Monday, December 31, 2007

A Roar for Powerful Writing

For the last post of the year, I’m going to discuss powerful writing.

Not long ago, I was honored with a “roar for powerful writing”. See Erika Dreifus’ very kind
post for more on that. And see this site for more on the roar.

The “roar” requires that those roared at list three things that they think are needed for powerful writing and also that they then roar at five others.

First of all, I think writers have to learn to not be afraid. It can be really hard, I know; there have been many times when I’ve not written something, or else written it but kept it to myself, for fear of offending others. As I get older, however, I realize that holding yourself back in that way or not being completely honest works against the writing, and can affect you personally, too. I’m learning to let go of my fears and hang-ups, and to open myself, in order to allow the written work (including translation) to be all that it could be.

That relates to my second point. My own writing has suffered both when I have tried to rein in my topics/opinions/feelings and also when I’ve tried to write about things I didn’t honestly care about. So now I know that without passion and engagement, my piece isn’t going anywhere. Not only that, but if I don’t care, why should the reader?

A third comment follows from the last two. You may have an interesting topic and you may be ready to write about it without worrying excessively about other people’s feelings, but you also need to write about it in a way that isn’t forced or awkward. I’m in favor of keeping it simple, which means don’t overreach or make a text more complicated than necessary. No jargon (unless strictly required). I read way too many articles and books by authors who seem to think that by using bigger and/or more specialized words and many clauses, their work will seem more intelligent. It doesn’t. It seems pretentious and often it is clear that the overly fancy language is trying to hide what really is just a small idea (or no idea). Don’t force the language. Let it work for you and for your ideas.

On to the bloggers I’d like to roar at. Unfortunately for me, Erika’s two blogs,
one on writing and the other on Jewish topics, are the first ones I would have thought of to link to. So I want to roar back at her. Now, for five more blogs that I enjoy; none, you might be interested to know, are about translation, though one is about language in general. Instead, they are on other topics that are fascinating for their own sake but these enthusiastic, talented bloggers find a way of drawing in readers even more. That’s why their writing is powerful.

Carl Zimmer writes about science for the New York Times, among other publications. His
blog sometimes goes into more depth than his articles have space for and he also discusses other topics as well. I’m no scientist, but I learn a lot from his writing, and sometimes wish I were a scientist because he makes it so interesting.

I enjoy the career advice over at Penelope Trunk’s
blog, Brazen Careerist. Not all of it is directly applicable to me as a translator or a freelancer, of course, but the ideas are often worth thinking about or storing away for possible future use.

I recently discovered Margaret Robinson’s
website, which has a lot of interesting, well-written material on issues of sexuality, particularly bisexuality. I was glad to see that she has a blog, too, so that I could include her here, though the blog is new and so far doesn’t have too many posts.

I liked Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s book Freakonomics, so I was excited to see that they started writing for the NY Times Magazine some time back, and now they have a
blog there as well. Popularizing science and social science is getting more common these days, but I still think Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt are among the best at doing it.

Finally, because I can’t not include a blog on language, I want to mention David Crystal’s
blog. As you can see from his regular website, he is a prolific writer and an expert on the English language. His book The Stories of English is a good history of a tongue that, as these blogs reveal, can be used very powerfully indeed.

Thank you again to Erika for roaring at me. I hope you enjoy the sites I have now roared at.

Have a wonderful 2008, filled with powerful writing and powerful translations!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Here’s a round-up of articles for the weekend.

blog post calls translation “both the most parasitic form of writing and the purest.” It goes on to say “It’s writing without storytelling, without plot, or character, or any of the other gifts that only a few lucky fictioneers have it in them to deploy. No, translation is writing at its most elemental linguistic level, with the kit provided and only the words missing. It belongs alongside singing or acting or symphony conducting — an interpretive art, but no less an art for all that. Translation is what painting by numbers would be, if only the painter had as many colors handy as there are words in the Oxford English Dictionary.” The writer of the post also admits, “My translation work so far hews toward the irreverent, making free with a lot of colloquialism, anachronism, and general puckishness. My Spanish isn’t the greatest, either, so I probably couldn’t be slavishly faithful to the original if I tried.”

As a native Chicagoan, I enjoyed the
Chicagopedia, with words/concepts specific to Chicago.

post on another blog looks at a translation effect called “flattening”. The writer says, “There’s a kind of translation-effect that you would think would be quite easy to avoid: flattening, or choosing a word much less powerful and vivid than the original.” He adds, “These are not mistakes or mistranslations in the usual sense, since they fall within the general semantic range. You could imagine a situation where you'd want to translate gemir with grieve (you could, maybe, but I can't), or golpear with knock. But why would a translator want to consistently err on the side of weakening the effect? It's like making a photocopy of an original and having the print look obviously fainter.”

article on new words/phrases from 2007, including bromance, crowdsource, gorno, nose bidet, and vegansexual.

Brooklyn Rail literary magazine has a new section for translation. You might enjoy the first three works published there and you might want to submit there yourself. I thank translator and poet Rika Lesser for sending me this link.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Nordic Translation Conference

Some of the readers of this blog may be interested in getting the latest information on the Nordic Translation Conference. Most of the details are now on the conference website. The only thing missing is the registration form, which the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies will have ready in early January.

I hope to see some of you at the conference in London in March!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Smooth Lawn, Not a Volcano

Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac featured the following information on a productive, if not “faithful”, translator, who apparently didn’t have a problem with changing source texts to fit the target culture:

“It’s the birthday of Constance Garnett, born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky’s complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn’t understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to “a safe blandscript: not a volcano... a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original.” Constance Garnett’s translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Pippi By Any Other Name

How to translate names is a fascinating topic, and is often more complicated than people realize. I’ve spent some time researching it and while I won’t go on about my research at this time, I can say that there are two main kinds of names in fiction (plus lots of variations on these two): ones used just because people/characters generally need some sort of name and ones used descriptively, to say something about the person/character. The first kind of name is often retained as-is in translation, while the second frequently is translated.

A Swedish publication writes that Pippi Långstrump (that’s Pippi Longstocking to you English-speakers) has been translated to more than 60 languages. Here are a few of Pippi’s foreign names, according to the article:

Chinese : Changwazi Pipi
Estonian : Pipi Pikksukk
Finnish : Peppi Pitkätossu
French : Fifi Brindacier
Greek : Pipe Phakidomyte
Hebrew : Bilbee Bat-Gerev
Icelandic : Lína Langsokkur
Japanese : Nagakutsushita no Pippi
Kurdish : Pippi-Ya Goredirey
Latvian : Pepija Garzeķe
Macedonian : Pipi dolgiot corap
Polish : Fizia Pończoszanka
Portuguese : Bibi Meia-Longa
Spanish : Pipi Calzaslargas
Thai : Pippi Thung-Taow Yaow

If would be interesting to know if Pippi’s last name in all those languages means “long stocking”.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Question of Ethics: Subcontracting Work

In tomorrow’s NY Times, The Ethicist column looks at a question about freelance work. The issue is that someone subcontracted out two freelance writing jobs to another writer, and then the end customers were very pleased with the work but didn’t know that someone else had done it. Randy Cohen, the Ethicist, thinks it was wrong for the middleman (actually, middlewoman in this case) to not tell the end customers who did the work; he calls her self-serving and says there should have been transparency.

