Notes from the Scrap Heap: A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade, Part 4

The last twelve years of my working life were spent at what was in many ways the best job of my career, and it broke my heart to lose it. It wasn’t the best paying, though it wasn’t bad, but it was the most interesting, the most fun, and the most rewarding. I learned a lot in it, and I got to do a lot of different things, not just desktop publishing. I interacted with clients; I managed the company’s computer network; I acquired and installed new software, and I branched the company into new areas, which ultimately proved to be my undoing!

I ended up in the job through a couple of random coincidences. I was working in a press house, primarily doing desktop publishing for one client: a medical insurer. I think that the client was bought out by a larger company—I’m not sure what the exact circumstances were—but the business was drying up. One of my colleagues was laid off, and that was a signal to me that I had better keep my eyes open to a new position.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen had introduced its New Beetle. My first car had been a VW Beetle (a two-year-old 1967 model that I paid $1500 for, a princely sum in 1969!), and I thought it might be cool to get one of the new ones. The Newark Star-Ledger newspaper was running a contest to win one, so I picked up a copy of the newspaper and entered the contest. I didn’t win. However, while I was thumbing through the paper, I happened to see a classified ad for a desktop publishing job that looked like something I could do. As I recall, there was no phone number or address, just a mailbox at the Ledger to which I could send a résumé. I said to myself, “what the hell,” printed out another copy of my résumé and sent it to the indicated address.

Two days later I got a call from the company involved, and found out that (1) they were only a few miles from where I was already working and (2) that they were very interested in me. I agreed to go pay them a visit one afternoon. As soon as I was inside their office I had an instinct that this might be a good place for me. I found out that what they did was desktop publishing in foreign languages, for the most part, something I had always wished I could get a job doing. I already knew how to read the Greek, Cyrillic, and Arabic alphabets, and didn’t see any reason why someone wouldn’t hire me to set type in them. I had an interview with the company’s bookkeeper and with the president’s wife—I guess they were running interference or triage or something and only sending “live ones” to meet with the boss—and they considered me to be a “live one.” I met with the boss a few days later, and he made me a nice offer. I gave my notice to the press house the next day. They tried to talk me out of going, but I knew, as did they, that it was only a matter of time before there would not be work for me there. I have heard that the company is no longer in business, and I’m not entirely surprised.

As it turned out, the new company had more in mind for me than setting type in foreign languages. They needed help in managing the business, and after a few days I realized that they needed serious help. A little over half of their work was for one client, Lucent Technologies (formerly known as Bell Laboratories), and that was going well—as it turned out most of that work was in English. One employee—who had been educated in design rather than in the printing trades—was handling it. The other work was going in fits and starts. Far Eastern and Middle Eastern languages were being outsourced, and the results were mixed, to be charitable. The outsourced work was invariably late, and there were invariably problems. Many pages had to be sent back for corrections, and they were also late getting back.

A lot of the company’s work was being done by temporary workers, who were in most cases, negatively productive. What’s negative productivity? When it takes longer to fix a job then it did to do the work initially—or especially when it takes longer to fix it than it would have taken a competent person to do it initially—that’s negative productivity. There was a lot of that going on. In good times, employers often follow the “warm-body principle,” the idea that it’s better to have someone muddling through than not to contract the work at all. I think the reason for that is that most business owners are sales people rather than production people. That kind of business mentality can work in the short term and in good times, but when times get hard and the winnowing process is under way, a business with a reputation for shoddy work gets winnowed out.

The company had about half a dozen or so Macintosh computers of various ages networked together peer-to-peer and talking to two old laser printers and a photo-imaging device. However, there were also two Windows computers. One of them was connected to one of the laser printers with a parallel cable that must have been over twenty feet long. I was actually surprised that a parallel interface would work at all on that kind of distance! And only one of the Macintoshes had any kind of telecommunications capability: a dial-up modem and an America Online account! This company needed help. So I got to work.

The boss told me that he wanted to investigate getting an ISDN line in the office—remember, this was 1998! In 1998 ISDN (Integrated Services Data Network) was no longer the new hot technology, but it was known and accepted. I don’t even remember the speed, but it was faster than a dial-up modem, the fastest of which was not quite 12.5 kilobaud. A month after I started working, we had an ISDN line and ISDN router installed, and just like that every Macintosh in the office had Internet access. We bought a domain name, set up electronic mail, and thus took a giant leap into the present-day. ISDN lasted about a year, maybe a year and a half, before we switched to DSL (digital subscriber line).

