How to deal with copywriting for competing clients

How many ways are there to say "this cream will do wonders for you complexion"?
Let me count the ways…
Or better yet, let's not.

Since becoming self-employed, some six years ago, I was approached several times by skincare, toiletries and cosmetics companies to translate their blurb, do copywriting, edit their texts, and so on.

Initially, it was fun. I liked doing the research: going to the drugstore, studying the labels on jars and bottles; reading pretty brochures, and getting samples of lovely scented concoctions.

Actually writing copy was more difficult, psychologically at least. As much as I like my own favorite toiletries, I disapprove in principle of the huge industry that sells illusions to women. You know – all those "promises in a jar" – don't remember which beauty mogul coined that excellent phrase. Though I rather enjoyed the PR & Advertising course I took in my late twenties, I did not last long as a freelance copywriter. With youthful idealism, I felt I was wasting my time and talent on an unworthy goal: What, waste time and creative effort on persuading people to buy Lotion A rather than Lotion B?! How trivial!
Yet here I was, decades later, doing precisely that. Shame on me.

One such project was a mite more "convincing" than others. The company head, with a degree in chemistry, sounded very sincere when he explained that his products were based on organically grown plants in sustainable environments, and that for this and other reasons they were ecologically sound, and any person could use them with a clear conscience.  I wrote a deeply-caring text. That was before the full-fledged organic craze, years before every other toiletry product claimed to be organic and therefore automatically good and healthy.

Rivers of lotion later, I found myself dealing with three different manufacturers of skincare products. Possibly because it's been established that I've done this sort of work before. Now, suddenly, I am lost for words. Yes, I have a little list. It's called "skincare words.doc" and it currently has sixty-odd entries. But it's of little help. Because all creams and lotions claim to do the same things. They all hydrate, calm, soothe, give you a radiant, glowing complexion, bla bla bla, and so on and so forth. I suppose the trick is to give them alluring new names, inventing words and adjectives along the way. Some companies give their products incredibly long names. Others – like Clinique – go in for puns, like Take The Day Off. I rather like that approach; inject a bit of humor into the green jar or bottle.

Oops, I've strayed from my topic, which was how to deal with different copy for clients with similar products.

Briefly, it's a question of finding a slightly different focus; of addressing a slightly different target audience, if possible; and creating a different image.
Just recently, I translated marketing texts for two competing senior residence chains. The copywriters for the two chains chose a completely different tack:
Copywriter A emphasized the services provided, the experience of the staff, the size of the rooms and the view from the window, if any.
Copywriter B emphasized the social aspect: a place where you'll make new friends, turn a new leaf, find new love and be happy.
But what if the same copywriter were hired by the two competing chains? Could he have done justice to both?...
I guess it depends on the "brief" – on the instructions and guidelines given to the copywriter by the client.

Okay, I finished venting about this topic. No one is forcing me to undertake such jobs. I'll do my best for the current project, then give it a rest.

Of heroes, superheroes and the ICON festival

Tarzan loved Jane, John Carter  loved Dejah Thoris. That was way back in 1912, but their love never died, it lives on in us, in the minds of readers. Since then, Clark Kent loved Lois Lane, Han Solo fell for Princess Leia, Rick Deckard chose to be with Rachael, Strider loved Arwen, and on it goes. Love doesn’t only make this world go around, it makes far away planets and mythical kingdoms go round, too.

Not that there aren’t good sci-fi and fantasy stories that have nothing to do with love-and-marriage, horse-and-carriage. Asimov and numerous others made little or no use of romantic plots. Still, love goes a long way to captivating an audience.

A case in point is the recent short story competition for the Einat award , as part of the ICON festival . Fifty-five stories were submitted, of which 10 made the short-list, and of those, several had romantic themes, to greater or lesser extents. The winner – When Winter Ends ("Besof HaHoref"), by Yoni (f.) Goldstein, was doubtlessly the most romantic of all. Not that this in itself accounts for its winning; the story has a – forgive the pun – winning quality; it's well-crafted, well-written, and quite obviously not written by a teenager. It is a touching story, heart-warming, and, in my opinion, unabashedly romantic.

