Thursday, April 30, 2009

Translation is a Dirty Job

Don't start getting ideas! It's not what I meant.

Elephant Journal has a short post by Henry Schliff describing translation:

"Words should be simpler. Or the mind more advanced. That is why translation is like constructing a puzzle without any pieces. All the pieces of the puzzle are scattered in a vast jungle and you only know the picture they form because of some gossip you heard back in town. That was before you got lost in the jungle. The gossip said the puzzle showed an image of a house, but now you think to yourself: I know what a house looks like, two levels constructed of wood and brick stained a deep cedar red. What if their house is something else, maybe its cement, maybe its fiberglass, maybe it’s what I call a cave, maybe it’s a tent, maybe it’s a tree canopy, maybe it’s a cardboard box, maybe signifies the place of one’s birth, maybe…maybe…

A common English dictionary defines ‘should’ as a word “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” It is easy enough to loose a house in translation, how is it possible to realize the significance of a word created from another cultures standards of morality, social and familial responsibility, and degree of taboos. But that’s large scale, a society size example. What happens when getting down to the individual with all his/her conditioning and understanding, an entity more or less remote from the norm yet still affected by social constraints? Then bring it back around to where I started, translating a near two-thousand year old text from a vastly different society. It is a wonder people can even communicate the most basic information when speaking the same language; throw in a handful of obscuring factors and you’re back in the jungle.

The transmission of meaning is a dirty business, never simple. And it must be utter stupidity to base our existence on what is heard, what is told to us, what is read, or what comes as “information”. But since this is largely how we live, is life not often a play of ignorance and is there not an imperative for the apprehension of the fundamental basis of that ignorance?"

Will Trados Translate Alone?

News for you: SDL and Language Weaver, a leader in statistically-based automated language translation have gone into a "strategic alliance" (I wonder who swallowed whom?) to - hold on to your keyboard - deliver Language Weaver’s translation software tightly integrated into SDL’s GIM platform and as part of SDL Knowledge-based Translation System.

In case it hasn't struck you yet, a translation memory software sitting atop a machine translation software. It sends the shivers up my spine.

So now your role, the slave of Trados already, will be to input your human translation into the TM, give it to your client, who will fit it into the MT and pronto! you are a DT (dead translator!).

And here is some more scary stuff for localisers: "Language Weaver automated translation solutions have been deployed for the enterprise and large web properties to deliver compelling translations of digital content. This partnership will give SDL customers the opportunity to deliver effective communication to customers across many more languages." Hey, guys, the billions are running out of the window (or is it your laptop screen that's getting dimmer?)

The companies announced that the agreement encompasses a number of different applications of automated translation, including:

• Translation of content that is otherwise too expensive or time consuming to translate, such as online support content that re-directs customers from expensive call centers to more cost-effective self-service on the web

• Integrating automated translation into the translation process for high-quality technical documentation, taking up to 40 percent of the cost and 50 percent of the time out of the process without sacrificing quality and enabling translation teams to translate more, reduce backlog and serve more markets

• Providing ubiquitous access to automated translation, through integration into the industry-standard desktop translation technology, SDL Trados®, and integration into the world’s most popular translation website

Don't you just luv the way they sprinkle us in there, just in case we suffer anxiety attacks after reading this and start clamouring for copyright to our TMs, or worse, throw the Trados suite out of the window?

We want to offer our customers the widest possible choice of translation solutions, all integrated into a single managed environment,” said Mark Lancaster, chairman and CEO of SDL. Preferably one without those pesky human linguists. The partnership will allow our customers to maximize the leverage of previous translations held in translation memory and achieve the best possible quality for automated translation. This offers enterprises new opportunities to drive cost out of global content translation processes, which is particularly important in these tough economic times.” I assume the "tough economic times" are sweet music in the ears of SDL. As for us, bread and water on some remote Aussie inland station sounds like a livable alternative.

Korean Airlines and the Cultural Clash

"A Korean Airlines plane that crashed a few years ago did so because of the hierarchical culture, and not some hardware malfunctioning. The reason this particular plane crashed was due to a disagreement between the pilot and co-pilot on the way to solve a problem with landing the plane, and to make matters worse there was a disagreement with ground control in Korea. This all stemmed from their communications in Korean because Korean is a hierarchical language where honorifics and speech level play and important part in grammar and verbiage used between conversations of people with different status. By status I mean either ones job position, age, and education level.

Allegedly, there was verbiage and tone that was incorrectly used between the co-pilot (lower status), and the pilot (higher status) as they disputed ideas to solve the problem they were encountering. This created an argument, and when the ground control officer got involved it elevated the communication breakdown that had occurred between the pilot and co-pilot. The language hierarchical problem that occurred was a costly life-ending event for Korean Airlines and since that incident, they have enforced the use of English for all instructions and commands on their airplanes."

So, says the blogger above, translators should not only translate language, but culture as well. Sounds logical, right? No. According to a large number of my colleagues here in Australia the Fair, a translator or interpreter should never act as a cultural consultant. Of course, no one really knows what a cultural consultant does for a living (I do) and as such, they cannot explain why such cultural consulting has any conflict of interest or ethics with translating/interpreting. So I happily hobble around on my two unfitting (or befitting) professional legs - I translate, and I consult on cultural issues.

Simply put, when we translate a text - in the post-modern meaning of the term - we must be in some way or another bridging the cultural gap between the two languages. No language exists without a culture, and no culture without a language.

Some ideas, though, are embedded in our Aussie mind-sets and are hard to eradicate.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When being decent works against you

A very thought-provoking post from a UK based conference interpreter:

She says that the reason she is not getting much work despite being an excellent interpreter is that she never says anything bad about her colleagues, even when she should because they are stuffing up, and because she fights for decent work conditions.

"I know one colleague who is a wonderful human being but the embodiment of a sub-standard interpreter, and he has much more work than I do. We get on well, to the point that he passes the odd job here and there on to me. This is very nice but lately it has been bugging me. Why would people offer a job to a below-average interpreter before they even try to ring a good one? Why do the agencies think he is the most capable person when anyone who has worked with him can tell them that he isn't? Why don't they care?

It must be because he is so nice. He accepts terms as sub-standard as himself without argument. He is pflegeleicht, or low-maintenance, if you like. That's why. People who insist on being provided with the right conditions to be able to do a good job, and to be fairly compensated for doing one, are seen as querulous, difficult, and are taken off the calling list."

I would love to hear other practitioners' opinions on this.

A novel by a translator, about a translator

Los Angeles Times review of Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot. Next on my reading list..

Vanina Marsot's first novel, "Foreign Tongue," is a rare and canny creature: a brainy, sexy, romantic comedy of letters -- albeit one whose plot is set in motion too predictably by a humiliating breakup with a cheating boyfriend.

Anna, its heroine, wouldn't be quite so eager to escape Los Angeles if said cheater hadn't recently become pop culture's latest It Boy, his image taunting her from magazine covers. To nurse her wounded heart, she flees to Paris, keys to her aunt's empty apartment in hand. Courtesy of her French father, Anna has dual citizenship; she knows the language and the city, and she has friends there.

When she needs a job, the owner of a bookshop near the Palais du Luxembourg hires her to translate into English an erotic roman à clef by a well-known man whose identity is to remain a secret from her. So assiduously guarded is the text that it's doled out to her a chapter at a time. To us, it becomes a book within a book, and we watch as Anna confronts the issues that bedevil anyone trying to fully and richly convey in one language something that is said in another.

With an American translator as its heroine and an intrigue about authorship at its center, "Foreign Tongue" could hardly be more enamored of literature and the nuances of language. When those things are somehow concerned with sex and affairs of the heart, so much the better.

It's a spirit perfectly captured by the epigraph to an early chapter, a question posed in French by novelist and critic Frédéric Beigbeder, fluidly translated by Marsot: "Why do your knees make me want to invent transitive verbs?"

