Best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults*

The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) said that “one of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

We will leave the spectacular textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, operating at the highest level of government in my home country, to the real experts (W.S. Gilbert lives!) I want to talk about the second bit of that quote, the “doubt and indecision” part. Because if incompetent people can’t realize they are incompetent, is the reverse then also true, i.e., do competent people know there’s room for improvement?

You’re coasting along for a few weeks, doing your work, some of in interesting, some of it boring, feeling pretty good about everything. Then you’re told that something you’ve done is unsatisfactory. The client is unhappy. Please fix it. You get right on it, apologize,  and now all is right again and everyone has moved on – except you. The shame of having been called to the carpet for your work (possibly something done in haste and utter confidence) is gnawing at your feelings of self-worth.

I could probably do a year’s worth of posts about how being a professional translator is similar to being in the performing arts – interpreting the works of others, the debate on the need for academic credentials (and the psychological impact of having – or not having – them), being a sometimes invisible cog in a large machine (take a look at opera reviews, where four fifths of the article consists of discussion of the composition, the concept, the stage director, the set designer. The conductor usually gets a mention and a few of the singers, at the end, but they are actually interchangeable in many reviewers’ opinions.) Perhaps being able to process criticism in a constructive manner is something everyone grapples with at times. Performers, however, have the added aspect of their talents being on display, where they can be judged. So do writers, and, by extension, translators. Neither group particularly enjoys looking at their own past work, even while many others out there are doing just that, if the work has been made public.

You need a thick skin to accept criticism, even the constructive kind, and learn from it. This may well be some kind of man/woman thing – it seems like a lot of men I know are able to brush off criticism with flair, while a lot of women I know internalize it. There are cultural aspects to it as well. I remember, many years ago when I sang in an opera chorus, a particular day when the chorus master rehearsed each voice section separately. There were, then, just eight of us altos being led through some difficult passages from an upcoming opera. One of my colleagues made a small mistake and, after we stopped, she said “That was me!”, basically in order to assure the chorus master that we didn’t need to rehearse that bit again, as she knew what she’d done. Immediately, two other colleagues jumped on her: “Don’t ever admit that! Never say that you made a mistake!” This stumped a few of the others – why wouldn’t you admit to a mistake? And yet there are people out there who simply cannot or will not.

Well, where am I going with this, actually? That healthy balance of accepting blame and only dwelling on it to the extent that you work on bettering your abilities, but not so much that it cripples you. I suppose that’s what we are all aiming for. Well, at least those of us who can admit we’re wrong.

*Jane Austen. She also wrote “Self-knowledge is the first step to maturity” and “Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.”




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Happy 2018!

Personally, my year wasn’t so bad at all, but I say that knowing full well that we (all of us) may be teetering on the brink of some very interesting times ahead. Hug your loved ones, be kind to strangers, play fair, and vote. The rest will hopefully take care of itself.

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Discovering Curt Bois

We happened to be surfing around TV stations this evening and stumbled over a 1980s comedy series called Kir Royale, which had been filmed in Munich. Tonight’s episode was “Adieu Claire”, about a fictitious famous composer named Friedrich Danziger, very old and near death. Something about him looked familiar, and it wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that it dawned on me.

Curt Bois, a successful German Jewish character actor, left Germany in the 1930s, eventually came to the USA, and appeared in supporting roles in many Hollywood films through the 40s. He returned to Germany in 1950 and resumed regular work there in film and on the stage. Perhaps you remember the old man in “Wings of Desire” (1987), looking for Potsdamer Platz, reading in the library. Bois lived to see reunification, but he would probably not recognize Potsdamer Platz today, (nor would he probably like it, but who am I to say).

You’ve probably seen him in at least a dozen films, if you like the old stuff. His most famous film, however, might be Casablanca. Who did he play? The charming pickpocket.

