Borges, Wikipedia, IAPTI

Borges, Wikipedia and IAPTI

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986), the great Argentinian writer who made it into popular culture thanks to “The Name of the Rose” (remember the blind monk called Jorge of Burgos?), is said to have foreseen the World Wide Web: “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) reads like a prevision of the hypertextual virtual space; “Funes, the Memorious” (from Ficciones, 1944) presages a Big Data world where everything is recorded and nothing is forgotten.

However, the Internet project that Borges is most frequently associated with is Wikipedia. "Collaborative work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers” is presented in Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel”. The subject of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is that of a collective memory of facts and fictions, a precursor of “post-truth” perceptions of today.

Having said this, I admit that Borges seldom crossed my mind when I went to Wikipedia, usually when doing research for translation. That changed a couple of months ago.

A week or so after publishing our letter of resignation from IAPTI I surprisingly found a reference to it in Wikipedia. Yet shortly after, when I looked up IAPTI in Wikipedia again, the reference disappeared. I visited IAPTI’s Wikipedia page a few more times only to find out that this collective memory space was apparently in the process of being actively shaped.

Wikipedia pages have several tabs. Entries once made don’t fade into oblivion: when you click the View history tab at the top, you recall past revisions:

Wikipedia - View history - Past revisions of a Wikipedia page

A Wikipedia contributor Jose Carras added the first mention of our letter on November 2, 2016:

IAPTI International Interpreters and Translators Association based in Argentine

Until November last year the page appeared uneventful: since December 13, 2010 when another contributor, Fadesga, created a Wikipedia page for IAPTI there have been 25 edits in 2010, 2 edits in 2011, 3 edits in 2012, 2 edits in 2013, one edit in 2014 and one more edit in 2015. Another six edits dated back to January and February 2016: on February 24 the same page creator removed a “fake honorary member” from the list (edit summary on the View history page).

Yet since Jose Carras’ entry on November 2, 2016 and within less than 2 months the IAPTI page was edited 140 times, five times more than throughout the entire 6 years period. The reference to the letter triggered unprecedented activity.

The View history feature makes it possible to roll back the page in order to recover earlier versions. Like "Funes, the Memorious", Wikipedia remembers everything and shows the differences between any two edits you may choose. I didn’t have to do many comparisons, since it became obvious soon: the versions alternated between those with a reference to our letter and those where the reference disappeared. Someone stubbornly tried to commit the criticism to the page, while another someone was committed to eradicating any mention of it from the collective memory. In the course of time, however, the censors started making concessions. After 20 alternating edits, IAPTI’s status was stated as “pending”, though the reference to the letter was nowhere to be seen.

IAPTI - Wikipedia page of Argenine association - Revision of 2016-12-01

Then the events escalated. The edit fight peaked mid-December: an editor referred to IAPTI’s board of directors as “self-appointed” and “modifications of [IAPTI] bylaws” as an “attempt to refute accusations of unaccountability and duplicitous practices”. The edit was promptly deleted by another editor, but a reference to modified bylaws stayed. And then the page structure changed…

But wait. Let’s get back to Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges - El Aleph (book cover)

"I do not know which of us has written this page” is the last sentence of a short story called “Borges and I” (here in Spanish and English) where “he [Borges] inaugurates the possibility of erasing the very character he has inscribed” (Sylvia Molloy: “Signs of Borges”. Durham, Duke UP, 1994, p. 13). In “Aleph”, one of Borges’ most famous stories, the narrator fictionalizes his protagonist as “Borges”. Can it be that Borges’ famously divided self found its way to the Wiki article on IAPTI?

I have little doubt that the editor Fadesga, who created the IAPTI page and contributed many edits (and who was continuously erasing the mention of our letter from the Wikipedia page), is the person who the link points to – Fabio Descalzi, a translator from Montevideo, Uruguay, and a member of IAPTI, this Argentine organization "with global reach". What mystified me was this: the same user seemed both to apply criticism (like mentioning the letter or yielding to the unapproved status of IAPTI and, finally, removing "non-profit" from the description of the organization) and to stifle or censor it, again and again.

