Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why We Should Care About Languages

Not long ago, I read a review of a new book on the loss of languages, entitled When Languages Die by K. David Harrison from Swarthmore College.

I admit that the first line of the review strikes me as ignorant: “Linguists have, in general, done a poor job of articulating why people should care that half of the approximately 6,900 languages spoken on the planet will be extinct in a century.” To me, it just seems obvious that there are many reasons why people should care, not least because, as I have said so many times before on this blog, languages all offer a different perspective on the world and that it is only beneficial to open ourselves up to more ideas and views.

A quote from the review gives evidence of the profusion of variety in human language: “local calendars, such as the lunar calendar of the Natchez, provide evidence of the diffusion of non-native plants like peaches and watermelons to the lower Mississippi, which became the names for months (along with “mulberries,” “great corn,” and “chestnuts”) by the 1750s. No one speaks Natchez anymore. Some languages with words for categories called “classifiers” demonstrate how varied the ways of parsing the world: in Nivikh, a Siberian language with 300 speakers, has 27 classifiers; in Squamish, a Pacific Northwest language with 15 speakers, you use a different number depending on if you’re counting humans or animals.”

I hope to get my hands on this book during my upcoming summer holidays!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Translation Magazine

Some of you might be interested to learn about a new magazine on translation, which is called, appropriately enough, Translation Magazine. It is produced and published by translators in Portugal, which means that all articles are in both English and Portuguese.

I just received the first issue about a week ago and it looks quite good, with a lot of interesting articles on topics such as translation myths, the challenges of being a freelance translator, translating for the automotive industry, and tips for making the translation process less labor-intensive. Full disclosure: there are also two articles in this issue of Translation Magazine that I’d previously published elsewhere and that have now been republished in English as well as translated to Portuguese.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lucky Jim and Apostrophes

A few weeks ago, I read the humorous novel Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The novel satirizes various aspects of academia and related situations, but one of the most comic parts, to my mind anyway, was when the cab Jim Dixon and Christine Callaghan are in drives up to a petrol station. Here is the sentence: “Behind these [petrol pumps] was an unlit building with a painted sign, faintly visible, reading Car’s for Hire – Batesons – Repair’s.” (page 138 in the edition printed by Victor Gollancz, London)

Why is this funny? Because of the horrible apostrophe usage! Many users of English have trouble with apostrophes, but in general, it’s pretty simple: you use an apostrophe for possessives, but not for plurals (yes, I’m leaving out contractions, and the fact that the word “its” is possessive, not plural, in order to focus on the major area of confusion). So the sign in Lucky Jim should actually read Cars for Hire – Bateson’s – Repairs.

As a copy editor, punctuation is very important to me. I have special feelings in particular for the apostrophe and the serial comma, and I’m a big fan of them both. Those of you interested in apostrophes might enjoy the
Apostrophe Protection Society’s website, and those of you who don’t think you’re interested should check it out anyway. You might learn (or re-learn) a few thing’s, I mean, things.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Out Stealing Translators

Some of you may have heard by now about the novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, which recently won the Independent Foreign Fiction. The award is special in part because it is quite large (£10,000), but also because the translator, in this case Anne Born, receives half of it.

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review,
a long review of the novel mentions the translator exactly zero times (except in the sidebar). If the reviewer has no knowledge of the original language, certainly he or she shouldn’t critique how the translation was done. But to not even state that the book is a translation or which language it was translated from (yes, the review refers to Oslo, but just because a book takes place in a certain location doesn’t mean it was written there) seems to me a gross oversight.

The reviewer, Thomas McGuane, reviews the book quite positively. How does he think that he read the book? In which language? Who and what made the English version that he so admires possible? This is truly a case of an invisible translator, and that a major book section would so blatantly ignore – dare I say “steal” – the important role of translation in making good literature from other countries available in English is depressing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Educating the Customers, Redux: Time

In the most recent issue of the Translation Journal, I have an article entitled 'Educating the Customers, Redux: Time.' Some of you may recall my previous article on educating customers about the cost of translation.