Posted in America, culture, Germany, history, lives of others, theater, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2017 Round Up

2017 was a year of hard work and progress, and although it did have some very enjoyable moments, I’m really glad we’re moving on.
For the first half of the year, I was constantly traveling to and from a town 2.5 hours away, to sing roles in two shows at the theater there. Sometimes those shows would be held in a town just 1.5 hours away, and then I would drive there and back in the same evening. They were fun, my colleagues were terrific, it was a great experience, and it reinforced just how much of a homebody I really am. Seriously, travel is lovely, just not every week, please.
In the second half of the year I knuckled down on my translation work, got serious about figuring out Microsoft Word (instead of exporting Pages documents into Word and risking formatting errors) and Trados, which I had bought with a small windfall and had never really warmed up to. (Creating and using term bases, for instance. I couldn’t have done it without Jayne Fox’s perfectly clear instructions. Now I use it every week, if not for every job.) I had a lot of work too, and found myself a new, friendly agency and a new direct client.
And then there were the preparations for the ATA certification exam in Washington. It was a busy time – and somehow, I forgot to celebrate the blog’s 10 year anniversary in September. 10 years! Well, maybe we’ll hold off until next September and do a Spinal-Tap-inspired “goes to eleven” celebration.

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret — at the end of October I traveled to Washington D.C., where the American Translators Association was holding their annual conference, not to attend the conference but to take the association’s certification exam.
I’d first heard of the ATA after I began to translate for money (“professionally” may be a little premature for that time). I pored over every mention of it that I could find online. It’s very, very hard, everyone said. There’s only a 20% pass rate. Bring a suitcase of dictionaries. I took consolation in knowing that one could have a perfectly nice career without certification, but the idea of it hung in the air, like a benign Sword of Damocles, influencing everything I considered doing with my future. Business cards? Wait a bit, they’d look better with certification. Rates? Well, what can I demand, with neither a degree in translation nor certification?

This all being in the back of my head, I was planning a trip home to the states to see my family when I saw that the ATA conference would be in D.C. — just a few hours’ drive from where I would be. I have friends living just outside of town, and they were happy to put me up. So I made plans to take it, knowing all along that I should think of this as my “first attempt”, and not get my hopes up. I passed the practice test. I studied all the recommended materials. It was all systems go.

Now, I have to back up a bit to explain something that happened at the exam. I have been a loyal Mac user since the 90s, and only started to learn how to work with Windows in the past two years. Last summer, my Mac started acting up, and certain keys were not working properly. Not being able to get it repaired in time, I outfitted my second laptop, a new and little-used Asus, for the exam. And brought home a big German to English dictionary, just in case.
I arrived at the exam site, a room in the lower levels of the D.C. Hilton, and set up my little workstation like everyone else. So far so good. I knew how to open Word Pad, I had my bookmarks where I needed them. About 15 minutes before we begin, it suddenly dawns on me that although I know how to make m-dashes and n-dashes in Word, I don’t know if they work the same way in Word Pad. I start tinkering with key combinations –- and inadvertently set my German keyboard into U.S. mode. This meant that suddenly I had no m-dashes, no n-dashes, no parentheses, no apostrophes, no semi-colons… all gone. Those keys all suddenly started giving me different symbols! But, as necessity is the mother of invention, I quickly surfed the internet for these punctuation marks and copied/pasted them into a Word page, and copied those every single time that I needed them.

I won’t give details about the exam (why spoil the mystery?) but I left with a pretty good gut feeling that I had done pretty well, even with the punctuation issue. About a month later I was overtaken by a sudden dread that perhaps I had inadvertently left something out — a word, a phrase, whole sentences, who could say?
Although ATA says not to expect results before 16 weeks, mine arrived in less than 7. I don’t think there is any meaning to read into that, outside of the likelihood that, if my language pair were, say, Spanish to English, I might still be waiting.

The result? I passed!

(Three days after the exam, the Asus broke down. And a week after that, the Mac gave up the ghost as well.)

