Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Off to a Conference

I am off to a conference in Turkey now, so I will be away from the blog for a couple of weeks, but I will post all about it when I return!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How Journalists Work With Interpreters When Reporting

Journalists reporting from foreign countries often have to rely on translators or interpreters when they want to use documents or interview people in the language spoken in the country in question. Many papers (in English and in Swedish, at least – I am not familiar with the newspapers in other languages) just quote from sources as though they spoke in the language of the newspaper; in other words, they don’t name the interpreter or even mention the fact that one was used. For greater transparency, this perhaps ought to be done.

In the New York Times, the Public Editor recently posted to his blog about this topic, and invited staff editor Andrea Kannapell to comment. She wrote, “When there is the luxury of time, and The Times considers the investment worthwhile, we send correspondents for a year of language training before they take up a foreign assignment. We have begun such training for one correspondent who has already spent a good deal of time in Iraq. A year of training, of course, will not make anyone truly fluent, but it does enable the correspondent to get a sense of what people are saying — as well as a sense of whether a translator is up to the job.”

However, that is not always the case, and journalists may still need to rely on interpreters (note: not translators – the people at the Times seem a little confused about the difference between a translator and an interpreter), so one technique they have is to “ask questions more than once, or ask in a slightly different way, if they feel the translator has skipped something or offered a garbled passage.” A comment from translator Daniel Garcia Pallaviccini after this post brings up the issue of what an interpreter is to think if the journalist behaves a little strangely and keeps asking the same questions; the point here is that the journalist ought to attempt to have as good a relationship as possible with the interpreter and perhaps should discuss his or her concerns or methods of working with this person. In the post, Sabrina Tavernise, a correspondent in Iraq, is quoted on her relationship with her interpreter, whom she says has never “purposefully mistranslat[ed].” Of course, clients working with interpreters or translators must always be cautious and aware, but some of these comments do sound a little overly suspicious, as though most interpreters would mistranslate on purpose.

In political situations, finding and using a reliable interpreter is naturally very important, but it is also quite tricky, and it was interesting to read about how one newspaper views the process. I still think that giving information about the interpreter (or translator, in the case of documents) and the methods employed would increase the trustworthiness for editors and readers.

Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this link!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Translating the Koran

According to an article in the New York Times, Laleh Bakhtiar spent seven years on a new translation of the Koran from Arabic to English. The article discusses some of the translatorial decisions and difficulties she faced, including the fact that she had to spend three months on the Arabic word “daraba” alone. According to the article, “[s]ome analysts hold that the verse [i.e. the one containing “daraba”] cannot be rendered meaningfully into English because it reflects social and legal practices of Muhammad’s time.” In other words, some people consider it untranslatable. However, many translations involve significant barriers – linguistic, cultural, and temporal among them – and most translators do find ways of solving them. So though such issues are difficult, a translator can’t merely claim something is untranslatable and then give up.

Eventually, after research, Ms. Bakhtiar came to understand the word “daraba” in a way other than the traditional interpretation and she decided to use that understanding in her translation. As the article points out, “[d]ebates over translations of the Koran — considered God’s eternal words — revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar.” Obviously, this is a problem for nearly all religious texts, and translators of holy books have been challenged, threatened, and even killed because of their work. “Ms. Bakhtiar said she expected opposition, not least because she is not an Islamic scholar. Men in the Muslim world, she said, will also oppose the idea of an American, especially a woman, reinterpreting the prevailing translation.”

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Translator Edith Grossman

According to today’s Writer’s Almanac, today is “the birthday of one of the few translators who has become something of a literary celebrity herself, Edith Grossman, born in Philadelphia (1936).” In a speech Ms. Grossman gave in honor of Gabriel García Márquez, she said of translation that it “is an act of critical interpretation” and she goes on to discuss the idea of fidelity.

