Saturday, December 26, 2009

Polish Extermination Camp

Timothy Garton Ash on the Auschwitz sign-theft:
Watching a German television news report on the trial of John Demjanjuk a few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear the announcer describe him as a guard in "the Polish extermination camp Sobibor". What times are these, when one of the main German TV channels thinks it can describe Nazi camps as "Polish"?

Normal times, I would say. 'Polish', in this case, is ambiguous, as ethnonyms almost always are: does it imply a camp run by Poles, as Garton Ash seems to think, a camp in Poland, or a camp with Polish inmates? Put yourself in a German news outlet's shoes a second. You're German and cover German issues. Your viewers are German. Their German teachers taught them all about German extermination camps in German history classes in their German schools in Germany. Germans do not need to designate the origin of Nazi stuff in the same way we can call Gordon Brown 'Prime Minister', or even just the 'PM', but have to specify that François Filon is the 'French Prime Minister'. However, the Nazis had concentration camps all over their territory, and so reference to the location is informative.

This is not entirely a translation issue - most people don't need telling that the death camps in World War Two were German, but might need some extra information about where they were. However, this is amplified in the case of Germany where different things are taken as read and where, when we have to say say 'German', they often say nothing at all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lying Through Translation

Oh Sacha Baron Cohen, you're so brave, tracking down terrorists and calling their leaders "dirty wizards". Except, well, he wasn't actually a terrorist. He wasn't even a Muslim. He wasn't even that annoyed about the dirty wizard crack. Now, as the second video claims, the interpreter apparently didn't say "get out, get out now", and you'll notice there's no subtitles for what Ayman Abu Aita said before, even though the other Arabic was translated.

This is why I started this blog. This is why I hope that if Ayman Abu Aita wins, he gets the shirt off Baron Cohen's lying, cowardly back. Aside from the fact that he took credit for being clever enough to find a man in the phonebook hiding from the CIA and being brave enough to talk to a peace activist high-ranking terrorist leader, aside from the fact that it plays on and reinforces unfair and dangerous stereotypes of anyone Muslim/Arab/generally brown being a terrorist, aside from the fact that his making a Fateh political candidate and Christian peace activist look gay is one of the best things that could ever have happened to Hamas, this is absolutely the worst kind of lying.

I don't speak Arabic. Most people don't speak Arabic. Most Arabs don't speak Palestinian Arabic, though I'm guessing they can understand it. We have to take Brüno's word that Aita said what Brüno said he said. There's an implicit trust in the translator not to just make stuff up to suit their own agenda, and to use it to straight-out lie - if this is what Baron Cohen did - not only abuses this trust, but does so in a situation where it is very hard to find out. It doesn't even have to be a convincing lie. I have no idea what "get out" in Arabic would even sound like. The more you need translation, the less you are capable of evaluating its accuracy. The more you have to trust the translator, the easier it is for them to openly lie to you.

It's worth noting that every time Aita speaks, the camera cuts directly to him, whereas it pans over to him for one reaction shot. Also, when Brüno starts his "dirty wizard" speech, it sounds jerky, as if there's been a cut. These don't really prove any kind of lie, but they do show there's been a fair bit of studio scissor-work. If this is read by any film/sound-production geeks who could tell me any more, that would be very helpful.

Afterthought edit: If someone was saying they wanted you to kidnap them because your terror cell was the in this season and Al Qaeda was out, would your reaction really be "I don't like (that)"? Would it not be something like "Yewhat?" or "I don't think you quite understand what's involved here". Even if your English isn't perfect, which Aita's clearly isn't, everybody knows "Pardon?" and the BS-word. Cohen gets away with this because we expect non-native speakers to get things wrong, to use the wrong expressions. Now, maybe in Arabic, you do say "I don't like" if someone's talking out their backside, but to me it sounds a bit of a non-sequitur. This should alert us to two things, firstly that something might be amiss with the video, secondly just how much we're willing to blame on the speaker or write off as just an innocent learner's mistake.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Things Kuffar Say

Interesting article from Language Log about the twitter trend #thingsdarkiessay, started apparently by black South Africans in self-description, offending Americans black and white alike. Mark Liberman goes on to say:
But there's an obvious problem, from Twitter's point of view. If a term X is harmless in region A but problematic in B, then not only will right-thinking people in B be offended, but not-so-nice people in B may enthusiastically join in. Whether (and to what extent) Twitter ought to police such things is another question, of course.

He also quotes someone mentioning the 'k-word', which South Africans think of as we do the n-word. Now, this k-word is of Arabic derivation, and is also a translator's minefield. I remember back in Secondary School, I (not a Muslim) used the word "infidel" in jest to describe a (non-Muslim) friend, who didn't share my religion. I'd used it similarly to the dictionary definition, as in, someone who doesn't share my religion. Lord knows why. He said something like "Well, I'm not a Muslim, as well you know", though with more rage and schoolboy cuss-words. And, for the life of me, I've never heard 'infidel' used to describe a non-adherent of any religion other than Islam. It seems to have lost a big portion of its meaning, and become imbued with all kinds of ideas of how much Muslims hate us. Translating ‘كافر’/‘kafir’ into English is therefore tricky. Do we translate it into 'infidel', coloured with paranoid Western ideas about Islam, or do we lay our cards on the table and just say 'kafir', at least being a bit more open about the clash-of-civilisations shorthand we're using?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tooth Mouse

I occasionally reminisce about godawful cartoons that I hated as a kid. I hope that's normal. One which I recall was the 'Tooth Mice', and it seems I'm not the only one. The premise was that there were these two mice (husband and wife, I recall), who would come and collect your teeth from under your pillow and leave you a present or some such. Two things annoyed me about this: firstly, the theme tune, which went "Are there tooth-mice?/Here's the proof/Every time you/Lose a tooth/There's a pair of fearless mice/Who fight through rain and snow and ice/To bring you all a nice surprise/So go to bed and close your eyes" and, if you can get over the fact that I still remember that twee drivel a decade and a half later, you'll notice that they follow "here's the proof" with... further details of the same implausible assertion. The second was that MICE DON'T COLLECT TEETH. That's fairy's work. Idiots.

And now I see this, wherein a Frenchwoman tells her English niece that a mouse will collect her milk teeth. This confirms suspicions I've had for a while, that in some eccentric countries, tooth-hungry mice are a normal thing, and one of them sold us this cartoon. This would explain both the mice and the awful, awful song. Kids' TV shows don't normally have massive budgets or require top-notch production values. Poetry is also a proper blighter to translate well, and bad translations often account for all manner of bizarre doggerel. Shakira ("lucky that my breasts are so small and humble so you don't confuse them with mountains") to Bertolt Brecht (most of the Threepenny Opera) it seems nobody is immune. The tooth-mice song, travesty as it is to concepts of truth and evidence, was probably done in about five minutes, by Alan Johnson's science teacher.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Cake Is a Lie

My mum and dad had to explain to me what
Let them eat cake!
meant when I first heard about it. I didn’t really understand it at first, because, generally, nobody mentions the bit about wanting bread. Some years later, I wanted to find out what it was in French. I was fairly sure that it would be
qu’ils mangent du gâteau
And, as wikipedia will confirm I was right, at least about the ‘qu’ils mangent...’ anyway. Textbook French subjunctive, five points, zero effort.