I understand his point, but I don’t often see that kind of behavior (I mean the kind he recommends) in freelance work. Someone is hired to do a job and is therefore responsible for the end product, whether it is good or bad; if he or she subcontracts it out, that is fine, but the end customer usually isn’t aware of that. If the end customer wants to use the same freelancer for future projects, it is probably more honest of the freelancer to say who actually did the previous assignment, but I don’t think it is always necessary. It could be that the freelancer was particularly busy at that time or didn’t specialize in the appropriate area; she or he could feel that this new project is right for her or him for whatever reason, so there is therefore no real need to mention who did that other project.

I do know some people who generously pass on clients, especially if the client was very pleased with the work a subcontractor did, and I also know people who prefer to keep the client, but who keep subcontracting out work from that client, sometimes even giving the subcontractor the entire fee and not just a portion of it. Other freelancers occasionally make sure the subcontractor gets credit; I did this with a recent assignment, and both my name and that of the freelancer I hired were featured in the final product, though there was no direct contact between the customer and my subcontractor. So there are a variety of ways of handling such a situation.

Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favor of treating freelancers (including, obviously, subcontractors) well, and I also believe strongly in accepting only assignments for which I am skilled, which means that if I hire someone to do a job for which they are better suited, then it would be better to let them have the client contact, so they can continue to do that kind of work while I can do other assignments. I just think the issue is more complicated than Mr. Cohen let on (or could have let on, given the length restrictions of his column).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Santa Lucia Day

Today is Santa Lucia Day in Sweden, and other countries. Here is an article I wrote last year about it. That article includes a recipe for the traditional “lussekatter” buns.


1 3/4 sticks butter, melted
1 cup heavy cream
.06 ounces saffron threads
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
6 (.25-ounce) packages yeast
1 cup 2 percent low-fat milk, warm
2 eggs, beaten separately
1 teaspoon salt
8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup raisins

1. Combine melted butter and cream.
2. Crush saffron with 1 tablespoon sugar in a mortar until very fine.
3. Combine yeast, milk and 2 tablespoons sugar; let stand 10 minutes or until mixture is foamy.
4. Add butter mixture, saffron mixture, 1 of the beaten eggs and salt to yeast mixture. Stir well. Add remaining sugar. Add 6 cups flour; stir until a stiff dough forms. Turn mixture out onto a floured surface; knead about 10 minutes, adding additional flour 1/2 cup at a time, until dough is smooth and elastic. Place in a large bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
5. Boil water and pour over raisins; let sit until raisins are plump.
6. Preheat the oven to 475F. Knead dough and divide into 24 pieces. Shape each into an S shape. Place 2 raisins at ends of buns. Let rise 1 hour. Brush with remaining beaten egg. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until browned. Yield: 24 buns.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

This set of articles should keep you happily occupied for awhile!

Yesterday was the Nobel Prize ceremony. Literature prize-winner Doris Lessing was too ill to attend, but she recorded a lecture from the UK. You can read it

article in English in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter gives a little insight into the way the Nobel Prizes are decided.

As this funny
article shows, one mispronunciation can really change the meaning.

The much-beloved Paddington Bear is being updated to reflect the times. See this brief article for more on the new Paddington book.

A recent
story from the Guardian is on on translating to Arabic and a project aiming to eventually publish 500 translations a year. “Four years ago the UN’s Arab human development report identified a lack of translated foreign works as an issue restricting Arab intellectual life. The UN report noted that Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years.”

article is on translating the Gospel of Judas Iscariot.

As someone who has studied Latin, I was interested in this
editorial on why studying Latin is useful. There is some talk of translation in the article too, such as in the following quote: “learning to translate Latin into English and vice versa is a tremendous way to train the mind. I think of translating concise, precise Latin into more expansive, discursive English as like opening up a concertina; you are allowed to inject all sorts of original thought and interpretation. As much as opening the concertina enlarges your imagination, squeezing it shut — translating English into Latin — sharpens your prose. Because Latin is a dead language, not in a constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room in translating. If you haven’t understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works, you are likely to be, not off, but just plain wrong. There’s nothing like this challenge to teach you how to navigate the reefs and whirlpools of English prose.”

I had no idea that
Papua New Guinea Has Four Times As Many Languages As Europe. I also found it interesting to know that: “Only about 10,000 words in modern English date back to the Anglo-Saxon language used by the authors of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon; the rest of the roughly 500,000 words in common use have been arriving for centuries from all directions.”

The A Word A Day newsletter recently included a link to this article about the Salish–Pend d’Oreille language and language death in general.

Finally, more children are studying Chinese today, according to this story. A quote says: “The number of elementary and secondary school students studying Chinese could be as much as 10 times higher than it was seven years ago, says Marty Abbott, spokeswoman for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. When the council surveyed K-12 enrollment in foreign language classes in 2000, there were about 5,000 students of Chinese, Abbott says. The council is collecting data for another survey, but Abbott says early figures suggest the number of students now studying Chinese has “got to be somewhere around 30,000 to 50,000.”” Another quote points out: “Interest in languages comes and goes. Latin was the sine qua non- from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. French has always been the language of culture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German was the choice among those interested in science.”

Monday, December 10, 2007

Learning to Sail Our Own Ships

This is the 200th post on this blog!

While working on writing abstracts on the essays in The Translation of Children’s Literature (edited by Gillian Lathey), I noticed this quote in an essay by Birgit Stolt: “Jakob Grimm compared the task of the translator with that of a sailor: the latter mans a ship, directs it with full sails to the opposing shore, but then has to land ‘where there is different earth and where different air plays.’” (67)

Reading that reminded me of this quote from Louisa May Alcott: “I don’t worry about the storms, for I am learning to sail my own ship.”

So, fellow translators, let’s continue sailing our own ships, managing the different earth and the different air, and not minding all the storms we meet on our way.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Best Of...

I recently reviewed a book for The Danforth Review (you can read my review here). The book was an anthology of the best Canadian short stories of 2006. I have to admit that I do tend to like such collections, because an anthology is a convenient way of getting an overview of the kind of writing happening in a particular place (or at a particular time, or by a particular group of people). Rather than having to track down individual stories in translation by Israeli authors or contemporary writers working in Spanish or works by gay men writing in English or whatever, it’s done for me.

But you have to wonder what you are missing by reading such a book – what is the bias of the editor (or the editorial staff)? What style of writing is preferred and why? Which topics are featured? What does the publisher want to show about a certain group and why? Is the writing really the number one priority, or is the audience being considered? For example, are readers of translated works looking to get their opinions about a specific ethnic group confirmed, and is the publisher/editor aware of this and therefore choosing stories with an eye towards confirming (or even working against) those stereotypes? Are the translators given instructions about how to translate?

So while I will keep enjoying anthologies, I do try to be conscious of all the hidden decisions that go into creating them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

One Little Letter

We translators are used to thinking about words. But sometimes we have to focus on individual letters.

In Clifford E. Landers’ book, Literary Translation: A Practical Guide, which has been mentioned in the past couple of posts, he talks about how he kept trying to figure out what the Portuguese word “viago” meant. He asked many people and spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it was the author who eventually set him straight. There was no such word; Landers finally found out that it was a typo for “visgo.”

Not long ago, I had a similar situation. I was struggling with a Swedish sentence, which I just couldn’t get to make sense. The word “de” confused me, because it seemed out of place. At last I asked my partner, who took one brief look at the sentence and informed me that “de” was a typo; it should have been “den”. I immediately saw that that was the case and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it myself. I realized that I kept blaming myself and suspecting I just couldn’t get it, instead of considering that maybe something was wrong with the text.

