Wednesday, 30 November 2011

lost in...

following a recent recommendation in The Times' Books section I downloaded David Bellos "Is That A Fish In Your Ear", about translation.  I found it quite fascinating.  I am not  a translator, though I worked as one (from Russian and Japanese to English) in my younger days, but I am interested in language, and anyone who is even remotely interested would find something of interest in this book.  Bellos  points out that to engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all of their first languages.  You need to know their vehicular languages, languages learned by non-native speakers for the purpose of communicating with  native speakers of a third tongue.  These languages are, in order of the number of speakers they have, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Urdu, French, Japanese, and English.  At this point he refers to "the unfortunate but widespread idea that English is simpler than other languages".  I'll pick out some interesting snippets from this book, and paraphrase some of the rest of it, in the hope that others will read it and maybe comment and discuss.  I think these matters (especially translation and the role of English in it in the world) have not been sufficiently discussed.

The ancient Greeks thought all foreign languages sounded like "va-va-va" and so they called foreigners "varvaros", which became the word "barbarian".

"...the mother tongue that is supplanted by a learned language for higher-level activities remains only 'mother's tongue', used exclusively for interaction with the older generation".  This is precisely the situation of Alsatian, the regional language in this part of France (and across the Rhine in Germany, with variations).  When you ask someone if they speak that language they say no, but their granny does, and they sometimes speak it with her.

I have no time for Chomsky politically, but I did respect him as a linguist in former times.  His sentence "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously" was meant to show that a perfectly grammatical sentence can be meaningless - so students promptly began constructing scenarios in which that sentence had a meaning.  The author contends, further, that "no grammatical sentence, in any language, can be constructed such that it can never have a context of utterance in which it is meaningful."

"Thesaurus" means "treasure" in Greek.

The perils of online searching: in April 2010 a search for pages in English quoting "poetry is what is lost in translation" gave 15,100 results.  Almost all of them attributed the adage to Robert Frost.  But nobody has ever been able to find Frost saying anything like it in his works, letters, interviews or reported sayings.

Left dislocation (in French "moi, je veux une glace")occurs very frequently indeed in corpuses of language written originally in French, but quite rarely in translations into French of similar vintage.  This can be called a third code.  It occurs almost certainly because French grammars, and the teaching of French in francophone environments, characterise left dislocation as typical of spoken language.  So translators tend to "normalise" and write more "correctly", thus using less left dislocation than authors do.  With translation into English this work is more likely to be done by copy editors, and in both cases the author describes the task as taking the register and level of naturally written prose up a notch or two.

Recent figures, though they vary, show that in literary translation about 8 per cent of the work done in the world is into English, and that less than one per cent of all translations are into Chinese, although Chinese speakers are a quarter of the world's population.  English however is the medium as source or target of over 75 per cent of all translations, according to UNESCO.  Basically English is being translated out of and not into, and this trend is likely to expand.  Don't go into translation into English, there's no future in it.

This displays my ignorance, but I only recently discovered that Google Translate does not actually translate anything, but searches rapidly for examples of the word or phrase entered in parallel with the target language sought.  So largely it is searching existing translations.  I use Google Translate quite often at work, to check whether something already translated is fairly accurate.  But I know better than to seek a word or phrase in a language I do not know at all.  I use it to check translations into English or into one of the other languages of which I have a reasonable level of knowledge.  This book notes that English-language detective novels are quite likely to have been translated into Icelandic and other Scandinavian languages, and Harry Potter books into both Hebrew and Chinese.  It follows from this that these bodies of work have made a much greater contribution to the quality of Google and other computer translations than any of the great classics have.  The exception of course is the Bible.  The great classics are much more likely to have been translated by way of a pivot language such as English, French or German, rather than directly from say Hebrew into Farsi.

Literary translation into English is done by amateurs.  There is no money in it.  But in other countries there is.  Even in France people make money doing it, though they usually have a day job as well.  In Japan literary translators are celebrities (Motoyuki Shibata being the best known), and there are sections in bookshops devoted to their translations into Japanese.

Freud's complete works, written of course in German, have been translated only into English, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.  A number of words, such as "superego", "empathy" and "displacement" have come into English from the translation of Freud by James Strachey, which is still controversial - some say it is a betrayal of Freud's legacy - because Strachey treats Freud as a purely scientific writer.

Success in learning a foreign tongue comes at the moment when, at least in your head, you leave translation behind and begin to think in the original.  And so translation is routinely disparaged (I do this too) as no other field of endeavour is.