Turns out the cake wasn’t a gateau though. It was a brioche. Which is also weird, because I wouldn’t call a brioche a cake. I’d call it a brioche. Mind you, I’d probably also say “ooh lah-di-da” and flounce round pretending to drink cappuccino. ‘Brioche’ might be fine in French, but you say it in English and you sound like some Waitrose-faced southern ponce. The kind of peasants who can be bought off with brioche were probably only upset in the first place because none of the bread available had a name. Basically, translating food isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, just because different countries eat different stuff. So for starters, what counts as cake varies all over. The German ‘kuchen’ can be a cake or a pie, and ‘torte’ can be cake, tart or gateau. They even call the pie in the chart a ‘torte’. I mean, even cobs get renamed 'baps' if you go to the wrong parts of England, even ‘barm cakes’ in the more savage areas. Nailing down definitions of food is a difficult area – just ask someone what’s a pie and what’s a pudding. Then ask an American. And if you scroll back up, you’ll notice there’s all kinds of cultural, class and regional associations with different foodstuffs which I only take semi-seriously. Anyway, it’s a simplistic-looking area where, in fact, there’s a lot of crossover, ambiguity and untranslatability (which my computer says is not a word, but damn well is now), and that’s just now. Back in 1789, there was no Marks and Spencers and English speakers probably wouldn’t have known what a ‘brioche’ was. ‘Cake’ was probably the closest thing the roast-beef philistines would understand.

The brioche isn’t even the most interesting bit here. For example, do the French quote Marie Antoinette or whoever it was quite as much as we do, and for the same things? But anyway, even after my parents explained the story, I still wasn’t really satisfied. The opening “let them...” didn’t really make sense. Because it doesn’t. The “let...” rendering of this French subjunctive isn’t very common these days, because English speakers don’t really talk or think in subjunctives. We have lots of other ways to express the same thing, the kind of vague wishful thinking, an allusion to something desirable but beyond our control, a half-hearted attempt to will it into being through speech, the declaration of what we will let x equal this time, and all that froggy sentiment that I could explain a lot better through frantic gesticulation than actual words. Anyway, this is an awful, or at least awful tricky, translation because, Sainsbury’s Tâstez le Différence organic hand-brioched pain au lait aside, we’ve got something massively vague being translated into something massively ambiguous. The French version, in this context, can only mean one thing: “Well, I consider it a reasonable and indeed desirable suggestion that they eat cake”. The English translation can mean that, but the far more usual sense is “Well, allow them to eat cake”. As if the peasants were, at the time, banned from eating cake, brioche or sun-dried tomatoes, and Marie Antionette was being rather progressive and suggesting they open up the laws, what with the famine and everything. Which actually sounds rather believable, especially when you’re only yea high.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jihadi Fighters

Johann Hari quotes Osama Bin Laden, coming across a bit like a mischievous Flava Flav:
"All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen [jihadi fighters] to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written "al-Qa'ida" in order to make generals race there, and we cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses – without their achieving anything of note!"

Now, Johann Hari is doing what he's rather good at, which is making a intelligent point which should really have been blindingly obvious, while making a very common and very, very stupid mistake. 'Jihadi' is, of course, a made-up idiot-word for halfwits and literally means "bloke from Jihadland". Arabs say 'mujahid'/'مجاهد' and, once they've got enough to play piggy-in-the-middle, they stick -een/ين- on the end. English speakers should know the word 'mujahideen'/'مجاهدين' if they know anything about Afghanistan, and this is Indie readers we're talking here.

So why this daft neologism 'jihadi'? I'm guessing it's some kind of unspeaky thing where the 'Jihadis' are our enemies and the 'Mujahideen' our friends, or at the very least we wanted a word for them that wouldn't recall a historic relationship we'd all rather pretend didn't happen. But that's not even what baffles me. What baffles me, baffles the absolute living daylights out of me, is why did he feel it necessary to translate it for us? Something must be seriously flawed with our perception of the Muslim world if we have to explain real Arabic words used by Arabs and Arabic speakers using stupid Arabic words invented by cretinous English speakers.

Edit: put the proper Arabic squiggles in.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You Say "Fail" for These, Right?

Came across this in Borders in Oxford, where I found precisely nothing that I was looking for. All books pictured are in French:


Monday, September 28, 2009

One is sort of like, eloquent, yeah?

One indication that a translation may have been done in a hurry is a clash of different registers, such as with this quote from Germany's happiest politician (as of yesterday's election) Guido Westerwelle:

"The decision as to whom we send as a government representative rests solely with us Germans based on our political and moral standards."

The BBC's profile of Westerwelle describes his difficult balancing act between trying to make politics more 'fun', to appeal to younger voters, but still wanting to be taken seriously as leader of a business-friendly party. I'm sure he chooses his register very carefully, and would never mix the German equivalents of the formal 'to whom' construction with the very folksy 'us Germans' when giving a quote to the press.

I genuinely sympathise with the translator, as rendering the German 'lego brick' clauses into natural English, and deciding whether to keep the 'we' or 'us' that they chuck into a lot of sentences, are not easy tasks. On the other hand, this man is about to become rather important on the international stage, and it would be good to get an accurate impression of his personality. Instead, of the four direct quotes in this profile, two are the same bland sound bites you get from anyone in his position, the one above has been unhelpfully mangled, and the fourth sounds oddly formal:

"Of course I made some mistakes when I was young but one grows older and wiser"

Perhaps 'one' merely sounds older and wiser when one's words are translated, innit?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Something Else to Look Out for

Things don't match: Corresponding wikipedia entries, google images, people's reactions to the word, or even clumsy machine translations that mean something completely different. If native speakers aren't treating the word in the way the translation would imply, something's wrong.

Inspector Clouseau: Foreigners often don't sound very natural in English, not just because they haven't learned all of it perfectly yet, but also because they're having to think a lot harder than normal, and their brains are still at least partly set to foreignish. Translators also have to think very hard and switch backwards and forwards between languages: same problem. If the original speaker was not a cartoon Nazi or pasta chef, but sounds a bit like one at times, that's a bad translation.

See the rest here.