Here is the rest of today’s entry in the almanac, which is interesting because it talks a little about how she got into translation and what choices she made while translation Mr. Márquez:

“Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but for some reason Grossman became obsessed with the Spanish language when she was in high school. She said, “My high school Spanish teacher just reached me. I said whatever this woman is doing I want to do.”

Grossman won a Fulbright grant in 1963 and went to Spain to study medieval Spanish poetry. But when she began to read the poetry of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Grossman decided that contemporary Latin American literature was too interesting to ignore. She began translating contemporary Spanish novels, and then in the mid-1980s, she got her big break when she got a chance to translate Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

She knew that one of Márquez’s favorite English authors was William Faulkner, so she decided to use Faulkner's style as a guide for her translation. She said, “I didn’t use any contractions in the narration, and I used Latinate words, polysyllabic words, instead of German monosyllables.” When Grossman's translation of Love in the Time of Cholera came out, it was such a success that Grossman was able to quit teaching and begin translating full time. She has since translated all of the new books that Márquez has published.

In 2003, she published a translation of the Spanish classic Don Quixote. Grossman wasn't sure she could do it until she finished the first sentence. Her version of the sentence is, “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”

When it came out in 2003, it was hailed as the best English translation of the novel in decades, perhaps the best American translation of the novel ever completed.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Lord Conrad Black Trial, Translation, and Learning Languages

Someone recently sent me an article from the International Herald Tribune. It has nothing to do with translation (instead, it is about the Lord Conrad Black trial, in which my father happens to be serving as an expert witness), but I noticed something interesting next to the content of the piece. Besides the usual features, such as “e-mail this article” or “print,” there is a “translate” function. A reader can choose this function in order to get either detailed English definitions of the words in the piece or translations of the words to Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, or German. The service is run by Ultralingua, a company I had never heard of before.

The definitions/translations serve a purpose; namely, for readers for whom English is not their native tongue, this helps them understand any difficult words they come across. However, the service doesn’t recognize numbers or names (“Conrad Black” is suggested to be “Consanguíneo Negro” in Spanish!), and of course there is no way for the machine translations (really just words copied from bilingual dictionaries) to understand or work with the context, which means that the words are translated out of context (i.e. many possible translations are given) and the translations do not become a coherent and complete text. Rather than attempting to be a translation tool, I think this service could instead be exploited for language learning. It would be useful (and fascinating!) for many of us to be able to click on any word on any website and be able to immediately access a detailed definition and translations to a multitude of languages.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Some Recent Reading on Languages

Here are a few interesting, recent articles about language, three from the New York Times and one from the Financial Times.

The first is a book review of two books about English. Readers of this blog already know I am interested in books about language, and I plan to check out When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by
Ben Yagoda and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal, who has previously been mentioned heree.

second piece is about the Oxford English Dictionary, and it touches on how the dictionary was created, how words make it in there, word formation, the sources of the citations in the OED, and other topics. As one person says in the article, “It’s not just about the language. It’s about tracking history through the language.”

The other two articles are about the endangered Manchu language of China. The first of these articles details the history of the Manchu people, the dynasty, and the language. Only the oldest generation in a particular region of China seems to use Manchu; an older lady, Meng Shujing, interviewed in the article thinks that only “five or six of her neighbors” can speak it fluently. She is quoted as saying, “I don’t have much time…I don’t even know if I have tomorrow, but I will use the time to teach my grandchildren. It is our language; how can we let it die? We are Manchu people.” The article states that the “disappearance of Manchu will be part of a mass extinction of languages that some experts forecast will lead to the loss of half of the world’s 6,800 languages by the end of the century.” This is a really unfortunate fact. What happens when those languages are gone?

Well, much of the history and culture that were embedded in and preserved in each lost tongue is sadly lost, or become the province of a few experts and/or people have to rely on translators to make the information available to the general public. The second of these two articles on Manchu mentions just this issue. There are apparently many documents about the Qing Dynasty in Manchu, but since so few people know the language, there are only 40 translators working on translating them (presumably to Chinese, although that is not specified): “Scholars estimate that about 20 percent of the 10 million files in the massive Qing archive in Beijing are written in Manchu.” Imagine how long it will take those 40 translators to translate all those files!

