Not being able to read signs and labels; not being able to ask for directions or help; intimidated by controls, checkpoints, and procedures I did not recognize. I was quietly praying that I would get through the next few days in Russia without any major trouble, feeling, I imagined, like millions of refugees and migrants arriving in what they hope is going to become their new home – though I had the re-assurance of my credit card and sufficient cash in my pocket to cover me over the coming days. I had met an ex-Russian tank commander now living in the USA, who had attended one of our localisation summer schools at the Localisation Research Centre (LRC) in Limerick. When I had asked him about what he perceived to be the major difference between living in Russia and living in the USA, he briefly reflected and then said: “Last week I was stopped for speeding by the police in the US. My first reaction, as a Russian, was to put my hand into my pocket, take out some cash and propose to ‘split the fine’. Then I realized how stupid that would have been. When you are stopped by police in the USA, these are precisely the two things you do not do: One to put you hand into your pocket without being ask to do so, and two to offer money to an officer.” I was curious about the days to come, to say the least.
I had met Demid Tishin, the main organizer of the 2012 Translation Forum Russia, at the last GALA Conference where he had asked me whether I would be interested in contributing to their event to be held in one of Russia’s most beautiful cities, Kazan. I jumped at the opportunity and was all excited about visiting the country that for me had remained behind an ‘iron curtain’ for much of my lifetime. What amazed me about the event itself was that, according to Demid, it had become Europe’s largest translation and localisation gathering. And I, the ‘expert’ in localisation, had not even heard about it.
So here I was in Kazan, 800km east of Moscow, deep down in Russia. My first impressions: a nice, clean, well-off city, inhabited exclusively by young people. And half of them seemed to get married on the Friday I arrived. My new Russian friends later told me that getting married in Russia is easy: it takes about 15 minutes in a marriage registration office (where there are long queues), plus a video camera to capture the proceedings, and a couple of friends to have a few drinks and something to eat afterwards; if you have the money, you could also rent out a nicely decorated car and go on a drive to mark the day. Young Russian couples seem to have much in common with young Russian Entrepreneurs: they don’t hang around and when they have made up their mind, they go for it.
TRF kicked off on Friday morning, with a long-ish opening ceremony which included some eminent speakers from such eminent institutions as the European Council and Russian Universities, speakers who were proud to say that they belonged to the anti-powerpoint brigade, speakers who could deliver their highly consistent and intelligent views without reading from a script. The diversity of the coming three days – yes, they did run the conference over the weekend! – became apparent right from the beginning, when speeches by the old professors where followed by talks from some of Russia’s most successful language and translation entrepreneurs. While the latter were focused on their business and turnover, the former didn’t care about business at all but were very concerned about the state of the Russian language and it’s (ab-)use by young, semi-illiterate digital natives. All talks and presentations during the plenary sessions were accompanied by psychedelic light shows and dramatic music supplied by professional DJs. The interpreters, all volunteers, did a fantastic job allowing me and a handful of non-Russian speakers among the record 500 participants to follow the proceedings, enjoying the privilege of learning about the concerns of translators and interpreters, academics, and businesses. I was busy tweeting about this amazing experience #tfrus, even trying to GoogleTranslate some of the Russian tweets – which provided me with additional inside into what was going on. It turned out that the Russian sense of humour is very different, and that there is a distinct lack of gender equality and emancipation of women: strong men and pretty women were topics running through many tweets by my Russian colleagues. Probably the best joke as judged by the audience and accompanied by hysterical laughter was the remark that ‘if Russia could produce cars in the way they produce women, the Germans would have to borrow money from the Greeks’.
Among the eminent speakers at TFR were Noel Muylle, Honorary Member of the European Language Council. He talked about The Importance of Taking Translation and Interpretation Seriously – implying that some stakeholders don’t! Mr Muylle is a gentleman of the ‘old’ school and proud not to need slides to back up his talk; comments on the tweet feed #tfrus reflected the at times surprised reaction to his statements. Bob Donaldson, Carson Strategy Group, is an industry veteran and well known not just in Russia, but also in the West; he talked about General Industry Trends and Forecasts, a View from the West. Doug Lawrence, of Amicus TransTec, is an outed vegetarian and non-drinker of alcohol, but he must have had taken something before his presentation on ’Stereotypes, the good and the bad, their impact, and what Russian Translation Providers should do about it!’ because it was more a performance than a presentation; Doug not only speaks Russian, but he must also be very familiar with the Russian soul, because he immediately connected not just with the minds but also with the hearts of the audience, making one fan tweet ‘I love you Doug’! Andrei Chuzhakin, of the Moscow State Linguistic University, brought the tone back to a more serious level lecturing on ’Interpreting and Native Language—Friends or Enemies?’. Andrey Moiseev, of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Committee, provided a breathtaking overview of ’Breakthrough in Sports’ on the scale of the preparations for the Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia, next year.
I was scheduled to give three talks on Multilingual Computing and Localisation, Research with a Difference (Industrial Relevance), and A Handup-Not a Handout (The Rosetta Foundation). All went well and generated quite some interest among the audience – although it was evident that localisation was not the hot topic it is in Ireland in oil- and gas-rich Tatarstan. Unfortunately, I was not able to follow all the talks I had selected from the excellently prepared English version of the programme brochure as a single English speaker in the audience couldn’t justify the presence and support of interpreters.
One morning I skipped the very first conference session and went for a long amazing run instead. I managed to accidently enter the President of the Republic of Tatarstan Palace through a back entrance greeting the heavily and slightly irritated and heavily armed guards with a smile when I exited via the front gate, jumping across the barriers designed to keep intruders out. In true pre-Marathon form I also went out of town for perhaps 10km to see how the majority of the one million plus people in Kazan live. To get there, again I had to jump, this time over giant potholes, I had to use the highway instead of the non-existent footpath, and run across unpaved side roads lined with a mix of high-rise cheap apartment blocks and wooden tin-roofed shags. I learned to understand how state-employed doctors can live on a few hundred euro salary, and how highly trained and well-educated translators in Kazan manage with a monthly salary of just 300 euro.
In the end, I was happy that I had taken the 16-hour three-plane journey with an overnight stay in a smoky Irish pub at one of Moscow’s three giant airports to join Translation Forum Russia. The energy of the event, run by people in their 20s and 30s full of confidence and energy was contaminating. Russia is a country of enormous geographical expands, huge natural resources, and dominated by a new generation of people who will transform the country into a modern, just, and engaged society based on true citizenship. I am truly grateful to Demid and his supporters, especially Bella and Ekaterina, for inviting me to Translation Forum Russia and for making me feel so welcome. Translators, Interpreters, and Localisers will play a crucial role in connecting Russia and her people with the rest of the world. Next time I’ll visit Russia, I’ll be visiting friends.
The Russian city of Kazan hosted Europe’s Largest Translation and Localisation Industry Event, Translation Forum Russia (28-30 September 2012), with 500 professionals registered. http://www.tconf.com