Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Yo, what’s up?

I’ve been the recipient of hundreds of emails from students over the years. Some of them have been quite polite and well-written, but quite a few are informal to the point where they are verging on the rude. And many are full of typos.

“Yo, what’s up?” was one of the most informal openings I’ve gotten, while “Hey” is the most common informal one.

“Hope your well” is a regular mistake I see. “im writting my essay about x” is also not an usual phrasing.

“Respond immediately” is a frequent demand, and often those who use it send me their email over and over (and over) again if I don’t reply within a few hours. If a student should happen to send me the email on a Friday night, I have many copies waiting for me Monday morning, with increasing exhortations stating how I “must” reply right away or the student will be upset or be unable to write the essay or do the reading. And yes, this often comes from students who are waiting until the last minute to do their work, though they’ve known about the assignments for weeks, if not months.

So I liked this guide to emailing your teachers, and I suggest students follow the tips.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Vote for Brave New Words

Once again, Brave New Words has been nominated as one of the best language blogs. Please vote! All you have to do is click a button. Thanks!

Thursday, May 23, 2013


I recently discovered the journal Asymptote, which is dedicated to literary translation. As they say on their website, “Though a translation may never fully replicate the original in effect (thus our name, “asymptote”: the dotted line on a graph that a mathematical function may tend towards but never reach), it is in itself an act of creation.”

An intern for the magazine told me, “Not only do we offer the translations of these pieces, but we are happy to publish the originals, audio files of the original languages, and the translators’ commentaries where possible.” I think their approach to translation is fantastic, and I urge you to check the magazine out.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Picking up Hidden Meanings: Guest Post

I met Tim Lenton at a discussion I ran on translation and I thought he had some interesting ideas, so I invited him to write a guest post for the blog. Luckily, he agreed. Here it is:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that to attempt a proper translation, you need to be fluent in both the language of the original writer and the language you are translating into. Or is it?

Translation has fascinated me for a long time. I have been particularly intrigued by the difficulty of translating from Hebrew or Aramaic (sometimes via Greek) into English, which is a very different kind of language.

If you are looking at biblical translation, you have the additional problem of a few thousand years of cultural change added into the equation. Given the near-impossibility of translating contemporary poetry satisfactorily from one language to another – trying to convey the precise sense, the rhythm, the context and all the nuances – there doesn't seem much chance of getting those old biblical writings safely and securely into modern English.

Which is presumably why we have so many different translations of the Bible, though it doesn't explain why so many people appear to attribute infallibility not just to the Bible, but to the translations, especially if they are a few hundred years old and have the word James in the title.

I do not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, but reading about the Aramaic language in particular led me to what I think is an understanding of the way some of the New Testament was written. To many this will be an arrogant and laughable claim, and they may be right. But a feeling for language is as important as technical ability in it. My degree in German gave me something of that feeling for the way ideas were adopted into different languages.

I had long been aware that some idiosyncrasies of Greek (for instance, the continuous present tense) had not been conveyed into English in most translations. English people (like most modern Europeans) tend to look at things in a cause-and-effect way, so the New Testament  injunction to "Ask and you shall receive" leaves us looking around for what has not been delivered, whereas the meaning of the original is, I believe, "Be an asking sort of person and you will receive things", or to turn it around, "If you don't ask, you don't get".

But a book called Prayers of the Cosmos, by Neil Douglas-Klotz, which I discovered by chance in a friend's library on Holy Island, opened my eyes to the huge differences between the Aramaic and English way of looking at things – in particular how Aramaic words (like Hebrew) include a deep reservoir of roots and history in a way that just doesn't seem to happen in English unless you delve deeply and academically into the derivations of words.

I was intrigued to discover, for instance, that the Aramaic word for prayer (slotha)also means setting a trap, and the word for bread (lahma) also means understanding. This is highly figurative language which allows your mind to expand on what is on the page – roam around it, so to speak, to pick up all the hidden meanings. English, though wonderful in its way, is not like that.

One of the things that Douglas-Klotz did was expand on the Lord's Prayer, bringing out of the original Aramaic all the subtleties and allusions. But he did this at great length. I felt I would like to have a go at producing a usable Lord's prayer based on the Aramaic words. And so I did.

Ah, you may say, this is not a translation: this is a paraphrase. And of course you're right in the strict sense. But translation is bringing something across, and as Douglas-Klotz had brought something across to me, I wanted to bring it further across and add my own feeling for the language to it.

Is it possible to have a genuine feeling for a language you don't speak? I think it is, but then I would, wouldn't I? Here is the "translation" I ended up with:

Our Father, who is throughout the universe.

let your name be set apart and holy.

Through your kingdom and counsel,

let your desire and delight be,

as in the universe, also upon earth.

Give us this day bread for our necessities

and food for our understanding,

and free us from our offences, as also

we have freed our offenders.