I’ve posted the latest article below, but there are other interesting articles to read in the Translation Journal, so check it out. And let me know if you have any other ideas on how to educate customers!

Educating the Customers, Redux: Time

Brett Jocelyn Epstein

Some readers may remember my article in the October 2006 issue of the Translation Journal that discussed educating customers about what translation is and how much it costs. Well, it turns out that there’s another matter that we translators need to bring up with our customers: time.

Have you experienced the situation where you received a text from a customer and then were casually, or perhaps sheepishly, informed that it was needed back – perfectly translated and/or edited, of course – within just a few hours or days? And how often has such a text been especially long and/or complicated? And has a customer ever promised to send you a project by a certain date, not met the deadline, sent you the text days or even weeks later, and then nevertheless expected you to be done with your part of it by the date originally agreed upon? And how frequently has such an event occurred during a particularly busy period (annual reports season, for example), when your work has been carefully and tightly scheduled?

It is natural to feel, when something like this happens, that our customers do not respect us or our time, that they have no understanding of what our job entails, and that they do not care if we have to work from eight a.m. until two the next morning several days in a row just to get their assignment done on time. And thinking that a customer does not respect or show consideration for the highly trained professional he or she has entrusted with an important document can cause frustrated and angry feelings and potentially even affect the translator so much that the job is not done as well as it could have been. Sometimes, translators have even been known to warn their colleagues not to accept work from a certain client, since it is “always late.” In other words, it’s a lose-lose situation all the way around.

So why do customers do this? Why do they jeopardize the quality of the work and their relationship with the translator? In my experience, the major reasons are 1) that the customer does not know what is really involved in translation, and thus can not properly schedule the time needed for a thorough translation job, or 2) the customer him- or herself can not schedule his or her own work properly and then passes off the stress and pressure of a looming deadline to the translator, or 3) the customer assumes self-employed workers are simply sitting around, waiting desperately for the next job, and can take anything at any time. A subset of the last cause of this problem is that customers sometimes seem to assume that they are your only customer – or at least your most important one – and that even if they have not sent you the work by the time you agreed on, there is no reason to believe that you might now be busy with someone else’s assignment.

How, then, can we translators tackle this delicate matter of time? To begin with, we can offer the customers more information before they even have hired us. The easiest step is something I recommended in the last article: write detailed information on your website or in your other promotional materials about what translation is and what is involved in your work. If you can, describe past assignments in general terms (because of privacy issues, you do not want to be too specific about what the job was) and mention how long it took you to do every stage of each project. For example, you can write: “5000 word contract. Half of the text was a general description of the companies and their products, and the other half was complicated legal language. I did a good rough draft in six hours of full-time work, and then I spent forty-five minutes researching terms. I revised the translation for three hours, edited it for two, and finally spent another two and a half hours comparing the source and target texts.” Perhaps if many translators began adding to their websites a section about time, along with ones on their professional backgrounds and rates, customers would take notice. Maybe they would learn something, too.

Similarly, when you are first offered an assignment, do not write back with information about your rates only. Those who are not translators have no way of guessing how much time or effort a job could take, which is why it is very helpful if you can be as detailed as possible. Say how many hours you anticipate each step in the translation process taking. Write whether the assignment will require you to go to the library or a bookstore to get specialized information, or collaborate with another translator or other professional. If you can see a rough draft of the document or get any more information about it, look it over and let the customer know if you think there will be any significant problems that will cause you to take a longer time than usual (for example, if the text is poorly written, or if it will be sent to you as a PDF rather than a Word document). And be sure to tell the customer what your schedule is like. Customers do not need to know all about your family obligations or your medical appointments, but it is certainly appropriate to tell them if you know (or expect) that you have a big job coming in, or if you will be on vacation, or if there is anything else that will affect your working time and ability. I usually give my customers specific information, such as, “I will be out of town for the next two weeks, but I will be checking my e-mail. So you can send me the assignment and I will print it out and study it while I am away. But I will not start translating it until this date, so you can expect it on that date. If the assignment has not arrived by this date, then I will not be able to finish it by that date.”

