Freelance Diaries: Part 3 — Lost in Interpretation

February 25, 2016 in Freelance

language-sign

To interpret it not to interpret: that is the question.

When I first went full-time freelance I had no intention of doing any interpretation. I was perfectly content to stay at home and take my time translating everything from movie subtitles to corporate documents. It was what I knew and what I was comfortable with.

Over the last three months or so, however, things haven’t quite turned out the way I expected. While I still do text translation mostly, I’ve also taken on a bunch of interpretation gigs of various shapes and sizes. I’ve interpreted for a couple of Q&A sessions at a film festival; I’ve interpreted for a couple of concert productions, one big and one small. I’m typing this part of the post at 9pm on Thursday night after a marathon 11.5-hour day where I interpreted for more more than 7 hours in three separate sessions lasting at least two hours each. It was one of the most brutal work experiences I’ve ever had (more on that shit later).

These are my stories.

Types of interpretation 

As an intro, I just want to offer an intro into what interpretation work entails. It’s not just translating from one language to another — it’s doing it orally, within a limited time frame, without any outside assistance, and with all ears on you. In other words, it’s a whole different universe of pain.

The reason why I love translating text is because I get to do it at my own pace. There’s no problem if I don’t know the word because I can take my time to think about it or look up other resources (Google Translate is actually a fantastic resource at times when you want a precise definition to a single word or phrase).

When I translate text, I like to make sure I get my shit right. I can go back and forth for ages to ensure the shit is perfect. You throw all those luxuries out when it comes to interpretation. All you’re doing is hoping you can remember what was just said, hoping your brain can process the words, and hoping something that makes sense spews out of your mouth before the people in the room start getting embarrassed for you.

The difficulty of the interpretation varies depending on the type. The easiest is probably sentence by sentence — dude says a sentence (sometimes just a word or part of a sentence), and you translate it into the relevant language. Provided each segment is relatively short, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem.

If that’s too fragmented (as I have found that to be), you might go with a whole block of speech — be it a paragraph or a few sentences. This often becomes a memory challenge more than anything else, so it’s always a good idea (as I discovered the hard way — more on that later) to have a notepad ready to jot points down.

The hardest absolutely has to be simultaneous interpretation, which is when you have the interpreter talking at the same time and over the voice of the speaker (usually into a microphone that broadcasts into headphones worn by members of the audience). This means the interpreter needs to be able to listen and talk at the same time — in two different languages. And that’s just insane.

The pay of course also varies wildly. Corporate gigs tend to pay more, while those related to the arts — such as concerts — tend to pay less, apparently because a lot of people are willing to take less money for the opportunity to be close to celebs. Meetings are considered different to lectures or forums. Sometimes you just need to follow people around at all times and provide assistance when needed. Other times it might be a combination of a bunch of different duties. Sometimes the interpreter even becomes the errand boy. It’s all part of the job.

I’ve found that if the client asks you what you want you should never sell yourself short. They won’t make a deal that breaks their budget, so don’t be shy — just make sure you can back it up when the time comes. And you must get the terms and conditions straight before inking the deal, especially if the event goes beyond specified times.

The main reason I took on interpretation cases is the pay. One day of interpretation work could equal a week of pay or more as a text translator. One week of interpretation work could equal a month of pay. One of the cases I took that lasted two weeks paid me as much as three months of what I earned in my old day job.

It sounds fantastic, but honestly, it evens out a fair bit when you consider the two things I want to discuss next: preparation and exertion.

Preparation

It’s easy to look an interpreter and think — that guy is getting paid a lot for the amount of hours he’s doing. I used to think that too. What people don’t see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes. I’m talking hours and hours, sometimes days or even weeks of preparation. You never know what will be said or how things will turn out, so you must always be ready for whatever comes your way.

If there is a script or rundown you need to study it. You have to research the people or company you’re working for/with. You have to research the industry if you’re not familiar with it. You have to look up common terms and phrases used in that industry. Sometimes you might have to read/listen/watch a bunch of related documents, songs or movies or video clips. Above all, you gotta practice because it sharpens your mind. Whatever it takes, really. On the one hand it is about being competent enough to interpret on the spot, though for me it is probably more about being mentally prepared so that I can be confident. Because when you stress out, you blank out, and when you blank out, you freak out.

Preparation is essential; it might not always help, but occasionally it could save your butt. One of the first interpretation cases was a post-screening Q&A with a documentary filmmaker. As part of the preparation I watched the film, but I also did a bunch of research about the background and also the director. Lucky I did.