I’ve been meaning to do a post on the on the relatively recent Arabic lendword ‘هدنة’/‘hudna’ since, well, since before I started this blog. I managed to find this article which starts off very well, making the very interesting point that:
The use by Westerners of the word hudna highlights an anomaly. Whenever journalists, diplomats, or commentators covering the Middle East use a non-English word, it will almost always be Arabic or perhaps Persian; seldom do they use any Hebrew words. Never has a U.S. or British newspaper, for example, used the Hebrew word for cease-fire (hafsakat esh). This is odd as Israel is the other side to these cease-fires.
This is the first warning sign. Two languages are getting starkly different treatment. Lendwords often serve to give an exotic, foreign flavour to the concept they describe – think ‘nouvelle vague’, ‘squaw’ or ‘Rajah’, or all the trendy, tedious business jargon foreigners lap up from us. The decision to leave an imported concept sounding foreign can say a lot.
The majority of Arabic terms reproduced in Western language newspapers are concerned with either military topics (jihad, mujahideen, fida'iyin, shahid) or religious affairs (fatwa, mulla, ulema, ayatollah, Shari‘a, Allahu akbar). There is nothing wrong with borrowing Arabic words. However, doing so without understanding the word's nuance and historical development will render deficient any understanding of that word's true meaning.
Great stuff. But you can see we’re really entering the woods now. As with German, when most of the words we borrow from a language involve the same subject matter, we should tread carefully. The author, Denis McEoin, does not, as we’ll see later.
Here, it might be possible to consider hudna somewhat of an exception—it can be translated accurately as truce or cease-fire. Its contemporary usage — at least in English and other European languages — is exclusive to the conflict between Israel and its adversaries, whether Islamist terror groups in Gaza, the West Bank, or southern Lebanon, or states such as Syria. In Iran, it is used alongside the Persian term aramesh. Still, hudna retains a historical context that colors its meaning, if not in Western papers, then in Arabs' understanding.
Note: he claims accurately translated. Also note his stance and credentials. Though put ‘هدنة’ into google images and you also get a lot of ‘armistice’.

But I wonder about the word ‘hudna’. What else can you use it for? Wikipedia gives the variants
hadana: he grew quiet. hadina: he quieted (transitive or intransitive). haadana: he made peace with. The noun from each of these is hudna."
so it actually seems to have a much broader meaning than the English words, which are very focused on their military meanings. Though that might be fairly typical*. I rather like the feel of ‘hudna’ in fact. A tense calm as the guns fall silent. The eye of the storm. Though does it have much theological usage? I know Iranians understand it, but does it make sense in Urdu? And always worth considering with liturgical languages: does it mean the same to non-Arabic-speaking Muslims as to Muslim Arabs as to non-Muslim Arabs? It also makes me wonder about the word ‘truce’. Now this may not be true in your family, but when I were a lad, if two parties were tickling each other and one wanted to give in, he’d shout “truce!”. So to me at least, its register can go from the serious and martial right down to the childishly light-hearted. What sort of register does ‘hudna’ have? Do Arab kids shout “Hudna! Hudna!” in their childish Arab games? Do young Israelis do the same with ‘hafsakat esh’? Iranians with ‘aramesh’? Or is ‘hudna’ too militaristic and serious (like ‘armistice’), or even too religious in its connotations? Foreign lendwords are very useful at creating a particular effect, a particular set of associations, as they come without everyday baggage. The infamous German ‘Volk’ is a prime example. In German, it is almost as earthy and versatile as ‘folk’. In English, it’s pure Hitler.

But back to this “historical context”. Have a look through these-front-page google hits. Their working definitions all seem to follow The Israel Project glossary’s:
Arabic word often translated as "cease-fire”- Historically used as a tactic aimed at allowing the party declaring the hudna to regroup while tricking an enemy into lowering its guard. When the hudna expires, the party that declared it is stronger and the enemy weaker. The term comes from the story of the Muslim conquest of Mecca. Instead of a rapid victory, Muhammad made a ten-year treaty with the Kuraysh tribe. In 628 AD, after only two years of the ten-year treaty, Muhammad and his forces concluded that the Kuraysh were too weak to resist. The Muslims broke the treaty and took over all of Mecca without opposition.
What’s particularly interesting is firstly that this seems fairly standard. If you find yourself with temporary cessation of hostilities, it would take an idiot not to rearm and regroup and, well, if your ceasefire’s going to be broken it probably helps to be the one who breaks it. I doubt Mohammad’s army was the first or the last to pull that one. Secondly, unlike with McEoin – whose credentials are impressive and who clearly has no call to whitewash the term – ‘truce’ and ‘ceasefire’ are generally treated as mistranslations. But finally, and most importantly, all six use it for the same two things: truce with Israel and truce with the Quraysh tribe.

This is why I’m suspicious. It reminds me of the Shoah again, where a very general word is applied to a very specific thing. And then, quite simply, two usages is not a healthy number for a word, especially not one that gets so much exercise. From those two usages, we can infer that ‘hudna’ really doesn’t mean the same as ‘truce’. Nor does it mean the same as ‘هدنة’. ‘Hudna’, the English word of recent Arabic derivation, means ‘truce with Muslims, who are fundamenally dishonest’. It’s an imported unspeak, smuggling in the idea that a cessation of hostilities with Muslims is inherently different to with anyone else. This truce-with-the-perfidious-heathen trope gets a lot of airing, as well: One abstract uses it as almost a Hamas-specific word., while this smug declaration of victory associates it with Hamas and Hezbollah, but as an allegory for his (Muslim) adversary’s retreat. Even McEoin uses ‘hudna’ in this sense, saying:
What does this mean for the present hudna, or any that is likely to follow it? The jihad is waged against the entire world, but Israel has become its focus.[..]Can Western governments do anything to prevent a new hudna running its usual course? [...]If they could impose a hudna on their own side and not fire Qassam and Grad rockets, smuggle weapons, or infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel, there could be a chance for Gaza to develop.
And here, the difference between ‘hudna’ and ‘truce’, a complex issue of theology, strategy and translation, is even presented as a straight fact. You may also notice, if you google it yourself, that apart from Wikipedia, the abstract and one Ha’aretz article, all the front-page hits explicitly characterise Muslims as deceitful and committed to eternal jihad, and the hudna as a fundamental part of this. Unlike ‘truce’, ‘ceasefire’ or ‘armistics’, ‘hudna’ in English seems to be an exclusively negative word.

Incidentally, McEoin is also wrong about Hebrew. There is a word, an even shinier, newer one than ‘hudna’, which we’ve borrowed without translating: ‘הסברה ’/‘hasbara’. The basic meaning of the word is ‘explanation’, the s-b-r root, to do with clarity, in (I think) the hitpa’el hif'il binyan, which implies causation. So, if you pull it to bits, it means ‘making stuff clear’. But the sense in which we get it is far more specific: explaining Israeli policy to the rest of the world, i.e. public diplomacy or propaganda, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s an old truism that truth is the first casualty of war, which should give us a clue that this sort of thing has been going on for a while. Every government makes excuses for its crimes and cock-ups, and especially in battle. Israel is no exception, though it might be at the high end of the bell-curve for media-savvy Western powers. (Having said that, calling the December incursion into Gaza the equivalent of Operation Jingle Bells might not have been a great PR decision). It also might just be a bit more open about its tinkerings with the press. Now, in English, we hear ‘hasbara’ (mostly) from pro-Palestinian sources, and referring to the nefarious propaganda drive that accompanied Cast Lead. We never get to hear it from baffled ulpan students, or sheepish Israeli kids recounting exactly how the vase got broken. The exact same process is taking place as with ‘hudna’. A vague word is being placed in a very limited context and used for something far more specific, left untranslated and foreign-sounding, a shorthand word for something everybody does, but Tel-Aviv does differently. Whatever this apparently untranslatable word means in Hebrew, in English, it means ‘uniquely Israeli manipulation of the media’.