Also, sometimes you need to be stern with a customer. If you have previously had bad experiences with a certain client or if the project in question is coming during a particularly busy season, warn the customer in advance. Say, “I am looking forward to this assignment, but I want you to know that if it does not reach me by the time we agreed upon, I will not be able to do it.” You don’t need to explain to customers what else you have going on and you should not hint to them that you will be nice and make an exception for them and accept jobs that are sent a day or two late; all you need to do is civilly give them this warning, which hopefully will spur them on to get the work to you as planned.

But the advice above only addresses what you can do before you have gotten the text to be translated. What happens if a customer sends you the document after the date you have agreed upon? Or if a customer asks you translate something in an unreasonable amount of time?

To take the second question first, you need to, as stated above, explain exactly what is involved in the work and why you need more time. If the customer still insists – and often this is because he or she was late doing his or her own part in it – you can decide if you do in fact have the time to get it done, even if it means a few extra-long days and nights for you. Naturally, however, you will not work so hard for free, and you will charge a rush fee. Standard rush fees range from an additional 50% to 100% of the cost. Whether a client is willing to pay for the rush work is another question, but that won’t be discussed in-depth here, since the issue of money was addressed in the previous article. I can just briefly remind you that your time is valuable and that you should not suffer, and be paid poorly to boot, when a customer has not planned the project well. You can also ask for a late fee in some situations.

If you see that a document has not come to your e-mail in-box by the date you had expected it, it is appropriate for you to write to the customer and ask what is happening. It may be that the text is finished and ready to be translated, but somehow it just was not sent to you. It could also be that the customer found another translator or the job was postponed and you were not notified. I usually write something like, “I am just checking in with you about the translation assignment. I would appreciate it if you can let me know the status of the project.” It is also appropriate to add a reminder about your time limits or scheduling conflicts, as applicable.

As for what to do when the job has finally arrived, this depends on your relationship to the customer, the size of the assignment, and how late the assignment is. If it is a client who has never been late before and/or someone from whom you earn much of your income, you might want to gently mention the lateness, but not get into a big discussion about it. If the text is short or easy enough that you can still get a translation done, you can let the tardiness go. This time, anyway.

Sometimes, however, you may have to turn down an assignment to get the point across (if it does not cause financial hardship for you to do so, of course). Yes, you may have originally accepted the job, but if the customer has not kept his or her side of the agreement and has not sent you the work as promised, tell the client that. It is enough to politely say, “I am sorry, but I carefully schedule my time and as you did not send me the document as agreed upon, I can no longer accept the job. I hope you find someone else.” In most other circumstances, I recommend finding a colleague when you can not do a certain assignment, but in the case of delay on the customer’s part, it defeats the purpose if you do so. The customer will then just assume that he or she need not be on time, since there’s always another available translator, should the first one be too busy. If you are feeling particularly feisty, you could even mention that you had to turn down other jobs in order to make yourself free for the one that did not appear, and that as a result, you have lost money and potential future clients. Unfortunately, some people just do not consider how their actions affect others, so if you make it very clear to the customer how his or her thoughtlessness and/or inability to stick to a schedule has caused problems for you, this could really have an impact.

