The square egg

That morning I found a square egg in the coop. I could see nothing remarkable about the chicken. It was the small brown one.

I took the egg. It looked perfectly square, and felt so too. I studied it from all sides, but apart from its shape it was a normal chicken egg.

Mary gave a start when I showed her the egg. “Give me that!” she yelled, and almost snatched it from my hand. I quickly pulled back my arm. “Easy,” I said, and gave her the egg. She immediately dropped it.

I was sitting on my knees, looking for the corners among the yoke, when Mary entered with some paper towels. “Move aside, you fool,” she said, “you are making a mess.” The shell fragments crackled between her fingers.

I went out to study the chicken again. Still nothing remarkable to see. Perhaps it had a square hole? When I was lying on my belly, looking at perfectly round cloacae as far as I could tell, I heard the scraping of a throat a little further on. From over the low hedge old Johnson smiled his fake teeth at me. He was holding a rake.


“Good morning.”

The next day the small brown one had laid another square egg. This time I let it lie where it was, and ran into the house to fetch my camera. Where had I left the damn thing? When I came back to the garden I saw Mary standing in the back, at the coop.

“There was a square egg here,” I shouted at her. It was gone.

“Sorry, dear,” Mary said, “I can only see round ones.” She laughed.

“Morning,” I snapped at the eternal neighbour in his eternal garden, and stormed back into the house. I was angry, though I did not know at what or whom.

That night I dreamed I was lying between the chickens. They were pecking furiously at my face. Mary and old Johnson pushed me against the ground, and laughed. Oh how they laughed!

The next morning the small brown one had laid a perfectly round egg.

Def G

The pirate ship Azalea drifted steadily under an already burning sun towards the Azores. On board it was quiet. The deck was almost completely void of personnel, a common occurrence on this ship. The rules stated that the crew had to take a nap between 10 and 11 in the morning if heavy drinking had gone on the night before.

Rum intake was also regulated, in that it was obligatory on occasion. Just the five cabin boys, no more than teenagers, were exempt. From them the helmsmen for the night and the following morning were chosen.

Gerrit Meys was happy with his watch. It was the time of the day that you had a few moments for yourself. The young helmsman had little else to do than to keep East, so he used his time thinking up rap lyrics. Oh yeah, our Gerrit thought himself a real ‘gangsta.’ To be fair, there was something to that.

Dance the Varati

Duplov, November 23 – The Magat Party (“Justice”) of Jonasz Omlen is projected to win the general elections of Orbaijan by a landslide majority. With approximately 80 percent of the votes counted at noon today, Magat is predicted to occupy 54 of the 99 seats in the national assembly.

International observers have reported many small irregularities at the poll booths. As part of his platform Omlen had threatened to outlaw the popular Varati dance if his party would come to power.

When you read this you cannot help but think that this Omlen guy may be a shady character. It is not that simple.

I have lived in a small town removed a three hours drive from Duplov. The Varati is a staple there, and you cannot imagine it ever going away. As far as folk dances go it is simple enough. Paired men and paired women, and all the hand waving and toe tapping that constitute folk dances around the world.

It has one thing that sets it apart, and that is its fierce competitive aspect. You can win or lose a Varati, and winning a dance is considered an honour. People dance to become champions of the family, the dormitory, the neighbourhood or the region, and most Orbaijani enter that ever ongoing competition zealously.

It takes strength and agility to win a Varati, and since being a champion is so important, the partners don’t hesitate to help each other lose by knocking the other over, making them trip or simply even hitting them. Yes, the Varati is often more like a fight than a dance, even though every Orbaijani you talk to vehemently denies so and stresses its aesthetic and social qualities. It is the one dance in the world that wounds most participants, and it is not hard to see why Magat would want to see it outlawed.

But I think there is another reason.

One of the unwritten rules of the Varati, as a sport, is that the winner takes care of any injuries the loser may have gotten. It is brutal dance, and broken legs or any other disabling injuries are not an exception. It would thus only be fair that an activity that ostensibly is only there to while away the time not lead to disabilities.

The men often send over their wives or daughters to take care of the loser with healthy broths and massages, and honour prescribes that these women take their healing job serious. They often stay nights in a row at the loser’s house.

The last ten years or so, many Orbaijni have been dancing the Varati to lose.

Orbaijan’s traditional social fabric has begun to disintegrate, to be replaced by something as yet undetermined. The Varati is killing marriages and friendships. And I think that is the problem Omlen recognizes and tries to tackle.


The dentist’s chair was occupied by a fairy. “You don’t see that often,” the dentist said. “Any special kind of fairy?” He rather suspected something.

“Mmmmm,” the fairy said. She found it hard to articulate with a metal hook and a blood vacuum in her mouth.

“Spit,” the dentist said.

The fairy spat the neatest stream you ever saw into the small basin.

“Excellent set of teeth,” the dentist said after she had got up, “but I refuse to believe in tooth fairies.”

The fairy said nothing, but in reply stuck a hand in her apron. A fist came out, and, held in the air, started to release a steady trickle of teeth. The trickle became a stream, the stream a torrent.

“My my,” the dentist said.

“Oh boy.”

The teeth kept coming. At first they were just many, then you could hardly see the linoleum any more, and before you knew it you were standing ankle deep in them. There must have been millions of teeth! The dentist started to get nervous.

“That is quite enough,” he said.

And then: “Whoa, stop!”