But let me get back to John Carter. I'm nearly ashamed to say that I only made his acquaintance recently. As a kid, I devoured every Tarzan comic book I could lay my hands on (in Hebrew); maybe John Carter's Martian tales hadn't been translated into Hebrew at the time. I found the entire series (in English, of course) on my mother's bookshelves only a few years ago. So far, I've read only the first one – A princess of Mars, of which we have two copies, two different editions with a different jacket:
John rescuing Dejah from Barsoom Tharks
A more modest visual version of the protagonists

Guys, let me tell you – John Carter puts to shame Jason Bourne and Indiana Jones combined! In 159 pages of tight, old-fashioned English, he packs in adventure after adventure, fights and narrow escapes, acts of cunning, courage and daring. Not to mention falling in love with and rescuing the beautiful and brave Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris.

Some things change, some don't. Plots have become more sophisticated, violence more graphic, characters less chivalrous. But whether on Earth or in faraway galaxies, love remains. Amen.

When not to rewrite

In recent months I was involved in two projects where I itched to improve the original writing. One was a non-fiction book about the bible and its interpretation; the other was the memoirs of a Jewish man who lived in Poland and Russia during World War II and survived to tell the tale – and what a tale it is!

In the first book, which I shall call BAIT (the Bible As I see It), I was asked to translate a couple of chapters from Hebrew to English, with the intent of sending the sample to a publisher abroad who had expressed an interest.

The second book, which I shall call J's Memoirs, was originally written in Polish, then translated into English and edited (sort of); I was asked to do further editing, mainly with regard to all the "weird" Polish names.

In both cases, I was tempted to do far more than I was asked, and in both cases, the client put a definite damper on me.

Case #1 – BAIT

The writer, an elderly gentleman, came from a religious family, but early on in childhood became disenchanted with the god known as Jehovah and would have nothing further to do with him. Nonetheless, later on in life he found himself drawn to the Bible and read it very carefully, trying to figure out its power over people, and to what extent it should be taken at face value. A huge, ambitious attempt, to be sure; one which he approached with gusto, a critical eye and ear, and considerable imagination.

The two chapters I read and translated were unusual, unorthodox, interesting, and at times funny. But one thing was very clear: the author was not an accomplished writer, and if he wanted to hook a publisher, the two chapters would benefit greatly (in my opinion) from some polishing.

How presumptuous of me!

The client, upon reading my first draft, foamed at the mouth. How dare I put words in his mouth, and add a sentence that wasn't in the Hebrew, and change his words! I was merely a translator, and my job was simply to convert his Hebrew text into correct English – no more, no less. With ill grace he accepted a few changes I proposed on the grounds that the non-Israeli, non-Jewish reader might misunderstand. Any other improvements of his prose were contemptuously thrown out the window. Last I heard, he hadn't found a publisher.

Case#2 – J's Story

The story itself was fascinating, if you ignore the beginning that describes in detail the layout of J's family home, the neighbors, the aunts and uncles, etc. J didn't have to invent any adventures or quirky characters to make his story interesting. His struggle to survive during the war comes through in his short, matter-of-fact sentences. He does not hypothesize or philosophize, he just tells it as it is, or was. Like the author of BAIT, he was not especially good with words, not a born storyteller. It would have been more "fun" for me, more "creative", to add some color to his prose, to make his sentences more elegant or sophisticated. But his widow said a flat "no": she wanted to maintain the authenticity of her husband's voice. I was expected to correct the grammar where necessary, add the absolute minimum of clarification, and make sure the English spelling of Polish names was logical and consistent. We also agreed which names had to be left in their original Polish spelling, e.g. Janusz Korczak, Wladyslaw Gomulka, Grzegorz Dzierzgowski, and others. But, considering that the target audience was mostly the writer's American family, there was no justification for maintaining the Polish spellings of names of Jewish writers such as Sholom Aleichem or David Frishman. Another consideration, of course, was how members of the family currently spell their name; if a branch of the family spells its name Brodecki, say, rather than Brodetsky, so be it.

