Saturday, March 31, 2012

Games Translators Play

Back in November, 2010, there was a post on this blog about Juvenes Translatores, a pan-European translation competition for young people, 17 years old, who are still at secondary school. For more about the make-up of the competition, enter juvenes in the Search box on the right. Now the results of the 2011 edition are out.
"The contest has gained in popularity each year, with entrant numbers last year the highest ever at over 3,000."
So it's very popular and not just for prodigies.
"Many of this year’s winners have a special fondness for languages. The winners from the Netherlands and Luxembourg grew up in bilingual families, and have added more at school."
In this respect, see the remarks two and three posts ago about multilingualism.

The competition is impressive too for its variety.
"Participants had to select one of 23 texts (for each of the EU’s official languages) and translate it into another EU language of their choice. Although many chose English as a source language, the total number of language combinations used was 148 – the highest since the competition was launched in 2007."
"Irish girl Orla Patton, a student at Mainistir Loreto Deilginis school in County Dublin, is the winner of the Irish section of the contest for her work – translating a text from Irish into English."
The competitors in Juvenes Traductores are neither Expert nor Professional Translators, but the competition is judged by professionals from the European Commission, so we can assume that the best of them achieve near-expert standards. In fact, by the nature of the language courses in the schools they attend, they are Advanced Native Translators.
"The competition organisers were at pains to stress that behind every promising student there is a teacher. Success in the competition is not simply a matter of arranging the practical details, they said – the winners’ teachers had clearly also put in some hard yards, inspiring and nurturing such linguistic interest and flair."
At the same time, news comes about another well-established but very different competition, the Jeux de la Traduction / Translation Games. This year, its seventh, it will be held at Sherbrooke, Quebec. It's a team competition; the languages are limited to French and English. And it's for professionals, or aspiring professionals like translation school students. (Significantly, one of its sponsors is the Language Industry Association of Canada.) As such it's of no further interest for this blog, except that, like Juvenes Translatores, it illuminates the ludic aspect of translating: translation as play, without having a communicative purpose. As Werner Leopold, a pioneer of child language studies, discovered long ago with his little Natural Translator daughter, translating can be fun. (For more about Leopold's daughter. enter leopold in the Search box)

Alan McDonnell. Europe’s best young translators feted in Brussels: Dublin girl shines in native language skills. The Epoch Times, March 28, 2010. For the article, click here.

7es Jeux de la traduction / 7th Translation Games. Université de Sherbrooke, 2012. Website here.

European Commission

Friday, March 23, 2012

Can Translation Be Called Interpretation?

Back in October 2009, there was a post on this blog with the title Can interpretation be called translation? To find it, enter jd-glasgow in the Search box on the right – you’ll see why. It was about an ambiguity in the word translation, which means 'written translation' in a narrow sense but 'any kind of translation, written or oral', in the broad sense understood by the general public. Certainly the technical usage is to call the oral kind interpretation.

Now, all of a sudden, the reverse question arises of whether interpretation can be used to include written translation.

Historically, the answer is yes. The Latin word interpres, which is the origin of interpreter, meant any kind of translator. That’s why Louis Kelly’s history of translation is called The True Interpreter. In modern German, Dolmetscher means interpreter, but when Martin Luther, in 1530, penned his famous Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, he was addressing the translators of written texts, more especially the Bible. Later on, the diplomatic ‘interpreters’ in the consulates of European powers in the Middle and Far East did both written and oral translation. But how about today?

