Managing to Build Bridges - Part 8: Do We Want to Be Right in a Dictionary Sense?

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 8, Nani reflects on the goals and challenges of translation and the ups and downs of working abroad.

Sarah: Is “linguist” a fancy name for “translator”?

Nani: Yup. My primary role was to translate and localize content into Indonesian in preparation for the launch of the Indonesian version of LinkedIn. It’s very interesting work to me because it requires awareness of contextual issues. For example, let’s say we want to point a user to the home page. You can’t use the Indonesian word for “home, ” or “rumah,” because that literally means “house.” I decided to use “halaman utama,” which means “primary page.”

Sarah: Tell me about the challenges involved in translation work of that type.

Nani: One challenge was that by the time I got the job at LinkedIn, I’d lived in the States for a long time. I still spoke ‘90s Indonesian. As I grappled with that challenge, lot of things I’d learned in my linguistics courses as an undergrad became real to me. Because of that training, I remembered to step back and ask myself: What is our objective with this translation? What factors should be considered in arriving at the best translation? Indonesian is much more fluid than English. There are often two or more ways to spell one word. There’s the official listing in the government-sponsored dictionary, but that’s different from the spelling people use in daily life. Besides spelling, there are all sorts of issues such as degree of formality and influences of regional languages in Indonesia—for example if you’re addressing elders versus younger people; ways of speaking between people in big cities versus not; and of course the nuances of language on more than 17,000 islands that are part of Indonesia. Even if you try to come up with the lowest common denominator for a particular term, it still won’t necessarily do the work you need it to do.

I tried to fold all these nuances into my translation work. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m seen by the Indonesian translation community as a hard person to work with, because I often challenged the external translators I was managing.

I once applied for a position at a different tech company, and part of the application process was to take a test, translating English into Indonesian. Surprisingly, I did not do well. But because the company I applied for had a policy of transparency, the hiring manager told me how the test was evaluated. It turned out the reviewer was evaluating my work based on what’s officially correct in Indonesian language, but not necessarily how people speak day-to-day. I illustrated this point by running a Google search for the two terms. The one I chose yielded hundreds of thousands of results, while the one the evaluator considered correct only yielded about 20. This showed not only that spelling in Indonesian language is fluid, but also that the way everyday people spell Indonesian words may not be the same as how those words appear in the dictionary.

As a translator, I think it’s important to ask, Do we want to be right in a dictionary sense, or do we want the most engagement from the people we are trying to reach?

At an art exhibit in Stockholm.

At an art exhibit in Stockholm.

Sarah: In spite of the fact that you considered going to another tech company, you’ve stayed at LinkedIn.

Nani: Yes. I feel that LinkedIn has always supported my professional development and they’re open to my ideas. For example, when I’m ready for a new challenge, I’m given one. I told my previous manager that I was interested in being promoted, and he suggested that I take on a new project. I ended up working with the research team to conduct qualitative research in Indonesia. I also led an international research project in which my team members interviewed members from different parts of the world. It was great because I was able to use research skills I’d learned in anthropology—gathering ethnographic data through one-on-one interviews, doing archival research, creating reports. Because of that work, as well as my collaboration with a cross-functional team, Customer Operations, I was promoted to a senior position. After working with Customer Operations for a couple of years, I also started working with a new team, Marketing. Not long after that, I became a Marketing Localization Program Manager. As a program manager, I streamline processes to help improve communications and operations among multiple teams in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Sarah: That’s a consistent theme in your career trajectory. You love streamlining operations in organizations.

Nani: LinkedIn has given me the green light to make those kinds of improvements. I’ve worked there for more than seven years now and I attribute my longevity to that. I feel valued. I’m also grateful that the company has sent me to Dublin for an assignment; I had always wanted to experience living in Europe.

With colleagues in Dublin.

With colleagues in Dublin.

Sarah: What’s it like to live in Dublin?

Nani: It was difficult at first. I felt overwhelmed by the foreignness, the short days and cold rainy weather, the loneliness. It triggered memories of being 17 and having just moved to the U.S. I remember after a few weeks of being in San Francisco, I broke down in my brother’s kitchen, taking in the fact that I was now in a new place, with no friends, where even communicating was a challenge.

What I’ve realized is that loneliness follows you, no matter where you are. For better or worse, I’ve often experienced loneliness, ever since I was a child. It’s not the kind of loneliness where you feel you have no one to spend time with. It’s more a feeling of alone in the world—what a friend of mine calls “existential loneliness.” Perhaps I thought if I moved away, I would lose this feeling. It turns out it’s still there, but with newer, different distractions. I’m feeling more at peace and accepting of this fact over time.