I thought this was interesting: "There is no form of language in the world that is ever spoken aloud without accompanying hand movements."  Interpreters gesticulate, even though nobody is supposed to be looking at them.  I remember, when I was interpreting from Japanese into English (and Japanese people are notoriously physically undemonstrative, even when drunk) how hard I worked to keep my hands from moving about while I was speaking.  As if it mattered.  Televison newsreaders don't move their hands, until they do the shuffle of papers or tap on the keyboard at the end that everyone waits for, because they are only pretending to talk to you, but are in fact reading words from a teleprompter.  A lecturer in a university who moves his hands is therefore ad-libbing, and one who is reading lecture notes aloud characteristically keeps his hands to his side or on the desk.  This also works the other way round.  Most people move their mouths when doing a complex or difficult tasks with their hands, such as threading a needle.

I was glad too to see the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax exposed again.  It has been done many times, but the belief persists in too many quarters that Inuit people have 20, or 40, or 50 words for snow.  Even the great Kate Bush's new album is called "50 Words For Snow".  No, they don't.  Inuit languages are agglutinative and add suffixes and prefixes to the stem word, so it's as pointless to say an Inuit language has 20 words for snow as to say that Russian, which does its verbs in similar fashion, has 10 words for football, even though Russian has at least 10 ways of saying that someone is playing football.

A thoughtful book, and one with which I took issue a number of times, but readable.  If you translate, or if you edit, or if you ever read anything in translation, read this book.  It will help.  And if you persist in believing what you may have been told at school, that "a translation is a poor substitute for the original", then think again.  The original language and text of the Bible no longer exist, so it has to be read in translation.  Stieg Larsson has been read by millions more people than there are Swedish speakers alive on the planet.  Is this a bad thing?

10 comments:

Jonathan said...

I'm surprised at Japanese coming ahead of English in your list. Japan has a population of 128m, and relatively few people outside of Japan speak Japanese. In the USA alone, there is a population of 312m, of which 80% speak English as their only language. There are quite a few other English speaking countries in the world, including of course England itself.

Jane Griffiths said...

my shorthand, also I think his figures are possibly dodgy - English was meant to be left kind of outside the list. I also suspect the Hindi and Urdu numbers are overstated and the French understated.

Jonny said...

I shall read this. Two things you summarised rang particularly true in my work as a copy editor of texts in English written by non-native English speakers.
The first was about ratcheting up the register. It happens all the time as swoops between registers happen all the time. A marketing paper on crowdsourcing I recently did had the phrase "tech savvy" in it. Took me ages to find a way of saying that which fitted the register I think an academic paper should be written in. It was an obvious example, but I'm routinely changing word order (perticularly literal left-shifting), getting rid of the word "specially", etc.
The second was gesticulation. Faced with a sentence that makes sense but isn't "right", I have to get up and walk around, as if lecturing, and find the way forward by gesticulating, emphasising, and using facial expressions until it's English English.

dreamingspire said...

I remember a university lecturer who was also a Methodist Minister telling the story that after he had taken a church service he was asked by a member of the congregation to tell her what translation he was using for his reading from the Old Testament. He told her that he had the Hebrew text in front of him and was translating on the spot. I suspect that he knew the passage quite well and was effectively using the Hebrew as a prompt.

theflashingblade said...

Jonny I can just picture you doing it and the cat looking up at you quizzically.

Anonymous said...

It sounds fascinating. But what is this "left dislocation" or "literal left-shifting" of which you speak?

Jane Griffiths said...

"Left-shifting" is placing a word or words at or near the beginning of a sentence when in the written language those words are either superfluous, belong later in the sentence, or by their position convey emphasis which can be rendered differently in the written langugage. An example in English would be "Me, I can't stand Jeremy Clarkson". I give a French example in my post, where conventional written language would be "Je veux une glace" - "I want an ice-cream". In the argot of the north-east of England, however, which has spread into English more generally in recent years with the rise to fame of television presenters who speak that variety of English, the shift is often to the right in spoken language: "I smoke tabs, me". It should be clear that these turns of phrase are to be avoided in written language, mostly.

Mrs Jonny said...

"The perils of online searching.." - absolutely, raising awareness of digital literacy and teaching it to those working in the post compulsory education sector is now an important part of our work within the JISC community.

Jane Griffiths said...

Yes. Remind me what JISC stands for, if you would be so good. Bellos disappointed me a little in places in this book, especially when he confessed that the figures he was using came from Wikipedia.

Mrs Jonny said...

JISC used to stand for "Joint Information Systems Committee" and was a series of committees "driving innovation in UK education and research". No longer a series of committees, we've kept the brand of JISC and "continue to champion the use of digital technology to ensure the UK remains world-class in research, teaching and learning". You did ask.