Whereas one “alter” of this seemingly multiple personality lashed out at the Argentine organisation with “ongoing unaccountability” and “duplicitous practices”, the other one responded with an apologetic narrative (“The registration process was very long, with the Argentine authority requiring lots of extra steps”):

IAPTI - censorship

The “alters” had similar account names – Fadesga, Fadasge… And all of the accounts were linked to the same page, that of Fabio Descalzi, translator from Montevideo, Uruguay, a member of the Argentine organization IAPTI.

A few weeks later, however, I found out that this Borgesian landscape of the “Garden of Forking Paths” had changed: now one link (Fadesga) led to the Wikipedia page of the user Fabio Descalzi, whereas the account “Fabio Descalzi” was blocked. The link to the other “alter” – Fadasge, the constructor of an apologetic narrative and a dismisser of “reckless claims and baseless, unfounded charges by some of [IAPTI’s] former members” – opened a warning from Wikipedia admins:

An editor has expressed a concern

It is unclear why Jose Carras, the initial critic (now also blocked), would take another online identity (“sock puppet”) to censor what he himself previously brought to light. But this is exactly this interplay of paradoxes and elusive self-references that make it so deliciously Borgesian.

Curious about the “explanation” (“Please administrators read the Talk page and also this explanation”), I went to the “Talk page” and found myself in yet another hypertext story, a distant variation of “Borges and I”:

  • 'It is to that other one, to Borges, that things happen… I do not know which of the two is writing this piece' (Borges)
  • 'This is the most strange and embarassing thing that happened to me… Whichever editions you see here or here, are clearly performed by "other" people, as I cannot log in with these users' (Fadesga)

I have no reason to doubt that the "edit war" that Fabio Descalzi, the “real” one, describes on the Wikipedia Administrators' Noticeboard, is true, yet strangely, I have a feeling that the truth doesn’t matter, since “(1) it is impossible to know truth; (2) the personality is determined by one’s experience and therefore changes constantly; (3) language is expressed and interpreted according to experience and thus is unreliable as a means of communication; (4) men build up masks to conceal reality, and thus render real communication impossible” (Mary McBride: “Jorge Luis Borges, Existentialist: "The Aleph" and the Relativity of Human Perception” in Studies in Short Fiction, 1977).

Whether fictional or factual, the edit war between several “alters” of one multiple online personality or between different users (including their “sock puppets”) did bring about a change I already mentioned. The page structure suddenly changed. The “controversial” statements were pushed down to a new section named “Disputes” below “Honorary members”, whereas new sections, too, appeared above.

The section “Purpose” was introduced as the first one, apparently to convey IAPTI’s marketing narrative:

"Its founder, Aurora Humarán, considered the creation of an association to discuss rates only among professionals, and that would be unique in scope, providing a framework, and with practically unlimited scope, in the belief that the globalized world needed a really comprehensive association able to embrace all translators and interpreters from any language pair, any specialization, and any country".

This, too, was repeatedly reshaped or censured. This time, however, the censuring was being done by Wikipedia admins. The comments (edit summaries on the View history page) speak for themselves:

  • “Purpose: Avoid mission statements”
  • ‎”Purpose: Fadesga, please go easy on the marketing hype, thanks”

The fight for references continued within the section “Disputes”. It is here or rather on its View history page where you can learn e.g. that

Anthony Pym questions true motives of IAPTI

It is here that you see how the passage is being reshaped to fit in into the self-gratifying narrative of IAPTI:

IAPTI

A few edits later “shameless” is redacted and replaced wirh “outrageous”, whereas "many professionals" are elevated to "many outstanding" ones:

IAPTI calls Anthony Pym "outrageous"

In a Wikipedia setting, "shameless" and "outrageous" are probably as close to "yuk, boo, gross" as you can get. A few more edits down the road there pops up another warning sign from Wikipedia admins:

IAPTI on Wikipedia - Neutrality of section is disputed

What is it all about, I asked myself. Why the struggle to rewrite history, cover up facts and apply self-serving adjectives?