For Marsot, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Paris and has worked as a translator of television and film scripts, translation is more than a subject. It's a task she sets herself here, studding "Foreign Tongue" with French words and passages. She manages, rather astonishingly, to make her meanings clear to readers who don't speak the language while avoiding the trap of over-explaining to those who do.

"You translate a whole culture when you translate a novel," an acquaintance tells Anna, so it's a boon to her work, not to mention her mood, that she soon falls hard for the tall, square-jawed actor-director Olivier Vallant, whose numerous attractions include a habit of assembling delectable breakfasts while she sleeps.

But Anna is a bit of a rube at love, easily taken in by charm and good looks, willing to ignore what common sense tells her she ought at least to investigate. There is, for example, Olivier's unhealthily avid interest in the novel she's translating. And is he still involved with the famous, older, married actress he's directing in a play, even if he says their romance is through?

Anna's avoidance of confrontation enables Marsot to sustain such ambiguities and draw out suspense as she sprinkles the narrative with red herrings -- about Olivier, about the anonymous author and his novel and about the strange behavior of Anna's closest friend in Paris, an editor in his 60s whom she long ago nicknamed Bunny. (The name is forced on the character in the interest of foreshadowing. It's a gratingly too-cute appellation for a dignified man well over 6 feet tall; it does, however, perfectly set up a poignant line more than 300 pages in.)

As the book Anna is translating shifts from erotic adventure to love story to something darker and more searching, so does her daily life. Whether the parallels are the product of coincidence, the unknown novelist's design or her own perception is a puzzle that pulls the reader along.

Occasionally Marsot's structure creaks, as when Anna keeps lucking into strangers who raise convenient points about translation, or when she turns mercurial in moments that feel engineered for the plot. But this grown-up smart-girl fantasy is generally well constructed. It's fun too.

"Tell me," Anna asks a friend, "what's it called in French when a film ends happily but in a way you don't believe?"

"An American ending," the friend replies.

Anna doesn't get an American ending, not in that sense. But she and Marsot are both straddling cultures. If the moonlit Parisian finish to "Foreign Tongue" is a little Hollywood, who says that's a bad thing?

Give it more, more.. more

BBC announces the death of 100%:

"Before the days of linguistic inflation, 100% was considered enough. But no longer, says Chris Bowlby, in a personal reflection on how language has changed.

How committed are you to finishing this article? 110%? Maybe 150%? Or, if you're in the US, perhaps 1,000% is what you need to say to show you really care.

There once was a time when 100% really meant something. That was the top figure you could commit, or the maximum you were allowed for a mortgage, 100% of your house's value.

But then came linguistic - as well as mortgage - inflation. It began in a very modest, British kind of way. Susie Dent, a writer and language expert, has been delving in the old dictionaries and thinks the breach may have come in the early 1980s when British ice-dancing stars were hoping for Olympic glory.

"The first citation comes from a biography of Torville and Dean. It said they were going to put in nothing less than 101%, so possibly that's when things began to edge upwards".

Susie Dent says it has all been part of a "bigging up" of language. Think of the way we say superhero instead of just hero, and feel the need to add "über" or "mega" to make words sound more impressive.

Percentages inflated under the same kind of pressure. And poor old 100% was left looking, she says, "a bit paltry".

In the US, it's claimed the going rate for some job applications is to promise no less than 1,000% commitment.

But could all this be changing? Employers are becoming less and less impressed by job candidates whose inflated promises seem out of all proportion to their actual qualifications and performance.

So a return to 100% as a kind of limit might well be popular with those bewildered by the way we've been playing fast and loose with our percentages. "

Listen to the whole thing here.

Why you should not give translation jobs to high school students..

..even if they did French at school!

Coco in subtitling sounds very in-te-res-ting :-D

SMS Is Good 4 U

Charles A. Ray is a grey gentleman from Texas, with the thoughtful look of a country magistrate and aspirations to being a littérateur. He has written a number of articles on history, culture and leadership, and recently completed a book on leadership, Things I Learned From My Grandmother About Leadership and Life. One would think the guy would be a bit conservative in his approach to the mother tongue, but that is not what the facts bear. His posting on the developments (or rather devolutions) of our English language cracked me up this evening.

"I don’t think the new methods of communication will lead to a substantial decline in the written form of discourse. I see them, instead, as just another evolution in the way we humans communicate with each other. People who decry them as tools of the devil that will eventually cause us to be unable to speak or write in complete sentences, with full words, are akin to Chicken Little crying the “sky is falling, the sky is falling” (...) texting and the other methods of getting the message across “instanter” will not turn us into a race of beings who can only communicate in groups of incoherent letters – LOL hr pls, I nd th hmr (Lots of laughs here please, I need the humor). Our species has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable, and we have gone through a number of phases in communication since cave men grunted at each other and did drawings on cave walls. And, written English did survive the typewriter. Surprised you with that one? Yes, the first typewriter in this country, patented in 1868, had the keys arranged in alphabetical order. When typists went fast, the keys tended to tangle up and stick. The fix was what we know as the QWERTY keyboard. It was designed, dear reader, to force typists to slow down. Didn’t work for very long either. Good typists can achieve speeds of up to 100 or more words per minute. The written language has also evolved over time, so who’s to say that LOL and XOX won’t be commonly used phrases in our future (...) The language ain’t dead yet, and I think it is probably gonna be around for a good long while to come. People will always find a way to get their message across. Writers are among the most notorious for this. Will written language change? No doubt. It has continued to do so for centuries. But, if I might paraphrase the venerable writer Mark Twain, “the rumors of the demise of writing are somewhat premature. "

Bless you, Mr. Ray. Just as I can't read Old English, I can't understand my nieces when they email me. I actually purchased a specialized dictionary to understand the SMS (short, meaningless s**t) that I am being sent. Language will change, it has already done so from the time of Frazer, West, and even Russel. And that is why I read Bertie, and not de Batton - Bertie has substance, Alain is speaking to people whose linguistic poverty you are applauding. As for us hoping to produce an SMSing Bard - 4get it.

Oh, before I forget. Someone on that blog said he was surprised to find out that most people who went online went there to read. I have a rather different sort of statistics, based on search engine reports on keyword use and numbers of hits per site. Most people go online to shop, play games, download stuff and watch porn. So maybe they are reading as part of this - but what??

Dussault and His Assault On the (uncertain) Future of Language

I have no idea who he is, but his posting landed in my inbox, so I read it. I read around 20 a day about language and translation, of which 50% gets dumped, 25% kept to muse over, and 25% blogged about. He alleges to be a philosopher from Montreal - a rather linguistically confused city. In his writing, I could detect a hint of frustration that although he was bilingual, his English was better than his French. I don't know what his French is like, but his English is full of typos and strange syntax.

I think it is this inherent confusion and frustration that made him come up with an idea to "improve language" in general. Here he states how this could be done:

  • Vocabulary: Being able to describe a greater variety of nuances (differences) between similar things (helped with a language that is structured in a way that is more in-line with how our memory functions; a different organization would allow us to retain more words with as much effort)..
  • Efficiency: Being able to describe the same things in less time (tone language achieve this to some degree; it is possible to make more uses of small words, or remove, like in Hebrew, vowels frm wrttn lngg; we can also rely more on homophones that can be interpreted based on context).
  • Aesthetics: Being able to stylize, or personalize, our choice of words, the order we put them in, the way we pronounce them etc so as to distinguish ourselves from others, to add a certain voice or emotion to something such as “This is a beautiful bicycle”, to inspire emotions in others based on our use of words (fear, laughter etc).
  • Clarity: Being free of those moments of confusion, such as when we use homophones (the meaning should always be recognized), new words (a logical etymology which allows us to construct new words while still being understood) etc etc.
  • Simplicity: Being able to learn and master the language with ease both as a child (being raised with the language) and an adult (being introduced to this new language). This includes similarity between written and oral language, a short alphabet etc

Do you feel confused? I don't blame you. For a language to be aesthetically pleasing, it needs to be rich - so out goes simplicity. Efficiency is often ugly, too. As for clarity, it depends as much on the speaker's mental and emotional state, as it does on language itself. And then he puts "the ability to describe a greater variety of nuances (differences) between similar things" while again wanting to maintain simplicity.