On the night of the Q&A, while we were backstage, the director told me she’d  keep her responses short and sweet — I believe her exact words were “one line at a time” — so that it’s easier for me. I was so relieved I didn’t even take my notepad up with me. But as it turned out, “one line” was 3 minutes of uninterrupted monologue. First question — 3 minutes. Second question — 2 minutes. “Oh sorry, was that too long?” said. Third question — 3 minutes.

I should have been shitting bricks, but I only shat pellets instead because I came prepared. During my research I had read a couple of interviews with the director about the making of the film, and fortunately most of the questions were about the production process, so I already knew what the answers were going to be. It saved me from turning into a stuttering beetroot on stage in front of hundreds of people.

Exertion

By exertion I am referring to the mental exertion required for interpretation. It’s the stress of being put on the spot in front of other people and the laser focus you need to maintain so you can preform an incredibly difficult task.

Situation plays a big part in the stress and focus levels. The rule of thumb is more people, more stress. Interpreting for one person is less stressful than interpreting for a meeting; interpreting for a meeting is less stressful than interpreting in front of an audience; and interpreting on TV is…well, I’m about to find that out in a week or so.

On the other hand, the amount of focus you need to have as an interpreter is incredible. Normally when I have a meeting or listen to a seminar or whatever, I’m selectively focused. I can zone out momentarily, think about how the Indiana Pacers are doing in the standings or what I’m going to have for dinner that night. When I translate, I can take mental breaks (and often physical breaks) every few seconds and end up spending hours on YouTube checking out film trailers. With interpretation, you need to be locked in at all times. You never know what’s going to come next, and sometimes you won’t know when it’s coming. Your brain is churning constantly, listening, processing, translating, talking. You can’t take any time out. You can afford to.

It’s such an intense and draining experience that I feel like I’m totally burned out after, but at the same time your mind is buzzing so much that it becomes impossible to relax immediately afterwards. It is why simultaneous interpreters are typically hired in pairs so they can rotate in 15-minute blocks. The focus and concentration required is so high that you can only sustain it for 15 minutes at a time.

When I used to sit in sessions with an interpreter I would put myself in their position and try to interpret everything that was said to see if I could handle it. And I used to think it’s not THAT hard and occasionally I would think I’d probably be able to do a better job. But that’s because I’m an idiot. When you’re in the actual interpreter’s chair it’s a whole different story. When you’re practicing on the side while someone else does it, you can take short mental breaks, you don’t have any of the pressure, and you don’t actually have to speak out loud. It’s apples and oranges. So next time, spare a thought for the poor red-faced interpreter struggling to get the right words out — he or she is likely much more capable than you think.

Peeing

This is probably the most important issue for interpreters. When you’re fully focused and trying not to screw up the interpretation, the last thing you need is to be busting to go to the toilet. It makes an already difficult situation a living hell. It’s tempting to drink the water or beverage they offer you because you’re so parched from talking non-stop, but it’s really an evil trap. The interpreter can’t excuse himself/herself to go take a leak. The show cannot go on without you. You’re being paid to hold it in. So my advice is that it’s always better to be dehydrated than feeling like you’re bladder is about to explode when you have more pressing concerns. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Every case is different

It’s a great thing to gain more experience, because with more experience comes better skills and vocabulary, and that in turn creates more confidence. But the reality is that you can’t think that every case will be the same, and that if you’ve done one well you can handle them all. You must assess each case on its own merits when deciding whether or not to accept because they’re all so different.

For instance, I once took on a case as the interpreter of a foreign production team staging a concert for local performers. That turned out to be exhausting because that consisted of consecutive 16-18 hour days but also a lot of fun. I became the go-between for every unit, from the producer to the stage set-up crew to the lighting people to the video crew to the talent to the venue staff. I was doing everything from interpreting meetings to general discussions to translating work schedules. I learned so much about concert production in just a week or so, made lots of great friends and thoroughly burned myself out for some very good pay.

More recently, I was invited to do work on another concert, a much smaller one that only required my presence for one night and a full day, and for less pay (and less hours). I was fully prepared to be helpful and super busy, but also for some fun and learning. Instead, it was mostly a very boring experience. Instead of being the only translator for every unit, we had three interpreters for essentially three people — ie, the three of us were assigned to a foreigner each. They needed a little assistance but not much at all, and all the work could have easily been done by one person (of course I do realise it is better safe than sorry). However, all we did was stand around and follow them everywhere while they figured out how to solve their own problems. Standing around in my opinion is the worst — it was a waste of our time and made the people we’re supposed to be assisting uncomfortable. I’d rather spend that time doing something meaningful and I’m sure the foreigners would have preferred to be left alone.