Moral of the story: Before you embark on heavy editing or rewriting, make sure you know what the client wants and expects, and-- preferably -- why.

The Case of the Odd Client

Case #1 – Danny (real name, as far as I know)
Shame I didn't save the actual email, but the gist of it was, that there's some guy out there called Danny (maybe), who needs something translated. Plus a mobile phone number, which I wouldn't dream of calling without a bit more information. What's his surname? Where did he find or get my name and email address, what is it all about – looks like it didn't occur to him all these are details worth mentioning.

My initial reaction in such cases are to educate the guy; send him an email explaining that in order to help him I need more information. And that it's common courtesy to at least sign with your full name. But he got to me on a day when I was busy and tired. I just deleted the message. I hope that whoever ended up helping him also took the trouble to enlighten the guy about better ways of approaching a service provider, or any other person, for that matter.

Case #2 -- Ms. Biostory (obviously a name I made up, but the story is real)
Ms. Biostory was referred to me by a colleague. Her line of business is writing people's autobiographies. I don't think it's ghostwriting – I think people either give her their written or recorded memoirs, or else tell her their life stories, which she then transforms into a book. She wanted a price quote for translating one such manuscript from Hebrew into English. Since the manuscript was 60 units (15000 words) long, I estimated that in English it would come to at least 80 units, and gave a price quote for 85 units tops, to be on the safe side.

The email I received in response was one of the shortest and rudest I ever got, something along the lines of "You must be crazy! I got far lower quotes." My daughter said I could either ignore her email, or just shrug it off with a "take it or leave it" reply. Instead, I told her I found her reply impolite, and proceeded to explain my calculation, the main point being: if the other – far lower – quotes were a result of lower per-unit rates, that's fine with me; every translator is free to charge whatever he/she sees fit. But if the lower quotes were based on the Hebrew word-count, then the client will be in for a nasty surprise when the final word count of the English translator ends up being 20,000 or more. I find it hard to believe that any serious translator would choose to ignore the expansion of the translated text; it would be more honest to take the expansion into account, then charge a low per-word or per-unit fee in an attempt to beat the competition.
Be that as it may, I hope the end-client, i.e. the subject of the autobiography, is getting her money's worth.

On that happy note: Shana Tova to all!

How not to write and mail a CV

In recent months I had occasion to read, translate and/or edit a good number of CVs of professionals in the fields of writing, education, hi-tech, translation, and more. A few were superbly written and formatted. But most suffered from at least one problem. I've addressed this issue before, in my post "Who cares when you were born" (published May 2008). But it's been a while, I have a few more suggestions, and the subject is worthy of re-addressing. So here goes:

  1. DO NOT name your file CV-translator.doc, or CV-English.doc . Isn't this obvious? With so many of you giving your file the exact same name, how is the employer or agency to know which is which?
  2. Always check File > Properties and include ONLY relevant information. You'd be surprised what the Properties tab can reveal about you.
  3. Sign your cover letter/email with your full name rather than "Best regards, Moshik"
  4. Avoid adding cute but irrelevant hobbies or studies that are there just to show off that you're a well-rounded personality rather than the stale bookish sort. The fact that you studied acupuncture in China has little to do with the skills required of a magazine editor, unless the magazine is all about acupuncture.
  5. Unless absolutely necessary or relevant, do not include your marital status and number of kids. It's no one's business. Definitely do not write "Mother of one wonderful son / talented daughter"; you're applying for a job, not a matchmaker's list of eligibles.
  6. Avoid cutesy graphics under your name/signature /name and address. Unless you're applying as a graphic artist for illustrating kids' books.
  7. Update your CV before sending it! Sending a CV in August 2011 with a file name March 2008 is not very attractive. Even if the changes in the text itself are minute, change the date of the file.
  8. Do you really think your potential employer cares when your birthday is and how many kids you have? True, some companies, especially Israeli manpower agencies (hevrot hasama) demand that you write all those details up-front, including your ID number, army ID number, car registration number, national insurance code, which health fund you belong to, your shoe size and your preference in muffins (crucial to stocking the company kitchenette.) But for most positions, these details are irrelevant and have no place on your CV. If you insist – relegate them to the end. (If you failed to impress the prospective employer, maybe he won't read to the bitter end.)
  9. Do not add links to your blog about your grandchildren, dogs, cats, cupcake baking, knitting, etc. It is irrelevant and unprofessional. (Unless you're applying for a job dealing with precisely these subjects.)
  10. Good luck!

