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'?