Another major difference between the two experiences was that for the larger concert, I was a direct hire by the boss, whereas for the smaller concert I was hired by the translation company assigned to provide all the translation and chaperoning services. In the first case I was given autonomy to try and help out in any way I can, even in capacities that went beyond my job description. It was tiring but it was fun, and it made me feel like I was part of a team where everyone was working towards a common goal — to deliver the best show possible to ticket-buying audiences. In the second case, the boss was always hanging around with panicky and untrusting eyes, making everyone feel really uncomfortable. I understand it’s her business and she’s trying to make a good impression to her client, but it just made everyone really tense even when there was absolutely nothing to do, and it sucked the joy out of the experience. It felt like everyone was just covering their own backsides and didn’t care about the bigger picture and purpose.

So I guess that’s just a long-winded way of saying: There are good cases and bad cases. Never assume; expect the unexpected.

When it’s all said and done, I don’t regret any of my interpretation cases. As exhausting and stressful as it is, I think they are all valuable experienced that build not only competence but also character. While I still prefer — by far — the comfort of translating in my own home, I do look forward to taking on more interpretation projects in the future to expand my horizons.

PS: For the record, the best interpreters I’ve ever seen are the ones working for the Communist Party of China. I saw these nuts in action when I went to cover the 18th National Congress in Beijing  in 2012 and they were seamless. I don’t think I could have done as good of a job had I sat down and took my time and had all the resources at my disposal. These guys were machines, I tell ya. Probably machines that have been trained since infancy and terrified that they would “disappear” if they disappointed the government.

The Freelancing Diaries: Part 1 — Getting Started is Rough

November 27, 2015 in Freelance

frustrated-worker-computer-over-head-300x199

As followers of this blog will know by now, I’ve quit my day job to pursue the freelancing (and writing) dream. It’s a beautiful dream, but also one that can potentially turn into a bloody nightmare. I’ve decided to chronicle this adventure in a new series of posts, starting with, naturally, what life is like when first taking the plunge.

Technically, I’m now in my third week as a freelancer, but I still don’t feel like one. Apart from finalising shit from my previous job, I’m still trying to get used to the lifestyle, the self-discipline, and the pressure and fear of the unknown that comes with freelancing. I’ve had days off where I’ve gone out to watch movies, take the kids out on day trips and shop around aimlessly like a socialite, but I’ve also been fortunate enough — or unfortunate enough, depending on your perspective — to have cases to keep me busy already. I translated some songs for an upcoming concert, I did an episode of a TV show, some usual corporate stuff and transliteration work, and even took on my first nerve-racking interpretation cases (I’ll have to write about that experience in another post). There have been days where I’ve felt a bit of pressure and had to work much longer hours than I did as a company employee, but it’s all part of the package.

What this means though is that I haven’t done much work to lay the necessary groundwork to be a full-time freelancer, let alone do any of the stuff I had fantasized about doing with all that supposed free time, such as writing and exercising. Taking into account the amount of time I still require to complete outstanding cases and other odds and ends, I think I need about one more week or get my affairs in order. This involves sending out “feeler” emails and making cold calls to potential clients, completing tests for freelance outsourcing websites and really setting up my “system” properly.

Anyway, here are some things I have already learned for those in the same boat or are thinking about venturing down the same path.

1. Starting out is rough

When I first started informing people — especially other freelancers — of my intention to freelance full time, the vast majority were highly encouraging, but warned that the beginning will involve a very difficult adjustment period. For me, in particular, having been practically a bum for the last four years at my last job, it was going to take some time getting used to it.

However, the adjustment is much more than getting used to something new. Freelancing brings with it an inherent and immediate pressure because your income will no longer be stable like it used to be. Some clients might take weeks or even months to pay, so if finances are tight you will have to factor in the delays. For instance, I recently had to chase up a client who hadn’t paid for work I did more than three months ago (I contacted him last month, actually, and he assured me that it would be paid within three months). First the client ignored my emails completely, but when I called him on the phone he said the money had “come down” and would be paid in the next few days. And really, there’s not much you can do.

Secondly, you need to be instantly better at organising your life. You need to set aside time to do work, preferably on a regular schedule, but you also need to be prepared for things that pop up, as they inevitably do. And unlike before, when you can use “I’m at work” as an excuse, you may have to drop whatever you’re doing and attend to it. You need to have a system for your accounts, so you can better track your clients and payments. I used to just dump files all over the place and lose track of them, but now I’ve had to set up a spreadsheet containing the details and contacts of each case and use Google Drive to file documents away systematically.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you need clients, otherwise you’re not going to get paid.