This is not a blog on middle-eastern politics, so I’m not going to tell you whether to trust Islamist promises of peace or Israeli press-releases. I’m not going to tell you whether a truce between Israel and Hamas would be desirable, workable or sustainable or if the Israelis would lie about it. I’m also not going to go into my strong reservations about declaring precisely what 1.4 billion people believe and exactly what a particular word means to them. I’m just going to say: be careful with foreign lendwords. They might not mean what you think they mean. Especially if that word, or that language, is ever used as shorthand, synecdoche or symbol. Be very careful if the word was imported specially to describe one specific concept, especially historical, political or otherwise emotionally-charged. Think about the myths and preconceptions about the language or its speakers and how they might influence our decision to leave a word untranslated. And most of all, don’t confuse your arguments. The pros and cons of ceasefire, Hamas’ and Israel’s motives and trustworthiness, the danger from Islam moderate and militant, the influence of Israeli lobbyist groups like AIPAC, all of these things are geopolitical, not linguistic, issues. Which side is lying the most and whether you would fight them on the beaches or kill them with kindness, it is your job to argue that and not the translator’s. So when I come across exotic words taken out of context and evoking myths that the Saracens are out for our blood and the Jews control the press, forgive me if I take them with a pinch of salt.

*I’m thinking of the truism that every Arabic word has four meanings, one normal meaning, one which means the exact opposite to the first, one completely unrelated one to do with camels or horses and finally one so obscene I couldn’t possibly explain it to you.

Famous Biblical City Day

Just heard John Stewart talking about Iran's annual "Jerusalem Day". It sounded odd because I've usually heard it called "Al-Quds" day, and, although he hesitated for a second working out what to call it, but he didn't mention 'al' or 'Quds' at all.

It's a tricky question. On the one hand, English speakers are far more likely to know it by the Hebrew name than the Arabic name or both, so it makes what was basically a passing comment easier to understand. On the other, you wouldn't expect a government who doesn't recognise Israel and sees Jerusalem as exclusively Muslim property to use anything other than the Arabic name for it. On a couple more hands, 'Al-Quds' enforces the idea of otherness on the Arab and Muslim world, but 'Jerusalem' diminishes the Arab/Muslim claim to the city, even when that claim is the main point of the event. In this case I would personally have said "Al-Quds - that means Jerusalem - day" or something like that. Only four extra syllables, and wouldn't have taken much more time than the pause. But which one to use normally is a bit of a dilemma.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

[Mythical Pretext]

Ahmadinejad has been caught spouting anti-Semitic drivel yet again. What did he say?
the Holocaust was "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim"
Look where the bunny ears are though. Only quoting what he said about the Holocaust, not the word 'Holocaust' itself. Odd. Surely if he said 'Holocaust', you'd just put 'Holocaust', wouldn't you? Luckily the BBC elaborates:
The pretext [the Holocaust] for the creation of the Zionist regime [Israel] is false. It is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim.
Firstly, I take issue with the word 'mythical'. It's ambiguous. I assume he means it's not true, but that's not how I would use it normally and it's right down at definition number five. Normally I'd use it to describe something having the power of a myth. Though I can't think of a better way to say it. Secondly, the whole thing is just plain weird. On the one hand, I can't think what he'd be talking about other than the Holocaust, on the other, the next sentence doesn't make sense. If the Holocaust is a lie, what's the unprovable and mythical claim? If the Holocaust is an unprovable and mythical claim, who's been telling porkies about it?

The thing you have to remember with Ahmadinejad you see, is that he's magnificently adept at chatting bob. His speeches about Israel are riddled with codes, euphemisms and dog-whistles. He won't even say the name of the place on principle, but still manages to talk about it all the time. Which begs the question, what's with the square brackets? Why does the BBC feel the need to explain that he meant [the Holocaust] and [Israel]? If you think the average reader can work out what he means, why put them in? If you think it's too ambiguous, then why are you so sure that's what he meant?

It could be that he's not talking about the Holocaust at all, though Lord knows what he's talking about otherwise. It could be that he's unable to smirk and string a sentence together at the same time, which wouldn't surprise me. And it could be that he's deliberately avoiding direct reference to Israel or the Shoah for whatever nefarious or neurotic reasons he has. But either way, this vagueness, deliberate or otherwise, is important and it's immensely arrogant of the BBC to be putting words in his mouth.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

That Faggot Again

The Polish word 'pedal' crops up again, this time translated only as 'faggot'.
He denied being homophobic but the BBC broadcast a clip from Polish TV using the term “faggots”. Even the interviewer protests, but Kaminski repeats it: “What should I say, they are faggots [pedaly].”
I'd normally be wary of treating a word as homophobic without really knowing the language, but I think we can get quite far from gauging the interviewer's reaction. It's also interesting that the Polish word is included, definitely a good idea when the word itself is the focus.

Incidentally, a friend and reader asked his Russian flatmate about all this, and it turns out it exists in Russian too, and that it is related to 'pederasty'.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Farewell Dog

I try to keep this blog purely linguistic and politically impartial, but I'm going to show my bias towards a couple of things here: Arabic and dogs.

Muntadar al-Zaidi, who I must as a cricketer congratulate on his throwing arm, is free, you see. But what did he say to the outgoing President? His exact words were apparently
قبلة الوداع يا كلب
but I don't know what that means. Wikipedia says
This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!
the BBC says
This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog!

Look here and you'll find both a "kiss goodbye" and a "goodbye kiss". قبلة obviously means kiss, الوداع seems to be more a goodbye rather than just the phrase "goodbye". يا is a "vocative particle", a bit like o but without making you sound like a massive luvvie, and كلب, the one word I knew before I started this and my key to googling it, is dog.

Some translated this as 'dog', others went for 'you dog', I've not found 'o dog', probably because it sounds ridiculous. But I wonder what the connotations of 'dog' are in Arabic. It's quite a mild insult in English, and I've often seen "you dog" (though not "dog") used in congratulation on a fit wife. It's not a word I'd use for someone I considered a mass-murderer. But then, Muslims aren't generally as keen on dogs as I am. They consider them unclean animals, and this doesn't quite come across in the English insult. On the other hand, al-Zaidi isn't effing Tibalt so you'd never have him yelling "hound!" or "o cur!" at Mr Bush. Thing is though, most people know this. In fact, "imperialist dog!" is between "imperialist pig!" and "imperialist pigdog!" in the official top three insults of choice for stereotypical Arabs to yell at Hollywood action heroes. Shouting "dog" in English makes Arabs sound more Arabey, while I assume shouting it in Arabic just makes them sound angry. So in translating this directly (which seems the only reasonable way to do it), translators are forced to play on and consolidate our views of Arab and Islamic culture. This isn't a particularly bad thing in this case, especially as the shoe story is necessarily accompanied by interesting facts about what Muslims consider unclean. (So we can all go "Oh! THAT's why they take their shoes off at mosque!") But this exoticism is definitely something added to the translation that wasn't there in the original, and, as far as I can tell, it's unavoidable.

Monday, September 7, 2009

More Holocausting

Interesting thing on the BBC's Jerusalem Diary, talking about how not just the word but the concept of 'Shoah' has different usage in Israel. Though the writer seems surprised and slightly baffled at the concept, it's good to see ideas like this getting coverage.