Believe it or not, the greatest legal minds in the United States are currently pondering this 'terminological inexactitude', and the transcript of the proceedings so far runs to 63 pages.
“Consider the facts. In 2008, Mr. Taniguchi [a Japanese citizen] filed suit against a hotel in Saipan [a US territory in the Pacific], accusing it of negligence after he fell through a wooden deck on the premises in 2006. The hotel won and, following a provision in U.S. federal law that says the winner can recoup “interpretation” costs, sent Mr. Taniguchi a bill for $5,517.20, according to court records. Of that amount, $5,257.20 was actually for document translations including some of Mr. Taniguchi’s medical records from Japan.
Mr. Taniguchi’s lawyers objected, saying the word 'interpretation' doesn’t include translation of written material. They lost in a federal appeals court in San Francisco and brought their case to the Supreme Court.
The high court accepts less than 1% of appeals – so why this one? Credit probably goes to Judge Richard Posner in Chicago, one of the nation’s best-known appellate judges, who in 2006 ruled that translations don’t count as interpretations. 'Robert Fagles made famous translations into English of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but no one would refer to him as an English-language ‘interpreter’ of those works,' averred Judge Posner.
There was thus a split among appeals courts – with the San Francisco court, joined by others, taking one interpretation of 'interpretation' and Judge Posner taking another. Such splits can only be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court."
Don't hold your breath. The Justices are not expected to deliver their decision until July. Meanwhile it's not a cut-and-dried case.
"Justice Scalia drew laughter when he offered a suggestion to explain why lower courts have sometimes allowed the billing of translation costs [as interpretation]. 'Stupidity, madam, sheer stupidity,' Justice Scalia said, quoting 18th-century author Samuel Johnson."

My thanks to Guillermo Marco of Intérpretes de Conferencias, S.L., Valencia, for contributing the Wall Street Journal items.

Lost in Interpretation: Japan Citizen Case Goes to Supreme Court. Japan Real Time, Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2012. For the article, click here.

Matter of Interpretation: Supreme Court Sympathetic to Japanese Litigant. Japan Real Time, Wall Steet Journal, February 22, 2012. For the article, click here.

For the verbatim transcript of the Supreme Court hearing, click here.

Louis G. Kelly. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979. Available from Amazon UK.

Martin Luther. Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. In H. J. Störig (ed.) Das Problem des Übersetzens, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963, pp.14-32. For an English translation, click here.

Brian Harris. Ernest Satow's Early Career as Diplomatic Interpreter. Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 116-134, 2002.
Satow was a British diplomatic interpreter in Japan whose work involved a good deal of written translation.

The United States Supreme Court. Source: Wall Street Journal.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Multilingualism (continued)

The previous post made an anecdotal case for multilingualism being within the capability of ordinary people. Hyperglots are people who are endowed with or who've exploited that common capability to an uncommon extent. (For a video of an Italian polyglot, Luca, who speaks eight languages, click here and skip the opening ad.) We're all born with the ability to learn not just one language, not even two, but an unknown multiplicity of languages if we want to.

Why so and how? Wouldn't one language have been enough for the minds of individuals? (Societal multilingualism is another matter.) But nature abounds in redundancies. Perhaps they've evolved to provide backup if one ability fails. If we go blind and can't read or write, we can dictate and – these days – listen to audio descriptions; and if sight and sound both fail, there's still communication by touch.

How do we deal with many languages? Not only learn them but also store and recall them and use them properly? The model in favour is that languages are coded as networks of neurons; but there's disagreement over whether a new network forms for each language, or a single network is augmented and the new language 'tagged' for activation and suppression. Either way, our brains come provided with so many billions of neurons that there are plenty for another language and in practice there's no physical limit. Studies of interaction between the languages tend to focus on the leakage or interference between them; but the interferences are relatively minor compared with the vast amount of language that we successfully differentiate and use separately; that's another miracle.

Of course there's the flip side: the billions of people who don't know more than one language. But it's not because they can't, though they often come to think they can't. The most prevalent reason is that they don't need it because they live out their lives in one sufficient community with one dominant language. There's also cultural superiority: the pretension that other people should learn your language and not you theirs; common among native English speakers, including English Canadians.

As for translation, logically the Natural Translation Hypothesis would predict that multilinguals and hyperglots can translate between all possible pairings of their languages. Somebody test it, please! That doesn't mean they can translate equally well or with equal facility in all the combinations; because their translating ability is limited by the extent of their knowledge of the languages and by other cognitive factors. But NTH says they can always do some translating.

Meanwhile, two languages are a sufficient minimum for translating, so it's understandable that most studies of individual translators, including interpreters, have looked at them as bilinguals when many of them were in fact multilingual. At the Expert level, you have a hard time getting a translation position in the European Commission or the United Nations unless you know three or four languages.