Crimes and Misdemeanors – a random collection

Well, perhaps small crimes – against the language – and misdemeanors; the latter referring to writers’ not bothering to self-edit, proofread their work, and/or look up certain words and phrases.

I make allowances for bloggers (including myself, tee-hee), dyslectics, and plain old scatterbrains (again – like me.) Most bloggers I follow are quite strict with themselves and painstaking with their posts. As I’ve said before, a blog is neither a term paper nor a thesis and you write it and “get it out there” without too much delay, striking while the thought is fresh in your mind, the topic topical and your fingers itchy.

So here are some crimes against language that I came across recently:

  1. A Supergas leaflet (in Hebrew) offering travel/vacation-related items on discount, showed pics of bags, pointing out that they all have ידיות נסיעה … Merely transliterating does not quite capture it: yadiot ne’siaa. As spelled in the leaflet, it means "travel handles"; whereas the correct spelling of the idiomatic phrase, ידיות נשיאה , means carrying handles.
  2. A bottle of Neutragena Sesame Body Oil has a Hebrew label stuck on top of the original English instructions for use. After applying the oil, you should pat your body lightly with a towel rather than rub it off, is the general idea. The Hebrew says you should dry yourself בתפיחות מגבת… In transliteration: be’tefihot magevet. But the Hebrew misspelling makes it meaninglessly funny, something like “with a puffing/swollen towel.
    I actually wrote to the Israeli distributor, who said they were made aware of the mistake after the printing, and will correct it in the next printing. No idea how often they print these labels, of course.
  3. Several weeks ago, a terrible road accident occurred: A young couple whose car had a flat tire pulled over to change the tire, and were hit and killed by a passing truck, whose driver stopped briefly then fled the scene. The police issued a statement calling on citizens who may have witnessed the accident or seen the truck to come forward, describing the vehicle (in the Jerusalem Post) as… “… a truck with a white crate.” Perplexed? The Hebrew-to-English translator obviously wasn’t familiar with the Hebrew expression argaz (literally, box or crate) which refers to the body of the truck (as opposed to the driver’s cabin.) Since this news items appeared on the front page, I’d have expected the copy editor to catch it.

What to read in a house full of books

Reading ads and picking on small-but-annoying mistakes (I have one of those with me today, too) is not the only thing I do for fun. I also read real, entire books. My problem is usually which book to read. My home library is an amalgam of my family's taste, and that covers quite a range, including – but not limited to – history, fantasy & sci-fi, thrillers, plays, popular science, and more. Mostly in English. Some I inherited from my parents; some my kids left behind when they flew the coop; some I received as gifts, rescued from being thrown out by neighbors, or bought at airports and bookshops around the world like Feltrinelli (Italy) and Waterstone's (UK), to name a few.

These days, however, I'm surrounded by a whole new collection, mostly in Hebrew but also in French and English: the library of my daughter Daria and her life-partner Noam. Not that I haven't visited their rented Tel Aviv apartment before; but these were on the whole brief, purposeful visits that didn't leave me much time for browsing the packed bookshelves. But if you've been following the vicissitudes of my life to any extent, you can't have missed the fact that I have recently become a grandmother. As such, I've had the privilege of pacing the couple's living room for hours, infant in arms, humming silly things like Ah-ah baby, Mummy is a lady, Daddy is a gentleman, and Momo is my baby. No rule that says I can't scan the bookshelves as I pace. Or, when my arms get tired, I can pass Baby to Grandpa, freeing my hands to actually take books off the shelf and look at them.