Now I have a newly-repaired Asus (thanks to it still being under warranty), a brand new Mac Air (I love you, Mom!) and a certificate to hang on my wall to remind me that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Posted in America, language, translation, travel | 5 Comments

Romans in Bavaria: comparing two online archeology maps for one specific area

Zeitspringer has a post up (in German) about the Roman road which ran between Augsburg and Salzburg, an important salt route referred to today as the “Via Julia”. Evidently there is a bit of uncertainty about the point where the road crossed the Isar River south of Munich. In his post, Zeitspringer mentions the site, which I hadn’t known about before. Like the Bavarian Monuments Atlas (also in German), this site superimposes archeological sites—as well as presumed routes of Roman roads—onto satellite maps. I love these kinds of maps, and they have been an enormous help in finding things when you’re on the ground and need landmarks for orientation (with these maps, even a lone tree in a field—something you won’t find on a conventional map—can tell you something).

Well, most of what is known about the routes of these Roman roads north of the Alps comes primarily from 1) ancient (but still after-the-fact) maps, 2) excavated finds and 3) common geographical sense, particularly over the passes where there really wasn’t much choice about where to travel (see Scharnitz, in Tyrol). But as far as where-exactly, to the meter precision, it’s really only 2) that can provide any kind of accuracy, and only then at those points. The lines between those two points often must be assumed (unless they come up out of the ground, making for excellent aerial photography).


Anyway, I was curious as to what had to say about my Roman road, the Via Raetia, which runs along part of the western shore of the Ammersee. Knowing that these things can’t be anywhere near 100% accurate, I was still a bit surprised to see where they put the line.


The aerial photo above is of the area west of Utting, south of Achselschwang. We know this area well because we often take walks here; it’s hilly terrain, unlike the flat fields in the photo above it. The Roman road, according to Vici, is the red line through the picture. However, can you make out that faint quadrilateral shape intersected by the line, with trees at three of its corners? That’s an old Celtic Viereckschanze, a four-sided earthwork that pre-dates the Roman road, and I have difficulty believing that the Romans would have simply built a road through it (although I suppose anything is possible, theoretically).


Above is a screen grab of the same area (the Viereckschanze is in the center, marked in red). Here, the Via Raetia runs a good 200 meters further west, and, knowing the terrain quite well there, I am more likely to believe this. What’s more, it joins the present road at Achselschwang. That means little on its own, and I am certainly no expert, but Achselschwang first gets a mention in records in the year 760. Its beginnings might go back to an old straight(-ish) track that had been used for hundreds of years, why not? When the Romans retreated from the regions north of the Alps, they left behind quite a few “Romanized” locals whose descendants would have kept using the paths, just as they  pulled out Roman gravestones for early stone churches (like the one in nearby Leutstetten, a place discussed here before). Those roads carried pilgrims to Rome, and traders, and early travelers like Albrecht Dürer (who visited Italy twice), and some parts of the old Via Raetia are still part of the national road network, albeit under lots of asphalt. In other words, they left traces.

Posted in archaeology, Bavaria, culture, Germany, Roman roads, travel | 4 Comments

Belated Springtime Posting

My life no longer allows much time for blogging, although I still enjoy reading works by others. Building up the new business keeps me busy in such a way that I can get to lunchtime before realizing that I haven’t even glanced at the news yet.

Spring out here in the country means lots of offspring.


Horses at Achselschwang near the Via Rhaetia



New addition on the farm.


This stork prefers a penthouse flat. Probably has the best views in town.

The storks are a special delight of this area. Here and there one sees buildings where special round platforms have been erected, to give the storks a little assistance when they are looking for a place to build their nests. They enjoy the protected wetlands and fields south of the lake through the summer, and then migrate to South Africa or somewhere. Years ago there was an interesting German documentary about stork migrations which featured an old man from Sachsen-Anhalt and a stork who always returned to his fields in the spring, and whom he’d fondly named “Prinzesschen”. Prinzesschen was outfitted with a  little transmitter so that the documentary team of scientists could follow her on her route (which was full of such hazards as high tension wires and the like). Now, when I see a stork, I always think of Prinzesschen.