The fact is, typographical errors in texts of all kinds are extremely common. I see typos every day. I see them in newspapers and magazines, in books, on signs in stores, online, in menus, and so on. So why do we generally assume that a text we are translating has been perfectly edited? Why do we strain to try to make sense out of an odd sentence before even thinking about the possibility that it is not a lack of understanding or intelligence on our part that is causing the problem but simply a mistake in the text? Why don’t we ask the author or editor about the sentence? Are we too embarrassed about being translators who have questions about the text?

One little letter can change the meaning of a phrase (or even remove the meaning from a phrase entirely). Perhaps we would do well to remember that texts to be translated can include typos, and probably do. So if something doesn’t make sense to us, we might want to think about whether a letter might be missing or wrong; that won’t always be the case, but it could be more often than we think.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Commandments of Literary Translation

In the last post, I briefly discussed Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I enjoyed his “Twelve Commandments of Literary Translation” that he included in the book:

The Twelve Commandments of Literary Translation

I Thou shalt honor thine author and thy reader.
II Thou shalt not ‘improve’ upon the original.
III Thou shalt read the source text in its entirety before beginning.
IV Thou shalt not guess.
V Thou shalt consult thine author and other native speakers.
VI Thou shalt consult earlier translations only after finishing thine own.
VII Thou shalt possess – and use – a multitude of reference works.
VIII Thou shalt respect other cultures.
IX Thou shalt perceive and honor register and tone, that thy days as a translator may be long.
X Thou shalt not commit purple prose.
XI Thou shalt maintain familiarity with the source-language culture.
XII Thou shalt fear no four-letter word where appropriate.

Though I would add to the eleventh commandment that a translator should maintain familiarity with the target-language culture, too, as well as to both languages.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

In the last post, I mentioned Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I happened to pick it up at the library a couple of weeks ago and I think it is a good book for beginners; it discusses many of the things I have posted about here before, and has information about a lot of aspects of translation, some of which people don’t necessarily consider. For example, his chapter on a day in the life of a literary translator shows the different decisions he makes (about contractions, honorifics, swear words, and much more) and the research he carries out as he translates. There is also information in the book about contracts, copyright, ethics, and ideology. His view is quite pragmatic; when trying to decide whether to define certain dishes referred to in a literary text, he says that he is not translating a cookbook or a sociological treatise, but a novel. Therefore, no long explanations or footnotes should be used. In sum, Landers’ guide offers a broad view of literary translation as well as some short discussions of particularly challenging or interesting topics, and it is worth reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Dernière Translation

Not long ago, I read Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I will write more about the book itself in upcoming posts, but for now, here is a poem included in it:

La Dernière Translation
by Millôr Fernandes
translated by Clifford E. Landers

When an old translator dies
Does his soul, alma, anima,
Free now of its wearisome craft
Of rendering
Go straight to heaven, ao céu,
al cielo, au ciel, zum Himmel,
Or to the hell – Hölle – of the great
Or will a translator be considered
In the minute hierarchy of the divine
Neither fish, nor water, ni posson ni l’eau
Nem água, nem piexe, nichts, assolutamente
What of the essential will this
mere intermediary of semantics, broker
of the universal Babel, discover?
Definitive communication, without words?
Once again the first word?
Will he learn, finally!,
Whether HE speaks Hebrew
Or Latin?
Or will he remain infinitely
In the infine
Until he hears the Voice, Voz, Voix, Voce,
Stimme, Vox,
Of the Supreme Mystery
Coming from beyond
Flying like a birdpássarouccelapájarovogel
Addressing him in…
And giving at last
The translation of Amen?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

I’m off to a conference on story-telling now, so here is a list of interesting articles to keep you occupied until I return.

article on why you shouldn’t rely on Babel Fish – apparently it nearly caused a diplomatic incident.

Here’s a
piece on language enrollments increasing. Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this article!

article is on the spread of English as a global language and how that might change the standard form of the language.

information on the influence of Irish on American slang.

article is on titles, but it includes a paragraph on translation that shows how some authors are not understanding when it comes to challenges involved in translation. Here is quote:
“He even described receiving a letter from a Finnish translator, which said (in Heller's paraphrase): ‘I am translating your novel Catch-22 into Finnish. Would you please explain me one thing: what means Catch-22? I didn't find it in any vocabulary. Even assistant air attaché of the USA here in Helsinki could not explain exactly.’ Heller added: ‘I suspect the book lost a great deal in its Finnish translation.’´

Not too surprising – Americans are reading less, as this
article discusses.

Unfortunately, the
last two speakers of a dying language won’t speak to one another.

Finally, this
article discusses translation in English-speaking countries. It says:
“In Germany 13% of books are translations. In France it's 27%, in Spain 28%, in Turkey 40% and in Slovenia 70%, but in Britain and America the best estimates suggest that the fraction of books on the shelves which started off in another language is somewhere around two per cent…Translation is considered by many universities to be insufficiently significant or original to add lustre to an academic CV, while publishers routinely sweep evidence of translation off the covers of books.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name and Shame: Dealing with Problem Customers

I recently had an unpleasant experience with a customer. I rarely work with agencies, but not long ago I was contacted by an agency and invited to work on the Swedish and Danish parts of a large, multilingual project. Since I have trouble saying “no”, I agreed.

Before I started the work, I signed a contract. The agency had calculated the number of words and written how much I would get paid. The project itself was sent to me in an unusual program that makes it hard to count words, but I eyeballed the text and thought the amounts listed on the contract looked about right. So I signed.

Immediately, I noticed that a few sentences in the Swedish part were not Swedish, so I pointed this out several times to the project manager, who didn’t seem to understand or care. I translated the Swedish parts, ignored the rest, and everything seemed fine.

A week later, I got a new contract and was told to sign it. Suddenly, the price I was getting paid was close to one-half of what I had originally agreed to. I protested, explaining I had already signed a contract and agreed to a fee. Yes, I was told, but they had initially just estimated the number of words and now they had actually counted the words (not including the few ones that they only now figured out were not Swedish). So the original contract didn’t mean anything, as it had, they claimed, just been an estimate.

Of course at this point, I’d already submitted the translation, so it seemed that there was nothing I could do but agree to the new price (and, no, I didn’t feel like wasting my time counting all the words). But I strongly resented this tactic and felt that I was being cheated; I had followed my part of the contract, and now they were going back on what they had promised. What, then, was the point of having a contract?

This is one reason why I don’t like working with agencies, but even direct customers sometimes try to change fees after they have received the translated text. Some translators ask for payment (or partial payment) upfront, to avoid these kinds of situations, but often assignments are expected back quite quickly, which means the translator doesn’t have the time to wait for a check to clear or a transfer to show up in their bank account before starting the job.

It is a difficult to find an ideal solution to such situations; one thing we translators could do is to publicize the names of problem customers, both so our fellow translators don’t get burned as we have and also to shame these clients into treating their translators better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Literary Translation Prizes Event at Waterstone's in Hampstead

Those of you in or near London might be interested in the following event at Waterstone's in Hampstead. If I lived closer to London, I certainly would go.