For me language is a multi-layered tool not just for communication, but also for play. I am sophisticated, and I like complex games. I also like them sometimes absurd, nonsensical, symbolic, contrarian, etc. And the number of letters in an alphabet, although annoying to me, has never stopped the Chinese from producing literary gems and a deeply interesting philosophy, nor from making them one of the worlds super-powers in science and commerce.

But so as not to disappoint Mr. Philosopher, I would risk asking: "Is DUH short enough, simple, clear and efficient for you?"

Accredited vs Certified (is it the same thing?)

Yes, and no.

In Australia, one gets accredited by the National Authority for Interpreters and Translators by either providing evidence of completion of a course of academic study from an institution acceptable to NAATI, or by sitting the translation exam. The exam includes questions on ethics of the profession and one cannot pass the exam if they fail these, no matter how good they are as translators.

Once accredited, you get a seal of office with which you stamp your translations. That plus your signature is all that is required, although I tend to add a few more items to make it look seriously official.

I always translate on my letterhead, starting with the words "Translated from the original/faxed/emailed copy of the Arabic document". I attach the certified copy of the original to the back of my translation, bend the left upper corner of the translation and place my seal firmly on both. This way, the client will know what was translated. The second seal goes underneath the last line of the translated text. Then comes the certification text:

I ___________, NAATI accredited translator Lvl 3 (Professional) hereby certify that the above is a true and correct translation from the Arabic language of [such-and-such a document from such and such a country] relating to [the holder's name].

I then add in the invoice, business card or "With Our Best Compliments" slip, and maybe a brochure on what else we can do for them.

In the USA, on the other hand, things seem to be a tad different. Although the American Translators Association has a program in place that allows members to become CTs, the Overworked Translator (am I envious?) is saying in her post that you do not have to be a CT to produce certified translations.: "In my case, I include my M.A. with my name and indicate that I am an active member of the ATA. You are merely certifying that the translation has been translated “to the best of [your] knowledge and ability.” Any translator can produce a translation which is correct to the best of his or her knowledge and belief."

Sort of a Statutory Declaration. Something like this would be illegal in Australia. There was a court case recently of a Chinese guy who pretended he was an accredited translator, and was jailed for it.

Say You What, Homey?

Pilot Online from Hampton VA has a detailed article on how English language teachers are teaching kids how to write proper English using the linguistic device of code-switching.

Considering how different the dialect the kids speak is from standard English, it might as well be a different language.

"When Mary Taylor, the teacher, called on Devante Hairston and Richard Washington, the seventh-graders burst into the middle of the classroom and faced each other. Classmates crowded around.

"What it do?" Devante said, emphasizing the last word.

It was Richard's job to "translate" his friend's informal speech into formal language. Richard furrowed his brow, made a false start, then came up with "What did you do, homey?"

The other students shouted, cheered and clamored to be next.

Taylor was teaching her language arts students how to "code switch" between informal English and the standard style required for tests, school papers and future job interviews.

What fascinates me about all this is not the fact that these kids speak a dialect. In Arabic, there are tens of dialects, some of them mutually incomprehensible. And there is the Modern Standard, which is what is taught at schools and spoken on the major media. Then there is Classical Arabic, the language of religion, which is a prerequiste for reading the Koran and any literary heritage.

What fascinates me is the response of readers to this article.

  • That native English language speakers are losing to motivated Indians and Chinese who can master the grammar.
  • That these kids will fit no where but in the penal system if they get taught like that.
  • That one should always speak the way they write!!!
  • That these teachers are promoting the worst kind of trashy English, and they do so because they are too lazy to teach anything proper.
  • That Manners and proper English are the hallmarks of the intelligent upper class and are impossible to fake, and that such a thing would not happen in a private school because that is where the upper class sends its kids.
  • That Ebonics and slang are the languages of yard workers, domestics and convicted felons, while proper English is the language of doctors, lawyers and professionals and always will be.
  • That people in Australia, England, Canada and even different parts of the US may sound different when they are speaking English, but they are all grammatically correct, but they don't do so in the US.
  • That accents, tones and inflections can be confusing and everyone should learn to speak the same standard English at school to prevent communication breakdown!
  • Oh, that English is one of the simplest languages in the world.

Three pages of this drivel. Maybe they should add one thing - that regardless to how well they speak/write standard English (which is open to definition), they are all extremely ignorant about linguistics, as none of the comments above is scientifically valid.

Maybe you don't have to be educated/cultured in the US. Maybe just speaking "correct grammar" is enough?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anglo-Arab for lack of a better term?

The Saudi Gazette has this to say about the use of English words in Arabic:

"Modern Arabic is classified as a macro language with 27 sub-languages spoken in countries ranging from the Kingdom itself to Mali, in Africa. Not one of these forms of Arabic is immune to the influence of non-Arabic words (...) In particular, the advent of technological, educational and even social changes has meant that hundreds of new words have been inserted into the Arabic language of today (...) A Saudi student pursuing a degree in accounting in the United States claims that sometimes there isn’t any alternative but to use English terms. “I use financial terms in English that are easily understood by Arabs and non-Arabs alike,” he remarked. “The reason is that we study (for our degree) in English, but also because some financial terms have no Arabic equivalent.”"

And although one Saudi linguists sees this as a positive cross-fertilization of Arabic, another is not so happy with it:

"Prof. Wael Al-Omari : “Inserting non-Arabic words into Arabic and code-switching (changing from one language to another in the midst of utterance) is noticeable and the reason is a kind of defeatism,” he said. “One looks up to other languages and cultures and forgets his own.”“The effect of that is withdrawal from our own language, our own culture and the creation of a missing generation that will not be able to sustain, or even know either their culture or history,” he added. "

And a piece of advice - "To keep our language updated, we should Arabize (to give an Arabic term or form to) each new technological, economic and political term, instead of using non-Arabic terms."

Localizing scientific terminology is not easy, especially if you consider the following factors:

(a) The fact that the Arab world has been divided between French and English cultural impact, and this means their scientific terminology comes from two distinct linguistic groups.
(b) The number of dialects used in the Middle East
(c) The fact that there has been very little indigenous scientific progress for a long time
(d) The fact that there has been very little collective work by linguists in localizing scientific terminology since the 1960s. Lots of solo acts, as you can see from the variety of terms proposed for a common English term, though.
(e) High levels of illiteracy in Arabic, so no widespread use of scientific terminology (or any other!)

I had an interesting experience trying to find the Arabic for "pragmatics" (as in a field of linguistics). One dictionary translated it as "pragmatism" (as in philosophy). Another, specialized in linguistic terms, had it as semiology!! In the end, I found out why.. A colleague on Proz wrote:

"The word, and I think even the branch, is simply not found in Arabic. Unfortunately, in the absence of an Arab linguistic authority, it becomes the task of translators to coin their own terms. An example of that is Al-Khuli's definition of the term. Because when one says (علم الرموز = semiology) alone, the listener wouldn't expect that to mean anything that has any relation with linguistics. Al-Mawrid is, of course, a hopeless case in lexicography, so it shouldn't be even consulted on such terms, because they won't be there. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines pragmatics as (The branch of linguistics dealing with language in use, and the contexts in which it is used, including such matters as deixies, turn taking in conversation, text organization, presupposition, and implicature. "

Sort of reminds me of a question another colleague once asked "What do you do when a dictionary is WRONG and you know it??"

If you fail, blame the Other

A colleague sent me an opinion piece from the Ukaz newspaper (in Arabic) in which the writer alleges that poor Saudis are being fleeced unethically by English language colleges in Australia. According to the author - who is not in Australia, and looks like he has never been - state-supported students are "forced" to pay anywhere between 2 and 2.7 grand to attend a 5 weeks ESL course in preparation for university. The colleges ensure they teach them nothing, fail them, and then inform their cultural missions that the students need to repeat the course.

