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.