The Apple Macintosh at that time had its own networking protocol called Appletalk. (I sometimes wonder if Apple’s marketing staff got the name from Bloody Mary’s song “Happy Talk” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”) It wasn’t a bad networking protocol, if you were networking Macs. But it wouldn’t talk to anything else. Meanwhile, I had two PCs that I wanted to have access to all the printers in the office and to the Macs as well.

I had always been a Mac hater, something unusual in the printing trades. As everyone knows, desktop publishing began on the Macintosh platform, and so most people in the business never considered using the Windows platform for desktop publishing—and, to be sure, before Windows 3.1 it would have been impossible. So most people in the printing trades had no clue about what a Windows PC even was, let alone what one could do with it. I did, because at the very beginning of desktop publishing, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I learned to use Ventura Publisher, a program which actually ran in the DOS operating system. It was developed by Xerox at the Palo Alto Research Center and was one of the first programs to use a graphic user interface. Unlike most people in the printing trades, I knew how to use both Mac and Windows, and I recognized that Windows, for all its clunkiness, was more stable, more reliable, more versatile, and handled problems better than Mac. It was cheaper, too, and still is. In fact, I once predicted that in the long run if the Apple Macintosh was to survive Apple would have to scrap the entire operating system and start over again. Not long after I made that prediction, Apple did exactly that, introducing System 10, which is an adaptation of the Unix operating system. But I digress!

So, as a confirmed Windows user, I was not completely current on all the software available for the Mac. However, my younger brother was just the opposite: a confirmed Mac lover. Since he was (and still is) a chemical engineer he was someone who had to know how to work with Windows and Windows users. So I called him, and a day later, he gave me a suggestion for a program that installed the Appletalk program on a Windows PC, thus enabling it to talk with Macs and other Appletalk network devices. However, when I looked at the Windows PC I found something distressing: it had no hardware for networking! Fortunately, there was a CompUSA store in the shopping center next door to the office building where we were located. I walked down there and bought a NIC (network interface controller) card and a fifty-foot patch cable. When everyone had gone home, I opened up the case, plugged it into a PCI slot, and strung the cable over the ceiling panels between our network switch and the newly-installed NIC card. Then I installed the program, called PCMacLAN. After some jiggling around with the configuration and a couple of reboots, I clicked on My Network Places and suddenly saw all the Macs and printers appear! Victory! And goodbye to the old parallel interface!

Today, the universality of the Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) has made such problems seem quaint indeed. Appletalk was phased out as System 10 was phased in, and today the cross-platform issues that were so daunting over a decade ago are for the most part forgotten.

Early in my second week, I expressed my dissatisfaction with outsourcing the Far Eastern and Middle Eastern languages. He explained to me why it was necessary, why it wasn’t feasible to do the work in-house. I accepted his explanation, though I didn’t agree with it. A few months later, however, it became his idea, and he suggested to me that we look into how we could do Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. My response was, “Oh, wow, that’s a great idea! I’ll get on it right away!”

At this time, QuarkXPress was the industry standard—Adobe InDesign, the industry standard today, was still several years in the future. Unicode, the international coding protocol that enables multilanguage word processing, was not yet available. Every language had its own standards for character maps in its language. What I found was that I needed a separate version of QuarkXPress for Japanese, for Traditional Chinese, and for Simplified Chinese—three versions, and a different copy for every computer on which it was to be installed, at over $2,000 a pop! Only a few months earlier, I had no idea that there even were distinct “traditional” and “simplified” writing versions for the Chinese language, but what I learned was that in the late 1950s, the Chinese government simplified the 50,000+ character writing system, both the number of characters and the number of strokes required to create many of them. The purpose was to combat massive illiteracy among the Chinese population. Simplified Chinese was used for the most part in the People’s Republic of China, though in the late 1990s it was also adopted in Singapore. In Taiwan and in the overseas Chinese communities (such as in the United States), the Traditional writing system remains in use. At the time we began investigating desktop publishing in Chinese, Hong Kong was still using the Traditional writing system, but I think that Simplified Chinese is now being used there, now that Hong Kong has been reintegrated in the PRC.

The reason Quark had to write the software in three versions is that each language used its own distinct coding for the character map. For English and Western European languages, prior to the introduction of Unicode, we used the American Standard Coding for Information Interchange (ASCII). The type font software written for ASCII was able to generate every character with an eight-digit binary number, that is, a single byte. The fonts required for the Far Eastern languages required a sixteen-digit binary number, so they were called “double-byte” fonts. Today all Unicode-compliant fonts are double-byte.

