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 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid

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 3 of our conversation, Nani describes her initial encounter with U.S. culture and her nascent passion for exercising her analytical skills.

Sarah: What were your first impressions of US culture?

Nani: I was reading an old diary recently and I found observations about exactly that. For instance, I noted that people say “How are you” a lot but, as I learned the hard way, you’re not supposed to pause and really think about how you are—you’re supposed to just say, “Fine.” We don’t say “How are you” in Indonesia so at first I thought people really wanted to know how I was.

I also felt uncomfortable physically. In Southeast Asia, females are supposed to behave in a feminine way, and whiter skin is prized. I’d flunked that test because I wasn’t very feminine and was darker-skinned. Here in the US I had to wrestle with a new projection—I was seen by many as exotic. A lot of people—mostly but not only white men—assumed I’d fit the stereotype they had of Asian women as submissive, weak, nurturing. So I’d gone from feeling unattractive to attractive, but attractive in a way that made me feel objectified, uncomfortable. It took me a long time to develop the vocabulary to understand all that.

On an intellectual level I felt pretty stupid. I remember I went with American friends to see a film and one of them asked me afterward, Well, what do you think? Did you like it? I said, Yes, it was cool. The friend said, Why? I had no idea. My critical thinking skills were still very limited. Under Suharto, critical thinking was suppressed in both the public and private educational systems. You were not allowed to think for yourself. That’s why literature wasn’t offered in schools—literature promotes deeper questioning. Before I moved to the States I had never even heard of the most internationally renowned Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. His books were all banned in my time. After I got to the US I sought out Indonesian literature.

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Sarah: What did you major in at SF State?

Nani: At first I declared marketing as my major. I was still enacting the values of my parents and the world I grew up in. After one or two classes I said, this is so boring, I’m not going to do it. But I didn’t know what to replace it with. I had the same old frustration I’d felt in Indonesia—“I don’t know what my skills are; I don’t know what I’m good at.” I went back and looked at my performance at the American Language Institute. I’d excelled in writing and literature. I thought, maybe that’s what I should go for. I ended up double majoring in English literature and linguistics.

After that, I was able to say why I like or don’t like certain movies! I definitely struggled in the lit classes. But I was dating an American at the time. In terms of our communication as a couple a lot was lost in translation, but being with him propelled the speed of my learning. He would help me even with literature stuff, for example if I didn’t understand something I read or when I had to write papers.

Sarah: Why did you want to study linguistics?

Nani: I knew that breaking down the English language—looking at aspects like phonology, morphology, social linguistics—would significantly speed up the process of gaining mastery, which I very much wanted.

All of a sudden I became a proper student. It just proves that if you’re passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, no one even needs to tell you to be disciplined. You just do whatever it takes, providing you have access to the basics (housing, food, etc.), which I did, thankfully. I often went to my professors’ office hours. I would show up with lists of questions I’d prepared in advance.

Next: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid

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 2 of our conversation, Nani describes how a car crash almost kept her from emigrating to the U.S.

Sarah: What led you to come to the States?

Nani: That choice was influenced by the fact that I had two siblings who were already living here. In 1985, when I was five, my brother, who’s 14 years older than I, left to attend college in Connecticut. My sister moved to the US in 1992, also to go to school.

Anyway, fast forward to my teenage years. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t finding my niche. I was such a bad kid, very rebellious.

Junior high.

Junior high.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Sarah: What did “bad” and “rebellious” look like?

Nani: I tried smoking several times—I didn’t even like it but I wanted to be cool. I was skipping school—not a lot, not even every month, but it was a lot by the standards of my milieu. My biggest form of acting out was coming home at night later than the agreed-upon time. I remember coming home at 10:30 or 11 and my dad would be waiting outside, very angry, ready to hit me.

At that time in Indonesia, and maybe even to this day, domestic violence was considered a normal part of family life. Husbands hit wives; mothers and fathers hit their children. Not all families were like this, but my family was, and I knew many peers whose families were the same. I forgave my parents for their part in all that a long time ago. Life is complicated and I believe they did their best in the only ways that they knew.

High school.

High school.

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

Sarah: How old were you when you came to the States?

Nani: Seventeen, after I graduated from high school. My brother who was already living in San Francisco advocated for me to attend university here. My dad later told me more recently that his response to my brother’s suggestion was, Well, this kid is not doing well here; if we send her abroad, she’ll either continue on that path or thrive. They both took a chance on me.

Sarah: What was your mother’s opinion?

Nani: In the back of her mind she was probably thinking, How could Nani ever thrive in a whole new country? Just before I was supposed to come to the US I crashed my parents’ shiny new car, which I’d driven without a license. My mom said, I don’t think we should let her go. I was desperate to leave and I really thought I’d sabotaged the whole thing at that point.

Besides the car crash were other factors that could have kept me in Indonesia. At that time, in 1998, the Indonesian economy was in terrible shape and there were lots of protests. The president stepped down; the US embassy closed. The dollar was three to four times higher than it had been, so studying in the US became way more expensive. I had friends who decided not to go because of that. But my brother had a good job and was prepared to pay for my tuition, have me live with him, give me pocket money.