2. Finding clients — the right clients — is the key

Finding enough clients to sustain the your lifestyle is usually the biggest obstacle to being a freelancer. The best thing is regular clients who can feed you stable work every month, but in the beginning anyone will do. But clients won’t just come to you because you’re a freelancer — you need to go out and track them down.

But how does one go about it? Honestly, if you’ve never done any freelance work at all or don’t have any pre-existing contacts, the task is virtually impossible. I’ve discovered the painful truth that in freelancing it is often all about who you know. I would have never been able to be a full-time freelancer had I not slowly built up a small network of contacts over the last four years. One of the first things I did was to contact my freelancing friends and clients I’ve done work for and tell them I was going to freelance full-time and to send any work they have my way. There are still a few outstanding ones I haven’t been in touch with for a couple of years I’ll have to get to next week.

The other way is to go out and look for clients through other channels. Before doing that you will of course have to fully update your CV and have it ready to be sent out at any time. You can look up the companies doing the sort of work you can help with and email them or cold call them to really sell your services. Most are unlikely to respond, but sometimes all you need is one that does, and that may end up opening doors to more opportunities. You can also try through updating your LinkedIn profile or search for freelancing agencies or websites that post freelancing opportunities — but more on that in my next point.

And even when you finally find a client who is willing to give you work, sometimes you’ll still have tough decisions to make because they’re not always necessarily the right client. What if they are paying you too little for it to be worth your time? Is it better to work for peanuts or have no peanuts at all? What if you happen to be too busy when they decide to give you a piece of work? I’ve heard that one of the cardinal sins of being a freelancer is to refuse work from anyone you would like to work for in the future. If you’ve turned them down once they’ll just go to others who won’t.

I recently turned down a regular freelancing job that seemed ideal on paper. Two to three hours a day, five days a week, and I’d make close to three-fifths of my previous salary. The work was similar to what I was doing before and would be relatively easy for me. I even did a sample translation test and all that. In the end, however, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Though it was only two to three hours a day, it was always the same fixed hours of the day (2pm-5pm), taking away the flexibility I wanted as a freelancer. The rates weren’t horrendous, but they weren’t great either, and I’d have to work my way up to the maximum pricing and volume over a number of months. So in reality, I’d probably be making a fifth of my previous salary for a couple of months, then two-fifths for another couple of months, and so forth, with no guarantees I’d actually get to the three-fifths mark. Not good enough to sacrifice my flexibility for.

3. Be wary of agencies and freelancing websites

As noted above, one of the avenues to look for work is freelancing agencies and websites. Examples include established enterprises such as Freelancer, or the newer WritePath. I’ve also been looking at a Japan-based one called Gengo. In Taiwan, a lot of people use freelance job aggregators such as 104case or 518case, which are similar to Freelancer in that people post freelancing cases for people to bid on, though you have to pay a subscription fee to be able to gain access to the case contacts. As a translator, there are also plenty of translation agencies that will get the work for you in return for a percentage of your earnings.

Personally, while I’d recommend trying them out, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about being able to get sustainable work from such options. For starters, most of these gigs will require you to take a free-of-charge translation test, which can be time consuming and a waste of time. A lot of them are old cases that closed ages ago but people just haven’t bothered taking them down. I’ve also heard of horror stories where some a-hole companies will split their case up into say five parts and then send them to five applicants and tell them it’s their translation test. That’s basically their entire case done for free.

Most of the time, however, it’s just a company looking for ways to push prices down as low as possible. When you have desperate people fighting for work, the rates gets lowered to appalling levels, and they almost always tend to be urgent cases. In the translation industry, they often don’t even care how good or bad the quality of the translation is, as long as it’s cheap. To be fair, there are some awful translators out there who don’t give a shit if they get paid low because it matches the time and effort they put in, but what it does is ruin the market for everyone else. You also have to remember that if the market is international there will be people in say India or China who are willing to work for a lot less.

Translation agencies are the worst because they don’t respect you at all. It’s always urgent cases at basement rates, and they end up taking around 50%-75% of the earnings for doing nothing.  I remember one instance where I did a translation test for free and later received a call on a Friday afternoon asking me to take on an urgent case due the next morning, for less a quarter of the rate I normally charge for standard cases. I said no and never heard from them again.

4. Pricing sucks balls

Negotiating your rates is one of the most annoying things for me as a freelancer. I’ve read around and it seems the general consensus is to never sell yourself short when in discussions. But what constitutes selling yourself short is such a tough question. You don’t want to rip yourself off, but you don’t want to price yourself out of the market either. Most of the time you’ll probably be wondering if you’ve done one or the other. I’ll have to do a full post on this some day after I’ve generate a bit more experience on this point.