QuarkXPress Japanese used the Japan Industrial Standard (JIS) for its character map. For Traditional Chinese, they used a Taiwanese system called “Big-5,” and for the Simplified version, Quark used the “GB” encoding. What made things especially complicated was that Microsoft Word for Windows, which was the software that most of our translators were using, could not be imported directly into QuarkXPress for these languages. We had to convert the files to plain text, using the appropriate encoding system.

The procedure for producing desktop publishing in the Far Eastern languages was complicated and time-consuming—and we were willing to do it, giving us a big edge on competitors, and it opened up new market niches for us. The company president was able to go out and sell work in these languages, rather than simply provide it when someone asked.

After a year, we set another goal: to be able to do Arabic, Hebrew, and Korean in-house. But just as that process was getting under way, Lucent Technologies was hitting the skids. The company was faced with a loss of over half its work. However, the ability to handle Chinese—and to provide film negatives for offset printing—enabled us to land an account with one of the largest press houses in the country, a company which had about six plants from coast to coast. The job was huge: single-page fact sheets on several dozen mutual funds, all in Traditional Chinese. We had to hire someone to do the heavy lifting on the account, a native Chinese speaker. We found a young woman from Guangzhou (the Mandarin name for Canton); she was the third person we interviewed. We landed the account and went to work. The account more than made up for the loss of the Lucent work. The company was saved.

In order to do the foreign language desktop publishing, we needed to get the foreign languages, that is, the translations of the English texts that our clients provided to us. We were not in the translation business, and for most of our work we contracted with one translation agency (in the Washington, D.C., area). When I started, we would send them a paper hard copy of the text; in return, we would receive a floppy disk—yes, a floppy disk—with a Microsoft Word file of the translation, and a paper hard copy. This was all done by FedEx, thus adding twenty-four to forty-eight hours to the translation turnaround time as well as the additional expense.

Additionally, the agency with whom we were working insisted on charging us full retail price, even with our volume of business. Clearly, there were gains to be made in productivity and reductions to be made in costs. Again, I was the “go-to guy.”

What is a translation agency? It’s nothing more than an office which matches people who do translation with people who need translation; it pays the translator a per-word rate and charges the client a slightly higher per-word rate. As the cliché goes, it isn’t neurosurgery. If the agency we were using could do it, why couldn’t we? We had a telephone; we had e-mail addresses, and we had the software to create a database of translators. Our company was a member of the American Translators Association: we could start there to check out people and their qualifications. The ATA had a searchable database. If we needed someone to translate from English to Latvian (and, in fact, we did), the ATA could give us a list of members who were qualified in that language pair.

We did something a little dirty: we made up a story about a client who wanted to check on the quality of a translation, and we used our old agency to test the quality of samples from translators whom we were considering engaging. This was our first step in separating the qualified from the unqualified. We also considered their rates, and their turnaround time. I set up a database which included evaluations. If someone sucked, that went into the record in the database. If a translator disappointed us, it was one strike and you’re out. That meant a translation that was late, that had errors, that couldn’t be opened in our software (and we had it all), or that was completely out of whack in terms of costs. After about six months, we were our own translation agency.

I met a lot of people on the phone during the process of setting up our own translation agency. I made quite a few friends—whom I have never met in person. It was an unexpected side benefit, for which I will be eternally grateful. One of them, a Brazilian, began teaching me her language, and she taught it to me well enough that I was able to make extra money translating Portuguese into English, and she also connected me with the translation agency that hired me to do the translations. We corresponded by e-mail and instant messaging for years, and just as she was teaching me Portuguese, her English improved as well, making her translation business that much more successful. Of course, with relationships like this, it often led to savings for the company: translators who had become my friends were willing to waive a minimum charge for a short phrase. I could make a call and say, for example, “How do you say ‘President and Chief Executive Officer’ in Portuguese, [or Arabic, or Greek, or whatever]” and the translator would just tell me and tell me how to spell it—or send me a quick e-mail—and there would be no need for a purchase order or a check. Of course, that was the translator who got the big lucrative gigs from me.

As the work grew, managing the translation agency aspect of the work was too much in addition to the work I was already doing, which involved managing the network, doing production work (all of the Middle Eastern and most of the Indian subcontinent languages), and troubleshooting hardware and software. I was happy to hand the translation agency management off to someone else. I had no idea that it would prove to be my undoing not quite ten years later.

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