Thursday, May 31, 2007


Subtitling is a topic that has not been mentioned on this blog, though it is of course a kind of translation. So I was interested by an article on subtitling movies.

In this article, the director Timur Bekmambetov is quoted as saying, “We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story.” This is certainly a different view of subtitling than the usual idea that it is a somewhat unfortunate, distracting necessity. Subtitles were often expected to be as unobtrusive as possible, whereas this director wants to highlight them, and make them a real part of the movie, and he does that by using colors and effects.

The article goes on to explain: “The subtitles that will allow non-native viewers to follow the stories are crucial because no matter how flashy or impressive a movie may be, it’s the subtitles that can stifle or showcase its quality. Although many audiences around the world, most of whom see foreign films dubbed, consider them the cinematic equivalent of Brussels sprouts, subtitles remain an unsung yet essential tool of moviegoing. And with technology improvements, more people speaking foreign languages and the modern habit of multi-tasking, the traditional aversion to watching a film while reading it just might be on the wane.”

One small quibble I had with the piece was the idea that while “literature [which] has the safety net of footnotes, film subtitlers have to make it work in the moment, all while trying to adapt wordplay and cultural references.” I think many translators of literature would be surprised to hear this, since they obviously also attempt to wordplay and cultural references and make the story or poem work as it is, without resorting to footnotes. It’s true that translators can use footnotes or endnotes if necessary, but many would prefer to avoid it, so as not to take attention away from the piece.

It was interesting to learn how much time (1.5 seconds per subtitle) and space (45 characters per line max) there is for subtitles and also to be reminded that there “are logical rules as well, such as finishing a subtitle when a character stops speaking and not extending it over a cut, which can be disorienting. Good subtitles work with the rhythm of the scene, based on accurate spotting that captures that timing.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Translation and Journalism

When reading newspaper articles about the recent elections in France, I kept noticing something interesting. Interviews with French citizens always quoted them in English. But I doubt these people all spoke English, so what I wonder is: why was there no mention of the fact that the interviews were (presumably) conducted in French and translated to English? The same is true of nearly all articles that cover “foreign” events. Doesn’t this influence the reader’s understanding? Shouldn’t readers know which parts of an article were translated and what strategies and goals were used in the translation?

The NY Times had a
short piece from the Public Editor about this awhile back, focusing on the use of interpreters in reporting from other countries, but I don’t think this is a matter that most readers think much about. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a second byline, or even a sentence at the end of the piece, saying who performed the interviews and in which language or who translated the texts that were mentioned and how the translator went about it? Not only would that increase the translator’s visibility, but it would also remind readers that not everyone speaks English and that it is worth thinking about how the people or documents – the items that make up the news, that is – quoted in the article were shaped by the culture and language that they come from.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Violence of Translation: Conquering and Colonizing a Text

To continue with the metaphor theme, I was intrigued by the book Translation and Empire by Douglas Robinson, which discusses postcolonial theories of translation. One chapter quotes from Jerome, Dryden, and other major figures from translation studies, and it is interesting to see their comparison of translators to conquerors or pillagers, who take what they want from a text and then make it over as they see fit in the target language. The text is thus rather violently colonized. In some instances, it seems that (male) translators view languages as female; it is, therefore, acceptable to “rape and pillage” a foreign tongue – to take what the translator thinks most important or useful – in order to protect the native language.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Translation as a Log Cabin

Readers of this blog know that I like metaphors for translation. So I was happy when, while reading The Translator as Writer, an interesting book I will surely mention again soon, I noticed an essay called “Metaphors for the Translator” by translator Michael Hanne. In this piece, he reviews some of the many metaphors people have suggested for translators and the translation process and analyzes them. Here is one example:

“She [translator Margaret Sayers Peden] suggested that the best translators of literary texts act like curators transporting an old timber structure such as a log cabin to another location: ‘Carefully we mark the logs by number, dismantle them, and reconstruct them in new territory, artfully restoring the logs to their original relationships and binding them together with a minimal application of mortar’. She insists that the translator must avoid the temptation to ‘slather on the plaster’ beyond the point which is essential (Peden 1989: 14). Translation involves a demolition job followed by a reconstruction. This is an attractively ingenious image, which, on further consideration, turns out to be fundamentally mistaken. The problem is that, when you come to ‘reconstruct’ the text in new territory, you have to undertake the task, not with original logs, but with timber (language) that is indigenous to the target culture, has a different grain, a different colour, and is supplied in different lengths. Moreover, as literary scholars from Mikhail Bakhtin to Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes remind us, all language is second-hand, which means that every literary text is made of fragments of earlier utterances. So, when we translate, the lengths of timber with which we reconstruct the log cabin are not only of a different species, but they have also been recycled and bear the marks of the previous uses to which they have been subjected in that territory/culture.” (212)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Embargo on Translation