Bilingualism studies of individuals have also concentrated on what the bi in the name implies: two languages. This gives the impression that multilingualism is an extension of bilingualism and that it's less normal. But from the point of view of human mental capacity and structuring, multilingualism is not an extension of bilingualism. Rather, bilingualism is a special, minimal case of multilingualism.

Michel Paradis. A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2006. There's a paperback edition.
This is for the different hypotheses regarding language acquisition, storage and organisation, especially Paradis' own. Much of it is accessible here and here.

Audio description. Wikipedia. Click here.

Source: YouTube.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Recently a British student won an achievement prize for having learnt so many languages – eleven if I remember rightly – with 'perfect' pronunciation. He said he didn't consider himself extraordinary, but it took hard work.

In the late eighteenth century, the British orientalist Sir William Jones (see portrait) became one of the first linguists to realise that many languages, spread astonishingly wide from India to Ireland, had similarities that indicated a common origin, and to posit that they had all descended from a lost language, Proto-Indo-European, the closest to which is now Sanskrit.
"The young William Jones was a linguistic prodigy, learning Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and the basics of Chinese writing at an early age. By the end of his life he knew thirteen languages thoroughly and another twenty-eight reasonably well."
He made his discovery because he knew and could compare so many languages. He not only knew the languages, he could translate between them. His first important translation was Histoire de Nader Chah (Biography of Nader Shah), 1770. He translated it first into French because he did it on a commission from King Christian VII of Denmark and French was the international language of European culture. Then he translated it again into English.

Another famous polyglot was the Italian cardinal and Custodian of the Vatican Library Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774–1849). He's credited with speaking 39 languages fluently, though he never travelled outside Italy. The story goes that his first foreign language feat was picking up Greek and Latin by overhearing classes while he worked for his father as a carpenter across the street from a school kept by an old priest who was teaching his pupils behind an open window, and that this was before he was even able to read and write his own language. There's a website that bears his name for people who enjoy learning languages (see References below).

Jones and Mezzofanti were hyperglots, people who know an extraordinary number of languages. The first hyperglot, or near hyperglot, that I knew personally was the Hungarian father of a schoolmate of mine. He would learn yet another language by taking a Bible in it and matching it to the Hungarian translation, long passages of which he knew by heart. People like the Hungarians are strongly motivated to learn other languages by the circumstance that very few foreigners can speak their language.

The next one was my history tutor at university, Bernard Lewis. I was already using English, French and Arabic for the thesis I was researching. One day I told him I'd discovered that there were also Russian sources. "Oh well," was his reaction, "Now I suppose you'll have to learn Russian."

Hyperglots are extraordinary people. Now here's a different kind of story. One afternoon during my first stay in Cairo, in the early 1950s, I saw a job ad that intrigued me. It was in Groppi's tea room:
"Once a magnet for Egypt’s high society when it was considered the world’s Ritziest tea room, Groppi, set in Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square, still retains its original mystique although its interior is somewhat faded. Groppi’s, the creation of Swiss pastry maker Giacomo Groppi, has been featured in many films and been extensively written-about."
The ad was for sales assistants. It was for young ladies "speaking the languages of the country." I asked what the expression meant, and was told: Arabic, English, French, Italian and Greek. In those days, Cairo was a far more cosmopolitan and multicultural city than it is now and each of those languages was spoken by a vibrant community; still I assumed that Arabic and one of them would be enough to get a job. "Not so." I was told, "Our staff must be able to serve customers in all of them." Also that some Armenian and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), though not required, would be a help. For shop assistants! They were not 'hyperglots', not even highly educated, but quite ordinary people who happened to work in an environment that stimulated language learning.

To come up to date, most of the children where I live know something of two languages, Spanish and Valencian, without having been taught them; and now they're all obliged to learn a third language, English, at school. Few parents object, because English is seen as essential for travel and advancement in today's world.

The late King Hassan of Morocco, is credited with saying that in today's world, a person who knows just one language is only semi-literate. His own country is officially bilingual in Arabic and French, and well-educated people switch constantly between them. Furthermore, there's a widely spoken third language, Berber; and the Spanish telephone company Telefonica maintains a call centre in Tangiers because the city's in a region where there are still, for historical reason, many Spanish speakers.
As I didn't know Berber or Moroccan Arabic, I used to communicate with my maid there in Spanish. Quite a lot of Tangiers natives are quadrilingual.