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66 Hours in Berlin

Impressions of an all-too-short visit to Germany’s capital of everything. We begin with a pleasant surprise: Berlin may not offer city-wide wi-fi, but it’s public transport stations all have it, free. This means that while you may not be able to be online for your entire ride, you can get a signal every time you pull into one of the larger stations. The S-Bahn app didn’t even need wi-fi, just GPS services, to keep me informed as to which stations were coming up and where I was in relation to them. This was actually pretty handy, especially one’s first time on certain routes.

Trabis on display. I still find them charming. At least to look at. Maybe not to actually drive.


The leafy mid-day view from the großer Bunkerberg, aka “Mont Klamott”, immortalised by the East German rock band Silly. As indicated by the carving in the wall, Alexanderplatz lies straight ahead, as does the television tower (which you can just barely make out in the left side of the photo).


Berlin has a Ramone’s Museum. Actually it’s a private collection which, thanks to the collector’s wife, had to leave the house. It’s part of a small pub where you can get a discount off the (already low) admission if you buy a drink, and free admission if you buy a T-shirt.


The new Jewish Memorial, just a short walk away from the Brandenburg Gate. It was hard to find the right frame of mind to appreciate this, due to kids using the terrain for skateboarding and playing tag. I also didn’t want to get plowed into by one of them. Nevertheless impressive.


The Gedächtniskirche by evening light.


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The MS Utting

The Ammersee in southern Bavaria has summer passenger boat service provided by two paddle steamers, the Dießen and the Herrsching, the smaller motor-powered MS Augsburg and, until recently, the MS Utting. Because we have connections to Utting, I was always especially pleased to see it in service (which didn’t seem very often, if at all, in the last year). Then in early March we were stunned read that it was being retired, and taken off to a new life as some kind of performing space shell in Munich. Ah well, that’s that, we thought.

Until just a few weeks ago, when it was announced that the new MS Utting was on its way to the docks on the northern shore, and so we stopped by to see the new addition.


By the time we arrived it had already been welded together (it had arrived in two pieces via the Autobahn during the wee morning hours) and was sitting in the water. Masts, upper deck facilities, windows and the interiors all had yet to be installed.


Those are some impressive cranes.

The new MS Utting is 50.80 meters long and 9.60 meters wide, and will hold up to 500 passengers. It will be barrier-free (with an elevator to the upper deck for wheelchair users) and have a slide for children. The Free State of Bavaria is investing a cool 5.4 million euros in the new vessel.

 The first test ride is planned for the end of June. If all goes well, the MS Utting will have its maiden voyage in the second half of July. Maybe we’ll be on it!


Posted in Bavaria, current events, Germany, tech, travel | 2 Comments

Weekend Mountain Rail Blogging


The Mittenwaldbahn meets the trail at the Seefelder Sattel. Photo shamelessly purloined from Martin Schönherr.

Tyrolean omniscient and Friend of the Blog Paschberg sends a photo of greeting from the Seefelder Sattel, a little pass over the most easily navigable part of the Karwendel Mountains, and known as a point along the alignment of the Via Raetia. What he may not remember is that I myself have a similar photo, previously posted here, from pretty much the same spot, but looking the other way — the thing is, I had indeed been looking for the Seefelder Sattel, but didn’t realize that I had been standing right on it until now.

In a somewhat related vein: the closed railway line which ran past my recent overnight accommodations in Passau’s Innstadt.
It turns out to be part of the former Passau-Hauzenberg Railway, now used primarily by dog walkers. (The Beau, charmingly sarcastic as ever, suggested that it had probably been left behind by the Romans.)

Posted in archaeology, Austria, Bavaria, blogs, Mountains, nature, Roman roads, travel | 1 Comment
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