Regrettably, I suspect that there will always be customers who procrastinate when it comes to taking care of their own responsibilities, and that there will always be those who do not value the work others do and the time it takes. In the past few weeks alone, for example, a colleague gave me a translation assignment that she could no longer do it because it had arrived late, and I also edited an entire book in just a few (very long) days, because the customer had not planned well for the editing process. But I believe that we can eliminate some of these situations by educating our customers more. Once they begin to truly understand how much time our work takes, which they can only do if we explain the process to them in detail, and once we have begun teaching them that they can not send us documents late and/or expect assignments done very quickly, which we can do by warning our customers and/or refusing jobs and/or asking for rush or late fees, they will start both planning their time and their projects better and treating us with more respect. And isn’t it time that happened?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Which Books to Translate?

A recent article asked experts which books should be translated to English. Some of the suggestions included Israeli author Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Adom Atik (Ancient Red), Indian Manzoor Ahtesham’s Dastan-e Lapata (The Tale of the Missing Person), Norwegian Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, Hvor Ble Det av Deg i Alt Mylderet? (Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?), and Cuban Ena Lucía Portela’s Cien Botellas en una Pared (A Hundred Bottles on the Wall).

If I were asked about Swedish literature, I think I’d recommend some of the children’s books. Swedish children’s literature is really good (it’s not just Pippi Longstocking!), which I discovered when I first moved to Sweden six years ago and learned Swedish in large part by reading children’s books. Some favorite authors include Gunilla Bergström (I adore her Alfons Åberg series), Inger and Lasse Sandberg, and Maria Gripe, but there are many other talented writers whose work I’d like to see in English.

What do you think? Which books from other languages do you believe should be translated to English?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Poet and Translator Michael Hamburger

Translator and poet Michael Hamburger has passed away. He was born in Germany to a Jewish family who emigrated to the U.K. and he became a translator of works primarily from German. The authors he translated included Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Hölderlin, Nelly Sachs, Charles Baudelaire, Gunter Grass, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and also Marin Sorescu, whom Mr. Hamburger worked on in a relay translation from Romanian to German to English.

an obituary describes: the “author of more than 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of essays, whose seminal study of the tensions in European poetry, The Truth of Poetry (1969), the critic Michael Schmidt has ranked alongside William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis or Donald Davies’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, Hamburger often joked - not without rancour - about British reviewers of his poetry who would “brand” him “better known as a translator”, or a “passionate breeder of rare apples” (which he was), or “a renowned German poet”.”

an interview, Mr. Hamburger explained how he got into translation and how it related to his work as a translator: “Translation came naturally to me because as a child I was translated from Germany to Britain. So I began to translate when I was still at school, also choosing to specialize in what was called Modern Languages and amounted to French and German. One of my earliest translations was of the prose poems of Baudelaire, and as a soldier in Italy I also taught myself Italian, so as to be able to read Dante. Though I specialized more and more in German, from time to time I continued to translate from other languages.

“Translation, to me, was an activity separate from the writing of my own poems – rather as, for musicians, composition is separate from performance or the interpretation of other people’s music. I don’t ask myself whether my translations are creative. It's enough for me if they serve a useful purpose. Some of them were important enough to me to occupy me almost throughout my long life – like Hölderlin, with successive editions from 1943 to 2005. Towards the end of my life, though, I had to give up translating, so as to be able to concentrate entirely on my own poems.”

Also in the interview, he described how he thought of his work as a translator and that as a poet: “All I can say is that as a translator I have tried to get as close as possible not only to the semantics of the work translated, but to its way of breathing – which, to me, is the most essential characteristic of any poetic text.…All a poet can do is to write the poems he or she is impelled to write – just as nearly all my translations were of work that impelled me for one reason or another, since I was never a professional translator dependent on commissions.”

Impelled to write and impelled to translate, and in both cases searching for the way a work breathes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Ordinarily, when I see an article on language, translation, or literature, I like to write a whole post about it, but in recent days, there’ve been so many interesting pieces that I thought the best thing to do would be to have a round-up of them all in one post.

first article is from Scientific American and it talks about tonal and nontonal languages and brain development. Scientists have found that people who speak nontonal languages (such as English) have a newer versions of two genes that may affect the cerebral cortex than those who speak tonal languages (such as Chinese).