5. You never have as much time as you think you do

The most sobering revelation from my three weeks as a freelancer is that you never have as much time as you think you’d have. When I was working a full-time job and doing freelancing cases on the side, I thought to myself that if I were doing freelancing full-time I’d have endless hours of free time on my hands to do all the other things I’d want to do. That’s not the case, at least not in these initial starting-off weeks.

Freelancing cases take time, often a lot of time, and you probably end up spending more time on the same cases as a full-timer because you care more about building up your reputation so you can win more work. Plus, in the past my freelancing was extra cream on top of the cake, whereas now it’s the actual cake. As a result, I actually feel busier than I did before. Just a couple of months ago I was still wasting hours a day zoning out in front of the computer wondering why I wasn’t being more productive, and now I’m working hard but wondering where all my time has gone. It’s more stress but it’s also infinitely more rewarding doing stuff you care about.

Oh well, better get back to it.

Putting food on my family

August 9, 2015 in Freelance, Misc, On Writing


lance

I was supposed to have started working on my book projects last month, but as of today I’ve still done jack squat. The excuse this time: making money.

I’ve always welcomed a bit of freelance work on the side as a supplement, though that aspect of my income has been sporadic at best. Some projects are great, while others are awful, and it’s usually hard to predict which before you agree to take it on. This year things have been more stable as I’ve built some repeat clientele and long-term collaborations, and last month everything suddenly exploded, especially towards the end of the month.

Just when I was getting in the mood to do some writing I was bombarded by five separate projects, all with relatively tight deadlines. The annoying thing is that some of them feed the work to you periodically and just when you think you’re done they send you more. And the shit clients tend to take forever to get back to you if you have a question, but when they need something from you they are always, without exception, in a massive hurry.

It’s frustrating especially because the state of the market is not great, and most of the time the clients can’t tell if your work is vastly superior than others, meaning it is difficult to charge what you deserve. And if you do charge what you deserve (at least by market standards) they’ll probably just go to someone else.

The problem is exacerbated by my analness. I just can’t stand when something is not up to par and just have to fix it, even when it doesn’t really concern me. Like this theatre production I was doing translations for had split the work between me and another freelancer, and just hours before opening night, they send me the “finished” slides so I can help fill in some of the blanks. And of course, I reviewed all the slides and saw how shit the translations were by the other freelancer, and I couldn’t help but fix them up along with all the other careless formatting by the production staff. They really appreciated it but I knew I wasn’t getting any more money. In fact, I had to chase them up for payment (which I hate doing but have had to do more than a few times).

I bitch, but when you get the opportunity to more than double your monthly income you just have to take it. As an eloquent leader once said, “I know how hard it is for you to put on your family.”

bush food

Besides, even when you add up the hours from my day job and the freelancing, I’m still working a lot less than I did as a lawyer. Plus I find the work relatively easy and stress free, so it’s a world of difference I’d gladly take any day of the week.

The onslaught is actually continuing but I hope things will slow down after this week so I can finally get to what I’ve been meaning to do all year. The good news is that I’ve been reviewing films like a trojan whenever I’ve been on public transport and have about 10 movie posts completed. I’ll release them gradually over the next week.

PS: Also looking to get back into reading after a long hiatus. Nothing gets me in the mood for writing like reading.

Translating Subtitles and Screenwriting

August 21, 2013 in Best Of, On Writing

dignity-of-the-retarded_786_poster

I broke my promise to post at least once a day the last few days because I took on an emergency freelance case translating subtitles for a Taiwanese film trying to make a film festival deadline. It was a brutal grind, a 110-minute film with around 14,000 Chinese characters to translate within basically a 24-hour deadline.

On some level, I quite enjoyed the experience. When you love movies as much as I do, translating film subtitles is actually quite the dream job, as long as the deadlines aren’t so tight. The pay isn’t great (as with most jobs in Taiwan), but if I could do a couple a month it would be fine and an acceptable supplement to the income. That said, I do realize that if this really happened I would probably get sick of it in a hurry.

The act of translating subtitles is an art in itself, and the choices that translators make are capable of dramatically impacting how the film is received by the audience.  It’s more than simply grabbing the script and doing a direct translation, as I thought it entailed in the beginning. It’s all about interpretation.

This, for example, is pretty good, in my humble opinion.