Obama the Monkey

A short post, hopefully the last in a trilogy of hate-speech. Basically, a German zoo got into trouble after calling a baby mandrill ‘Obama’. Now there are two things you need to understand here. Firstly, Germans are obsessed with Obama. You can buy packets of tissues there with ‘yes we can’ printed on them in block capitals. Barack. Obama. Snotting tissues. So relieved are the Krauts now Bush is gone, they’ll name almost anything after his replacement. They like the guy. Germans also have a slightly bizarre, exotic view of African-American culture (evidenced by sticking the Average White Band under “Black Music”). Secondly, Germans call us Brits (among other things, like ‘English’) ‘Inselaffen’, or ‘island monkeys’.

Anyway, I was once watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in German and, in a light-hearted dig at his Limey roots, Will called Geoffrey an Inselaffe. Now I doubt anybody at that TV station had batted an eyelid, but I almost fell off my seat. You just couldn’t say that in English, in the same way something as innocent to us as the name ‘Isaac’ can make Germans flinch. So I wonder, is there a tradition in German of racists calling black people monkeys? I remember seeing a lot of racist graffiti in Vienna, mostly like this, and often in godawful English which could equally be an expression of surprise. This very occasionally involved primates, but mostly didn’t. But apart from that one very prolific racist vandal, I’ve never really seen it in German (as you can see, racist German speakers like to use trendy English abuse for black people, and I suppose they save the monkey digs for the likes of me). So accidental use in the zoo and Fresh Prince is probably not as big a deal as it is in other languages, and rather than just the zookeepers showing racial insensitivity, both they and the press may have made miscalculations on English and German discourses of race.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Derogatory Term for Black People

Proving that the certain professions can attract obnoxious, officious pricks the world over, an Israeli bus driver has refused to let a woman of Ethiopian descent on, saying:
What, don’t you understand that I don't allow Kushim (derogatory term for black people) on board? Are you trying to smash my door in? Were there buses in Ethiopia? Why don't you walk? In Ethiopia you didn't even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?
Clearly this bus driver isn’t coming off brilliantly in the article. As’ad of the otherwise interesting and informative Angry Arab News Service still isn’t satisfied
Well notice that the paper managed to cite the word Kushim without telling its readers that it means "Nigger." Israeli newspapers don't want to spoil the bogus "liberal" image of Israel, that it never ever deserved.
Aside from the fact that it means ‘Niggers’, plural (the driver later refers to the woman several times as a ‘Kushit’), As’ad is being rather profligate here with the word ‘means’.

Like homophobic abuse, racial slurs are more complicated than they look. How strong is the word ‘כושית’/‘Kushit’? As far as I know, ‘Nigger’ is pretty much the worst thing an English speaker can throw at a person of colour. Is ‘Kushit’ just as strong? Is it relatively mild, like ‘Darkie’, or pseudo-scientific, like ‘Negro’? And where does it come from? Does it, like those three, refer to skin colour? Is it based on stereotypes, like ‘Frog’ or ‘Kraut’? Is it a corruption of the standard term in their own language, like ‘Pollack’ or ‘Yid’? Some racial slurs, like ‘Wog’, seem to be just random, bile-filled clusters of idiotic phonemes. Is it historical, like the Arabic ‘عبد’/‘abd’, meaning ‘slave’, or is it, as the ‘-it’ ending would suggest, a reference to perceived geographical origin, like ‘Paki’? It turns out it’s a mixture of the last two: from ancient Kush. But that doesn’t tell us about its usage. Is it actually as strong as ‘Nigger’? Has it, like ‘Nigger’, been reclaimed at all by those it designates? Can it be used for all dark-skinned people, only black people, only black Ethiopians or only black Ethiopian Jews? Even Wikipedia doesn’t help much, though shows this particular slur to be surprisingly popular among Israeli bus drivers. Even weirder though, putting “כושית” into google images turns up an awful lot of porn. Draw your own conclusions.

Again, a lot more questions than answers. So I reckon Ynet was absolutely right to explain, rather than translate the word. There probably is no exact English translation for ‘Kushit’, and forcing one is not only inaccurate linguistically, but also politicises the translation. As the name might suggest, the Angry Arab News Service isn’t exactly the most pro-Zionist blog I’ve ever read, and while As’ad may be right to attack casual Israeli racism, he shouldn’t expect translators to do it for him.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Queer Fag

This is a tad unusual
A Polish court has banned a woman from publicly using derogatory terms like "queer" or "fag" to describe her young gay neighbour.
See, you read this and you expect what, two words, right? You expect to learn not one, but two terms of homophobic abuse in Polish. And you never know when you’ll need a synonym for that sort of thing. Instead you get this:
Prosecutors said Mr Giersz had endured an "avalanche of hatred" in the small town of Wolin, after his neighbour began calling him a "pedal" - which translates as "fag" or "queer" - in front of others.
So what I find odd is that the translator was unable to settle on the one.

The two have, at least as far as I see it, slightly different meanings and fairly different connotations. For a start, ‘queer’ can be applied to lesbians and a variety of alternative sexualities, whereas ‘fag’ is pretty much exclusive to gay men. Secondly, ‘fag’ makes me think of angry American rednecks, while ‘queer’ conjures up retired colonels and maiden aunts who can’t bring themselves to say ‘bugger’, as well as the running “I ain’t a queer or nothing” gag from Orgazmo. On the other hand, queer theorists, queercore and queer eye have all made serious attempts to reclaim the word, whereas I’ve only heard anyone refer to themselves or their own as ‘faggot’ with tongue firmly in cheek.

How does ‘pedal’ work in Polish? Who says it? Is it a working-class or upper-class insult? ‘Faggot’, like ‘fairy’, ‘queen’ and all that lot, is rooted in effeminacy, meaning either ‘old biddy’ or ‘little bird’ (Yiddish: פּײַגלע/feygele). Is ‘pedal’ too? Is it rooted in godlessness like ‘sodomite’, abnormality like ‘queer’ and ‘bender’, or is it purely descriptive like ‘bummer’? It also sounds like the French pédé, short for pédéraste, so could be similarly rooted in child molestation. Does the Polish gay rights movement tend towards reclaiming it, stamping it out, ignoring it or some other strategy? How would that affect its connotations? It looks like the BBC’s translator wasn’t much more certain, as they’ve plumped for two starkly different slurs. But then both of them are well known enough that most audiences will recognise and understand them. Whatever it is, swear-words and insults are often tricky things to translate, as they tend to have both a literal and metaphorical meaning, and strength, gender, register, all have to be taken into account.

What’s refreshingly simple though, is the woman’s excuse:
All the witnesses lied
Good luck with that appeal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

French? Sounds Foreign

I’ve already given my opinions on the content of this article over on my other blog, but I’d like to have a look at the style a bit. Because, in all honesty, I found it really heavy going. The concepts were easy enough, as a rule, but the prose did my head in. And at times, rusty as my French has got since leaving Uni, I felt I would probably understand it better in the original than in translation. Though maybe I’m just being cocky. The other thing is, you can smell the French on it. I can feel the French words coming out my gob as I read some of it. And that makes me wonder. Now, this is a long article, so brace yourselves for a long post if you want to find out why I think this is important. Or just skip to the end.