I made the decision not to bring the book I'm currently reading (The Book of Ultimate Truths, Robert Rankin) to Momositting sessions. My shoulder bag is heavy enough as it is, and why bring a book to a place that has so many volumes that I don't have at home?

And so it came to pass that I picked up something I've always thought I ought to read:Jack Keruack's On The Road. Unfortunately, it's in Hebrew. Translated by Oded Peled*. And therein lies the problem. I read a sentence, and wonder: What was the English? Why does this sentence sound so stiff? The translator uses the Hebrew word "gruta'a" – I bet the original says "jalopy"; really must check.

Which I did, and indeed the sentence is "Dean… was actually born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy…"
I end up being tempted to translate a few pages myself, without peeking, to see if there's any way I can make the Hebrew text flow more naturally and easily, as it does in English. Daria had said that she gave up on the book (in the Hebrew version) very early on, and decided to read it in English. As far as I know, she hasn't gotten around to it yet. Maybe when darling Momo starts sleeping through the night. Or through the day. One or the other.

And so, back to my usual kvetching about poor translation of trivial ads.
This one appears in Friday's (July 1st) Jerusalem Post special Active supplement, and sounds quite okay, except for one offending word. The English text, referring to wheat crackers with the "original" name Crispiot, says, inter alia:

"Crispiot are crisps made of 100% puffed wheat, which is rich in nutritional fibers."

Yes, dear translator; in Hebrew the expression is sivim tezunatyim, in the plural. But in English it's fiber, not fibers. Fibers are what material is made of, for instance. Besides, if you check the original English label of any foodstuff containing fiber, the "nutritional" is implicit; or else it's referred to as "dietary fiber". Or who knows – maybe you wrote it correctly, but a know-it-all Israeli editor thought he/she knew better…

Bon appétit, all; remember to include fiber in your diet.

* Some people liked Oded Peled's translation. Scroll down the article , because most of it refers to Shaul Levin's translation of The Original Scroll version.

Welcome to Vanity Fair 2011

For weeks now, the newspapers have been carrying huge, full-page ads for Beauty City , an event(?) that will take place at Tel Aviv's fairgrounds, officially called The Israel Trade Fairs Center, (Merkaz HaYeridim @ Ganei HaTa'arucha, June 22-24, 2011.

For a token(?) entrance fee of NIS 30, women (well, I bet it'll be mostly women) will be awash in a sea of cosmetics and toiletries of every brand and kind. Heavily made-up sales representatives will probably be offering free makeovers, cute sachets of samples, and tempting(?) discounts. You know, the kind that make all the difference in the world: A 30-shekel cream sold for 20 shekels, and a superior(?) 800 shekel cream on special for "only" 600. Or maybe buy three, spend an arm and a leg, get one free, it'll come in handy instead of that missing arm or leg.

Hey, listen, I love wandering in the scented aisles of the Perfumery & Magic-Potion section of malls and duty-free shops. I inhale deeply, pick up pretty jars, read some ingredients and pipe-dream promises, appreciate the good copywriting and sneer at the bad texts. I consider the significant difference between Autumn Rose, Dusty Pink, and Plum Surprise shades of lipstick and their possible contribution to my general appearance and attractiveness. I hesitate between Desert Beige and Sandy Peach shades of powder for my reddish nose. I lament the fact that I can no longer use mascara because my eyes object in no uncertain terms and my skin reacts with a rash to anything more scented than baby soap. Then I sigh, pick up an unscented facial moisturizer with SPF 30, queue up, pay and leave.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."
Ecclesiastes 1:2

Down with Awful Copywriting – Example 4

Local car importers/distributors strike again.
Or rather, strike out again.