Sarah: You ended up attending San Francisco State University. Were you already accepted there before you left home?

Nani: No. All I had was an acceptance letter to an intensive eight-week summer language school at the university called the American Language Institute. My visa was only valid for that period, so I could have been asked to go back to Indonesia. But I took the TOEFL at the end of the eight weeks and applied to the university. I met the criteria and was accepted.

Next: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl

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. This is the first in an eight-part interview I conducted with Nani.

Sarah: What’s your current position?

Nani: Currently I manage localization marketing projects for LinkedIn— primarily for the European and Latin American markets.

Sarah: Can you explain what that entails?

Nani: My team, the localization team, partners with marketers in various business units to localize their marketing content and campaigns. That means we translate and localize marketing communications into local languages. Localization requires sensitivity not just to language but also to cultural factors.

Volunteering at MEDA-Cropped.png

Sarah: Help me understand the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Nani: My job comprises two major elements: active project management and relationship building. On the project management front, I make sure all the localized content is delivered on time—I build timelines, coordinate with marketing partners and vendors and manage tickets for all the projects in progress as well as our backlog.

The other part of my work is to drive strategy and plan with our partners. Localization is often thought of at the end of a marketing project, but really it should be planned for up front. Most of the content creators are based in the US and are still accustomed to thinking in terms of a US audience. But once a marketing piece—let’s say, an e-book with a really nice, polished design—has been produced in English, it’s challenging to go back in at that point and figure out how to create a parallel version in German. If the content creators are planning for localization from the beginning, it’s a lot easier.

So I engage with them early in the process and say, OK, it’s going to be hard to localize this image of San Francisco during the World Series for other markets, because it’s so specific to the San Francisco Bay Area. Or, this quote by Tori Amos might not be relevant to people in Germany or Spain. I’ll suggest they find a more globally relevant example. I’m not the final decision maker, and some teams are more receptive to feedback and changes than others. But I work hard to build relationships and stay engaged with our partners, especially the content creators.

Sarah: I’ve known you for most of your adult life, and you’ve explored a number of interests over the years. It hasn’t been a linear path. Yet looking back, it all seems to support what you’re doing currently. I see this conversation as a chance to trace your path with you. Let’s back way up. You grew up in Indonesia—where exactly?

In West Java, in Bandung, the third largest city in Indonesia.

Sixth birthday.

Sixth birthday.

Sarah: Were you thinking one day you’d move to the States?

Nani: As a child, I resisted a lot of the norms, customs, and rules around me. I couldn’t find anything to feel passionate about. I grew up in a community of Chinese Indonesians where people knew each other’s business and talk amongst themselves about the latest thing that so-and-so’s son or daughter has done.

Sarah: Were you insulated from non-Chinese Indonesians?

Nani: I went to the same school from kindergarten through high school—14 years—and about 90 percent of the students were Chinese Indonesians. I did have a couple native Indonesian friends. But as kids, we never explicitly addressed racial issues.

Seventh birthday.

Seventh birthday.

Sarah: Was there a sense in the Chinese Indonesian community of needing to stick to their own due to discrimination by the wider culture?

Nani: That’s a narrative that is real for many Chinese Indonesians. But I also think Chinese Indonesians tend to use that narrative in order to hold ourselves apart. The discrimination is real, it’s there—but sometimes, like many racial issues, the perception of discrimination is tied up with lack of openness to one another.

Maybe I was naïve, but it was very rare that I was directly discriminated against for being Chinese. That might be due in part to the fact that my skin color is darker than that of many Chinese Indonesians. Once a cousin of mine, who like me has darker skin, was out with her friends, who were all Chinese Indonesian. They were mugged by a native Indonesian. When he got to my cousin he stopped and said, I’m not going to do this to one of my own people.

Sarah: So it sounds like you didn’t feel like an outsider so much in terms of the larger culture, but you did feel that somehow you weren’t connecting. Can you tell me more about that?

Nani: I felt like I had to conform to what was expected of me, but I didn’t want to. I did very poorly in my first decade of school; I just wasn’t interested. The subjects emphasized in the Indonesian educational system are life sciences and math. I felt pressure from my parents to be like some of my cousins, who excelled in those subjects.

Eighth birthday.

Eighth birthday.

I also felt pressure from my peers and family to be a certain type of girl, very feminine and materialistic. People were wearing a lot of American brands—Guess, Esprit—they were eager to catch up with all these Western materialistic obsessions.

On the other hand, I loved watching and imitating English-language TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and a Canadian series called MacGyver, about a resourceful guy who gets himself out of crazy situations. The emotional language is so different—Indonesians don’t speak about their emotions the way people do in North America. I’d hang out by myself in my bedroom and practice talking like these characters, saying things like, “How do you feel?”

Next: Such a Bad Kid