Monday, January 11, 2010

Should Everything be Translated?

Everything of value, yes. Thus says me. Define "value" - you ask. It is a relative term. But if it contains ideas, no matter how dangerous, it should be translated. This is why we fought for freedom of information and expression, for the right of minorities (linguistic and ideological) to be heard. Translation fosters understanding, and can also provide defence. Witness the CIA being lost in translation to get my point.

So articles like the one below make me feel unwell. Is this guy promoting linguistic censorship??

"Misunderstandings can be dangerous. The Chinese Whisper which turns ‘Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’ into ‘Send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance’ might be apocryphal, but it highlights what can happen when one person fails to catch what another person has said. So, too, does the advert for Berlitz (‘Improve your English’), in which the frantic captain of a boat repeats, ‘Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking!’, only to have the German coastguard reply: ‘Yes? What are you thinking about?’ Generally, we try to minimise such risks – we ask people to repeat the sentence, stand closer, speak louder or rephrase. When two people are speaking different languages, though, they may completely fail to understand each other; in these situations, translators and interpreters are often engaged. It’s disconcerting, frustrating and sometimes terrifying to find that you can’t make sense of an utterance; students, politicians and soldiers are all indebted at some point to translation service providers.

However, sometimes people actively don’t want to understand. The translation of Hebrew-language books into Arabic, for instance, is still a controversial issue in the Arab world, with certain experts in Jordan contending that comprehensive translations risk providing ‘a bridge for cultural penetration and normalisation’. Debate has centred, recently, on the availability in Arabic of Benjamin Netanyahu's A Place under the Sun, which outlines his political views. While admitting that it is important to understand what they call the ‘Zionist ideology’ of Israel, some Arab scholars are concerned that a generation provided with Hebrew texts may come to see Israel as a legitimate state, in opposition to the stance of most Arab countries. This might seem perverse and self-defeating, but it’s a position that has been adopted by various peoples throughout history, not all of whom have seen themselves as being at war. Gaelic speakers in the West of Ireland, say, might refuse to have an English text translated for their children, no matter how useful or interesting it might be; Basque speakers might react in the same way to Spanish.

People can feel strongly about writing, speeches or television programmes because they see them as propaganda, as products of a certain ideology or simply as a reminder of a country and a way of life. Nowadays, as the internet continues to expand, we might see the translation and transmission of information as an inevitable and all-encompassing process, yet not everyone in the world wants to watch a subtitled version of Friends, read a translation of John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech or, conversely, receive the English version of a pamphlet detailing Sharia law.

A balance between the two stances should probably be maintained. Few people want a world in which countries or continents mark themselves off from one another, refusing to communicate with those speaking another language. Equally, though, it should not be forgotten how important individual languages have been to the development of cultures and traditions; nor should it be forgotten that many kinds of speech are political acts in one way or another. Translation agencies exist to facilitate communication where facilitation is needed; they offer their services to anyone who wants or needs to communicate with those speaking a foreign language. If translation is not wanted, people will not ask, but translation agencies nonetheless ensure that they are familiar with the politics of translation, and with the various cultural or political fault-lines, around the world, which make translation a sensitive issue."

Balance? Writing is a political act, Mr. Specialist. Don't worry - it isn't agencies that will translate the important stuff. It will be the little folks for whom it matters. Agencies are after income not freedom, democracy and ethics. I understand, Mr. Specialist. And oh, do take off that grey, collarless shirt. Even your bosses are beginning to wear ties and suits nowadays!

For all your English to Arabic and vice versa translations that will help you expand your business into the Middle East visit Arabic Language Experts at

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