Here is an article about Circumference, a journal that publishes poetry from other countries in English translation. Jennifer Kronovet, one of the founders and editors of the journal, describes the decision to publish poems from certain countries, despite a U.S. trade embargo that bizarrely and misguidedly forbade it.

Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this article!

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Polychromatic World, or Against Ethnocide

Those who know me are well aware that anthropology is one of my big interests. My choice of a career in translation makes sense in the context of this deep enthusiasm for cultures and languages; translation can be considered a form of anthropology. As I’ve said before, translation does not simply involve finding an equivalent word in the target language for a word in the source language; rather, it is about conveying the whole culture that has helped shape each word, each phrase, each concept in a text. That’s why it isn’t enough to study a bilingual dictionary or a list of vocabulary in order to consider oneself fluent in a tongue; a deep understanding of the culture and the people is necessary.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist and National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence (an oxymoronic title, as he points out!). Someone sent me this link to a speech Dr. Davis gave a few years ago. In it, he mentions that there are currently 6000 languages on our planet, but only 3000 are still used regularly and taught to children. Dr. Davis claims that every 2 weeks, an elder who is the last speaker of his or her language dies and with that elder, the language is gone. And when a language is lost, so are the beliefs, feelings, and culture behind that language. In an interview, Dr. Davis points out that “now languages, like cultures, like species, are being lost so quickly that they don’t have time to leave descendents.”

Dr. Davis says in his speech that genocide is condemned while ethnocide (which includes the loss of cultures and languages) is not; instead, it is “celebrated as part of a development strategy”. But a “polychromatic world of diversity” is to be preferred. Anthropologists, he said, believe that “story-telling can change the world” and that “this world deserves to exist in a diverse way, that we can find a way to live in a truly multicultural, pluralistic world, where all the wisdom of all the peoples can contribute to our collective well-being.” Certainly, we translators (who are, after all, people devoted to intercultural communication and understanding, and people who help others have a voice) believe this as well.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Just for Fun – Machine Translations or Novel Excerpts?

Can you tell the difference between machine translations from German and sentences from novels by William Faulkner? It is hard to know if this silly page is a harsher criticism of Faulkner or of machine translation!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Team Translation

This weekend, I was reading Translation and Power, edited by Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler. In an interesting essay by Lin Kenan on translation’s role in China, there was a section on the history of translation in the country. Translation in China began two thousand years ago with Buddhist religious texts; such translation was done in teams and it included what perhaps can be considered a form of sight translation, the subject of the last post.

Dr. Kenan writes: “First, a foreign monk recited from the scriptures. As he was doing so, a native speaker of the target language translated orally what was heard into Chinese. Then someone else transcribed it into written script before it was polished and finalized by a stylist.”

This is quite a different method of operation than most translators follow these days, at least in Europe and the United States. It is true that many religious documents are translated in teams or at least the translation projects are run by editorial boards, but otherwise, team translation is not common, and interpretation/sight translation (I assume that the interpreters in China had access to the scriptures being recited from) usually is not part of the process. One wonders if the translations suffered or were improved because of the multitude of people working on them. Having several people to share ideas with and/or to look over a translation is generally beneficial for translators and their work, but there is also the question of style, since all people have different vocabularies and different ways of writing, so it might be difficult to make a text consistent if each of the translators on a team has his or her own translation techniques and his or her own sense of the text and its style.

Dr. Kenan mentions that team translation is still practiced regularly in China; a recent example he gives is James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sight Translation

The previous post described a translator training program I learned about during a lecture at Swansea University. There was also another interesting lecture at my school last week. Professor Gloria Sampaio from the Catholic University of São Paulo in Brazil spoke about sight translation.