Literary Translation Prizes Event

Daniel Hahn (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007) chairs a discussion between winners and runners-up of three of this year's major literary translation prizes:

Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams) - WINNER - Scott Moncrieff Prize for French translation(for her translation of Faïza Guène's 'Just Like Tomorrow'). Cultural journalist and translator of many beautiful books for children, by Daniel Pennac and others.

Nick Caistor - WINNER - Premio Valle Inclán, for Spanish translation(for his translation of Dulce Chacón's 'The Sleeping Voice'). Translator of many of Spain and Argentina's leading writers, e.g. Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alan Pauls, Jose Saramago, Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Carlos Onetti, Rodolfo Fogwill, Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

Anthea Bell - RUNNER-UP - Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German translation(for her translation of Eva Menasse's 'Vienna'). Translator of the Asterix books (with Derek Hockridge) and many adult and children's authors e.g. W.G. Sebald, Cornelia Funke, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Hans Magnus Enzensberger & Stefan Zweig.

THURSDAY 15th NOVEMBER AT 7PM Tickets £3, available in person or on 7794 1098
Waterstone's 68-69 Hampstead High St. NW3 1QP

Monday, November 12, 2007

Educating the Consumer

This weekend, I had a rather gratifying experience. I was at the eye doctor and I began chatting with a salesman there who was helping me order new lenses for my glasses. He asked me what I do and I told him a bit about my research and about my work as a translator. He was curious about this and asked me more.

That led to a big discussion of what translation is, why people in English-speaking countries resist learning other languages or reading translated literature, and why translation is important, especially for children. This man offered me the platitude, “Children are our future,” and while a cliché, it is nevertheless true; translated fiction is essential because it gives children – our future – the opportunity to learn about other cultures and peoples. More knowledge is never a bad thing; my view is that if we all made an effort to learn about people from different backgrounds and in different situations, there would be more intercultural understanding and thereby fewer stereotypes and eventually less fighting.

The man told me that he often bought books for his girlfriend’s children but that he had never once thought to check if the books were translated and, if so, from what language, or even if they were about people from other cultures. And he had certainly never stopped to consider how those books might be translated and what agenda the authors, translators, publishers, librarians, and other adults might have in terms of writing, translating, publishing, or promoting those books. “Your research sounds interesting,” he told me. “This has really given me something to think about.”

So my day was a success, not necessarily because I finally ordered my long-needed new lenses, though that was also good, but because I had the chance to educate a consumer on the importance of translation and to make him a more aware reader and purchaser of books. And who knows? Maybe he’ll mention our conversation to other people and they, too, will start to think about all this.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Once again I’ve noticed quite a few articles of interest of late.

Here is a
piece on translation software from the Wall Street Journal.

interview with Pierre Bayard from the New York Times discusses reading.

An article from The Hindu looks at an anthology of short fiction from South India and discusses translation in India.

This BBC
article on interpreting is from a few years ago, but is nevertheless worth reading.

An interview with lexicographer Erin McKean provides insight into a career working with dictionaries.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wicked Stepmother Tongues

I saw this interesting blog post on using “stepmother tongues”, i.e. on people who write in or translate to a language other than their native one.

I have worked on translations to Swedish with native Swedish speakers, but I doubt I would ever want to be completely responsible for any jobs to Swedish, because it is not my native language and I know there are things I would miss or be unable to translate as well as I could when working to English. I turn down such assignments when asked to take them on, explaining why. Likewise, I regularly write articles and essays in Swedish, but I would probably not want to write fiction in any language other than English. You just have a different feel for your mother tongue than you do for your stepmother tongues.

Some rare people are true bilinguals and can write in or translate to more than one language equally well. And some people do eventually feel comfortable and confident working in a language other than their native one. The post mentions Samuel Beckett and Milan Kundera as examples; Vladimir Nabokov is another one, as is Elias Canetti, though he did learn German from a fairly young age.

But I confess that I am suspicious when people profess “true fluency” in a multitude of languages and take on assignments requiring them to translate both to and from their native language. Many people do have stepmother tongues, but sometimes those stepmothers can be wicked and can make us think we are better at them than we actually are.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Blog Update

The old archive by category has been taken away and in its place, there is now a clearer and more organized system of finding everything by label. See on the left, below the various links. This will make it easier for you to find the topics that interest you. Incidentally, feel free to email me with ideas for or comments on the blog.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Just Say…A) Yes or B) No

It’s time for me to come clean about my biggest problem as a freelancer – saying “no”. I confess that I am terrible at it. I have a lot of energy and I manage to get many things done, and that combined with my desire to please makes me accept many of the projects people offer me, no matter how much else I have going on in my life. When a customer contacts me about a job that I know I have the skills for, I tend to just say “yes,” even if I know I have many other things to do or if I have planned to take a day off.

Some other freelancers I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they have a similar problem. After all, since most of us freelancers support ourselves with the income we bring in from our work and since we never know if assignments might stop coming in, we tend to take on jobs when they are offered. We worry that if we say “no” to a customer now, that person will find another translator and never return to us, and thus we will have lost more than just the one assignment. Friends and relatives of mine who are not freelancers do not understand what it is like to not have a steady paycheck, and these are the people who always say to me, “But it’s so easy to say “no.” Just do it!” I can point out, though, that this concern about having a steady income is in fact what stops many wannabe-translators from achieving their dreams.

I’ve been working on improving this bad habit of mine. On my recent birthday, for example, a customer I’ve done editing for before asked me to edit an entire book within a 24-hour period. Obviously, that was a ridiculous assignment anyway, and I told the company in question that my professional pride would not allow me to accept editing a book so quickly since I knew it was not possible to do a good enough job given the time constraints, but I also reminded myself that I had promised myself a day off for my birthday, and that I had to turn down the job for that reason as well.

The next day, however, I was back to my usual behavior, and I accepted a translation job and an editing job, though I knew I really did not have the time, and that by taking on that work, I was ensuring that I would not have any time for pleasure reading for the next week or so.

The only situations in which I confidently turn down assignments are if I know I do not have the knowledge or qualifications necessary for a particular job or if the potential customer refuses to pay a reasonable fee or in any other way treats me disrespectfully. When it comes to my own priorities, however, they tend to come last.

So, I ask you other freelancers: When do you say “no” to assignments? How do you do it? And have you noticed whether clients you say “no” to in regard to one particular job still ask you to do other work for them?

I know many of us would benefit from saying “no” more often, but somehow my “no”s tend to turn into “yes”es.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No Surprises: Once Again, People Prove Not to Understand Translation

This article suggests that a county council in England is using language students to do translations as a way of increasing business for companies in their region. What is upsetting is that the Norfolk County Council seems to believe that just because some students have done well in foreign language courses in high school, they are able to translate to that language or write documents directly in the language. Clearly, this is yet another case of people not understanding what translation is or what skills are involved.

In the article, a communications manager is quoted as saying, “Students need to understand that having good, relevant language skills can add value to their CV, and are just as important as their technical and other academic skills. It’s all too easy for those skills to lie dormant and only be brought out when ordering a meal on holiday!”

Of course this is true, but having language skills alone is certainly not enough to make a successful translator, as
has been mentioned many times on this blog before.

I am sure there are some talented students involved in this project and maybe one day some of them will even become translators. In the meantime, however, I hope businesses will hire experienced, expert translators if they are serious about realizing their “true business potential” and increasing their business abroad.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Praise of Excellence, or, How to Retain and Get More Customers

On this blog, I have given practical advice for getting started in translation, and how to get a freelance translation business going is probably the most common question people ask me. But it is not enough to set out your shingle and call yourself a translator; you also have to ensure that you get a steady stream of assignments. And that means that you need to make sure you get new customers.

