Mr. Gates Goes to Moscow
Language International, February 2001 (Vol.13, No.1)
Natalie Shahova is the principal of EnRus (www.enrus.ru), a Moscow-based translation agency. Her company has recently produced a Russian translation of Bill Gates’ second book, Business @ the Speed of Thought. Here’s the inside story of that fascinating project.
Getting the Job
If someone asked me what kind of job I would wish for my agency, I would surely say, "the translation of a book by Bill Gates." It’s a natural fit: EnRus is an IT-oriented agency, and everyone knows Microsoft as an IT industry leader.
However, even after translating technical documentation, press releases, and similar materials for Microsoft for seven years, we didn’t dare hope for an order to translate a real book. And yet we got the job!
It all started when the copyright for the translation of Business @ the Speed of Thought was bought by Eksmo Press, a major Russian publishing house that had built its reputation on detective and love stories. They hired their usual literary translators for the project. However, these people were unfamiliar with business and computer jargon, and Microsoft’s Moscow office became very concerned about the proper use of terminology.
That’s where EnRus came in. A few weeks before, Microsoft had ordered us to develop an English-Russian IT glossary. So it was no surprise when they asked us to check the terminology for consistency.
When I saw the Russian text, I realized that the translation had to be redone from scratch. Here is just one example that demonstrates the quality of that translation. The original was:
I was pondering how the digital age will fundamentally alter business.
The Russian translation read approximately as follows:
I was pondering how the physical age of a person affects his status in business.
That is, IT jargon like digital, groupware, and dumb terminal caused problems for the literary translators. Gates’ book was naturally full of such terms, and parts of the translation were gibberish.
As a result, we got the job, with a pretty tight deadline to avoid ruining the publisher’s schedule.
To get the job done in time, we split the book four ways, with additional EnRus staff doing the proofreading. I was to do the final editing.
As most of our clients are from the IT industry, we are accustomed to working with electronic files. It is more convenient than translating from hard copy: overtyping an English original with the Russian translation allows the translator to concentrate on the PC display, and also saves the effort of retyping company names (the book was full of examples from the business practices of numerous companies). However, Eksmo had given us only a hard copy.
We e-mailed Mr. Gates himself for an electronic copy, not sure at all that he would respond. However, to our great surprise, his assistant did respond, in less than two hours. She kindly put us in touch with Warner Books in New York. After a quick exchange of e-mail messages (the only problem was the time lag: Moscow is 8 hours ahead of New York, so we got answers from the US mostly at night), they sent us a CD containing the entire text of Business @ the Speed of Thought. It took Federal Express only about a week to carry the package across the Atlantic Ocean and Europe right to my home office. Within minutes, we had e-mailed the text to all the translators involved in the project. (I never did understand why Warner wrote me, "We cannot e-mail the text to you; we have had trouble e-mailing this file in the past." Could the Russian e-mail system possibly be more advanced than the American one?) At any rate, we got the files and that greatly increased our productivity; we completed the translation of this 492-page book in less than 80 days.
A Web without Spiders
You can well imagine that we faced many problems finding Russian equivalents for English terms. Information technologies are developing rapidly, and most of the new terms that emerge almost every day are English. For instance, Russian doesn’t yet have standard equivalents for data mining, video-on-demand, or middleware. The first challenge was the title itself: how could we possibly translate this @, which everyone associates strongly with e-mail, the Internet, and so forth? There is no way to link the Russian title to the Internet without naming it, as the English title had done.
We even had problems with World Wide Web, which English IT texts frequently tend to abbreviate to the Web. The full form is usually translated literally into Russian as Vsemirnaya Pautina, but shortening it to Pautina conjures up images of spiders and dark, dusty basements instead of exciting new media. So our solution was Set (Russian for "Net"), which is also used in the Russian literature to denote the Web. However, the term has the obvious shortcoming of working only in writing, because Set sounds exactly like set, the word used to denote local nets.
The biggest debate was over knowledge worker, a term coined by Peter Drucker in 1960 and widely used throughout the book. We had difficulty both understanding it and rendering it in Russian. I posted a query about the contemporary meaning of the term to Lantra (an international forum for translators and interpreters) and found that even natives have different opinions. While some wrote that knowledge workers is usually a fancy way of saying "people who work in the computer industry," others suggested that knowledge workers are people who deal with information processing regardless of their industry. We settled on rabotnik intellektual’nogo truda and intellektual’nyi rabotnik (which mean roughly "intellectual work performer").
Some parts were so difficult to interpret that we are still not confident that our choice was correct. For instance, in the following sentence we were unsure what was taken for 100 percent:
The typical company has made 80 percent of the investment in the technology that can give it a healthy flow of information yet is typically getting only 20 percent of the benefits that are now possible.
Lifestyle differences created lots of problems. For instance, in Moscow we have district heating, a system where a central plant heats many buildings using steam lines, and this led to misinterpretation of the following sentence (from a description of a highly automated house of the future):
The furnace icon may be blinking because the filter needs to be changed.
When I read it, I initially assumed "furnace" was a cooking stove. However, when I checked on Lantra I was very surprised to learn that most American houses have separate heating systems, and that furnaces are used for heating (so I had to change the Russian word I used to denote the device).
Writing mostly for an American readership, Gates naturally used lots of examples from American life. So we needed first to recognize them and then to make them clear to our Russian readers. That’s why I was very pleased that when our translator came to the following sentence:
An old business joke says that if the railroads had understood they were in the transportation business instead of the steel-rail business, we’d all be flying on Union Pacific Airlines.
he was knowledgeable enough to add an explanation about the Union Pacific Railroad.
And we certainly had to insert at least "prosecutor" into the Russian to clarify the reference in the following sentence:
Whatever you think of the Starr report on President Clinton, the Internet was the only feasible medium for disseminating the 445-page document quickly.
The fact that Russian uses a different alphabet (Cyrillic) creates very specific problems related to proper names. Russian translators have three choices. Some proper names, such as Silicon Valley, are translated. Most (such as personal names) are transliterated in Cyrillic. Company names are usually left in the Roman alphabet. That is, Russian translators have to accurately sort all proper names into these three categories. Now, the book included a large section about Michael Dell and Dell Corporation, so we had to be very careful distinguishing between the two Dells: the one that should be left as is and the one that should be transliterated—and also subjected to the rules of Russian grammar, including inflection with case endings. These rules caused yet another problem: male and female names are treated differently in Russian, so we must know the gender of every person mentioned in order to be able to decline his or her name properly!
These are just a few of the challenges we faced almost on every page of the book.
Presentation of the Translation; Media Coverage
The first run of 3000 copies of Business @ the Speed of Thought in Russian was printed in late November, and by the book’s official presentation on December 6, it had already sold out, so a second run of 5000 copies has been ordered. The book got great coverage in both on- and offline publications. Bill Gates is very popular in Russia, so his ideas on the proper ways of doing business are likely to attract a wide audience. Given most Russians’ inability to read original English texts, the Russian version of Bill Gates’ book can be expected to be a great success. And we are happy to participate.