It is amazing how conspiracy theories reach into the all areas of Arab life. The facts are, of course, very different. The "poor" Saudi students (and students from other Gulf states) come to Australia not only with zilch English language skills, but also with very poor learning and study skills. Their education, as many reports have stated, is based on rote learning and focused on Arab Muslim culture and religion (more than 80% of their curriculum consists of religious studies and Islamic history). They are used to private tutoring, aka spoon-feeding, throughout their schooling years.

So they arrive at X College to find out that we teach English in a way they are not used to: comprehension, opinion writing, presentations, conversation, etc. No grammar classes, no long vocab lists to memorize, no orthography, no dictation. And they get lost.

As a reaction to this, they often drop out of classes. Absenteeism in endemic. Medical reports abound. Only 5% make it past the English course. But without fully functional English, and without proper study skills, they will fail at university as well.

However, it is very easy to blame the Australian education providers. Easier than trying to learn something new.

You can add culture shock to this as well - sharing classes with people from ethnic backgrounds considered to fit into the "servant" category. With women (yikes!). Being taught by women (bigger yikes!). Having to take responsibility for their actions - no privileges just because you are male. Multiculturalism, religious pluralism, equality, etc.. Having to talk in class - although once they get a hang of that, you can't shut them up :-D

Again, it must be the fault of X College to have put all these persona non grata in the same class with them, making learning so much more difficult.

Monday, April 27, 2009

El Paso and Us Passing Out

A recent article from the El Paso Times (USA) reports that the the 80-member El Paso Interpreters & Translators Association has just staged its 14th Annual Translation & Interpreting Workshop - an eight hour event aimed at public service employed bilingual Hispanics in the area that gives them basic skills to act as interpreters and translators in their jobs.

The reason? There are two:

(a) roughly 80 percent of El Paso (NM) is Hispanic, and
(b) many of them end up interpreting and translating at their workplace without even knowing that's what they are doing. There are 150 - 200 professional interpreters in El Paso, and that is not enough. And Spanish is not the only language - there is a perpetual shortage of interpreters in courts and hospitals in all kinds of languages. So the professional associations are recruiting and training.

The speakers at the workshop ranged from practising interpreters and translators to the senior reviser and terminologist for the Spanish Translation Service for the United Nations headquarters in New York and an interpreting consultant with the U.S. Agency for International Development's PRODER-ECHO program in Mexico City. The aim is to get people interested and prod them in the right direction for further study.

Pardon me, but what is our AUSIT's stance on bilingual workers? Are we training them? Are we soliciting them? Do we extend ourselves in that direction to get more members? Oh, God forbid. Why? Because we have a slightly unhealthy belief that there is not enough bread on the table. That a professional organization is for the top creme of whatever (since we really have no standards to measure the cream by), and that elitism does not permit outreach. What, we even screamed our heads off when our National Committee created a "student membership" for those poor souls dumb enough to want to do graduate studies in T&I. Fie! How dare they?? They will steal our work from us.. especially as they are more streetwise, techno-savvy, dress better than us and know how to talk.

The fact is: we will be an extinct species if we don't pass our knowledge on. Of course that shouldn't bother us if we are egocentric and have no dreams of extending our work postmortem. I do. I want to leave something tangible behind me, so I am mentoring (read: pushing, shoving) a gifted younger colleague to do her PhD (before me, not after I start mine) so I can leave her my business when I am no longer sharp-witted enough to write like this!

Do YOU have the courage?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The "danger of bilinguism"??

All my life I have been a strong proponent of teaching and learning a second language - or more.

So I was suitably miffed reading this about UAE's experiment with teaching English in primary schools:

"The MAG programme was introduced into 50 schools in the UAE in autumn 2007 by the ministries of Education and of Higher Education and Scientific Research as a pilot programme. One of the main goals is to create bilingual graduates by teaching maths and science in English, as well as the English language.

One of the objectives of the MAG programme is to change from rote-based teaching to student-centred learning, and to produce graduates proficient in both Arabic and English."

Beauty, nu? But then the reaction:

".. school principals have warned that using English to teach maths and science is threatening to undermine pupils’ Arabic skills. One said the Arabic vocabulary of younger children is so poor, some cannot name their body parts, because they are learning the English words for them instead in their science classes."

I learned my body parts at home from my mum, dad and grandma. The MAG program must me aimed at orphans!

And while the principals complain about English being taught, "many UAE students are spending five to six years at university, because they are forced to take remedial courses in English before they can enter federal universities where the primary language of instruction is English."

So why the complaints? Look for the magic word in the Arab-speaking countries (I am not telling you which, you decide for yourself):

"Our kids should be taught English as a language, not have it be used as the language of instruction for all students at the expense of Arabic,” said the principal at the Dubai Modern Education School. “Arabic language should be the priority; it is the mother tongue, the language of our culture, and the language of our religion.”

Here is some more scare-mongering.

On CATS and Open Sources

The Masked Translator's posting discusses proprietary CAT tools and how they affect freelancers, and advocating open source software instead of the very expensive Trados and SDLX.

His argument goes a bit like this:

(a) Clients use different tools - all expensive - and want you to have them all
(b) All these tools do the same thing, but are often incompatible
(c) Software users are moving away from proprietary programs and into open source
(d) Freelance translators and their associations should do the same
(e) Since there is nothing like it on the market, freelance translators and their associations should create them

Fine. But developing software is time consuming, needs specific skills not cheap to learn, and if something works well, the temptation to patent and sell it is BIG. My solution would be:

(a) All TM software amalgamates into one working version
(b) All agencies use it
(c) Translators buy only that one - provided it is priced correctly

I am an idealist, I know.

Cooking a Good Translation

Ronald at TranslationArtWork has a nice insight into what makes a really good translation:

"Everyone can learn to cook, but not everyone has got that “taste in his hands”. As much as I may hate it, I am not a better cook than my sister. Even if the ingredients are the same. No matter how meticulously you follow the recipe, there will be certain difference in the flavor of the food. So even if you and I were to translate the same document, there is bound to be uniqueness in each outcome.

So what is that secret ingredient which gives it the unique flavor after translation. Why is that some translations are so blatantly obvious that they are translated that you can even identify from which language it is, if you know the original language while others are so well translated, it seems like the original matter itself?"

Ronald says it is passion, and I agree (being a great cook and a good translator myself). I never follow recipes, just look at them as a sort of directive to build on.

My philosophy in translation is not one heartily accepted by the standard school. In my opinion, words are something you must play with, reshape and remould, like plasticine. And you must have a great command of your language - like your mum’s command of all the spices in her kitchen - to be able to do that. And no fear about spoiling the broth!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tahar Ben Jelloun on Translation

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan poet and writer and one of North Africa’s most successful post-colonial writers. Winner of France’s Prix Goncourt, Ben Jelloun moved at eighteen from Fez to Tangier where he attended a French high school until enrolling at the Universite Mohammed V in Rabat in 1963. It was at the university where Ben Jelloun’s writing career began. Exposed to the journal Soufflés (Breaths ) as well as the journal’s founder, poet Abdellatif Laabi, Ben Jelloun completed his first poems, publishing his first collection, Hommes Sous Linceul de Silence , in 1971. After completing his Philosophy studies in Rabat, in 1971, Ben Jelloun immigrated to France. In France, he attended the Universite de Paris, receiving his Ph.D. in psychiatric social work in 1975. Along with providing material for his dissertation, La Plus Haute des Solitudes, Ben Jelloun draws upon his experience as a psychotherapist for his creative writing. His second novel, La Reclusion Solitaire (later Solitaire ), is a fictionalized account of some of his patients’ dysfunction which was written in 1976. Between 1976-1987 Ben Jelloun was regularly published and received awards, but it was not until his novel L’Enfant de Sable, (later translated as The Sand Child ) that he became well-known and recognized, with all of his novels since The Sand Child being translated into English. The sequel to L’Enfant de Sable , La Nuit Sacree or The Sacred Night is the work for which he received his most notable award, the Prix Goncourt in 1987. He lives in Paris.