Totalitarianly elected by 82 percent of voters
the Soviet at 82 percent,
Long time since I’ve read a French opinion column, so I don’t really know, but is this some peculiar French concept? Does getting 82% of the votes in a one-on-one election really make you a ‘Soviet’? Even if your opponent is an infamous neo-Nazi known for his Holocaust gags? Not in Britain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how French political scepticism works. Or does ‘totalitarian’ have slightly different usage in French? Would knowing this make Foucault easier to understand?
The Muslim invasion...has found its interlocutor
Ah, good old ‘interlocutor’. Everything you need to know about this word can be found in this Spectator article, where Matthew Parris bemoans the lack of a mid-register alternative in English. Though I’d add that if even the Spectator considers it poncy, I’d avoid it like the plague.

Idioms and Collocations
Idioms and collocations are particularly important to this kind of article, where he seems, wryly and ironically, to be drawing on the prejudices and tropes of the other side. This only seems to come through in what he says though, rather than how he says it.
There is no good headscarf.
See, you can say ‘there is no...’ here, and it works, but in French as with German and probably a lot of languages, this is the standard phrase for “there are no monsters” or “in my experience there is no luck”. Our standard phrase is different.
Strange is the rage reserved by so many feminist ladies for the few girls wearing the hijab.
I’m not quite sure what he means by ‘feminist ladies’. Is he toying with the language of misogyny? Taking a dig at the chattering classes along the lines of “votes for ladies”? Either way, while this phrase could be clear as crystal to the French, it really isn’t to me.
Guilty of being but old children playing with their manifold purchases.
They are thus afraid of everything a little less aged.
See that’s not exactly how we make fun of these people in English. We’d say ‘big kids’ or ‘overgrown children’, and that they are afraid of anyone younger than them.
the father is...“right out from the country”... An archaic guy, but stupid. The eldest brother deals hash.
Ok, there’s a lot of stereotypes being deployed here. I imagine an English-speaking journalist would use the clichés that go with them. The bunny-ears and italics in “right out from the country” implies it was an idiom. Sticks? Boonies? Middle of nowhere? Where fox and rabbit bid each other goodnight, as the Germans say? I don’t think you can pull off ‘archaic’ here either. As for the brother, he doesn’t just deal hash, he is a hash-dealer. Trust me, what with everything my racist countrymen tell me about him, I practically know the guy.
As for the fact of human animals grouping together according to their origins
Oh come on. Talking about people as animals? People of the same background grouping together? In the context of gripes about multiculturalism not working. You know what we say for this one.

Generally though, we may be able to excuse the translator, Norman Madarasz, for this on account of his being Canadian. These clichés were easy for me to think of because I follow British news, particularly discussions of Islam and multiculturalism, and the ideas Badiou draws on are surprisingly familiar to me. This might not be the case in North America, where ideas of melting pots and mosaics would affect attitudes. I imagine the translator follows French news very closely, but I don’t see why he’d follow British or Irish debates except out of curiosity, and so might lack connection to comparable anglophone discourse from a European perspective. However there are collocations you would expect a Canadian to get:
[on suicide-bombing] I am grieved whenever young men and young women tear their bodies apart in horrendous massacres
Blow themselves apart, surely? This one is a good example of how the author’s tone doesn’t quite come through, or comes through ambiguously. Was he deploying a standard journalistic phrase for this, or using a fresher, and therefore more emotive, one of his own devising? We don’t know, but the translation sounds almost poetic and so gives the impression of the latter.
It’s the really small crooks who draft laws against hijab.
This is a particularly interesting one. The French do a really clever thing with the word ‘grand’. Before an inanimate object, it just means ‘big’. But with people, it means ‘tall’ when it follows the noun and ‘great’ preceding it. How I always remembered it was that Napoleon was ‘un grand homme’ but not ‘un homme grand’. Anyway I’ve got a feeling they use ‘petit’ in a similar way. This would certainly account for the origins of ‘petty’ in English. ‘Petit escroc’ certainly sounds right to me in French, but to be honest ‘small crook’ just makes me picture Danny Devito. I’d think Woody Allen and go for ‘small-time’.

There’s a few more, including:
A rust-proof principle!
Go on, let the capitalist grinder turn
If I were to aim at hitting a bull’s eye here – aiming big
Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant
And there’s this, where standard French usage doesn’t translate literally, at least not very smoothly:
And you’d like me to hold that hijab as a crime?
“Et vous voulez que je tiens cet hijab pour une crime?” That’s what it was, I BET that’s what it was.

Awkwards and Extras
Or, contrariwise: it is they who freely want to wear that damned headscarf
I think I’ve heard ‘contrariwise’ about five times in my life, and never unironically.
Must I suspect husbands, lovers and eldest brothers?
’Must’ isn’t, I don’t think, the word most people would use. ‘Must’ is quite unusual in English, as I’ve said before
And then there are these phrases: Almost no English speaker would bother with ‘-wise to’, ‘styles’ or ‘be’ here. I assume they are more necessary in French:
This is how, once again, likewise to the surrender in Sedan...
“As a specialist in hairdressing styles, he only played a small role in the scandal.”
Or have them be killed by your American friends.

That my life as a human animal is wrought with particularities is the law of things.
This “that [sentence] is” construction is quite common in French, but it sounds rather unnatural in English.
Where then does the need to ban the scarf come from?
Again, this one sounds fine, but the French “d’où le besoin...” is much snappier, more akin to “why the need...” The position of the ‘then’ is also odd, and it should be remembered that English word-order is inflexible by most languages’ standards, including French.
As it used to be said – even non-Muslims said it
Generally, I don’t think we’d use a full sentence for the second half of this. We’d probably just say “even by non-Muslims”.
the hardships of family incarcerations, the turnabouts of which kept audiences laughing for centuries
Something with ‘imprison’ or ‘lock up’ and ‘whose’ would also work here, the translator has on both counts plumped for overly formal options. Had Badiou?
And especially of the ruining of political thought, which Westerners have attempted to organize everywhere
Same here, the presence of ‘the’ and ‘of’ either side of ‘ruining’ is unnecessary, and makes the whole thing sound far more formal. In French, on the other hand, the sentence would be nonsensical without them.

The End
This might all seem like a petty gripe, especially as the sense of the article has not generally been lost and there’s no visible bias on the part of the translator. But one problem with translators is that, in becoming familiar enough with the source language to translate it, they must have a strong gut feeling for it, which can end up influencing their feel for and use of the target language. Worse still in this case, English has a peculiar relationship with French, as its influence on us goes back to 1066 and is basically colonial. French-rooted words tend to be governmental and aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon ones earthy and everyday – see our different words for animals and their meat. Working as an English teacher in Germany, I’ve seen a few French-speaking students placed in groups well above their level, and I have a feeling it’s because using French-rooted words in English makes you sound undeservedly clever and well-spoken.