Yet another Israeli advertising agency has blundered.

The ad in question this time is for Fiat 500. Cute little car; there's one parked on our street. Looks perfect as a runabout for errands in and around the city and parking in tight places. No, I do not think it would be the first choice of some Italian contessa or principessa.

The ad in question bears the title: BEAUTIFUL. ITALIAN.
Beneath which is a photo of a bejeweled, prettyish woman, supposedly Italian looking, supposedly with a seductive expression and finger-to-lip sexiness.

At the bottom right is the toy itself, which looks – due to the angle and proportions of the illustration – as if it would barely accommodate two of Snow White's dwarfs. (They were chubby, you will recall; at least in the Disney version, which is what most of us recall.)

Bottom left is the horrendous copy, translated literally from trite, ill-conceived Hebrew copy. I'll spare you the pain and just give you the questionable beginning and the flawed end:

"The Italian beauty will attract you. It's hypnotizing. It's overpowering.
[7 more lines of bla bla, yadda yadda] … which combines beauty with character. With the company of a gorgeous Italian..." [Hint hint, nudge nudge, say no more!]

Did they by any chance mean "in the company of a gorgeous Italian"? Who knows.

Just compare that fatuous babble with the less pretentious, spot-on description of the car on the official Fiat site in Hebrew; briefly, it says "it warms the cockles of your heart and brings a smile to your face."

Down with Awful Copywriting – Example 3

Weeks ago, I saw a full page ad, in English, for the new VW Passat: run-of-the-mill looking car in an empty street of a nameless, gold-colored foreign city. Okay. I can live with that. Boring, unimaginative, but not offensive.

The title-slogan says:
The new Passat.
It gets into you.

What on earth got into them? What did they mean by that?

Google to the rescue. Seems there's this clip, the brainchild of one of Israel's largest advertising agencies, that's presented as an example of Israeli advertising at its best.

I watched the clip. I've seen better, I've seen worse.
But the telltale error of their ways is revealed at the tail end.

The voiceover says: The new VW Passat. It gets into you.
And the Hebrew subtitles read (I transliterate): hee mashpi'ah aleicha.
Which means, gentlemen, it gets to you.
Vive la difference.

And this, dear readers, is a true representative sample of Israeli car advertising at its typical blundering "best".

BTW: This ad's rating on the above-mentioned site is 8.8/10, gained through a very generous 19 votes. I wonder how many of the voters were native English speakers. (I bet none were finicky editors or QA people.)

The clip also appears on YouTube, but without the Hebrew subtitles which give it away.

Down with Awful Copywriting – Example 2

Cars. They are so much more than just a biggish, expensive device to get you from A to B. And competition is fierce. So naturally manufacturers pour a lot of money into outdoing each other with creative ads.

All this effort goes down the drain by the time the ads make it to Israel, and the local importer/distributor asks his advertising agency to make a Hebrew version of the ad.
More often than not, the agency apparently decides that the ad created for Europe or North America simply won't work in Israel, and opts for a made-for-the-average-Israeli-macho version.

The results range from acceptable to lame to downright awful.

Example? With [dis]pleasure.

Go to the Volvo XC90 page and click on the link 5 Things to Know.

That's just plain good marketing writing; nothing extravagant. Tells you good things about the car. That's for the sake of background information.

Then Google "Volvo XC90 ads" and look at a few. The artwork is beautiful and the slogan is simple: Life is Lived Better Together.

Or if you want the humorous version, try this.

Now, if you have a Hebrew daily handy, look at the ad that's been running in Hebrew papers for weeks. The Hebrew text is low-brow, crass and coarse, which is bad enough. The English translation is … I can't think of a suitable adjective: Unprofessional. Literal. Yuck. Blargh. It doesn't even capture the spirit of the Hebrew. (I don't know if that's good or bad, in this case!) See below: (The text of the ad is all upper case; not my doing.)