From an interview by Morocco Board:

Q. You write in French but your books have been translated into many languages. What do you see as the challenges of publishing your work in translation? What is the relationship between author and translator when re-creating a text in another language?

A. Writing in a language that is not my mother tongue occasionally produces phrases or even turns of thought which are unusual in French. Some of my translators, particularly those from Nordic countries, often ask me to make clear how my characters are related. Others, like the Japanese, ask me to translate some Arabic words or specify the location of certain geographical places. In general, those familiar with North Africa and the Mediterranean do not ask me many questions. The only translation I can read and correct is the Arabic, when it is not one pirated by Syrian publishers.

The Pole Who Loved Somali Poetry

An interview with the wife of late Prof. Bogumil Witalis Andrzejewski, Lecturer, Reader in Cushitic Languages School of Oriental and African Studies 1952-80, Professor of Cushitic Languages and Literature 1980-82.

B. W. Andrzejewski was the leading authority in the world on the languages and oral literature of the Somali people and their Oromo neighbours in the Horn of Africa. As well as being a distinguished and innovative linguist in a technical sense, "Goosh" Andrzejewski believed passionately in studying and analysing language in its actual, living socio-cultural context. He thus became the leading Western exponent of Somali and Oromo oral culture, introducing the remarkable poetry of these bellicose nomads to world literature, where their brilliance is now securely established. In this endeavour (in which I collaborated with him in the collection Somali Poetry, 1964, as more recently did his wife, Sheila, in An Anthology of Somali Poetry, 1993), Andrzejewski was strongly influenced by his own widely recognised talents as a contemporary Polish poet.

Andrzejewski possessed an amazing command of Somali (and to a lesser extent of Oromo), with a formidable repertoire of proverbs, jokes, folktales and poetry which enabled him to hold his own with traditional clan elders as easily as with westernised intellectuals. Andrzejewski also played a crucial role in the development of a phonetically accurate (and convenient) Roman script for the previously unwritten Somali language. This work began in 1949 when, with Colonial Development and Welfare funds, Andrzejewski was recruited by the Education Department of the British Somaliland Protectorate - in association with the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. In the course of this research (which later formed the basis of his PhD), Andrezejewski began his very fruitful collaboration with the famous Somali poet and folklorist Muse H.I. Galal. Because of opposition from religious leaders in this prickly Muslim society to Andrzejewski's Latin script (they punningly called it "la-diin", i.e. "no religion") it was not until 1972 that national literacy was introduced.

The interview can be read on

A Requiem for Strunk and White

Or why the The Elements of Style is a load of crap.

(1) Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense;
(2) its enormous influence has significantly degraded American students' grasp of English grammar;
(3) both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian.
(4) Some of its recommendations are vapid, like "Be clear" (how could one disagree?), some are tautologous, like "Do not explain too much." Many are useless, like "Omit needless words."
(5) The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them.

Says who? Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). I think he should know. At least until he is dead and someone else comes and criticizes his work :-D

Creatively Idle

Bob McGuiness, commenting on his perception of the film Lost in Translation, has this to say:

"And the creative process moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes getting nothing done is the most productive thing you can do. Sometimes you do your most important work when you’re not working at all. Sometimes the most pointless, stupid, ridiculous experiences are the ones that teach you the most and lead to your biggest discoveries."

This has nothing to do with translation, or at least not explicitly so. But it reminded me of a few things:

(1) That I write my best articles and papers in my head first, over weeks of time, and that to the outsiders I look like I am spaced-out, or snoozing, or whatever. But I can't put pen to paper without "not doing anything at all".

(2) It reminds me of a "Mission Statement" I wrote last year, during one of the "rah, rah" motivational sessions. It was a revolt, because I don't have to be perpetually motivated to be normal:

I shall lie idle in the vale
Among the grass flowers inhale
I shall lie there at the mountain foot
Where others, geared to the boot
Climb Up.

I shall lie idly as they scrap
and cut their hands and blood the knees
Achieving crap
While I breath freely air beneath
Watch them exhausted reach the top
See nothing there inspiring hope
And clamber back..
The same long track..

A chuckle I will surely make
At all attempts, both mad and fake
Of those returnees from the high
Who now will raise their voices loud
And teach their lessons to the crowd
To heal, to light the lights, to be
Oh, so the blind like me can see!

Perchance, as I lie in the vale
Some lucky one might come across
And stumble on my body prone
And ask me what I'm doing there
Why amn't I going somewhere?
If I feel so inclined, I may
Spit out a juicy stalk away
And to the poor dork thus say:

I have achieved my easier path
No scraped knees or bloodied hands
Nirvana comes from being one
With what we came from and where we'll end
Here, this handful of moist earth
Is me tomorrow, and you and them
So lie beside me and inhale
The sweetest fragrances of the vale.

(3) It reminded me to strongly recommend any of you who are still cutting their knees and hands up on the mountain top to read Tom Hodgkinson's magnificent "How To Idle". While I will never reach Tom's capacity at doing nothing, the book had a healing effect on my previous workaholism, by showing me that one needs to maintain a certain level of sane humanity if one wants to be productively creative.

Gogol's Patrotism Loses to Slavic Nationalism(s)

I read him in Polish, Arabic and English, collected his books, loved the weirdness of his descriptions. Now he is 200 years old, and the Russians and Ukrainians are squabbling over which side of the border he belongs to. Gone are gas problems, tavarische? No more Agent Orange?

And whereas the politicians are still biting their tongues and not declaring a Dead Souls war as yet, the Ukrainian translators are playing little dirty censorship tricks, purging or altering overly "pro-Russian" text - gutting a passage in which Cossacks pledge loyalty to Catherine the Great and replacing "Russian character" with "Ukrainian character." For God's sake, folks - during Catherine's reign??

And the Ruskis are no better: on April 2 they released the blockbuster "Taras Bulba," produced by the state television channel Rossiya. Now that by itself is fine, if you are into nationalism, and Orthodoxy and black eyes, etc.. But, as Cathy Young tells us in her dispatch from Mirgorod (or thereabouts):

"While Gogol admires his Cossacks as warriors for God and country, he unflinchingly portrays their less pleasant traits. They are addicted to warfare for its own sake, ever seeking a pretext to unleash violence on the hated Muslims, Catholics and Jews. They loot and kill; avenging fallen brothers-in-arms, they torch churches and burn women and infants. Not so in the movie, where the Poles commit graphically shown atrocities while the Cossacks, a Russian reviewer quipped, strictly follow the Geneva Convention. Bulba even gets a respectable motive for his anti-Polish crusade: In a pure invention of the filmmakers', Polish soldiers burn his farm and butcher his wife. While the film also scrubs the story of its anti-Semitism, it amplifies Polish villainy -- and adds apparent references to modern politics: The Cossacks' main enemy is a general named Mazowiecki, like Poland's first post-Communist prime minister. Some commentators even suggest that the doomed love of Bulba's son Andry for a Polish noblewoman, which leads him to betray his comrades and finally meet death at his father's hands, should be seen as a metaphor for Ukraine's fatal seduction by the West."

Of course Poles are not beloved by either the Russians nor the Ukrainians, so this part at least shall not be a bone of contention. Besides, they are busy wheeling and dealing with the soul-less EU.

When there is no arrangement for translation of Canarese

From Sroyon:

Apparently quoted from the Constituent Assembly Debates of India. If you are really good, you try it with an Indian English accent :-)

Mr. T. Channiah: (Spoke in Canarese)

Mr. H. V. Kamath: Mr. President, the Honourable Member knows English and I suggest that you request him to speak in English.

Mr. T. Channiah: I have got option to talk in any language. I like (continued to speak in Canarese)

Mr. Shankar Dattatraya Deo: Sir, We must at least be told in what language the Honourable Member is speaking.

Mr. President: My information is that he is speaking in Canarese. (Laughter)

Shri Mohanlal Saksena: How do we find out whether he is talking in Canarese or not?

Diwan Chaman Lall: On a point of order, Sir. Are there any arrangements for a translation to be made into some understandable language of the speech that my honourable friend is making?