The second piece is an editorial by Stephen Benjamin, a gay man trained as an Arabic translator, who was forced to leave the U.S. Army because of his sexual orientation. At a time when there is such a need for Arabic (and other) translators, it seems extremely short-sighted (not to mention offensive) for the military to continue to have such a policy.

Next is an e-panel on literary translation, featuring translators Howard Curtis, Katherine Silver, Paul Olchvary, and Richard Jeffrey Newman. They talk about which languages they work with (French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, and classical Persian), how they began translating, how fast they translate, and other topics. Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this article!

fourth and final article is from the Times Literary Supplement and it is about the poet Ted Hughes and his work as a translator. He apparently translated from at least fourteen languages, some of which he didn’t actually know. Clive Wilmer, a poet and translator himself, explores connections between various translations by Hughes and Hughes’ own poetry. Mr. Wilmer writes, “In any poem of value there seems to be some poetic element, some inner intensity, which is separable from the language it is embodied in and which therefore appears to defy the truism we began with [i.e. that translation is imperfect and maybe even impossible].” Thank you to novelist Steven Russell-Thomas for sending me this article!

Enjoy these articles!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Nordic Translation Conference

I am planning a Nordic Translation Conference, which will take place in London next March. Some of you who read this blog might be interested in attending or even presenting, or you might have friends or colleagues who would like to know about the conference, so I am posting the first call for papers here.

Nordic Translation Conference

First Call for Papers

The Nordic Translation Conference will take place in London at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies on 7 and 8 March, 2008.

For the first time, a major conference is being planned all about Nordic translation. While many conferences on translation frequently include a presentation or two that mention Nordic issues, however peripherally, there has not yet been an event solely dedicated to the particular challenges and pleasures of translating between and among the Nordic countries, which are often closely related culturally, if not always linguistically. It should be exciting for academics and translators working on and with the Nordic languages to gather, discuss, and exchange ideas. The speakers will include Douglas Robinson, Kirsten Malmkjær, Tiina Nunnally, and Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown.

The conference will look at literary and non-literary translation of all kinds, including interpreting and subtitling, both between various Nordic languages and also between English and the Nordic languages. Nordic here includes Danish, Faroese, Finnish, Greenlandic, Icelandic, Norwegian, any of the Sámi dialects, and Swedish. Topics can include, but are not limited to, specific linguistic issues involved in translation/interpretation between two or more languages, analysis of particular texts/genres, professional issues, the translator/interpreter’s role, and the effect of cultural similarities/differences among Nordic countries. Both academics and practicing translators are encouraged to attend and present at the conference.

Please send proposals for conference papers (250-400 words) and a brief biographical note by 10 August 2007 to B.J. Epstein
by e-mail or to her c/o French Department, Swansea University, Singleton Park, Swansea, SA2 8PP, Wales, or by fax to +44 1792 295978.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Censorship in Iran

Recently, I noticed this article about literature in Iran, especially that in translation. It is interesting to see how much censorship plays a role (presumably native literature is pre-censored). As described in the article, “The ministry checks manuscripts mainly for erotic and religious transgression. Today, if a novel has made it past the censors, most Iranians assume that it has been tampered with and that they are better off searching for the Shah-era edition or the bootleg film version. Even in fiction, all relationships must conform to Islamic law. In the most recent vetted edition of “Madame Bovary,” for example, Emma’s adultery is omitted. Characters in Western novels who drink Champagne or whiskey find themselves uniformly sipping doogh, an Iranian yogurt soda that has never made anyone tipsy.”

Personally, I think one of the great joys of reading literature is learning about other cultures and lifestyles. For example, I’d find it odd if the characters in a book that takes place in Iran were drinking Guinness or enjoying a Japanese tea ceremony, and not doogh. When books are censored and adapted in this way, it seems as though only the plot (or some portion of it) matters, and not the culture behind it, and that is a loss. Apparently, many Iranians are aware of this and that’s why they turn to bootleg movies instead.

