about a never changing palm tree. (Well, there was Palm Sunday, but that was one day a year.)

Transiting childhood in my home town of Merced, California, there were only a handful of exotic trees that changed colors. They were usually found on the lawns of the well-heeled. Such trees require a lot of water and we could go 9 months without rain, so high maintenance was the word. As I’ve revisited my birthplace over the years, the “color” trees have gradually died off and were rarely replaced. For children growing up there now, it is kind of like having one or two crayons instead of the whole box. Winter in Merced was no picnic; temperatures were relatively mild (we screamed when it hit 40 degrees F). And it was not uncommon to not see the sun for more than 95 days at a time due to the ever present tule fog!

So after over half a century, this is my first “real” Fall …. and I can’t wait to go through a “real” winter, with occasional snow, ice, the whole nine yards. (Isn’t that what gas fire places were made for?) I can hardly wait until Spring, when the cycle is complete. The currency of freshly minted, new green leaves will really mean something after an absence of several months. I can hardly wait.

Life in Life Sciences

During my current job search I’ve taken a fairly extensive poll from all of my contacts to see how they are faring in our current, troubled economy. I found that my friends who feel that they are experiencing the greatest job security work heavily in Life Sciences. This is true even w/in the translation / localization community. No one knows whether we can credit this to an aging population more dependent on health care products, or long product cycles, in which projects were funded before the economic crises. Regardless of the cause, Life Sciences is a good place to be these days.

Do you have to be a chemist or scientist?

Life Sciences encompasses pharmaceutical, medical instrumentation and host of other health related products. Although the highest visibility positions are for people with a hard core scientific background, there are many opportunities for content creators in this field. Life Sciences lives and dies based on the effective exchange of information. And that is what content creation and management is all about. Furthermore, Life Science products from North America are deriving more revenue from overseas markets than in recent years. So this is an extremely important sector to translation vendors.

Issues specific to Life Sciences content

In revisiting my own CV credentials, I discovered that I have far more Life Sciences experience than I realized. When working for any vendor (translation or otherwise) you have many clients from many industries. But for the better part of 8 long years, nearly all of my work focused on typical Life Sciences content, like IFUs (Instructions for Use), Chemistries, MMs (Maintenance Manuals) and OPS (Operations Manuals.) These documents each have unique requirements, and also special challenges in translation and localization. A series of “best practices” (to be covered in a later blog) can ensure that content in such publications is flexible, portable, and reusable.

In addition, I designed and fixed templates in a variety of formats for labels. Labels are a common challenge because (a) they must fold down to a small size (look at the label in your contact lens solution), (b) be readable (hopefully w/o a magnifying glass) and (c) often repeat information in over a dozen languages! Certain languages (like German, Russian and Greek) are very prone to text “expansion” … in other words, the same information will take up more lines of text (and vertical space) than the English source materials.

Trends towards more flexible Life Sciences content

Gradually, most of the content in Life Sciences is moving over to topic based authoring through DITA. (See Wikipedia overview.) By authoring content as topics or reusable chunks, Life Sciences customers are able to reuse content more effectively, and assemble alternate versions of documents for similar products.

Worth investigating

If you are involved in writing, content management, XML/DITA, image design or similar fields, you may want to examine opportunities within Life Sciences. For now, in this troubled economy, there seems to be a lot more “life” there than in other industries and sectors. And there are no signs of these opportunities fading any time soon.