Mr. President: There is no arrangement for translation. If an Honourable Member chooses to speak in his own language, I cannot prevent him. The other members miss the speech and the speaker himself is not in a position to influence the bulk of the members present here. So the loss is more on the side of the speaker than on the side of the members who do not follow him. I don’t wish to interrupt any member who wishes to speak in his own language.

Mr. T. Channiah: Thank you, Mr. President. (continued to Speak in Canarese)

Mr. M. S. Aney: Sir, on a point of order. Are you in a position to know whether he is speaking relevantly or not?

Amazing what India has achieved despite the lack of translation at the Parliament House. Maybe we should encourage a few MPs to speak Canarese instead of Canberranese?

Another divine farce of post-modernism

Now its poor Dante!

Now the Divine Comedy is being adapted as a manga. Manga are comics and print cartoons, in the Japanese language and conforming to the style developed in Japan in the late 20th century.In their modern form, manga date from shortly after World War II, but they have a long, complex pre-history in earlier Japanese art.

No problem with that here - I would lovingly redo all my favourite classical literature into mangas, so that the new graphic-minded illiterate generation graduating from our Aussie schools would at least not lose their canon.

But.. the adaptors are doing more than just making pictures out of heaven, hell and in-between.

The author's website says:

What we are doing now is 1. translating the manga, 2. comparing to the original divine comedy/history (when the mangaka leaves the context of the Divine Comedy), 3. mixing it all together and 4. re-writing it in a decasyllabic meter to match with the Divine Comedy’s poetry style. We used mostly H.F. Cary’s translation of the original Divine Comedy as reference, but if the translation was to archaic to be applicable, we used Longfellow’s.

I wonder how old you are, my son, to consider Cary archaic. How about "antique", i.e. elegant, meant to last, lovingly collected by an "archaic" reader like me?? And since when was Dante's poetry decasyllabic?

There is an interesting discussion here of layered comments, weird textual outlay (right to left, bottom to top, etc) that would make you go dizzy unless you read the manga with the original archaic Cary in hand.

With Everything We've Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish Poetry

From Amazon's website:

With Everything We’ve Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish PoetryEdited and translated by Richard J. Fein. Host Publications, 218 pages

The book is a novel and intriguing hybrid that combines a selection of Yiddish poetry in bilingual presentation with a number of Fein's own poems in English that he suggests may be viewed as a 'responsa' to the Yiddish poems. This combination not only makes some great Yiddish poetry accessible to English-speaking readers, it also illuminates the art of translation, as well as the creative process. [Fein] provides a wide-ranging sampling that demonstrates the scope and power of Yiddish poetry...Sean Wolitz provides a thorough, scholarly introduction...and also supplies extensive, detailed biographical notes that resonate with a passionate appreciation for the subjects. This entire book affirmation that Yiddish poetry is necessary and useful...The phrase 'with everything we've got' apt title for this book, which holds out hope that despite the dwindling of its native readership, Yiddish poetry will live on as a creative force.

In The Dance of Leah, a book of essays exploring his preoccupation with Yiddish and the fate of its literature, Fein writes:

When I am involved in Yiddish I sense I am in touch with a world and a language vanishing bit by bit at the same time that I gather my energies and abilities to apprehend them. My contact with Yiddish yields new intensities to my life in the face of our shared mortality. I play out a personal fear in terms of my relationship to Yiddish language and culture. I touch the dying and return to my thoughts, to English. This is the origin of my impetus to Yiddish.

And from a review of the work:

Having spent his boyhood avoiding Yiddish and the strange, Old World claims it exerted on his soul, Fein found himself lured back into Yiddish decades later, as if the language were a woman whose charms he had failed to appreciate as a younger man, but whom he now found irresistible. This reunion, however, only took place after the World War II, in the world where Jewish life had been disfigured by the Holocaust. Yiddish, a thriving language in a phase of literary experimentation and rapid enrichment in the pre-war years, emerged after the war as a dying language.

Fein admits that his collected translations are not representative of either Yiddish poetry at large or the individual poets he has selected. But his treatment of the poets included in the volume—Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Perets Markish, Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Sutzkever, to name several—rewards the reader by the richness of the translator’s response to the original. The volume is as much a collection of translated verse as a chronicle of the poet-translator’s engagement with his material.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Quality Does Not Come Free

An ad on Get A Freelancer website (a bit like "Get a Slave"), really:

"Translation of a big number of pages is required from Arabic to English, with high Quality.I hired a number of translators in the past but the quality of their work was very poor. My policy of payment will be in instalments after checking the quality of the work. I am happy to pay around $1 (one dollar) per page, but I am also open to any other suggestions. from Arabic to English.please bid per 30 pages(around 500 words each)"

Well, of course! For a $1 per page, you are getting rhesus monkeys, not translators. I even know where you are getting them from - Mr. Kumar of the Scandinavian fame. He emailed me today, offering services in broken English.

If you want a proper translator doing proper work, you are paying around $25 per 100 words (so $150 per page) for straight translation, and much more if I have to localize your flowery Arabic drivel into snappy English.

The name of the poster, by the way, is Souk. Meaning "marketplace" in Arabic. I assume it reflects a certain bazaar mentality, like standing atop a teabox or a banana crate and shouting atop your voice "One dollar cucumber, err, page; one dollar page..."

Shish, I am becoming so politically incorrect, it isn't funny.

Falling in Love With a Stranger's Words

Last night I came across the blog of Brad Craft, a bibliophile (like me) with whom I share a generational platform and the love for the same authors. I read his entry on Cafavy in translation, and promptly fell in love with the way he writes. So, after politely asking for permission, and obtaining it, I would like to add Brad to the MAS (Mutual Admiration Society). Someone who can write like him is a rara avis.

So here are a few extracts:

"I am tired to death of being reminded that writers in translation are not the writers themselves, that the peculiarities, or glories, of any language not my own, and I have but the one, are the very thing that make this poet, from that tradition, in whatever language the poem was written, "untranslatable." That word! As if Shakespeare, in Russian, say, is somehow not different, but unrecognizable, ersatz, impossible. As if Dante in any language but Italian is unreadable. Whatever Dante was, in English he continues to be Dante. If he is not all he was, he never the less is. The suggestion that every reader of Dante, of Shakespeare, of Rimbaud, of Li Po, must know each and all the languages in which those poets wrote, or read them not at all, or incorrectly at best, is ridiculous."

Hmm. Precisely the reason, Brad, why I did not go past translating that single poem by Nizar Gabbani, the Lebanese poet who put women on a pedestal and enraged the Arab patriarchy by his feminism so much that when he died he was denied burial in a Muslim cemetery, giving the Maronites the honour of having him posthumously "christianized". But lets savour some more of Brad:

"May we not all agree, at last, that there is little or nothing the poet or reader will gain by being reminded that Babel fell? Translations may be fair or literal, good or bad, but they are and they are for a reason, and that reason is not to just to provide translators with Sisyphean employment. Translations exist that poets may be read by readers elsewhere, that poems may travel. I am tired of being told that the road to enlightenment is impassible even as I am issued a passport, given a guide and translator, and have paid for transportation.

Some voices can be understood immediately, even in translation, coming from whatever place or language. If I concede not all, or without regret for the depredations of the journey, may that not be allowed, in exceptional instances, enough? Some poets, the greatest poets, survive even their first and their latest translators, may inspire admiration, even love, in a language other than their own. I should think, if not everything, that would be proof enough that Berlitz does not hold the only key to The Pantheon, that even the humblest of foreigners is welcome, if nowhere else, at least there. Some poets met in inferior translations remain familiar, admirable, loved, even in new and better ones. New translations, multiple translations, ought to be the occasion of new or renewed pleasure, if only the reader has the sense to skip the translator's "note on the translation." I do.