In Iran, rather than deal with these issues, “some [publishers] have turned away from contemporary literature altogether. The Western fascination with Rumi, for example, has heightened the already enthusiastic interest in Iran, and publishers are putting out new criticism and fresh translations. “The Persian classics create fewer problems,” Mohammad-Reza Zolfaghari, an editor at the Chaveh publishing house, said.”

It’s obviously, and unfortunately, much easier to control new translations of appropriate classics than attempt to translate foreign texts (or movies) that might be challenging to the country’s (or the government’s) belief system.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

In Memoriam: Physicist, Author, and Translator Hans-Uno Bengtsson

I was saddened by the news of true Renaissance man Hans-Uno Bengtsson’s recent, untimely death. Dr. Bengtsson was a Swedish physicist, the author of many books, and a translator from English to Swedish and from Danish to Swedish. He also liked to fly planes, ride motorcycles, and lecture all over the country on a variety of topics, and he was active in many organizations, including one focused on the author Fritiof Nilsson Piraten. He was a member of the Långaryd family, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the world’s largest charted family, with at least 149,000 members.

Many people spoke about the enthusiasm and care Dr. Bengtsson brought to his teaching. I was lucky enough to hear him lecture several times when I lived in Sweden, and he was always entertaining and energetic, and able to make any topic fascinating and easy to understand. I watched him walk on hot coals and I also watched him lie on a bed of nails while an assistant placed bricks on him and then hit the bricks with a hammer! Dr. Bengtsson did all this in order to explain physics in a way accessible to everyone. He certainly caught people’s attention!

I also had an interesting personal experience with him. One day, I’d been teaching in Lund, in southern Sweden, the same city where Dr. Bengtsson was a professor at the university. We both got on the train in Lund and he sat a few seats away from me. At the next stop, in Landskrona, right before the doors closed again, I saw that he suddenly rushed off the train, as though he had forgotten he was supposed to get off there. Unfortunately, he left his backpack behind. He owned a very unusually shaped backpack and it was, I’d say, as much a signature for him as his all-black clothing, including his leather pants and his Dr. Martens boots. So I was sure it was his bag and that he’d accidentally left it on the train in his confusion.

The next stop was Helsingborg, where I lived. I waited a few moments to see if anyone else would claim the bag, but finally I took it, ignoring the curious looks I got (after all, I already had my own backpack, and it did seem odd that I went over to another seat and took a second bag that clearly was not mine; no one said anything, however). So I took his bag home with me and I got my partner – who had had Dr. Bengtsson as a professor in several physics courses – to send him an e-mail, explaining what had happened.

The next day, my partner received a relieved reply. Apparently the professor had many important papers and other items in his bag and thus it meant a lot to him not to have lost it all. A couple of days later, Dr. Bengtsson was in Helsingborg and I went to the train station to meet him. I gave him his backpack and was very surprised when he expressed his gratitude and then handed me two bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne and a big box of chocolates. All I’d done was return his bag – I certainly didn’t expect such generosity. But he was known for his interest in good food and wine, and it makes sense that he’d want to share that with others whenever he could.

A Swedish database lists Dr. Bengtsson as the writer or translator of over one hundred texts. He was the author of physics textbooks as well as of many popular books, including ones on the physics of cooking, physics and alcoholic spirits, physics and flying, Sherlock Holmes, a couple of books about physics for children (based, apparently, on his own two children), and much more. He also translated both popular scientific books and fiction, including works by Murray Gell-Mann, Lee Smolin, Brian Green, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Fry, Robert van Gulik, Jill Paton Walsh, and others. An article I read about him mentioned how he enjoyed the challenge of finding just the right Swedish costume for each book.

Hans-Uno Bengtsson was an extremely productive and curious person, and his example is an inspiration.