I have found that word-of-mouth is really the best method for getting new customers. People are more likely to accept a recommendation from a friend or colleague than they are to be convinced by advertising. But in order for customers to recommend you to other people, you must do an excellent job. So how can you be a successful translator?

Here are a few tips from my years as a freelance translator. I think this method has been working, since nearly all of my assignments come from regular customers or people they have recommended me to (who often in turn become regulars, too). I do not actively advertise and I no longer spend time signing up with translation agencies or contacting potential direct clients. The “only” thing I consistently do is the best work possible.

First of all, it is vital to keep your language skills fresh. Just because you have taken courses or have at some point lived in the country where the language you translate from is spoken does not mean that you are still perfectly fluent. And sometimes you can even forget things in your native language (I certainly have been embarrassed to experience situations when I remember a word in Swedish, but not in English!). To combat this language-slippage, read widely in both the source and text languages, across as many genres as you can. Read books and online newspapers, and even participate in chat groups. The style of writing and the choice of vocabulary varies according to who is writing and for what purpose and what audience, so any texts you read can help refresh or update your language skills, and can also inspire you when it comes to how you write.

Besides reading texts, I also make a point of learning new words in both English and Swedish. Building your vocabulary is both interesting and helpful.

Also, try to regularly speak both languages, since even if you work primarily with the written word, speaking practice can positively influence your reading and writing. Except in certain circumstances, you probably can not live in a country where both (or all, if you have more than two) your languages are regularly spoken. That means it is up to you to find a way to practice hearing and talking. I’m lucky in that my partner is Swedish. We used to have a schedule in which we spoke Swedish for two weeks and then switched to English for two weeks and so on, since that way we each had an opportunity to use our mother tongue, which is important for us both personally and professionally. At this point, we haven’t spoken English in a very long time, but I do get to speak English with people at the university and when I am out, since I live in an English-speaking country. For people who do not have the asset of having a more or less built-in language partner, find some people in your area who speak the language in question and try to plan occasional get-togethers. This need not be formal; having coffee once a month and chatting in Gaelic or Tagalog or Italian can be enough.

But making sure you are fluent in both source and target languages isn’t all that you need in order to retain customers and impress them with your skills. There are certain personal qualities that have an impact too.

You should be curious and willing to learn new things, since many jobs will require that you do at least some research. Translation is not a matter of just looking up words in the dictionary; for many assignments, I have spent quite a bit of time reading other texts, searching the internet, or talking to experts or other translators, all for the goal of getting more information about the topic the text is about. And do not be afraid to ask questions of your client or other people. You can not do a good job if something about the document or the assignment confuses you or is unclear. You are definitely not stupid if you ask a question, though some people seem to feel it proves they are not intelligent enough for the job; on the contrary, it shows that you are intelligent enough to know when you need help. Doing it alone doesn’t mean much if you have done it incorrectly.

You should also be thorough. It is amazing how many people do not reread their work, leaving careless typos or other errors in the text. Edit the text before you send it off. Do not complain that it is boring to proof-read or that you don’t have time; it is a part of your job. I always compare the source and target texts after I have translated and then I read the target text again to check how it sounds in English. I do each of these things at least once; if I make any changes while doing them, I reread the text yet again. In other words, I edit until I feel the text is as good as it can be. It takes time, but it is worth it.

And speaking of time, an essential quality is punctuality. Always, always, always turn your work in on time, barring an extreme event such as a computer problem or an accident. If possible, give the translation to the client early. When I estimate how long a job will take me, I try to add on an extra few hours or days, depending on the type of assignment, to cover for particular situations or for anything unexpected happening. For example, about a month ago, one of my hard drives crashed, and that took some time to deal with, but not a single one of my projects was delayed because of it. There was no need for me to write embarrassing emails to customers about how I couldn’t do their work because I had a computer issue, since I had already estimated in a little extra time for my jobs (and also because I never wait until the last minute to start an assignment). Some people also like to estimate more time around holidays or in the busy seasons, since they know they will get more work in or have other activities, and they want to have room to prioritize. Usually, of course, the unexpected does not happen, and then you will be able to send the customer the work early, which tends to make them grateful. But don’t estimate that a job will take you two weeks when you know it will only require a few hours; that just makes you look bad, and it may even prevent you from getting assignments. Schedule reasonable deadlines and keep to whatever timeline you have agreed to.

A related point is to respond to all phone calls or emails from clients in a timely fashion. I try to reply within a few hours, or one day at the most. If I am out of town, I have an automated response set up on my email that lets them know when they can expect me to reply. It is annoying for customers if they have asked you to translate a text but you take a long time to reply; since then they don’t know whether you are available or not or even whether you have started translating the text without confirming the price and deadline with them, they may just decide to ask someone else. And if that someone else does a good job, the customer may go to that person for the next assignment, too.

In all your dealings with customers, be polite but firm. Customers may need to be educated about what translation is, but do so as politely as you can. If you snap or shout or send an angry email, you will likely lose the customer and he or she will ignore whatever point you were trying to make, too. Yes, customers sometimes complain about things for no reason, or act as though they are the language experts and not you. If their requests or comments are out of line, explain why and stand up for yourself, but don’t get yourself too worked up about it because it doesn’t help matters and it causes unnecessary stress for you, too. In certain situations, you will find that in fact you are better off without a particular customer. Remember, if you do good work and are polite, you are worth decent pay and respectful treatment from clients, and if you do not get that, move on to jobs from elsewhere.

Does this all seem obvious? Well, yes, it does. However, it is surprising how many people don’t seem to follow these suggestions. I know translators, for example, who see no reason why they should keep up their speaking skills in the source language, or who think project managers or end customers will edit the translation and they therefore don’t have to. I have also talked to people who are rather lax about deadlines or who don’t know how to plan their time. And I’ve heard stories about translators who argue with their customers or don’t let them know when they are going out of town. It is true that we translators offer a necessary service; it is not true that that means we can treat our customers and their documents any way we want. There is a lot of competition out there, so it behooves us to do the best job we can and to be polite, time-conscious, and careful while doing so.

Strive for excellence and I believe you’ll find that customers who care about their texts (i.e. customers who don’t just care about getting the job done as cheaply and quickly as possible) return to you again and again, and recommend you to others as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Translation in Novels

Over the weekend, I read Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. I can’t say I felt too drawn to her writing, but I’m not going to write a review of it here anyway. What is interesting is that the first section of the book I chose happened to mention translation (well, actually, interpretation), and I had some definite issues with how our field was portrayed.

The main character, Kate Brown, is good with languages and her husband agrees on her behalf for her to fill in as a conference interpreter for a few weeks one summer. First of all, though she interprets at meetings, her job is always described as “translator”. Readers of this blog, of course, know the
difference between a translator and an interpreter.

Also, Kate Brown is very well-paid; she earns enough from what probably amounts to no more than two months of work to be able to buy designer clothes, go to a fancy hairstylist, travel in Turkey and Spain, stay at an expensive hotel in London, and then still have enough to live on in a rented room in London for more than a month. Are any of you interpreters doing that well?