Sight translation is something I had never thought much about and it is not one of the more researched areas of translation studies, so I appreciated her talk. Basically, sight translation is doing a translation on the spot orally from a written text. Sometimes a translator or interpreter might have a couple of minutes to prepare, but often she or he simply gets a text and has to read and translate it aloud at once. In other words, it is oral translation, a combination of translation and interpretation, of the visual and the vocal. Professor Sampaio said that it should sound as though the translator is just reading aloud something in the target language.

Historically, she explained, it was used a pedagogical tool for teaching classic languages. Some language courses still do use this technique. Now, it can frequently be part of an interpretation assignment, such as during a court case when there are documents being discussed, or if an interpreter is doing a simultaneous conference interpretation and someone is reading aloud from an essay (so the interpreter has the paper and also has to listen in case the speaker deviates from the text in some way). In other situations, an interpreter or translator might be handed a text and asked to summarize or analyze it, rather than perform a straight translation.

Professor Sampaio made it clear that sight translation is a challenging activity, since it requires so many different skills at once (reading comprehension, analysis, terminology, quick-thinking, memory, speech production, and so on), and that it could be a useful part of interpreter training programs. She also thought it was a good way of testing and assessing translation/interpretation/language students or applicants for language-related jobs.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A University Translation Bureau: Training Translators

The last post mentioned a way of training translators in the United States. Last week, Marcel Thelen from the Department of Translation and Interpreting of the Maastricht School of International Communication of Zuyd University in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, spoke here at Swansea University about an interesting program he has set up.

As a way of training his undergraduate translation students, Dr. Thelen has started a translation bureau at the university. He explained that it is mostly for the fourth-year students, the ones who will soon graduate and hopefully get jobs as translators, but some of the younger students are involved too. When he first started the bureau, it was all simulated role-play, with the result being that it felt fake and there was no incentive for taking it seriously, since all students had to do to get credit was participate. So, he changed it to a real bureau.

Students have to write CVs and cover letters in order to apply for positions (office manager, project manager, IT expert, translators, editors) and then they go on interviews. Those who want to work as managers interview with Dr. Thelen and then they interview and hire the translators and editors. Unfortunately, the students have to stick with whatever position they’ve chosen for the whole term, so they don’t get a chance to switch, which would be even better, because then they would get experience with a range of translation-related jobs. Not all those who train as translators then work as translators; for example, they can go on to be project managers at translation agencies or become localizers. So that is why getting the chance to train or intern in a variety of roles could be interesting.

The bureau gets job assignments from professors on their university campus or from other schools with similar programs (they are each other’s clients, in a way). They also get samples of already-completed work from agencies, which means that they then can compare their own translations to the professional ones, and such analysis is a useful exercise for them. Finally, they also do free work for the non-profit sector. The jobs they do are not just translations, but also include terminology or scanning or other such assignments.

A manager receives the assignment and gives it to a translator. An editor goes over it when the translator has completed it. The bureau receives fake payment for the job, but on a sliding scale, depending on whether the client is satisfied. The students involved in each assignment get class credit based on the satisfaction and payment, as well as on their attendance and their reports on their work. If a student is not doing a good job with the assignments, she or he can get warnings or extra work, and can even be dismissed, if the circumstances call for it.

Dr. Thelen explained that his students get a lot of useful practice out of this bureau. As already mentioned, they learn how to write CVs and application letters and how to interview, and they also learn how to work at a translation agency, and, of course, how to handle the specific requirements of whichever job they get at the agency. Many of the students improve their translating and editing skills, end up working more efficiently, practice using CAT tools, and also get experience with problem-solving, bureau management, workflow management, personnel issues, negotiation, dealing with clients, meeting deadlines, handling financial issues and balancing books, and so on.

I think Dr. Thelen’s program sounds like a good one. It would be interesting to know if alumni from such programs are hired at bureaus more frequently and/or if they are more successful in their translation careers. I’d like to see more university programs in translation include such real-life (or, at least, simulated real-life) practice along with what they already offer, i.e. translation theory, training in using computer programs, and language courses. Perhaps it makes sense to also have a sort of mentoring system in which students intern with and/or have study visits at bureaus and/or with freelance translators and/or at other places that employ translators.

Students training to be translators and/or to work with translation in some other way need this hands-on, pragmatic experience and not just the more academic courses.