And do not let us enter our temptation,

or make do with worldliness,

but set us free from error and immaturity.

For the kingdom, the power and the song

belong to you

from ages to ages.

Sealed in faithfulness.

What makes this worth doing? Is it just new words for the sake of it? Not at all.  This version gets rid of at least one wrong translation (the absurd "Lead me not into temptation") and breathes in some wider and deeper meanings.

For me, the word "delight" is important, because it presents God as benevolent, rather than as a despot. I wanted to include the idea "food for our understanding" in "our daily bread" and the Aramaic idea of immaturity and worldliness into the familiar but one-dimensional  "temptation". (The Aramaic also contains the idea of unripeness, but I decided regretfully that this could not be comfortably accommodated.) 

I also liked the word "song" as an expression of "glory", and "from ages to ages" better expresses the original than "for ever and ever".

Professional translators may regard this as amateurism of the worst kind. For me it was an exciting adventure, and one which has received a good response from those I have offered it to. Admittedly, they don't speak Aramaic either. But I'm not sure that matters.

Obviously I could not have done it without help from a genuine linguist in Douglas-Klotz, and he deserves most of the credit. He opened the door, and I went through it. Which is what doors are for.

Tim Lenton is a poet and former local newspaper columnist with experience of lecturing at the UEA. He has a BA (Hons) in German from Birkbeck College, London, is now retired and lives in Norwich with his wife, who is an education consultant. He has a website at www.back2sq1.co.uk.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cooking the Books

I’ve received some emails asking me how I got into translating cookbooks and what sort of skills you need. As with other types of translation, food writing is a specialized field and just enjoying eating is not enough of a qualification.

But let’s say you do genuinely love food and would like to work with cookbooks and other texts. What kinds of things could you do to try to break into food translation?

--Learn as much as you can about food. Cook and bake a lot. Read food magazine and borrow cookbooks from the library and study their style (and try out their recipes). Take a course, if you can afford it. Even if you don’t take a class, make sure you learn about different cuts of meat, techniques, ingredients, and tools, as they vary tremendously.

--Write restaurant reviews. Yes, you can start with blog posts, especially if you do so on a blog that isn’t your own (i.e. if you have an editor). You should also try to get an article or two in local publications, and then work your way up to national ones, if possible.

--Do other sorts of food writing. For example, interview chefs. Write travel articles that mention restaurants. Publish your own recipes.

--You can also do food editing. If you work as a proof-reader, try to find jobs that allow you to edit cookbooks and other texts about food, such as guides to cities or countries or cultures.

--Start small in regard to food translation. If you’re at a restaurant with a badly translated menu, offer to edit it. If you’re at a restaurant without a translated menu, offer to translate it. If you do one or two of these for free, you have something to put on your CV, and you have gained experience and potential customers. Grateful restaurant-owners may even pay you, or at least offer you a free dish or glass of something tasty.

--Do other sorts of food translation. For example, translate restaurant reviews or restaurant websites. As with food writing, try to do as many types of food translation as you can. This helps you learn about different styles, and it will help you make contacts.

--Sign up with agencies and/or with translation organizations and list food as one of your specialties.

--Contact publishing companies and magazine editors and offer your services. Do likewise with restaurants.

--Don’t set your heart on only doing food translation. Most translators do a variety of texts, so be aware of that, and try to work in a few different fields.

Basically, you need to show that you have a lot of knowledge about food and about language. So the more you can do to prove this, the better.

Food translation is a lot of fun and it can be a challenge (not to mention a danger to your waistline). But to succeed, you need to take food as seriously as you would medicine, or finance, or literature, or anything else.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Literary Translation Events in Norwich and London

I have organised a literary translation reading in Norwich on 17 May at 4 pm in the Undercroft (under the market). You can hear short excerpts from texts that have never been translated to English before. All the translators are UEA staff or students. The reading is free. (See below for the poster, which was designed by my PhD student Alex Valente. Thanks, Alex!)

On 22 May, you can hear a talk by me in London at City University on Fallen Women, Moody Bitches, and Stupid Southerners: Language Usage in Thrillers and Their Translation. This will take place at 6.30 pm in Room AG22, College Building, St John’s Street, and it is also free, followed by a reception.

I hope you can make one or more of these events!

Friday, May 03, 2013

Translators and (Their) Authors

As you read this, I’m on my way to Tel Aviv to attend the Translators and (Their) Authors conference at Tel Aviv University. I’ll be speaking about Swedish author Gösta Knutsson, who also translated work by Lewis Carroll.

Besides the fact that the conference itself sounded interesting, I was also keen to go because I’ve only been to Jerusalem, and I loved it and wanted a chance to see more of Israel.

I hope some of you will be at the conference and, if so, I look forward to seeing you there.