And this is something to be wary of, as I think it determines a lot of our attitudes to France and the French, particularly French academia. The temptation to use French-sounding words in texts translated from French is entirely natural, but since French doesn’t have our Romance-Germanic hierarchy, doing so can make the text sound much more fanciful and esoteric than it was originally. I’m thinking of the Derrida texts I’ve read in English, riddled with ‘that is to say’ for ‘c’est à dire’, where ‘that is’, ‘in other words’ or ‘i.e.’ would suffice. Playful, folksy language can be lost, but worse still, as in this case, it can end up seeming out of place and condescending, like a Telegraph editorial saying “innit, guv”. It also makes texts, quite simply, a lot harder to read than they originally were. When I compare this to our more down-to-earth perception of German literature and philosophy, I start to speculate that the popular disdain for the obscure, incomprehensible, beret-smoking French intellectuel and, by extension, the postmodernism, poststructuralism and all the other post-x-isms he and his ridiculous little moustache have come to symbolise, is at least partly down to this.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Means the Same Word

A while ago, I was listening to ‘Thought for the Day’ with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs. I can’t remember what he was actually talking about – clearly the thought really is only meant to last you twenty-four hours – but I do remember one thing he said. In Hebrew, the word for charity is the same as the word for justice. Those might not have been his exact words, but he was definitely quite clear about them being the same. Now I looked into this, and found that the Hebrew word for ‘justice’ is
צדק tzedek
and the word for ‘charity is
צדקה tzedakah
This reminded me of the claim that “Islam means peace” (though I’m not sure how many Muslims would actually use those words. Googling it just turns up some very scared, angry people stating otherwise). And as you may have learned in school, ‘peace’ in Arabic is
سلام salaam
and that the word
إسلام Islam
means something to do with ‘submission’.

Neither of these quite sat right with me. Charity/justice and peace/submission are derived from the same roots, and that’s obviously what Rabbi Sachs and however many Muslims are getting at. But in my post-Christian, Indo-European book, that’s not ‘means’ or ‘the same word’. Changing the ‘e’ to an ‘a’ and sticking an ‘ah’ on the end, as far as I’m concerned, makes it a different word. ‘Right’ [not left] and ‘right’ [not wrong] are the same word*, ‘submit’ means ‘give in’. But even though they share roots, I don’t imagine any English speaker would say ‘justice’ and ‘judiciary’ are the same word or claim that ‘pacification’ means ‘peace’.

Thing is, I’m not really comfortable claiming that the Muslim world doesn’t know jack about its own religion, or that Britain’s most prominent Jewish theologian should be brushing up his Hebrew. So I wonder, do speakers of Semitic languages draw a slightly bigger circle around a ‘word’? Is their definition of “the same word” different to ours? Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish and Norwegian all include ‘the’ within the words whereas we separate it off, and you should see the length of Hungarian and Navajo words. Do Hebrew and Arabic words for ‘word’ actually signify something subtly different to ours? Does their ‘mean’ have the same meaning as ours? Concepts often cross over differently in different languages. For example ‘böse’ in German can mean angry, naughty or evil, and ‘Ärger’ can mean anger, mild irritation or trouble. Is it similar with ‘word’ and ‘root’ in traditional Hebrew linguistics, ‘means’ and ‘related to’ in Arabic?

There are other examples of this, and the lines between sound, letter, word, phrase, clause and sentence are surprisingly fine. The German ‘Satz’ is applied to both sentence and clause, and in Japanese and Russian our two-letter ‘ya’ is written with one. In Chinese, there is no distinction between letter and word. Sort of, anyway. Don’t get me started on the letter ‘a’ in Hebrew and Arabic. But the best example of how flexible the concept of ‘word’ is, look at why “the Eskimo language” has so many words for ‘snow’. Incidentally, the English, with their fascinating superstitions and primitive railways, have something like eighty. Beat that you frosty toerags.

* I expect some will disagree with this, even bearing in mind the common etymology. So imagine explaining this to a Czech, who says “v pravo” for “on the right” and “máš pravdu” for “you’re right” (literally, “you have (the) truth”. Cute, innit?) You’d probably say something like “Interestingly enough, we use exactly the same word in English”. But the fact that there’s any controversy even in English shows just how flexible the idea of ‘means’ and ‘the same word’ is.

Warning: product may contain translation

I’ve been intensively reading the back of a packet of mixed nuts, as one does when an important deadline is looming, and feel compelled to share with you what a linguistic and cultural minefield such a simple thing can be.

They were bought in Germany, and have ingredients sections in French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. Oddly enough, a description of the product is given in English on the front, even though no English ingredients list is provided.

Whilst British people may think that EU bureaucrats are micro-managing all of these countries (with our plucky band of metric martyrs bravely defending their home islands), there are in fact significant differences between the sections.

The ingredients themselves, and the relative amounts thereof, are the same in each language, as is the best before date (although there are two different ways to express this idea, as “this will keep until at least [date]” and “it’s preferable to eat this before [date]”).

Italians and Germans are told that the snack was “produced in Germany”. Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish snackers learn that Germany is the “country of origin”. Only French consumers are blessed with a list of countries of origin (from the US, to Turkey, to Vietnam) and the knowledge that the mixture was put together in Germany. The Spanish, for some reason, are informed of the address of the company straight after the country of origin, even though it’s written at the bottom of the packet for everyone else.

There are differences in the consumer advice, too. Everyone is told how they should be stored; In Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain they should be kept somewhere cool and dry, whereas more active care should be exercised by the French and Dutch, to “protect” the product “from heat and damp”. Only the Dutch are warned that small children can choke on nuts. Nowhere, in any language, is the infamous “product may contain nuts” advice given, although all consumers are advised that the picture of nuts in a bowl is only a serving / presentation suggestion / tip, in case they sue over the lack of sky-blue crockery.

Why have I decided to share this information with you?

Usually translators do much more than simply swap words for those of another language and tidy up the grammar a bit. If you were asked to add a section in English to this packet, which information would you include?

One approach could be to go right back to the root of the information, to the basic concept, independent of a specific language (in this case, a physical packet of nuts) and decide what the audience needs to know. Only then can you think about the structure, style and register of the target language so that the information is conveyed in a way that sounds natural to that audience. On the other hand, you could reflect the foreignness of the product by keeping some of the style of the source language. This second approach may be familiar from menus, even those written by English native speakers (e.g. “cutlets of lamb in a sauce of mint” instead of “lamb chops with mint sauce”).

If that’s what someone has to go through in order to translate a list of incontrovertible facts, you can see why translations of opinions and rhetoric should be approached with extreme caution.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Caricature of a Bomb

Lovely story. Except this bit:
After all, it is just carrots with an alarm clock and nothing else... this is just a caricature of a bomb
Rookie error Aunty. Lots of languages use ‘caricature’ where we would use ‘cartoon’. I remember talking about the Mohammed ‘caricatures’ in French class, for example, and I’m sure I’ve seen it in German. And come on, a caricature of a bomb? It’s not like Gerald Scarfe is going to go to work on it and draw it with a long neck and a big, bendy nose, is it?