Sadly, this "opportunity" has been repeating itself for weeks.

Down with Awful Copywriting

Baby-leasing or hair styling?

Those were the two options that crossed my mind when I first saw the name of the luxury accommodations offered to new moms by Lis Maternity Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Babylis. I ask you!

Okay, so it's a challenge for the copywriter to think up a pithy name for it. So give the task to an imaginative, creative person. I happen to know we have several here in Israel.
The word "bliss" just begs to be used in this context, at the risk of slipping down the slippery slope of mushy-mushy.

The name Babyliss, pronounced in Hebrew (at least in my teens) bah-bee-lees, was one of the first I heard in the world of hair coiffing, when my friends and I had our hair done every Friday afternoon, in time for Friday night's party. Girls like me, with straight hair, had their hair put up in rollers to give them "volume", while girls with curly-to-kinky hair spent hours straightening their locks with bahbeelees.

As pronounced in Hebrew, the name Baby Lis sounds alarmingly like "baby-lease", and you're left wondering how it works: Can you lease your baby to someone who is babyless and wants one for an afternoon stroll, to show off in the park? If you're in need of a baby, can you apply to Baby Lis and get one on lease for a limited period?...

As for the place itself, though my eldest is at the moment there with her partner and exquisite (naturally!) newborn baby boy, I haven't been there yet, so can't vouch for its being luxurious. A luxury in terms of cost it definitely is.

To my daughter Daria, and everyone else at Lis Maternity Hotel: Mazal Tov, Congrats, enjoy your stay!

Of Nightmares and Travel Guides

As usual, I had a hard time deciding what books to take with me on my trip. I had quite a stack on the table, and Daniel helped me finally narrow it down to two:

Frederik Pohl – Alternating Currents (short stories), and Robert Rankin – The Book of Ultimate Truths. The first being smaller and lighter, I thought I might read it en route, and so packed it in a safe and sensible place in the carry-on trolley, so it would be easy to get at. So naturally I couldn’t for the life of me find it, and had to start reading the Rankin which had been casually thrown in among the clothes in the big suitcase. But before I could get very far, Michael finished the book he was reading, and so appropriated Rankin, while, by sheer chance, Pohl turned up.

Not that I had much time for reading; and when I did read, my first priority was the excellent travel guide we brought along (amply mentioned in my travel blog) by Rick Steves & Cameron Hewitt. Disappointed with the scant choice of travel guides in English on Slovenia & Croatia at local shops (Steimatzki and Lametayel), Michael turned to and ordered 2 books that seemed promising . The Rick Steves one made good on that promise: not only does it give detailed and reliable information on everything from where to stay, what to wear and which ice cream is best, but it's also entertaining reading; these writers definitely have a way with words. (When was the last time you guffawed while reading a Michelin guide-book?)

But at bedtime, Steves was abandoned in favor of Pohl.

Big mistake?...

The first story, Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus, with its focus on consumerism gone mad, reminded me of The Midas Plague, in Pohl's collection The Case Against Tomorrow. In both, the problem of over-consuming is not solved on a global level; but individuals, at least, find a way around it, so in that sense at least it has a happy end.

The second story, Ghost Maker, is a bit morbid, and the protagonist gets his comeuppance with a twist… Keep that in mind when dealing with ghosts and ghost-makers.

The third story, Let the Ants Try, is a downright horror story and a dire dystopia. I think the mere title gave me the creeps; I sort of suspected the ants would win the day, to the detriment of mankind. It was the sort of story to give me nightmares. Luckily, my felicitous travel experiences overcame the imaginary horror, and my crazy dreams were on the happy side.

Pythias, a story of pride and the dangers of absolute power, sent me running (well, clicking, more like) to Wikipedia, ashamed of my ignorance. Wow! Did you know she was Aristotle's first wife? Together, Aristotle and Pythias had a daughter, also named Pythias. This Pythias married three times. I bet their story is at least as interesting as this specific story by Pohl, and probably more so.