Finally, after working as an interpreter (not a translator!) for only a short while, Kate Brown’s boss tells her that she is wasting her talents as an interpreter and should instead work as an…(wait for it!)…administrator! That’s right, since you don’t need any talents or skills to be an interpreter (or translator), even though you are apparently very highly paid (to be fair, Mrs. Brown does earn more money as an administrator, but she still got a good salary as an interpreter). Maybe I’m not a good translator, since no one has suggested I go into administration instead!

Besides getting annoyed at all this, Lessing’s novel also made me wonder about how translators (or interpreters) are described in other novels. You’d like to believe that novelists would do research before writing about a field they don’t know much about, but did Lessing? Do you know other novels or short stories that feature translators or interpreters? If so, how are they portrayed?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Here is some reading material for the weekend.

A few of
my previously published articles are now available on the website for Sveriges Facköversättarförening (the Swedish Association of Professional Translators).

There is an
article in the New York Times by Richard Pevear about translating Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Larissa Volokhonsky. Pevear and Volokhonsky are known for their English translations of Russian classics.

Steven Pinker discusses why we swear in this

piece from the New York Times is on a Spanish-based creole language in Columbia.

Some interviews with translators were posted this summer on
Conversational Reading. See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Prose-Poems

Last week I went to a reading by the prose-poet Louis Jenkins. He read from his frequently humorous poems and spoke a little about his experiences with the form. He said that his goal in writing a prose-poem is to “write about the extraordinary in an ordinary way”. This interview with Mr. Jenkins is worth a read, as is his poetry.

He mentioned that this form is getting more popular these days in English-speaking countries. Perhaps this is related to the general shortening of attention spans (and therefore also to the increase in popularity of flash fiction, or short-short stories). I personally can’t recall having read a prose-poem in Swedish, though of course that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Is this type of poetry popular in other countries? And does their form making them easier to translate than other kinds of poetry?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dictionary Day

Today is yet another language-related holiday, Dictionary Day. I’m one of those people who finds that when there is a need to look up one word in the dictionary, I notice other interesting words on the same page, and then I start turning pages and reading more definitions, and before I know it, a lot of time has passed during my dictionary-browsing. So I certainly am a grateful and enthusiastic dictionary-user and I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into creating them. On Oxford University Press’s blog, they write the following:

Commemorating the anniversary of Noah Webster’s birth in 1758, [October 16 is] largely an opportunity for US school teachers to organize classroom activities encouraging students to build their dictionary skills and to exult in the joy of words. Those of us who are out of school can celebrate too, of course.

Then the post continues by discussing other lexicographers, and it is worth a read.

So pick up a dictionary today and
learn a new word in honor of this holiday and all the lexicographers who made English dictionaries!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An Erotic Relationship

In today’s Writer’s Almanac, the following information was included about the prolific translator Richard Howard. I like his quote about the eroticism of translation:

It’s the birthday of the poet and translator Richard Howard, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1929), who started out as a poet and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book Untitled Subjects (1969). His collection Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963–2003 came out in 2004. But he’s also known for his translations — more than 150 books, most of them from the French, including The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire, which won Howard a National Book Award for translation in 1984. He said, “The relationship of the translator to the writer is an erotic relationship always, and you learn something about the person that you’re working with in an almost plastic, physical way that you can almost never learn about your friends.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

What Have You Translated This Year?

I got this idea from Engimatic Mermaid, except I have chosen just five of my many translation projects.

Five Things I Have Translated This Year

1. Contracts (a surprising number of them!)
2. A short story
3. Lots of recipes and texts about food
4. An analysis of nurses and their workplace situation
5. A text on eggs and microbiology

Who else wants to play?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Nobel Prize in Literature

So, yes, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in literature is Doris Lessing. I heard the news one minute after it was announced, but unfortunately couldn't post until now.

I have read some work by her, but it was some time back and I can't say it was my favorite. However, I stopped by the university library today and picked up one of her novels, so I will try again.

As usual, I am sure this announcement will spark a flurry of translations!

What do you think?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Nobel Prize in Literature

This year's Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded on Thursday. For some years, both the Syrian poet Adonis and the American novelist Philip Roth have been mentioned as possible winners, and that's true of this year as well. Other possible winners are Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, Claudio Magris, Les Murray, Tomas Tranströmer, Ian McEwan, and Amos Oz.

The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet has a
list of potential winners and the current odds on each of them.

Who do you think deserves the prize? And who do you think will win?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Learning Portuguese

Last year I took a Welsh course and while I enjoyed that (though, frankly, I mostly learned how to talk about rugby matches and order beer in Welsh), I thought I’d try a different language this year. Hence, I’m taking an introductory Portuguese course (and not just because some of my articles have been translated to Portuguese!).

So here are some online resources for those of you who might also want to learn Portuguese or improve your skills in the language:

BBC Talk Portuguese

Learning Portuguese

Brazilian Portuguese

Boa sorte!

Friday, October 05, 2007

John Dryden Translation Competition

Readers of this blog may be interested to learn about the following competition:

The John Dryden Translation Competition

This is an annual competition, run by the British Comparative Literature Association, and sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation.

You can enter a prose, poetry or drama text translated from any language into English, but it must not be longer than 25 pages. An entry to the competition consists of the original text, your translation, and an entry form. The latter (with the full competition rules) is available on the competition website at or can be obtained by post from the organiser, Dr Jean Boase-Beier, School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ.

Entries cost £7 for one, £12 for 2 or £16 for 3. There are prizes of £350 (First Prize), £200 (Second Prize) and £100 (Third Prize), and entries may receive commendations. The competition judges are Peter France, Stuart Gillespie, Amanda Hopkinson, Elinor Shaffer and Glyn Pursglove, and they are assisted by a large number of specialist readers.

The closing date for the competition is in February each year; reading then takes place during the spring and the judges usually meet in June to make their decision. Announcements are made straight after the judges’ meeting, and there is a prize-giving event every year in the summer or autumn, to which winners are invited.

Entries received after the closing date will go forward to the following year’s competition, so it is possible to enter at any time of the year, using the form for the current year.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Finding Sources

Translators are language experts. Ideally, we’d also be experts in all the topics that the documents we translate are about, but that’s not always possible. Of course, we tend to be good researchers and many of us are curious and enjoy learning new things. But sometimes, there is a word or a concept in a text that we just can’t figure out, or there’s a description or a phrase that we just can’t picture, and therefore, we need help from other people. On occasion, we can ask our fellow translators, but there are situations when we might need to talk to, for instance, an accountant, an architect, a chef, or a person who grew up in another country.

Last month when I was in Sweden, I spent a couple of days in lovely Karlskrona with a friend of mine, who translates to Swedish. We discussed the memoir she was currently translating and some of the challenges it posed. For example, the book takes place in Australia, and some of the plants discussed don’t exist in Sweden, much less have Swedish words. So what did the translator do? She called a botanical garden and asked for advice about one plant in particular. Together with a scientist, based on names for similar plants, she helped created a new Swedish word. Another problem was a description the author used; it seemed to reference geology and evolution, but in a slightly unusual way. My friend asked me and some other native English speakers to read the sentence and to give our impressions and to tell her how the description sounded to us. Then she happened to hear a radio program featuring an earth scientist at a university in Göteborg; she took the chance to email him and ask for advice on what this phrase meant and how it could be translated, and he did in fact reply with information.

