Monday, July 31, 2006

Dancing a Translation

In an interview by/with translator Esther Allen, the writer Alma Guillermoprieto says, “Translation is a notoriously thankless profession: there is absolutely no money in it; it involves a severe submersion of the self into another; the hours are long and you get about as much recognition for your efforts as the telephone repairman.” Ms. Guillermoprieto then asks her translator what the satisfactions are and Ms. Allen replies, “(T)o write in a certain language is to adopt many of the givens of the people who speak it. Translating is a way of going beyond that, reaching a different context—which is especially important in the face of the global dominance of English. As for the “severe submersion of the self”—you make it sound like a mortification of the flesh! But in fact, what makes translation so enjoyable—which is why I do it, and why most translators do it, I suppose—is that it combines the pleasure of reading with that of writing. I’ve always translated books I admire and care about, like yours; translation takes you much farther into a book than simply reading it ever could. It's the difference between listening to a piece of music and performing it—dancing it, I'm tempted to say.”

As Ms. Allen says, translation takes you “much farther” into a text than just reading it; in a way, translators are, or should be, the best, most careful readers and performers of a text.

Dance on, translators!

Friday, July 28, 2006


To complement Penny Milbouer’s post, here is an excerpt from Tore Janson’s book “Speak.” In this excerpt, Mr. Janson discusses multilingualism and the importance and necessity of knowing more than one language.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Learning Languages in the United States by Guest Blogger Penny Milbouer

German to English translator Penny Milbouer has generously agreed to be the first guest blogger on Brave New Words. Ms. Milbouer is currently a paralegal in the health section of a large, international law firm. She holds an undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College and received her doctorate from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Ms. Milbouer translated into English the memoirs of Michael Wieck, A Childhood Under Hitler and Stalin, Memoirs of a "Certified" Jew, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Here Ms. Milbouer discusses reasons for the lack of language education in the United States.

Learning Languages in the United States by Penny Milbouer:

One of the first things an educated European notices about Americans is that most of us do not speak or even care to learn to speak a language other than English. Immigrants, understandably, struggle to learn English and often their children speak little or only a word or two of the parents' tongue. Why, someone asked me recently, are foreign languages so poorly taught or not taught at all in so many schools and universities here? Although much has changed over the last thirty years since I first started teaching university-level German, much has not changed: our geography, our history, our culture, our attitudes towards acquiring fluency in a second language, our misunderstanding about what bilingualism is, our politics, even our religious fundamentalism.

There are many reasons why foreign languages traditionally are not taught at all or are taught reluctantly in this country. Here are a few reasons:

1. Geography: We are a large, large country (consider: the state of Texas is the size of France; we cover six time zones). Unlike as in Europe where speaking a foreign language, no matter how badly, is necessary if one travels even the shortest distance, many Americans are really shocked when they travel to, say, Mexico and are confronted with Spanish signs and Spanish speakers everywhere.

2. History: Speaking a foreign tongue is not seen as a desired accomplishment. Speaking a foreign language is associated with being an immigrant, and usually a poor immigrant.

3. Culture: "Everyone speaks English anyway." And generally that English is American English. English is already the lingua franca of many industries, such as in aviation. Even if both the controller and the pilot are Chinese in China, the language used is English. It's the lingua franca in much of the business world; in the oil industry; in the import/export business (a Taiwanese broker of raw materials will e-mail his seller in Peru to bid on the contract -- in English and then sell the raw material, by e-mail contract in English, to the manufacturer in China). If everyone speaks English anyway, parents aren't going to insist on a program in the schools and certainly not a broad or deep program. School boards are hard pressed to fund legislated mandates and foreign language is rarely mandated.

4. Attitude: There is very strong pressure to conform. The pressure is especially strong and unchallenged in places where there aren't many foreign-language speakers or where there are foreign-language speakers and they do not belong to the economic elite. There is something vaguely subversive and unpatriotic, even dangerous, if one speaks a foreign language fluently because it is somehow odd, not normal. This isn't unique to the United States. It's just more widespread and perhaps more open. When I lived in Canada, a Francophone friend of mine was traveling to western Canada and was told "to speak white."