Writing of his experiences of Cafavy, Brad says:

"In his poems, the world will find Alexandria, his city, ancient and alive. Alexandria, for me, is Constantine Petrou Cavafy. And now, thanks to Daniel Mendelsohn, whose criticism and essays I've enjoyed before, I get to go again. I first read Cavafy because E. M. Forster knew and wrote about him (just as I read Forster first because Isherwood knew and wrote about Forster, just as I read Isherwood because I fell in love with Michael York... you get the idea.). If my first Alexandria was from movies and children's histories, and my next from Shakespeare, E. M. Forster's Alexandria introduced me to Alexandria's poet, Cavafy. I read his poems walking. I took the Rae Dalven translation (Cavafy's second translator in English, I think?) with me and read him in the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Auden wrote the introduction. I was in love and not loved. I was, what? Sixteen? Cavafy's elegiac poems spoke to me of admired beauties, of a hand held just above touch, of lonely walks, of encounters more meaningful to the poet than to the men he loved. Cavafy pressed an abandoned bandage to his lips and kissed the blood. He spoke to me. But he spoke to me of other things as well, of other times, other civilizations, other lovers. He spoke to me of Alexandria, his city, and we walked there together. I heard the street vendors and the shutters opening in the morning and closing at night. I heard them even on a noisy, filthy street clogged with buses, on a cold American morning in December. I did not envy the Greek poet his Egyptian city, because he shared it with me."

Whenever we would be stationed in Alex, on the Acropolis (a shabby hotel on Urabi Square, favourite of all these men in cork hats and dusty boots who used to love playing out in the Egyptian sands looking for history), I would be only ten minutes away from where Cafavy's house was. It is now a museum, lovingly taken care of by the Egyptian Greek community. The guide who took me on the reminiscing tour in 2oo4 spoke with a quivering voice - like a religious adept speaking of his prophet. He irritate me, though, because I preferred to get lost in Cafavy's (Kavafis in Greek) ghost, the yellowing pages of his letters, his coat and glasses, the ornate chair and writing desk. His creative environment appealed to me more than this acolyte - but maybe the boy was touched by the ghost, too and could not shut up?

Translating the Moors

From Daniel Wools (AFP)

Spain seeks to decipher Alhambra's inscriptions

This month, Spanish researchers unveiled the first fruit of a gargantuan project to translate and catalog every last carving in Alhambra - an estimated 10,000 - from individual words to poems to verses from the Quran. The goal is to render a seemingly impenetrable slice of medieval history readily accessible with the click of a mouse.

The dream of understanding and recording the inscriptions at the Moorish citadel goes back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Their forces captured Granada in 1492, expelled the sultans who lived in scented splendor at the 14th-century palace complex and ended nearly 800 years of Muslim rule in much of Spain.

The Spanish royal court quickly hired translators to tackle the inscriptions at the Alhambra and on other buildings throughout this handsome, whitewashed city in southern Spain. But records of that effort were lost over time, and later ones addressed only certain categories of inscription, a far cry from the exhaustive study that Juan Castilla and two other Arabic language specialists have been conducting since 2002.

Today some inscriptions are illegible because of routine decay. And if a natural disaster like an earthquake were to strike Spain's single most visited tourist site, with 2.2 million people a year, the losses would be unfathomable.

For now, about a third of the inscriptions are available on an interactive CD that provides Spanish-language translations and a wealth of other information, such as their source. Once the project is completed in 2011, the idea is to download a sample of the material onto the Internet.

Castilla, who works for the Spanish National Research Council and learned Arabic while living in Iraq and Egypt, said that understanding the writing is extremely hard even for the average native Arabic speaker, in part because it sometimes employs an archaic script called kufic. Mansour al Marzouqui, a 16-year-old tourist from the United Arab Emirates, called the task tough but not impossible. "You can't get it the first time. You have to look really hard," he said.

Through the centuries, the popular belief was that most of the writings were verses from the Quran or poetry. But on the basis of the Alhambra building that has been studied so far, the Comares Palace, those amount to less than 10 percent of the total, Castilla said.

In fact, the phrase repeated most often - hundreds upon hundreds of times - is a sentence considered the slogan of the Nazrid dynasty, one of the successions of rulers that passed through the Alhambra. It says: "There is no victor but God." It shows up on tiny shields, inside eight-pointed stars and myriad other places.

Other inscriptions are single words like "happiness" or "blessing" - with the idea that they are to invoke such things from God for the room where they are carved or for the ruling sultan himself.
As for the poetry, it can range from a few verses to longer pieces, like one that spans 25 meters (yards) as it runs along all four walls of a room. It was penned to celebrate the circumcision of a sultan's son.

Elsewhere, poetry runs up one side, across the top and down the other flank of a small alcove of the kind where the Moors would place a pitcher of water with rose petals as incense. This poem compares the image of a pitcher being poured with that of a Muslim leaning forward in prayer.

Stats on Google

Tomedes pointed me today to Google Keyword Tool, so I had a play and here are some stats on what people have been looking at in my language pair in March:

Keyword Hits in Mar-09

arabic dictionary 6600

arabic english 18100

arabic english translator 1000

arabic language translation 140

arabic language translator 6

arabic online translator 91

arabic text 1000

arabic to english translation 2,400

arabic to english translator 720

arabic translate 2400

arabic translater 320

arabic translation 8100

arabic translations 590

arabic translator 2400

arabic translators 390

arabic word 1600

arabic words 1900

arabic writing translation 58

english arabic translation 3600

english to arabic 8100

learn arabic 4,400

online arabic translation 390

translate english arabic 1300

translate english to arabic 1000

translate from english to arabic 170

translation from english to arabic 320

translation to arabic 2900

A Picture is Worth Whatever..

..provided you can read the meaning intended by this sign:

My partner and I spent a few minutes trying to read into it. Here are the results:
1) Don't carry explosives in your boot
2) Try and avoid crashing backwards into this sign
3) Car farting prohibited
4) Keep your six-tentacled monster out of sight while driving
5) Setting cars on fire is not permitted
6) No burnoffs
7) Use of yellow phosphoric gas from the exhaust pipe not permitted
8) Turn off fireworks when approaching
9) Don't run over the bikies - they might explode

"Yi" and the Clash of Empires

A blogger (sorry, I lost the link) led me to look for a book by Lydia He Liu called "The Clash of Empires". I was luck to be able to read almost the whole thing on Google Books.

From the publisher's review:

"What is lost in translation may be a war, a world, a way of life. A unique look into the nineteenth-century clash of empires from both sides of the earthshaking encounter, this book reveals the connections between international law, modern warfare, and comparative grammar--and their influence on the shaping of the modern world in Eastern and Western terms.

The Clash of Empires brings to light the cultural legacy of sovereign thinking that emerged in the course of the violent meetings between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Lydia Liu demonstrates how the collision of imperial will and competing interests, rather than the civilizational attributes of existing nations and cultures, led to the invention of "China," "the East," "the West," and the modern notion of "the world" in recent history. Drawing on her archival research and comparative analyses of English--and Chinese--language texts, as well as their respective translations, she explores how the rhetoric of barbarity and civilization, friend and enemy, and discourses on sovereign rights, injury, and dignity were a central part of British imperial warfare. Exposing the military and philological--and almost always translingual--nature of the clash of empires, this book provides a startlingly new interpretation of modern imperial history. "

Liu argues for semiotics as the defining aspect of the invention of China in the modern world, and as the defining moment of modern sovereign thinking in the nineteenth-century clash of the British and Qing Empires. Yet, if these are primarily semiotic events, what historical claim is being made? As Liu notes toward the end of the book, the science of philology privileged a putative transparency between language and culture. Liu's semiotics twists the emphasis: it retains language in its privileged position, even as the focus on historically produced translingual practice disavows transparency. This focus allows for a number of fascinating insights and accounts that should alter the narratives China studies textbooks continue to hold dear. Not many post-modernist academics would enjoy/accept her findings, though - they find them too reductionist. One of those unhappy readers' reviews can be read here.

I did find Chapter 2, discussing the semiotics of "yi" fascinating. Maybe not many would agree, but it kind of reflects my understanding of the term "goy" - something crass, vulgur, unclean, impure. I wonder if one could take Liu's discussion further, and do a cross-cultural study on terms used to describe the other in Arabic - kafir, khawaja, etc.