I was impressed by how she managed to find answers to these questions, how she was willing to request help from others. So often I struggle alone or, once in a great while, ask other translators or Swedish-speakers when I get really stuck. But this is how she regularly solves such problems; she told me that knowing people in different professions and from different cultures is a great way of getting help, and as long as you are polite, there is no reason why you can’t ask for suggestions even from people you don’t know. She said that when translating a South African novel with a lot of slang and cultural and political issues, she called a local university to ask if they had any South African exchange students. They did and she invited them over for tea and they helped her work through some of her queries.

So I thought of her last week when I was working on a cookbook and was stuck on one word that kept appearing in recipes. It referred to a specific kitchen tool that does not exist in English (and, frankly, is one of those tools that don’t need to exist either): a “potatissticka,” or a “potato stick,” which you use to check if the potatoes you are boiling are ready. I always use a fork myself, but I thought I should make sure that there really was no such item.

First, I asked some people I know who like to cook; no one had anything like it. Then, I was in the suburb of Swansea called Mumbles, where I take a ceramics course. I was early for the class and was just strolling around the cute streets when I noticed a store that sold only – you guessed it – kitchen tools and cookbooks. I said to the woman behind the counter, “I’m sure this sounds a little odd, but I’m a translator working on a cookbook and I wonder if you can help me with something.”

She confirmed that there is no “potato stick” in English-speaking countries, but that people use cake testers, skewers, forks, toothpicks, or meat thermometers instead.

So the point is that not only is it interesting in and of itself to know people in different fields and with different backgrounds and interests, but it is also helpful for your translation work (or your writing or editing work, for that matter). And don’t be afraid to talk to people or to ask for their assistance; many are genuinely glad to share their knowledge.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

St. Hieronymus Day

And for the third holiday this week, today is St. Hieronymus Day, in honor of Jerome (or Hieronymus), considered the patron saint of translators. Jerome translated the Bible to Latin from Greek and Hebrew, in a version that is known as the Vulgate. He studied Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament from it, although most people at that time used the Greek Septuagint. Jerome also wrote commentaries on the Bible, sometimes explaining his translatorial choices.

So today is the day to celebrate and appreciate translators! Happy St. Hieronymus Day!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Translator Wins a MacArthur

I learned from the Stingy Kids blog that translator, poet, and publisher Peter Cole was awarded a MacArthur grant. He has translated from Hebrew and Arabic. The MacArthur website says:

"[Cole's] Ibis Editions publishes little-known works translated from Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and Ladino, enlightening English-speaking audiences to the thriving literary tradition of the Levant. By fostering literary dialogue in and about the Middle East, Ibis provides an occasion for intellectual and cultural collaboration. In a region mired in conflict, Cole’s dedication to the literature of the Levant offers a unique and inspiring vision of the cultural, religious, and linguistic interactions that were and are possible among the peoples of the Middle East."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

European Day of Languages

Today is another language-related holiday, the European Day of Languages. The way I’m celebrating is by deciding which new language I’d like to study this year. I don’t think I’m necessarily all that great at learning other languages, but I have found that even knowing bits and pieces of a language can be fascinating and beneficial.

A press release on the European Centre for Modern Languages’ website says: "Language and language learning are essential to the promotion of the Council of Europe values of democracy and human rights,” said Terry Davis, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. “Language skills help people to understand and respect each other, as well as talk and listen to each other”, he added. “That is why the European Day of Languages on 26 September is so important.”

I encourage everyone to spend some time in the next year studying a new language.

Monday, September 24, 2007

National Punctuation Day

Too many of us who work as translators, writers, and/or editors do not always properly appreciate (or correctly use) punctuation. Since today is National National Punctuation Day (in the U.S., and it's a holiday I think should spread around the world), let's get out our copies of the Chicago Manual of Style and also review this very helpful list of resources.

Happy Punctuation Day!

Friday, September 21, 2007

No Smashed Balls: Food Mistranslations

An article I wrote awhile back based on bad translations of dishes on menus and cookbooks has now been published in Verbatim magazine. I'm posting it here, too, so you can enjoy a little humor over the weekend.

Thanks, But I Think I’ll Pass on the Smashed Balls
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

It all started with a rabbit on whipped cream.

I was in Prague when I found that odd-sounding dish on a menu. No, thanks, I thought, imagining Thumper splashing a cloud of whipped cream around the room. Before long I was tempted by an oven-baked joint – really, what’s the point of baking your marijuana? – and some well-hung meat – no comment necessary. Soon I realized the importance of a well-translated and carefully-edited menu, especially for restaurants eager to attract an international, professional audience.

Some mistranslations and misspellings are not only puzzling, they can also be rather revolting. For example, I was not really enticed by pee soup, cock terrine, roach terrine, or bowels in sauce, and I was somewhat frightened by the violent-sounding skewer on blackened loin and the fried potatoes stuffed with flesh. Tender lamp was not illuminating and, as much as I like Sweden, eating pink-roasted Swedes is not too appetizing.

As I have a major interest for food that includes writing occasional articles about restaurants in Scandinavia and working on cookbooks, I decided something had to be done about this. Sometimes while eating at a restaurant, I would helpfully mention that the English translation of menu items such as cheese with accomplishments – how proud they must be of their cheese! – or duck with dry fruits and jewels – aren’t jewels a bit tough to chew? – might be just a little off. At some restaurants, I was rewarded with glasses of wine; other places didn’t seem too interested to know that offering plates piled high with rags of suckling pig might not draw in the crowds. Later, instead of helping for free, out of the generosity of my good-food-loving-heart, I incorporated food translations into my translation business. Of course, any translator is proud of a translation well done, but at the same time, I can’t help but think of all the restaurant patrons who will be robbed of the enjoyment that comes with wondering what exactly has annoyed that fed-up chicken, why the petrified trout is so scared, and if there is in fact anything in the bowl of grilled fatless lard.

Goose liver in veal farce indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Flowers and Translation

I always think that quotes about translation and metaphors for translation are interesting. The following one from A Defense of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley is pretty well known.

"It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower – and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel."

Of course, seeds from one part of the world can be planted and successfully nurtured in other parts.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Impoverishment: When Languages Die

During my month-long summer “break” – in which I traveled to the U.S., visited friends and relatives, worked on my research, did translation and editing – I read around 30 books, and When Languages Die by K. David Harrison was definitely one of my favorites. Before the summer, I said I wanted to get a hold of this book, and I am so glad I did.

Dr. Harrison is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and researches some of the world’s endangered languages, and he also co-founded
the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. In his fascinating book, which discusses, among other languages, Yakut, !Xoon, O’oodham, Vilela, Nggela, and Itza Mayan, Dr. Harrison writes that in 2001, 6912 languages were spoken in the world, but just one hundred years later, half will likely be gone. “The top 10 biggest languages have hundreds of millions of speakers each, accounting for just over 50 percent of humans...The smallest half of the world’s languages–consisting of more than 3,500 languages–are spoken by a mere 0.2 percent of the global population.” So why should we care about that?