IAPTI (initially AIPTI) was started by Aurora Humarán and the translators who worked for her then translation company, the Aleph Translations. In Borges’ story, the Aleph is a microcosm, a point in space that contains everything.

Today’s IAPTI still contains – and largely boils down to – its original microcosm. What was purported to become an “international” organization has been struggling, since 2009, to acquire a legal personality as an Argentinian “intercontinental” (?) association:

IAPTI, intercontinental association based in Argentine

Those who worked for Aleph Translations back in 2008 (as listed on BlueBoard in ProZ) are the same persons who hold positions on IAPTI's board today.

IAPTI and Aleph Translations

No elections have been held, no financial accounts ever produced. With the organization officially unapproved, unaccountable and without a tax number, it means that “any fees paid to IAPTI (such as membership or conference fees)” are likely to be regarded as payments to private persons, not “as business expenses in your own income tax returns”.

In fact, little in today’s IAPTI would pass the checks and balances of a democratic professional association. Some may find it troubling (those of us who already left certainly did), but someone like Borges probably wouldn’t. In one of his recorded interviews (1976), when speaking about politics, the great Argentinian said:

Question: What's your position on democracy?
Borges: What I wrote in the prologue of my last book, it's abuse of statistics, nothing more.
Question: You don't believe in democracy?
Borges: No. But, I may be talking as an Argentine. […] For the time being, my only observation as to what could be convenient would be to delay the next elections about… 300 or 400 years, but beyond that, I can't think of any solution.

So where I am going with this?

There is no personal agenda. Only disillusionment. For me – as probably for most of us, former members, whose only remaining solution was to leave, after heated discussions with the board – it took months to see through the self-glorifying marketing hype of IAPTI. It takes time to only start to sort facts from ficciones. Then it takes time to resolve your cognitive dissonance. In case of IAPTI, the outward image and the inner reality don’t match. You may get familiar with the facts – including those erased from public memory – but you still have, in the words of a German philosopher, to “have courage to use your own reason” and delineate right from wrong.

Borges said that “the man who acquires an encyclopedia does not thereby acquire every line, every paragraph, every page, and every illustration; he acquires the possibility of becoming familiar with one and another of those things.”

In a post-factual culture, our ability to interpret “those things” is getting more diluted. But also more valuable.

  1. Diana Coada’s avatar

    What a fascinating example of post-truth politics – I was not aware of any of it! Thank you for the research wotk you put into this, Valerij. ''Payments to private persons'' they were indeed. With no income declared in the UK, Greece or France, following their conferences, either. 

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  2. Steve Vitek’s avatar

    We have been living in a post-legal world for quite some time, but ours is not a post-factual culture.

    It's just that some people, if they don't like your facts, or anybody's facts, will simply create alternative facts.

    They create their own reality, and then live in a world that is more comfortable for them.

    ….. Uh, now that I am considering what I just wrote, it is a post-factual culture …

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  3. Catherine V. Howard’s avatar

    I agree with you, Diana, that Valerij’s post is a great analysis of post-truth politics. However, I would like to correct something you said about there being “no income declared in the UK, Greece or France, following their conferences.” Although I didn’t attend the ones in the UK or Greece, I did attend the conference in France and can speak to that. I know that all the income and expenses in France were legally handled by a French business entity, as required by the French tax authorities, and that all our receipts included the tax ID number of the French business, which means that the transactions were conducted with the oversight of the French tax authorities. Unlike my receipts from the conference in France, the ones for expenses I paid to IAPTI in Argentina, such as receipts for membership fees, did not have any tax ID number. But I guess that’s not surprising, since, as Valerij points out above, IAPTI has not yet been officially authorized by the Argentine government and therefore can’t declare its income to the Argentine tax authorities. I suppose people going to the Buenos Aires conference will have to ask IAPTI about a tax number and, if there is none, talk with an accountant about the legal ramifications for their own income tax declarations.

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