Context is crucial, so it’s important to actually watch the footage to see how the characters deliver the lines and how they interact with each other. Apart from being factually accurate, the getting the tone of the conversations right is also important, which is why word choice must be carefully considered.

On top of that, there is the length of the sentences. Some projects have a limited character length per line, but even if there isn’t, it’s always a good idea to keep the lines short and snappy, without losing their effectiveness. There is nothing worse than a line that is too long for audiences to read in time. We’re not all speed readers.

Further, there is the problem of local cultural references and word play, which elevate the difficulty to another level. Do you offer a brief explanation in parenthesis, as I have seen done before, or do you come up with a completely different line that is as close to the meaning as possible for the target audience of the language you are translating it to?

However you approach it, translating subtitles is a thought-provoking process that tests not only language but also problem-solving skills and creativity. In that sense, I’ve come to realize that translating subtitles bears parallels to the act of screenwriting itself. It’s essentially like editing a screenplay that has been written in another language. In fact, I am almost treating my translation projects as screenwriting exercises, which will put me in a good position if and when I start penning my own screenplays (soon, I hope).

The bigger question is, what will this screenplay (or these screenplays) be about? I have no idea, and that is the real problem. I envy writers who have the audacity to think big and have the ability to come up with original and complex plots with confidence. A lot of the Hollywood tripe that gets churned out these days instills optimism, but at least those writers are getting stuff done, unlike me.

The key, of course, is practice, and plenty of it. Don’t be afraid of what people will think and write under the assumption that no one else will see it. Write lots of bad screenplays and good ones will eventually start to emerge. On that note, I will conclude with this awesome video from Paul Haggis, who wrote/adapted Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace. His latest film (writer and director) is Third Person, a romantic drama starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger and Casey Affleck. It has a release date of September 2013.

Oscars consultancy adventure and rant

March 24, 2013 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

oscars-statues-image-1

In typical me-fashion, I am blogging about something that happened almost a month ago. That’s right; I’m talking about the 85th Academy Awards.

Consultancy adventure

This recap is really for my own selfish benefit because I don’t want to forget it in case I never get invited again. Not to the Oscars, of course (though I still hold out hope that this could still happen some day – as soon as I have the time and money to write, produce, direct and star in my own film, Tommy Wisseau-style), but to be a consultant on its Taiwan telecast.

Allow me to take a step back and explain. A few weeks ago (well, a month and a few weeks ago), a colleague recommended me to one of the two TV stations with rights to broadcast the Oscars in Taiwan. These stations will air the Oscars (at least) twice – live in the morning (Taiwan time) and again at night with subtitles. Each producer will have a team of dedicated translators who will work tirelessly all throughout the day to get those subtitles ready in time for the second telecast.

Sounds easy, or so I thought, but it’s actually a lot of work. It’s more than just direct translations from English to Chinese — there could be a lot of obscure film, TV, music, pop culture or fashion references that need to be researched and confirmed; jokes, slang words or accents that are difficult to understand for non-native speakers; or just a lot of indecipherable mumbling and hollering that even most native speaker don’t get. All of it has to be impeccably translated, verified and matched with the recorded footage. While there are bits of scripted material and lists of names that will be translated in advance, the vast majority of the work is done on the day, on the spot.

Where did I come in? Well, notwithstanding the dozen or so high-quality translators they hired for the day, they still needed someone with English as their native tongue who knew a thing or two about the movies. Just in case. The pay, as is usually the case in Taiwan, is not great, but to be honest I would have done it for nothing. I’d have to take a day off work, but I knew the experience of being a part of an Oscars telecast was too good to pass up.

We started early. By the time I arrived at 7:30am, the two rooms dedicated to the challenge were already filled with translators plugging away and preparing for the dreaded red carpet (which would be re-broadcast with subtitles after the ceremony in the rerun later that night). The rooms themselves were small and crowded. One was crammed with tables and laptops for the translators, while the other was crammed with couches and a TV for people like me.

This is the TV I watched the broadcast on

This is the TV I watched the broadcast on

The day itself was a blast. Very long but extremely enjoyable and insightful. It was fun to watch the Oscars live for once (it’s usually on during work hours in Sydney and it was impossible to avoid finding out the winners before getting home) and with a group of people who have a passion for film.

For the majority of the live broadcast I was glued to the TV with our other consultant, a radio personality in Taiwan who once tutored Chinese actress Gong Li (you know, the one with the icy stare from Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice) in English for a year. Apparently she is…um…nice — in person, that is.