When a language dies, a unique knowledge system is lost, as is a distinct culture, and also grammar patterns, which show how people think and process information. All of this is not only interesting in and of itself, but it is also useful and important information that helps us understand the world and what it means to be a human in it. Dr. Harrison explicates, “We have seen at least three compelling reasons to safeguard and document vanishing languages. First is the fact that our human knowledge base is rapidly eroding. Most of what humans have learned over the millennia about how to thrive on this planet is encapsulated in threatened languages. If we let them slip away, we may compromise our very ability to survive as our ballooning human population strains earth’s ecosystems. A second reason is our rich patrimony of human cultural heritage, including myth and belief systems, wisdom, poetry, songs, and epic tales. Allowing our own history to be erased, we condemn ourselves to a cultural amnesia that may undermine our sense of purpose and our ability to live in peace with diverse peoples. A third reason is the great puzzle of human cognition, and our ability to understand how the mind organizes and processes information. Much of the human mind is still a black box. We cannot discern its inner workings–and we can often only know its thoughts by what comes out of it in the form of speech. Obscure languages hold at least some of the keys to unlocking the mind. For all these reasons, and with the possibility of dire consequences for failures, documenting endangered languages while they may still be heard, and revitalizing tongues that still may be viable, must be viewed as the greatest conservation challenge of our generation.”

Dr. Harrison goes on to give examples of what is unique and interesting about various languages, and what knowledge can be lost when the languages die. For example, some reindeer-herding peoples, such as the Saami in Scandinavia or the Tofa in Siberia, have detailed taxonomies for reindeer. “Döngür” is a Tofa word “male domesticated reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating”, but now that most Tofa people speak Russian, they have to use a long phrase, like the English translation above, to describe what previously only took one word, and that must both be more time-consuming as well as eventually lead to diminished reindeer knowledge.

A similar taxonomy-based example is from the Ifugao language, which “has an intricate vocabulary of rice technology. Their language has 27 different names for pottery vessels for storing rice wine, 30 names for types of woven baskets used to carry foods, and 130 phrases describing in detail payments made for the use of rice pond fields. It has many expressive words like “tiwātiw,” a verb meaning to frighten animals, birds or chickens away from drying rice.” Clearly, each language offers information or ideas that is helpful to its culture.

Another aspect of knowledge loss that Dr. Harrison discusses is different kinds of time-keeping. He says that more languages have no notion of the concept of a week. Instead of the system we take for granted, other cultures have ecological, lunar, or arbitrary time systems, or combinations thereof. “Natural calendar lore served as a bond firmly connecting humankind to the natural world; this bond weakens when languages die.”

Some people think that it doesn’t matter if we lose such knowledge as a word for a three-year-old male reindeer or the Tuvan word “chyzyr-chyzyr,” which Dr. Harrison defines as “the sound of the tree tops moving, swaying, cracking, or snapping as a result of bears marking trees by clawing at them and by scratching their backs up against them.” Some people say that since these kinds of words are so situational, so environment-based, cultures must not need them anymore if they are no longer using them. In other words, people find a way of saying what they want and need to say, even if they have to use a long way around, like the Tofa people now speaking Russian. But even if you believe that, it isn’t just specific words like this that disappear; cultures, ideas, information, and “unique philosophical viewpoint[s]” vanish, too.

Dr. Harrison writes, “As languages fall out of use into forgetfulness, entire genres of oral tradition–stories, songs, and epics–rapidly approach extinction. Only a small fraction have ever been recorded or set down in books. And the tales captured in books, when no longer spoken, will exist as mere shadows of a once vibrant tradition. We stand to lose volumes: entire worldviews, religious beliefs, creation myths, observations about life, technologies for how to domesticate animals and cultivate plans, histories of migration and settlement, and collective wisdom. And we will lose insight into how humans fine-tune memory to preserve and transmit epic tales.”

And studying small, endangered languages and not just the big ones teaches us about how humans think. “Imagine a zoologist describing mammals by looking only at the top hundred most common ones. It would be easier to examine dogs and cats and cows and rabbits, all of which are composed of the same building blocks as other mammals. But if we did, we would never know that a mammal could swim (whales), fly (bats), lay eggs (echidna), use tools (sea otters and orangutans), or have an inflatable balloon growing from its head (male hooded seal). Ignorance of unusual mammals would impoverish our notion of what mammals could be. It is precisely the weird and wonderful exceptions that afford us a full view of the possibilities.”

Dr. Harrison frequently uses the word “impoverish” in his book, and it perfectly captures what happens when languages die.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Visibly and Expertly Done: Criticizing Criticism

During one of my many plane trips this summer, I was catching up on reading. In an issue of The New Yorker from July, I noticed that a review of a translated novel (Christian Jungersen's The Exception) described the book as "invisibly and expertly translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson". What exactly did the reviewer, Jeffrey Frank, mean by this? Was the translation expertly done because it was invisible? Would he have criticized the translation if he had felt it was in some way visible? Did he mean that the translation was both invisible and expert? Mr. Frank, I have learned, is fluent in Danish and has recently translated, together with his wife, The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation from the Danish, so obviously he can compare the source and target texts and also is familiar with the work of translators, all of which makes me wonder if he would like his own translations reviewed as "invisible." What does that term mean to him and to other reviewers of translations?

As I have posted before, critiquing a translation means much more than simply reading it as a text written in the target language and seeing whether you can tell that it was translated, and I wish reviewers, especially at such major magazines as The New Yorker, would start to understand that. I would be curious to know why the idea of "invisibility" persists.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thinking of 'You'

During the past couple of days, I was reading a novel by a Swedish author whose work I think should be in English. As I was reading it, I thought about some aspects of the book that would make it challenging to translate. One of the primary things I noticed was that the book was written in second person -- sometimes in second person singular and sometimes in second person plural. English has only one word for both of these ('you'), but Swedish has two words ('du' for the singular and 'ni' for the plural), so in Swedish it was very clear when the narrator was referring to one person and when two or more people were being referred to. It would sound awkward to always write in English 'you two' or 'you all' or something along those lines, but how else could a translator portray the difference between 'du' and 'ni'? Obviously, just using the word 'you' for both singular and plural would ignore certain nuances of the Swedish text.

Similarly, Swedish, like some other languages, uses the second person plural as a polite form of singular 'you' (other languages use the third person as a polite form, and still others, of course, have an entire system of polite language). English does not show politeness through the choice of person, so what is the best way for a translator to capture the sense of politeness imbedded in word choice? Sometimes titles can work, but not in all situations.

So how do translators solve a problem like 'you'?

Friday, August 31, 2007

IRSCL Conference and Galician Translation

I’ve just arrived in Sweden after being in Japan for the conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature. I loved Japan and really enjoyed the conference, which focused on different issues of power and children's literature. I learned about organizations related to children's lit and to educating children about literature, and also about awards for children's books, and I attended sessions on a variety of other topics, ranging from post-World War 2 literature in Asia to historical novels in Denmark, from anthologies by and/or about queer youth to wordless picture books, from anime to libraries, from books about transracial adoption to nonsense, and much more.

There were several presentations besides my own that looked at translation. I chaired one session that was about translation and national identities. The speakers were from Spain and they talked about translations from Spanish or English to the minority languages of Galician, Catalan, and Basque. One of the speakers focused on translations to Galician and she found that many translators added in Galician idioms or information about specific Galician cultural issues to the texts they were translating, and she claimed that this was a way of building a Galician identity. This is clearly a strongly domesticating strategy and it really struck me as being one that I personally wouldn't use or promote. However, the point the speaker and her co-authors made was that since Spanish is dominant in Spain, making texts Galician in this way helps create pride in the Galician language and culture, and that this is important for children who might otherwise feel that they should only or primarily use Spanish. Apparently, schools in Galicia now require children to have half of their subjects in Galician, so perhaps in a generation or two, the use of Galician will be more common, and children will gain the belief that Galician is a worthy identity, so translators won't feel the need to use this strategy anymore.