Enjoy these varied articles on language!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Translatorial Censorship

In the last post, I quoted from Dr. Marjorie Garber’s book Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, in which she mentioned some translatorial/editorial changing/censorship (or “gender bowdlerization”) of work featuring homosexuals and bisexuals. Unfortunately, this is not a unique or altogether rare phenomenon.

In the special Translating Humour issue of The Translator magazine from 2002, in an article entitled “Francoist Translation Censorship of Two Billy Wilder Films,” Jeroen Vandaele writes about how, during Franco’s regime, translatorial censorship took place of work that was considered inappropriate or immoral. For example, Some Like it Hot might be considered amoral because of issues relating to its portrayal of cross-dressing, the potential gay implications of the movie, and other sexual topics (especially, it might be noted, sexual issues that are outside the realm of what is accepted as “normal”). Dr. Vandaele says that some of the sexual humor in Some Like it Hot and The Apartment was “changed or deleted because of immorality” or “replaced by morality,” and one can assume that if this sort of censorship happened to films, it was part of a general view of culture and society that also affected literature.

Whether for political or other reasons, translators and editors (and other people with power, such as teachers) sometimes censor or change material that they consider improper or otherwise unsuitable. I remember someone who grew up in Iran telling me about seeing foreign films in Iran and then, once she had moved to Europe and later to America, seeing the same movies and being surprised at how much longer they were; in other words, “inappropriate” material had been deleted or changed before the films were deemed acceptable in Iran.

Personally, I’m a strong believer in having as little as possible come between the audience and the text (or film or whatever) as the author (or director or whoever) envisioned it, and I hope that we translators will be cautious about (ab)using the power the wield.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Translating Homosexuality

To continue with the gender theme from the last post…

If you didn’t know it already, translation is everywhere. While reading Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life by Dr. Marjorie Garber (yes, it’s shocking, but I do actually read books on topics other than translation!), a fascinating book that I didn’t expect to relate to translation, I noticed a brief discussion of how translators and editors changed Plato’s Symposium and Shakespeare’s sonnets when they found the genders or sexual identities inappropriate or discomfiting, i.e. when they were not explicitly heterosexual.

Dr. Garber writes: “Thus the Greek word eromenos, meaning “male beloved,” became “mistress,” and the “army of lovers” that would have its historical counterpart in the famous Theban Band of warrior-companions becomes, by implication, a bevy of knights and ladies. The word “boy” in Greek was simply translated as “maiden” or “woman,” thus making same-sex love invisible to the non-Greek reading eye.” On the next page, Dr. Garber mentions Lord Byron who “like the timid translators of Greek…often chose the path of gender bowdlerization in his writing” and she creates the term “textual heterosexual” to refer to those who pass as heterosexual through this “gender bowdlerization” in their writing, or by implication, in translation.

She also points out that correct, non-bowdlerized translations of this sort of material later helped make homosexuals and bisexuals more visible and more accepted.

To be blunt about it, translators have a lot of power, and abusing it by significantly changing texts, including by deleting anything not “appropriate,” is, in my opinion, wrong.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Gender in Translation and Other Challenges

An article by Vivian Eden includes reviews of translations of poetry from Hebrew and French to English, and Dr. Eden, herself a translator, writes that translation is a good way of conversing with and learning from other writers:

“After many years of ruminating on this conundrum, I have come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to get dead writers to listen to you, in three steps: Read, read, read again and again; formulate your questions or observations very precisely (Do you really need that third drink?); and then again, read, read, read. The texts will tell you what you want to know and confirm, deny or comment on your observations. One of the best ways of carrying out this three-step procedure is by translating.”