The Mapmakers is about being lost in space. Yes, the spaceship Terra II gets back safely. That isn't really a spoiler, because how they find their way back is the unexpected bit.

Rafferty's Reasons is plain depressing in an Orwellian way, with echoes of Animal Farm, 1984, and perhaps some Camus thrown in, I'm not sure. If this story is any indication of the shape of things to come, then we all have very good reason to rebel.

Target One is one of those time-warp/alternate history stories where the protagonists naively think that if they only change or prevent one significant event, history will be the better for it. Well, naturally we're not that naïve, we know that change happens with or without a certain great personality. We sci-fi readers know that messing with history more often than not screws things up even worse…

Grandy Devil – ah, at last a whimsical, humorous story! Not without its dark side, but not nightmare material.

The Tunnel Under the World
is my favorite story in this collection. It starts out with a bang and ends in a whimper, but that's not a bad thing, in this case. The nightmare begins early on, the protagonist is trapped, feels that something terrible is going on (the doings of Martians? The Russians?) and decides to fight it, run for freedom, get help. As his attempt is foiled, the twist in the plot reveals itself… Which is why I'll clam up and say no more. Go ahead, read it, I dare you.

What To Do Till The Analyst Comes (last story) suffers from a bit of obvious preachiness. It, too, reeks of doom; not by the hands of aliens but by our own laziness, in a Lotus Eaters kind of way.

As for the Rankin book – I am reserving judgment, since I am only on page 37 out of 347. All I can say is that so far I'm having a hard time following what's going on. (Daniel did warn me it was weird.) I peeked at readers' opinions online and got the impression that Rankin is an acquired taste.

Dober dan, kje je vece?

Vece, I said vece, didn't I? I meant WC, of course. For zenski. With a squiggle on top of the z. That's what it says in the section "Slovenian Survival Phrases" at the end of the guide book.

I started reading that glossary the day before our trip, but somehow nothing sank in. Except perhaps Ja and Ne. Some other words sounded vaguely familiar, like "dobro", meaning good, which sounds like the Polish word "dobre", which I heard often in my schooldays from my Polish speaking friends and their families. And "Na svidenje", meaning goodbye, which sounds a lot like its Russian counterpart, "Dasvidaniya" (please ignore spelling.) But other than that, I seemed to bump against a wall, or mental block.

How can I call myself a linguist if I can only manage mildly-foreign languages such as French, Spanish and Italian? The moment things get a bit tricky, I'm lost. In Portugal, it was the pronunciation rather than the vocabulary that killed me. Here it's both. All those impossible consonant clusters!

Before our first trip to Greece many years ago, I made a point of studying the Greek alphabet, so that I could read the signs. It did help. Here in Slovenia, the alphabet is familiar, I even know how to pronounce the c and the z with and without the "chupchik", but it all comes to naught when we're driving along the highway at 130 km/h and a sign looms with a list of half a dozen destinations, all with impossible names, and is gone within a blink.

One major mistake was not learning the names of the cardinal directions. A hit-and-miss attitude to directions is bound to result in trouble... And there is absolutely no way you can guess: North = Sever, South = Jug, East = Vzhod, West = Zahod. I couldn't think of a single mnemonic for any of them. Sever made me think of the river Severn; "Jug" made me think of the jugular vein and vampires; Vzhod looks to me like total gibberish; and Zahod brings to mind the delightful(?) Zaphod Beeblebrox which, you'll agree, is not a very helpful association.

Today, for instance, on our way to catch a train in the middle of nowhere, we were stopped because of road works. We tried to explain that we have a train to catch, even resorting to mimicry and "choo-choo", but the guy with the beret and red-and-green lanterns just shrugged.

By the time I've mastered a few basic words in Slovenian, we'll be in Croatia. Anyone have any helpful hints???

For more stories of our Slovenia & Croatia adventures, see my travel blog:

Meantime, adijo! Vidiva se kasneje gori v pubu :-)