With colleagues in Sunnyvale.

With colleagues in Sunnyvale.

What I love about living in Europe is the ability to travel to other countries—both the planning and the experience of traveling. Since I arrived in December, I’ve been to eight countries in Europe, including countries I’d never been to before that I’d always been curious about, like Hungary, Austria, and Denmark. I’ve learned more about myself and what kind of traveler I am.

Being based in Dublin has its own challenges in terms of my job. For example, time zone differences between the U.S. and Ireland affect my work hours, which means I sometimes work until 7, 8, even 10 at night. On the positive side, if I plan ahead, my schedule is more flexible. For instance, when I know I’ll need to work late, I do other things in the morning. I once spent a weekday morning swimming in an outdoor pool in Vienna—that was lovely.

With friend Marina in Dublin.

With friend Marina in Dublin.

What I continue to love the most about life, no matter where I am, are those rare moments that give me feelings of gratitude and contentment. A few weeks ago, on a Friday, I attended a company party at an outdoor park. It was almost eight in the evening, but it was still bright, and the air was balmy, very rare for Dublin. I was on my way home, walking to the train station, but changed my mind and decided to walk home, even though Google Maps said it would take an hour. I strolled through Sandymount, a coastal suburb in Dublin, surrounded by elegant houses with shiny windows and beautiful front gardens. I didn’t have any obligations waiting at home; there was nothing I needed to do except enjoy the moment.

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 6: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 6 Nani explains how poetry led her to anthropology.

Nani: Through Kyger’s influence I started reading Snyder, who’s a big advocate for anthropology. His work taught me the importance of knowing where people came from, how they live, and why different groups of people live in such different ways. It felt like foundational knowledge to me. That summer at Naropa I also took a class with Joanne’s friend Peter Warshall. His class also had an anthropological perspective. He took us to a sewage treatment plant to understand how we use water and deal with our waste. He wanted us to think about how our society has evolved to the point it’s at now.

Sarah: Were those experiences what gave you the idea of formally studying anthropology?

Nani: Yes. After a year and a half working full-time at the Learning Assistance Center, I spent a semester at San Diego State, taking prerequisites with the intention of applying to their master’s program in anthropology. But I quickly realized San Diego was not San Francisco. In retrospect I realized I went to San Diego to get away from a relationship that I was trying to end. After six months I returned to San Francisco and started my master’s at SF State.

Grad school was intense. For my thesis work I was drawn to one of the most controversial subjects in anthropology (at least at the time): the repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural artifacts. That exposed me to the ugly side of academic life. I was so surprised that individuals with PhDs could be so wedded to their own view that they would get downright hostile toward each other. The fight was primarily between archaeologists and physical anthropologists on the one side, and cultural anthropologists on the other. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists study the past by examining human remains and cultural artifacts, while cultural anthropologists study the present by working closely with present-living peoples, such as Native Americans. Because of their beliefs, many (though not all) Native Americans oppose the study of their ancestors’ human remains and cultural artifacts. One of the primary issues in the battle was that the two groups adopted polarized stances even though actually, even within each group, there was a range of perspectives and opinions.


Sarah: How did you cope with the situation?

Nani: I tried to be diplomatic. Even now I still see both perspectives—although I lean toward cultural anthropology, because if you look at the history of physical anthropology, it’s pretty ugly. The physical anthropologists at U.C. Berkeley, including the renowned Alfred Kroeber, took some deeply problematic stances, from saying that the brains of Anglo Saxons were more powerful than those of other ethnicities, to removing Native American artifacts without permission. They excavated something like 2,000 remains of individuals—that’s still in contention to this day.


I learned so much about the history of various Native American cultures. I hadn’t even known that Native Americans were the original inhabitants of North America. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. That narrative was never presented in Indonesia, given the suppression of critical thinking I described earlier. The Indonesian government didn’t want indigenous Indonesians to be aware of struggles by indigenous populations in other parts of the world.

Ultimately three factors led me to decide to not pursue a doctorate degree. First of all, I didn’t like the politics of the academic world—though I later learned that every field has politics—I just needed to learn the skills to cope with it. Also, as someone who is not Native American, I felt a little out of place speaking about Native American rights and traditions. And finally, I saw the pressure to be a good academic, strive for tenure—for example by writing papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

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