Friday, April 10, 2009

"It Is Always English First..."

Talking Alaska is a blog about native American languages. The most recent post deals with translating from English into these languages. One particular bit caught my attention:

"I've been thinking a bit about translation lately. At ANLC we get many request to translate slogans, idioms, mottos, etc. from English to a particular Native language -- or even into "Alaskan."

While these requests are for the most part well-intentioned, many speakers have expressed their reluctance to fulfill such requests. One problem is that people don't realize just how difficult such requests can be.

But I wonder if it is not only the difficulty of the task which bothers people. Perhaps an even greater problem is that taken together, all of these requests might be viewed as trivializing or patronizing rather supporting Native language. There seems to be a lack of reciprocity. I have yet to receive a request from someone seeking a translation of a Native language idiom into English. No, it is always the other way around. Someone comes up with a usually highly idiomatic English phrase, and then wants to translate it into Native language. It's always English first, Native language second. English is always given priority. No one seems interesting in the rich idiomatic language of Alaska's indigenous languages. Instead, they are interested in forcing an awkward translation of an English idiom. And typically the goal is to advance some non-linguistic cause by appeal to the cachet of Native language. That's what seems patronizing. Don't get me wrong. I know these people are well-intentioned. And I would very much like to see more Native language out there. But I am beginning to understand the reluctance on the part of some speakers to participate in translation work. "

Hmmm. Tell me about it. How many of these slogans was I asked to translate into "Sudanese"? Some of them were puns on words, some rhymed in English, but would mean bugger all in Arabic, some were culturally inappropriate. Not to mention that there is no such language as "Sudanese" anyway. Maybe educating your well-meaning clients would be the way to go? But is it achievable? Some of these Mr. Do-Goodies are so ethnocentric and so ignorant that one would need a can-opener to get into the cranial cavity.

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