Translating Iraq

I wish I could read French.

I have been picking vibes about this new book by Mathieu Guidère (who, incidentally, is on PROZ) , called "Irak in translation: de l'art de perdre une guerre sans connaître la langue de son adversaire."

Dr. Mathieu Guidere is professor at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He is also Senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (Washington DC.). He published many books on Al Qaeda, especially on Al Qaeda in North Africa. Leading researcher in cognitive linguistics and multilingual monitoring. Guidere was born in Tunisia, in 1971. He holds a Master's degree in Arabic language and literature and a Ph.D in Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He was Assistant Professor at the University of Lyon 2 (France) in Arabic language and Translation Studies. His current research interests include Applied linguistics, in particular, Multimedia Translation and Machine-aided Translation from a linguistic point of view.

He has some interesting things to say about the war in Iraq being one which set out to win hearts and minds and was also one in which translators and interpreters played an important role.
Later in the interview he says that "translating in a time of war is about the art of using words of dialogue, diffusing situations which are filled with tension, using communication in a way which helps conflict resolution."

Would the war might have been won if Bush had been able to use more translators and interpreters? Guidère replies that "It not so much the quantity of as the quality which was the problem in this war. Taxi drivers or pizza delivery delivery people were recruited so long as they had three words of Arabic. The people recruited were both badly trained and badly managed"

At the end of 2006, of 130,000 active US soldiers in Iraq, only 130 knew Arabic, but only at a rudimentary level.”
“There was only one interpreter for every company (around 150 men). This fact can be explained in part by the phrase: ‘Quite evidently, languages did not enjoy much interest in the superpower which had made English the chief language worldwide, and tended to satisfy itself with that.’
‘According to a high-level CIA official, learning Arabic is not so easy: ‘it is easier to teach a pilot to fly a fighter jet than to speak Arabic with precision.’”
‘Private companies hired interpreters in Iraq and other Arab countries for the US army. The chief motive of most of these language auxiliaries for doing this particularly risky work was the ability to make much money. Among these ‘interpreters’ we often found taxi drivers, pizza delivery men, without a true knowledge of English: “Interpreters babbled in broken English and essentially communicated by signs with the soldiers.”’
“Most of the many Arabic speakers who were accepted to work as interpreters spoke English poorly; and most of the Arabic-speaking American soldiers or interpreters spoke Arabic poorly and had no knowledge of Arab culture, let alone Iraqi, which led to many misinterpretations and errors. Not only did US military personnel depend on the competence and trustworthiness of these interpreters, but journalists, prison guards, and the tortured too, whose fate could depend on only one word being misinterpreted on purpose or by mistake.’‘
Profiteers have been many and on both sides and in the most varied ways. Instead of receiving 6,000 USD as per contract with Titan, the chief US language enterprise in Iraq, some interpreters received only 1,500. As an anecdote, an Iraqi interpreter had exploited the naivety of newly arrived US soldiers on their travels. For example, to buy an Iraqi flag as a souvenir, the seller would asked for 5 dollars; the interpreter interpreted it as 45 dollar, and pocketed the difference.’

A reader from Ottawa kindly translated the introduction provided by

‘In every war, there is an original error. The U.S. mistake in Iraq was to believe that we could democratize a country without even knowing its language. That technology could replace man, that manipulation could substitute persuasion. In short, that we could win the hearts and minds by ignoring culture. This book offers a journey into the heart of the chaos in Iraq by following the footsteps of those who know it best: the auxiliaries, translators and interpreters who have worked or are still working for the Americans, but are seen and treated as "traitors" and "collaborators" by their countrymen. Those whom the Americans call “linguists” have paid the heaviest price in this war that never ceases to create victims. But these cultural intermediaries who are essential to the pacification of the country have been accused of treason and felony on both sides, on the part of Americans as on the part of Iraqis. Who are these auxiliaries of the U.S. military? Where are they from and what do they do? How are they recruited and what becomes of them afterwards? An investigation into a real scandal, this book explores the root reasons for the American failure in Iraq. It explains, from unedited and detailed investigation, why the coalition forces have never reached their first objective in this war: to win the hearts and minds against extremism and barbarism.’
Unfortunately, French is not one of my languages, and I will have to bid my time until someone either translates the book, or bed-side reads it to me. Or maybe do what a colleague of mine did many years ago - locked himself up in a library with a massive book on philosophy in German, and a few dictionaries and glossaries, and started translating.. Six weeks later, having gone through this torture from 9 AM to 9 PM, he could not speak German, or pronounce the words, but he could read with understanding.
Time, and the need to make money, are of course to factors that make such an exercise prohibitive at the moment.

Chaucer for Dummies - or how not to learn your own language

An interesting article from Chanhassen Monitor (Minnesota), about the need to read English literature in its original language, and not in modern translation:

"When I was in college, I once took a class on Chaucer. We studied “The Canterbury Tales.” I was a little nervous about the class because it was a graduate level course, and I was a junior at the time. Plus, reading 14th-century English is like reading a foreign language.
Wanting to do well in the class, I went to the library and got a book that had a modern translation of “The Canterbury Tales,” and started reading it before the class even got under way. I was quite proud of myself for being so industrious and motivated, and taking that extra step.

The first day of class was a lecture, and the instructor gave us some general background information about the author and the book, as well as about the time period and the setting. He also spoke about the language and the poetry of Chaucer’s writing.
“And by the way,” he said, “if I catch anyone reading a modern translation, I’ll throw you out of class.”


The reason he was so adamant about not reading a modern translation was that the language was a major component of what we were studying. He told us we’d understand it better if we read each tale out loud as we were studying it, and he even joked that the best way to get a feel for the language would be to go over to Ike’s – a bar just off campus – have a few beers, and then read the material in a loud and boisterous voice. At least, I think he was joking.
The point was that we weren’t just studying the words, their meaning, and the stories they told. We were studying the language, and so we had to immerse ourselves in it. And, as with studying an actual foreign language, the more we did, the easier it would be to understand and appreciate the material.


I made a reference to “Macbeth” in something I was writing recently, and I needed to refresh my memory on the details. I went to the library to get a copy of the play, and came across a volume called “No Fear Shakespeare.” It included the notation, “The play plus a translation anyone can understand.” In addition to “Macbeth,” there are No Fear Shakespeare copies of over a dozen other Shakespeare plays. In each book, the actual text appears on the left page, with a line-by-line modern translation on the right.
I checked the book out of the library, although I felt a little guilty about it and realized that my old Chaucer instructor was still with me. After I found the passage I was looking for, I skimmed through the rest of the book to sample some of the modern translations of Shakespeare’s famous lines. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Much is lost in translation. Not the meaning, but the mood – the richness of the words, and the atmosphere of the world in which the story is taking place. The drama, the depth, the foreboding. All this is lost when you replace the original words with a quick, concise, easy-to-swallow and easy-to-digest version.

I don’t think there’s any real solution to this dilemma, not in a world or at a time when the words we use to communicate with each other are being reduced even further to single letters and abbreviations.

It is interesting that this article comes at the same time as the reviews of Anne Carson's new translation of Aeschylus Agamemnon and how it compares to the previous one by Lattimore. Apparently, Lattimore was clunky. Carson is supposed to be "modern". An example:

Cassandra: The fact is we wrestled.
Chorus: Had sex?
Cassandra: I said yes but defaulted.

Lattimore’s : “Did you come to the getting of children then, as people do?”

And some more here:

Carson's: propped on the roof of Atreus,
chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars.

Lattimore's: I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise
to mark the grand processionals of all the stars of night.

Both are clunky. English is not Greek, it lacks the music. Try playing Mozart on a tuba and you'll get what I mean. But if I was to choose, I would stick to Lattimore, because Carson's makes me visualise Cassandra with a mobile, in a Hyundai, SMSing on the highway. Aeschylus for Dummies.