5. Misunderstanding: Many Americans assume that "bilingual programs" assure bilingual fluency. Where Spanish and English are taught well, that is true. However, too many programs aim to turn monolingual Spanish-speaking children into more or less monolingual English-speaking children. Bad pedagogy and bad curriculum planning and a lack of understanding of what it takes to learn a foreign language is common. All too often a student who has had one or two years of high school Spanish will switch to French, ending up then with only two years of French. You simply do not learn more than just enough to forget in two years. When I taught at the university level, students were just flabbergasted that after four years of high school French at one of the better public schools, they could not place out of beginning French. Needless to say, this is discouraging and the student simply gives up and takes a communications course in "Listening." However, the most stunning example of misunderstanding what it means to study a foreign language I encountered when I was speaking to the vice president of the state university where I was teaching. "Oh yes," he told me proudly, after he had closed down the foreign language program, "Rest assured, we still have our language arts program." [Students who want certification to become elementary school teachers must learn how to teach reading or "language arts."]

6. Politics: Educational politics often mean that many high schools don't teach foreign languages or no more than two years of a foreign language. Universities no longer have the luxury of requiring even a two-year minimum of a foreign language to enter college; they would have to reject otherwise bright and brilliant candidates. Therefore, many universities, even elite, private ones, have dropped the requirement. Most universities no longer require evidence of any level of mastery to graduate. If universities do not require a foreign language and if there is no state requirement, guidance counselors at the high school level are under no pressure to encourage their college-bound pupils to sign up for a foreign language.

There are also the politics of resentment and fear. The recent Congressional resolution to make English the official language of the United States may have its merits, but it is embedded in the current debate over illegal immigration from Central America. One recent news story reported that the owner of a popular Philadelphia cheesesteak joint posted a sign that reminded customers they are in America and only orders in English would be filled.

7. Religious Fundamentalism: "The Bible is written in English." This is one of the least excusable reasons for not having foreign languages in our school curriculum but for many a perfectly valid one. Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas in the 1920s, long ago but not long enough, said, "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me." This attitude certainly was alive and well when I was teaching at the university level twenty-five years ago. Given the current religious climate in the United States, this belief that God speaks English -- that is, American English -- can easily be found today.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Understanding Languages

I recently noticed the following quote:

“You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” -Ronald Searle

If that’s the case, why are some countries, notably the United States, reluctant to spend time and money on language education for children? This also harkens back to the point made by David Rumsey in the last post about how the U.S. market views translation in a different way than many other countries do.

The United States’ view of language education will be the topic of the next post, which will be written by Brave New Words’ first guest blogger.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The American Market

Thinking about some of the differences between the U.S. and other countries, as mentioned in a recent post, reminded me of a lecture I heard at the conference I attended in May.

Translator David Rumsey spoke about the American market, and some of his comments were quite interesting.

The United States has a unilingual worldview, Mr. Rumsey said, but despite this, $25 billion are spent annually on translation, primarily between English and French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The demand for Asian languages is growing, as is the demand for some other languages, such as Arabic.

He said the US market is very large and underdeveloped. Some of the reasons for this may be because of what he termed the common U.S. myths on translation. Mr. Rumsey mentioned that many Americans aren’t very educated about what translation is or why it is needed, which is why some people there believe that translation is simply “typing in a foreign language,” as Mr. Rumsey phrased it, and others think anyone can do (say, the secretary whose grandpa came from Puerto Rico, or the Chinese chef at a restaurant), and still others have heard that there’s translation software that’s just as good as, or possibly better than, actual people. About Scandinavia in particular, Mr. Rumsey said that Americans tend to think of Scandinavians as being educated, affluent, and high-tech, so they don’t see the need to translate their instruction manuals or other documents to Scandinavian languages. Everyone here speaks English, they assume.

To combat all these incorrect ideas, Mr. Rumsey suggested that translators and translation agencies need to demystify translation, provide information about different languages and cultures, explain why translation is beneficial and profitable in the long-term, and reduce the risks for customers. By reducing the risks, he meant that translators and agencies should be prepared to do more for American customers than they would for others, such as providing free consulting, editing, having third-party reviewers, and other such things. It’s interesting to consider how much translators would need to or be willing to provide these kinds of services for customers in other countries.

Do translators who work in the U.S. or in the U.S. and other countries agree with this appraisal of the United States? Do you provide extra services for your American customers, or do agencies that you work for do so?

P.S. Mr. Rumsey’s presentation from the conference is now up on his website, so you can read more there.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

More on Literature and Literary Translation

After thinking about different types of literature, read this interview with several literary translators to learn a little about the process of literary translation.

Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this link!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Differences Between Swedish and American Literature

In the past few posts, translator Ken Schubert shared some of his ideas about translation and translators with us. While talking to him about literary translation, he mentioned an interesting view on the differences between Swedish and American literature and film.

KS: Breaking into the Swedish-English literary market is very difficult. Only a handful of books are commissioned each year by a British or American publisher for translation. If you manage to land one of those jobs, you'll get paid, but it's not enough to live on.

BJE: Why do you think there is so little interest in books from Scandinavia, or in translated literature in general? Are Americans against translated work (lack of interest in foreign cultures, etc) or do they simply have enough writing there as it is?

KS: Beyond the fact that people would rather read non-translated works (for good reason) and there is an enormous output of literature in the US, I think Americans would generally be put off by the more complex and less identifiable plots in Swedish fiction. Plus Swedish authors are not as well edited as American authors, so it's more difficult to maintain a consistent voice.

BJE: In regard to "the more complex and less identifiable plots in Swedish fiction" – you apparently see a major difference between Swedish and American (English too, perhaps?) literature. Can you name some examples of this? Or offer a theory of why this is? Also, why is there less editing in Sweden?

KS: In recent years, I've been more a student of Swedish film than literature, so I can talk about that more easily. Swedish film, regardless of quality otherwise, is most often based on a psychological issue. The plot is secondary. A good example are the Martin Beck police films, which aren't even considered particularly artistic. What you always remember about them is the interactions between the main characters and what is going on in their own minds and lives in relation to the particular crime. If a policeman is investigating domestic violence, his own past relationships with women come up, etc. When it comes to editing, I think it's the same phenomenon that we face as translators of business texts. Swedish workplaces are more decentralized than in the Anglo-Saxon world, so there is often not someone with ultimate responsibility for individual tasks.

BJE: So, to be extremely general and stereotypical, I can summarize what you just said as American films are more about action and Swedish films about thinking, and this is perhaps true of literature, too. Do you have any theories about why this difference might have arisen?

KS: I don't know that much about American films anymore, but having grown up in America, competition and individual achievement are key cultural values. In that context, action is a more natural expression of those values. Sweden is more of a collective, consensus-based culture, so that the more general psychological sources of agreement and conflict among people become more relevant.

What do other translators think about this? Are there similarly pronounced differences between the U.S. (or other English-speaking cultures) and other countries?

If there are such differences, shouldn’t there to be more translated literature, rather than less, so that readers (or film viewers) can learn about another culture?

Let me know what you think about this interesting topic.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

An Interview with Ken Schubert Continued: On Advice for New Translators

The conversation with translator Ken Schubert
is continued.

BJE: If you could describe the ideal translator, what qualities/background/experiences/education would s/he have?

KS: I think the ideal translator would have as broad a background as possible, love the process of translation and be particularly attuned to nuances in his or her native language. I also think that the ideal translator would have the ability to comprehend a text as a whole and to maintain a single voice (even when the source text fails to do so – unless it's intentional, of course).

BJE: I wonder if you have any general advice/comments for new translators. How can they find jobs? Where do they look? What should they keep in mind while translating? What do you like most about translating?

KS: Probably the best ways for new translators to find jobs is to stay in touch with other translators through a translator's association and to contact lots of agencies. That will provide you with the experience and contacts to find direct customers. Customers will start coming to you after a while based on recommendations from other translators and customers. Advertising is generally too expensive and ineffective. Beyond what I've talked about, probably the most important thing to keep in mind is accuracy and neatness. Double check all names and numbers and make sure that you haven't inadvertently missed some of the source text. No matter how good your translation is, the customer will tend to overlook it if you make sloppy mistakes. Run a spell check on the final translation no matter how long it takes. Use Internet search engines as much as possible, but don't believe everything you see there and make sure you understand how the search engines work. I also recommend using a translation tool like Trados or Deja Vu. That creates an easily accessible database of your previous translations and helps structure individual assignments. A text looks a lot less daunting when you can use a translation tool to break it down into its constituent parts. And perhaps the most important thing is to be professional with your customers – be firm about your sense of what translation is all about, but always be willing to discuss what you've done and make appropriate changes.

BJE: Ken, thank you very much for your thoughtful answers and for being so generous with your time and experience.