Gong Li stares

Gong Li stares

Every now and then we would hear a call from the other room for “er duo” (literally “ears”), and we would go scampering over to assist. Sometimes it would be to decipher the name of a fashion brand (especially during the red carpet), or the punchline of a joke, or the name of a person mentioned during the acceptance speeches. Sometimes it was just a whole lot of gibberish from William Shatner or Queen Latifah.

Shatner tearing it up at the Oscars

Shatner tearing it up at the Oscars

The only real “work” I had to do all day was to help transcribe a couple of songs from the opening act of host Seth MacFarlane – so that the translators could use them to do the Chinese subtitles. On this point, I am disappointed to say, I could not, for the life of me, figure out one of the lines in MacFarlane’s final song, Be Our Guest, in which he tried to make fun of the name of the nine-year-old Oscar-nominated star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhane Wallis.

Southern Wild had some luck, it was made for 50 bucks

With a star whose name looks like a …?

After listening to it about 50 times, none of us could figure out what the heck Quvenzhane’s name looks like. It didn’t really matter in the end because the Chinese translation simply needed to convey that her name was difficult to read or pronounce, though I must admit that the line really bugged me for the rest of the day. After researching on Google and Twitter I still couldn’t find a single person who knew what he was referring to.

(A few weeks later, an article I read suggested that he had compared the name to “a vision test” – which could be correct, but even watching it again now I still think it doesn’t quite sound right. Check out the video of the entire opening below – the line comes in at around the 13:44 mark.)

Anyway, the rest of the broadcast went along very smoothly, with Ang Lee’s win for best director, naturally, drawing the biggest emotional high. It was probably the only time during the day that everyone stopped whatever they were doing and just watched the man they call “the pride of Taiwan” (along with basketballer Jeremy Lin, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, and any other Taiwanese person or person with Taiwanese heritage who has ever done anything remotely newsworthy in the world – though one must wonder why Justin Lin, the Taiwanese-born director of the last few entries in the Fast & Furious franchise, has barely gotten a mention).

The moment Ang Lee accepted his Oscar for Life of Pi

The moment Ang Lee accepted his Oscar for Life of Pi

Much of the real work would come after the awards ceremony ended. You would think with a dozen or so people each translating a different segment that it wouldn’t take all that long to translate every word uttered in a three-and-a-half-hour ceremony and the preceding red carpet show – but it does! It really is hard work.

I must mention here that the translators we had working on the subtitles were amazing. Since moving here a little more than a year ago I’ve often been appalled with the quality of the translations in Taiwan – even for official government documents, brochures and marketing campaigns. But the people they hired on this day were all brilliant; I’m sure they are some of the best translators in Taiwan. I was particularly impressed by their meticulousness and their abilities to pick up the nuances and fudge difficult lines into coherence. One of them was a subtitle specialist who had worked on more than 5,000 films and TV shows, including good old porn (which is, allegedly, a pretty stiff job given that much of the dialogue occurs during hardcore close-up scenes…).

I feel I really should write a post on the plight of translators in Taiwan some day because it’s a topic I’m sure many people are passionate about. In short, it’s a shitty industry because the pay is so low and the work is so often very very hard. There are plenty of translation agencies out there taking advantage of translators by offering ridiculously low rates of say US$0.01 a word. At the same time, there are a lot of hopeless translators vying for – and often scoring – freelance gigs because they are willing to work for peanuts in exchange for horrendous translations. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps dragging down both the quality and the price of translation work in the country.

But I digress.

Oscars day was fun, and it stretched well into the evening and beyond the 8pm start time for the re-run thanks to the final subtitles for the red carpet. Contrary to my understanding of how Taiwanese media treat their staff, all of us were well looked after, with all three meals taken care of throughout the day. I really hope there will be another opportunity to work with them again in the future.

Thoughts on the Oscars

Seth MacFarlane as host

As for the ceremony itself, I thought this year’s was one of the better ones. Seth MacFarlane received average to negative reviews for his performance, but I actually thought he was pretty good. Not gut-bustingly funny but amusing enough for the stuffy Oscar oldies, and nowhere near as uncomfortable as Ricky Gervais. Yes, the opening monologue was a little longer than usual, but I’ve always considered it the most entertaining part of the show, so no complaints from me.

As for the low-brow humor, including the “We Saw Your Boobs” song (in which all the actresses were clearly in on the joke) and some orgy comments from his teddy bear creation Ted, I don’t think any of it was unexpected. I mean, come on, the show’s organizers knew exactly what they were getting when they signed the creator of Family Guy and Ted – no one could say with a straight face that they had expected him to be Hugh Jackman and keep away from the crude jokes. No one can beat Billy Crystal, of course, but at least MacFarlane was better than the disaster that was Anne Hathaway and James Franco in 2011 (almost entirely the fault of the stoned latter) and the bizarre duo of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin the year before.