But the fairy did not respond, and suddenly the teeth reached his waist. The dentist tried to wade to the door but slipped on something and fell into the sea of teeth, and almost drowned.

This is what his assistant saw when she entered the room, an old man lying in the dust, gasping for air.

The dude bird dude

There is still a chill in the morning air when I call Liam to the car. It is his birthday, and I am taking him to buy him a bird.

“Dad, where are we going?”

He already knows where we are going, he just wants to hear it again. I have already forgotten the name. “Duchattinier,” I manage to read before Liam tears the note from my hand. Since he started learning to read no text is safe from him.

“Doo-chat-i-neer, birds and bird sup-plies.” It is somewhere just off the highway.

A dry cough from behind the hedge. Liam sometimes calls the neighbour Mr. Sour Face though never to his actual face. “Elflord, mister Elflord,” I correct him silently. I almost said it out loud.

“That dude bird dude,” the neighbour says, his bald head suddenly peeking over the hedge. Duchattinier is known for being the only man in the country to sell dude birds.

I utter a short apology, and quickly manoeuvre Liam and myself into the car.

While we are driving Liam asks about the name of every bird he sees. Sparrows, jackdaws, and magpies I can tell apart but which is a blackbird and which a starling? I point to a bright yellow sticker on the inside of a window and say, look, a window swallow. A lame joke, but Liam thinks it is hilarious. From then on he keeps seeing window swallows everywhere.

A heavy chain with a lock is attached to the gate, as is a sign that I cannot read from the car. “Go and look what it says there,” I tell Liam. He clambers out, and walks to the gate.

“If you can read this you are staming too close!”

“Standing,” I correct him.

He shakes his head furiously as he climbs back in.

“Staming, daddy.”

The witch and the elephant

Once upon a time there lived a beetle that wanted to be an elephant.

What is an elephant? its friends wanted to know. Is it something you can eat? Can you stroke its hair? Does it have cable television?

I don’t know, the beetle said, but I am convinced it would be great to be one.

An elephant that just happened to pass by had overheard everything, and was surprised. Am I something you can eat? How do I taste? What is hair? Do I have cable television?

The elephant lifted the beetle off the ground, held it in front of its left eye, and asked: what is a beetle?

A witch who also just happened to pass by transformed the beetle into an elephant and the elephant into a handsome fellow whom she chained to the clammy wall of the small castle a few miles into the forest. There she stroked his hair until he went crazy. And then she stroked his hair until he died. And then she stroked his hair until he had none left.

Today’s nugget of wisdom

He was a very good bullshitter, by which he meant a very bad one.

Distributed translation experiment, conclusions

A couple of lessons I learned from my distributed translation experiment:

1. Don’t worry about volunteers showing up. Initially nobody seemed to be interested in participating, but after a while somewhere from ten to twenty people turned up, which was more than enough for my purposes. I had advertised my experiment in four places: this blog, the Dutch forum at Distributed Proofreaders, a chatty general purpose Usenet group, and a mailing list for (non-literary) professional translators. OK, so do worry, a lot. :) Thing is, if you’ve made something interesting, people will come and take a peek.

2. Don’t just dabble. I set up the site as minimally as possible using the very simple Usemod wiki. Usemod is great because it so small; you can easily modify it if you have simple needs. Unfortunately, spammers found out about the site rather quickly and began hitting it heavily. If I had used better developed software, such as the Mediawiki, I could probably have turned on all kinds of anti-spam measures that were now not available to me, and that would have been too much work to develop. Even then I could probably have switched to Mediawiki, but that seemed too much work to me for a simple experiment. In hind-sight that would have allowed me to keep the experiment running, so it’s a pity I chose not to take that path.

3. Don’t underestimate your volunteers. I had assumed that the level of quality would be fairly high, but perhaps a little too consistent; and in order to remedy this I had planned to add a few bad translations myself (remember, the experiment was to measure differences in consistency). Not necessary, it turned out. The quality of submitted translations was both high and varied.

4. Let your volunteers find things out for themselves. I had planned a translation dictionary, but nobody used the pages I set up for that. No need to provide your volunteers with things you think they would need, only provide them with what they actually need.

Looking at other translation projects:

5. There are more ways to skin a cat. My experiment was set up to find out what happens when different volunteers tackle one paragraph at a time. That idea was borrowed from Distributed Proofreaders, where volunteers work at one page at a time. My fear was that you cannot slowly build a literary translation when every translated paragraph ends up with a different style (Wikipedia syndrome). My hope was that you could solve this problem by having post-processors try to smooth out the differences.

Harry auf Deutsch worked this way; volunteers would each get assigned a small bunch of pages; then chapter managers would iron out the differences chapter-wide, and a book manager would do something similar for an entire book.

I have since seen another distributed translation project that takes a radically different approach. Although volunteers there are still free to tackle a work one paragraph at a time, in practice they work on much more, sometimes even on entire novels at a time. The difference is that they limit themselves in the quality levels they try to achieve. The first volunteer or set of volunteers uses software to generate a machine translation. The second volunteer for a work tries to produce a rough translation from the machine translation. The third tries to clean up that rough translation a bit.

Distributed translation experiment, two years later

Summary: two years ago, I asked people on the internet to help me create a public domain translation of a public domain source text, Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart. The goal was to help establish whether it was possible for a disparate group of translators to create a literary translation. You will find both a description of the experiment and the results below.

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Once upon a time there was a fairytale that yet had to be told.