So how about the benighted 'semi-literates' who only know a single language? They remind me of the ads for mental development products that begin by proclaiming something like, "Scientists have discovered you're only using 10% of your brain!"

To be continued.

William Jones (philologist). Wikipedia, at this link.

Proto-Indo-European language. Wikipedia, at this link.

Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi (active 1733-1759). The history of the life of Nader Shah, King of Persia / extracted from an Eastern manuscript, which was translated into French with an introduction, containing, I A description of Asia II A short history of Persia and an appendix consisting of an essay on Asiatick poetry and the history of the Persian language, to which are added, pieces relative to the French translation, by William Jones, Esq. London: Printed by J. Richardson, for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1773.

Donovan Nagel (Australian freelance translator). Incidental acquisition. The Mezzofanti Guild, An Online Community of Serious Language Learners, 2011. Website – to go to it, click here.

Linda S. Heard. If only Groppi's walls could talk. Al Shindagah, Issue 78, 2007. Reproduces a nice mosaic from the original decoration. To go there, click here.

Sir William Jones. A fine 19th-century steel engraving after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Interpreting in the Limelight

Interpreting for TV is a specialisation within what is more generally called media interpreting. There are two kinds of interpreters for television. One's the kind who are present only as a 'voice off' and may actually be working at some distance from the TV studio (distance or remote interpreting). If the interpreter receives a video feed, it's similar to doing conference interpreting from a closed booth and it bestows anonymity. The other kind is the interpreter who takes part in the proceedings on screen. Then it's 'interpreting in the limelight'.

And Interpreting in the limelight is precisely the title of a very interesting article in the latest edition of The Linguist magazine. It's by someone who's had a lot of experience at it, Susie Valerio. It's much more akin to liaison interpreting. I won't say more here about the techniques and satisfactions of the work itself, because Susie is a Professional Expert Interpreter and as such what she says about it is beyond the scope of this blog. She sums it up as working in a "high-pressure environment." However, she gives a good deal of subsidiary information that is of concern to us.

First the reasons why TV programme makers do not favour using regular Professional Interpreters.

1. Money.
"The hourly rate of an agency interpreter... is higher that that of most assistant producers, and an interpreter on full rate for a whole day can easily be more expensive than the director. So it will come as no surprise that [professional] interpreters and translators are used very sparingly."
To me that did come as a surprise, because I had no idea that TV production staff were paid so little. But perhaps it explains something that used to puzzle me: Why did the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation employ inexperienced interpreters when Expert Interpreters would have been available? However, there are other reasons...

"Programme makers have major problems finding linguists who understand the technical aspects of the TV-making craft... The extremely fast-paced environment means that they cannot afford to waste time explaining technicalities."
3. This is a type of interpreting where the interpreter is sometimes not required to say, disinterestedly, exactly what the speaker said - contrary, for instance, to court interpreting.
"The interpreter is frequently called on to act as mediator, often prompted by producers and interviewees to 'guide' the story they are covering by slightly adapting questions and answers in order to fit a particular brief."
4. Again like liaison interpreting, the work often involves the interpreter in other functions.
"There tend to be many additions to the original job description. Interpreters are...expected to help with whatever language support is needed * from consecutive interpreting to helping with the accreditation of foreign journalists... On football assignments, interpreters are often called in to assist the club's press officer with queries from foreign journalists. They may be asked to do stadium announcements or even to help with security issues involving foreign fans."
Then there's the description of how Susie herself drifted into TV interpreting. She had no interpreter training.
"I began working as a media interpreter... after finishing a BA in Drama, Film and Television Studies. A friend who worked as a producer for a big television company asked me to translate some interviews for an international football show, aired in more than 100 countries. I was concerned that I was not a trained interpreter but was told that my knowledge of programme making was much more important than any linguistic knowledge."
In other words, the TV people didn't doubt that if she could speak the languages and knew the extralinguistic environment, she could translate.

Susie Valerio. Interpreting in the limelight. The Linguist, February/March, 2012, pp. 14-15.
The Linguist has gone digital. For more, access the website of the Chartered Institute of Linguists by clicking here.

Source: CIOL