My favorite parts of the opening monologue were those that received assistance from another star – the Star Trek segments with William Shatner and the Flying Nun skit with Sally Field. On the whole, however, it was one of the better openings in recent memory. As they say, it’s the toughest gig in Hollywood, so kudos to MacFarlane for at least having the balls to take it on when he knew he’d probably be savaged for it.

Seth MacFarlane as the Flying Nun

Seth MacFarlane as the Flying Nun

Winners and losers

Having finally watched all of the nine best picture nominees, I have to say that this was a strange year in which there was no real favorite because no film really dominated.

Argo, which won best picture, only had a single acting nomination (for Alan Arkin), while its director, Ben Affleck, didn’t even get a nomination. And let’s face it: it was a very very good film, but still one of the weaker best picture winners in Oscar history. At least it was better than Crash.

They may take away my best director nomination, but they can never take away this Oscar!!

They may take away my best director nomination, but they can never take away this Oscar!!

On the other hand, you had Lincoln, which may have ticked all the boxes but was a bore that few would call the best film of the year. Amour was the token foreign film nominee that was far too depressing to win, and Beasts of the Southern Wild was a nice little fairytale (given its shoestring budget) that was too weird for a lot of people (including me).

Les Miserables divided audiences and critics alike (I was more against it than for it), while Zero Dark Thirty was too “controversial.” Personally, my three favourite films of the best picture nominees were Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi, probably in that order.

If I were a betting man, I probably would have put my money on Life of Pi because it will probably go down as the most memorable of the lot, and plus Ang Lee won for best director, which I felt was totally deserved. But unlike many who have seen it I didn’t think it was that amazing. Django and Silver Linings Playbook weren’t perfect and were genres unlikely to win best picture, but they were by far the most enjoyable of the nominees.

At the end of the day, Argo probably won by default.

As for the rest of the major categories, apart from best director (for which I thought Spielberg was the favourite) and best supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones reportedly had the odds on his side), most of the outcomes were predictable. Daniel Day-Lewis, the male Meryl Streep, rarely loses once he gets nominated. The annoying thing is that you know he totally deserves it every time. The only guy that really could have competed with Daniel Day out of the nominees was Joaquin Phoenix, and you know they were never giving it to him.

One of the best non-Ang Lee moments at the Oscars this year was when Jennifer Lawrence, who is on the verge of overtaking Kate Winslet as my favourite actress, won for Silver Linings Playbook. I thought Jessica Chastain was excellent in Zero Dark Thirty, but Lawrence really hit a home run with her performance and proved that her nomination for Winter’s Bone a couple of years ago was no fluke. To top things off, she stacked it on the steps while heading up to the stage. Right now she’s like the female Ryan Gosling – impossible to dislike no matter how hard you try – well, except he’s still looking for his first Oscar.

Jennifer Lawrence takes a tumble on her way to the stage

Jennifer Lawrence takes a tumble on her way to the stage

Anne Hathaway’s win for supporting actress in Les Miserables turned out to be the most “meh” moment of the night. Yeah, she was good, but she pretty much won for shaving her head and signing one song. I wasn’t anywhere near that bandwagon..

Christoph Waltz has now made it two for two in his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. I think this is why his win surprised a lot of people, because few expected that he would win the same award for the same director two times in a row. All the nominees were great, but if we were being honest with ourselves we would admit that the guy who truly deserved to win didn’t even get nominated. Waltz won for playing a Nazi, so I don’t get any of this “too controversial” or “to villainous” argument against Leonardo DiCaprio, who absolutely should have taken home the golden statuette this year.

Let's face it, Leo was robbed

Let’s face it, Leo was robbed

One final comment about the best foreign film category, which to no one’s surprise was captured by Amour this year. I said the same thing a dozen years ago when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won it: how can a film in that category NOT be the best foreign film if it is the ONLY one also nominated for best picture? It may seem unfair to deprive films like Amour and Crouching Tiger of an Oscar win for best foreign film, but it also completely kills any chance the other nominees in the category have.

PS: On a side note, it was kind of ridiculous that last year’s best picture winner, The Artist, did not get a nomination for best foreign film because the award is actually “best foreign language film.” So despite being a French movie made by a French production company, with a French director and French stars, The Artist was ruled ineligible because the few words uttered in the film were, more or less, in English. Another reason for this is because each foreign country can only submit ONE film for consideration to the Academy, which is totally stupid too.