Some of the issues this article, and the three books reviewed, brings up are fascinating. For example, what can a translator, whether of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, do when faced with a word in the source text that has more than one possible meaning? How can the translator decide which meaning to highlight, which one/s to sacrifice?

And what about gender in languages? Linda Stern Zisquit, a poet, describes how she began to translate Yona Wallach’s poetry from Hebrew: “In 1982 I translated several of Yona Wallach's early poems in response to the request of a friend then editing an issue of Hebrew poetry for The Literary Review. I had reservations: My Hebrew was new, and Wallach's reputation - as a masterful poet who fragmented syntax with demonic power and broke laws of male and female conjugation - was intimidating.” The gender aspect is fascinating and it would be interesting to know how translators to and from other gendered languages deal with these issues. How can a translator represent gender, and the breaking of gender rules, in a non-gendered language? Similarly, number is something that can be played with by writers and that can be difficult for translators to portray in the target language. Ms. Zisquit includes notes in the book on the translation and challenges involved in working on Yona Wallach’s poetry, and that is a helpful idea that more translators might want to adopt.

And finally, to continue with the theme of gender, French poet Jacques Reda introduces a volume of his poetry in English translation with an implication that male and female translators are different – one wonders exactly what he meant by that. Mr. Reda, referring positively to his translator, writes: “Perhaps the convergence of these qualities comes as less of a surprise in a woman translator than in a man.”

So what do you think about these issues? Do male and female translators differ, and are they suited for different kinds of work? And what can translators do about gendered languages, numbers, and the multiplicity of meaning that some words or sounds have?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Translation of Harry Potter

I may be one of the few people not to have read any of the Harry Potter books, but I nevertheless found this article by Daniel Hahn about translating J.K. Rowling’s work interesting.

He writes: “Of the 325 million Harry Potter books sold around the world, some 100 million copies don't contain a single line of JK Rowling’s prose. They’re mediated by the work of other writers who set the tone, create suspense and humour, and give the characters their distinctive voices and accents. The only thing these translators have no impact on whatsoever is the plot, which of course is Rowling’s alone.”

Frankly, I disagree with Mr. Hahn’s description. It’s rather melodramatic, and it makes it seem as though translations have very little in common with originals. The plot is the only thing he mentions, but most translators work very hard to recreate the same “tone,…suspense and humour” and other features of each text; if they are creating new tones or new kinds of suspense or humor, then it seems to me that the translation becomes a different book. Also, of course, some translators do unfortunately change the plot of books they work on. And in some cases, even if the translators don’t change the plot outright, some of the changes they have to make for linguistic or cultural reasons do of necessity affect the plot.

Mr. Hahn also touches on an issue that has been mentioned here before: the invisibility of the translator. He says: “The job of any translator requires that they be simultaneously present and absent; altogether sympathetically embedded in the work and yet totally invisible. And for the most part that invisibility is well maintained.” Today, some people disagree with this idea of translation and the related one of fluency. Personally, I wonder if the concept of in/visibility remains stronger in the translation of children’s literature than in that for adults.

At any rate, whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not, you might want to read about some of the special difficulties Ms. Rowling’s translators face, such as names and invented words. It’s also interesting to consider how today’s technology affects translation; Mr. Hahn mentions some of the requirements that making films out of these books imposes on the translators.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Learning Welsh on St. David’s Day

Today is St. David’s Day here in Wales. David, or Dewi, is the patron saint of the country and it is believed that he died on this day in 589.

So in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d post a few links for sites that will help you learn Welsh. And just as a word of advice, Welsh is not a language to attempt to learn if you are not willing to spend a lot of time memorizing (and, yes, I know, all languages require significant study and memorizing) – together, the various verb forms, the many mutations, and all the ways you can say “yes” or “no” in Welsh make this a challenging language!

Learn Welsh on the BBC’s website

A beginning Welsh course

Enjoy learning Cymraeg!