Of course, the other possibility is that this was not translated. Perhaps the original was said in English and the artist made one of those false-friend errors that everybody makes all the time in foreign languages. This throws up another issue: tidying up quotes. If he’d said something like: [in my best generic European accent] “Only are caricatura from bomba” the writer would have probably corrected the basic spelling and grammar mistakes. The clear mistake in usage, however, stayed as it was. Exactly when, how, and how far second-language quotes should be corrected is often as much an issue as translation itself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Seditious Passion for Soccer

It’s still early days on monotran and I’m doing yet another post on the guy, so I would like to confirm that I do not have some kind of schoolboy crush on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though a succession of seriously dodgy translations could mean problems with what’s coming out of Iran in general. Anyway, I spotted this story on anti-Ahmadinejad protests in Iran. The man himself dismissed the protests as
passions after a soccer match
which, frankly, is a total shambles. Firstly, nobody would call a football riot “passions”. You could maybe say they were running high, or talk about “high spirits”, but ‘passions’ on its own is just not normal English. So you can already see we’re dealing with a rather shoddy, or at least hasty, translation. It’s also a little problematic as he’s being ironically euphemistic. Secondly, I’d expect the BBC to call its home nation’s favourite sport by its proper name. The use of ‘soccer’ probably means they’ve used an American translation, or at least a translation intended for an American audience (could be a MEMRI job, for example). And Americans’ often mythical view of British football riots might also have a slight effect on how they read this story. But most of all, this shows the BBC have printed a translation without really reading it through, and/or have been very reluctant to edit it in any way, even with something as smooth and uncomplicated as changing the name of a sport into their own dialect.

But slightly worse is the Iranian Interior Ministry’s claim that
Some seditious elements had planned to hold a rally
and that
Any disrupter of public security would be dealt with according to the law
Firstly, “Disrupter” is a bit clunky and not a particularly common word – probably because English is generally more cautious with agent nouns than other languages. We like sticking to established ones and it can sound strange or silly if we use a rare one or make one up (like “Ruiner”). I’d probably say something like “anyone who causes disruption to public security”. Also the ‘would’ is weird. They know a rally is planned so it’s not as if the disruptions are hypothetical or anything. Maybe the Iranian government is a bit naïve and optimistic about the prospect of violence (unlikely considering their preparations), maybe futures and conditionals don’t divide up in Persian in the same way they do in English (quite likely), or maybe someone has translated it to direct from indirect speech, and lost some of it (also likely).

But the real word that sets my head whirring is “seditious”. This word is a slight taboo in modern political English, as the concept it embodies – criminally undermining the government – is largely incompatible with the politics of the modern Anglosphere. Nobody but stuffy Tory backbenchers would use this word without irony in English, as it makes you sound like a backward authoritarian who wants soldiers to fire into the crowd*. On the other hand the Iranian plain-clothes militias policing the demonstrations are supposedly packing live ammunition, a winning combination if ever I saw one. So maybe it is appropriate. But on yet another hand, it’s fashionable among dictators these days to pretend to be democratic, so governments will often act, but not talk, like dictatorships. There may of course be no real English alternative to this Farsi word, although if English-speaking politicians want to talk about ‘sedition’ they tend to use euphemisms like, say, ‘extremism’. Whatever the reasons, using a word with these connotations in English makes Iran sound rather authoritarian, and I would consider that a bad and even irresponsible translation unless this was clearly how the speaker sounded in Farsi. Whether Iran actually is authoritarian should be irrelevant. No doubt Ahmadinejad and his allies have produced an awful lot of BS, but cutting through that is not the job of the translator.

*I'm not saying this is how Tory backbenchers like to sound (though I single them out because it was one of them I last heard use the word straight). It's just Tory backbenchers, well, they're generally a law unto themselves as far as choice of words goes and don't usually mind sounding a tad eccentric.

Friday, June 12, 2009


This is odd. Fidel Castro has called allegations of espionage a
ridiculous tale
Now, putting myself in Castro’s shoes – that is, an ailing elder statesman trying to dismiss his main adversary with folksy scepticism – ‘tale’ isn’t exactly the word I’d use. I know just what he’s getting at. Sort of a shaggy dog story or something. A tall tale perhaps. But not a straight 'tale' of average height. What I’m guessing is, Spanish has a word meaning ‘story’, which, like ‘histoire’ in French and ‘Geschichte’ in German, is sometimes used in the idiomatic “my old boot you did” sense. And I can’t work out what I’d say for that in English. A story is just a story and history is history (though in French and German it’s the same word, probably in Spanish too). There’s ‘concoction’ but that’s not actually a story. You can ‘tell tales’, but that’s more to do with grassing up your schoolmates, and ‘tale’ on its own usually involves a magic sword. Likewise you can spin a yarn, but left unspun, it stops being drivel and magically acquires a rip-roaring plot. Basically, I don’t think English has just one word we can use for this. We’ve a lovely selection of evocative, imaginative and humorous idioms but not an individual word. So I don’t quite understand why the Beeb made what is quite clearly a dodgy translation into the focus of the headline:
Fidel Castro dismisses spy 'tale'
Weird. And shoddy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What to Look Out for

  • Difficult jobs: Is someone other than a professional translator of that language having to do the job? Are you sure they heard/read it right? Was it done spontaneously or in a hurry? Translators don't always have the benefit of a neatly-printed paper copy and a week to do the job.
  • Anything that sounds unnatural: Anything that you wouldn’t expect a native English speaker to say in that context might be worth a look. Translating the untranslatable often ends up clunky. This should be the first thing to catch your eye.
  • Things don't match: Corresponding wikipedia entries, google images, people's reactions to the word, or even clumsy machine translations that mean something completely different. If native speakers aren't treating the word in the way the translation would imply, something's wrong.
  • Tenses: English has a lot of choice when it comes to tenses. Most other languages don’t. Translators often have to editorialise via tenses where the writers of the source texts don’t.
  • Idioms: It’s generally expected to translate an idiom into an idiom. Some idioms don’t translate. Often, an idiom about showers will translate into an idiom about eggs, or even stranger. Idioms also vary in register or usage: scratch your head if you see a typically political idiom used for cooking.
  • Wordplay: If you see a pun, rhyme or any other kind of trick with the sound of the word, the translator may well have sacrificed part of the meaning to get it to work. This also applies to humorously appropriate idioms.
  • Inspector Clouseau: Foreigners often don't sound very natural in English, not just because they haven't learned all of it perfectly yet, but also because they're having to think a lot harder than normal, and their brains are still at least partly set to foreignish. Translators also have to think very hard and switch backwards and forwards between languages: same problem. If the original speaker was not a cartoon Nazi or pasta chef, but sounds a bit like one at times, that's a bad translation.
  • Foreign words: The very act of using a foreign word means different things in different languages. A lot of languages use French to sound sophisticated, Latin to sound scientific and/or English to sound businesslike and trendy. Sometimes the entire concept of a language requires translation. We also use concepts as shorthand for languages (pasta for Italian) and visa-versa (Cyrillic letters for Communism).
  • Untranslated bits: Sometimes translators leave a word in the original language, knowing it will be understood, knowing it will have a specific effect or knowing it can’t be translated at all. Don’t expect ‘raus’ to sound fascistic to Germans or ‘paella’ to sound exotic to a Spaniard.
  • If/When: This is one of the most expressive things we have in English. So much so we can cause huge offence with the wrong one and very often correct our own usage. Some languages don’t make this distinction at all, or may draw the line somewhere different to possible/certain. (Germans, for example use ‘wenn’ for likely and ‘falls’ for unlikely).
  • Cultural/historical significance: Who could argue that the English and the French attach the same cultural significance to Waterloo or Agincourt? And don’t expect your own cultural practices to have the same resonance either – teatime and popular opinion on the Queen are very different in the imagination of foreigners to in real life.
  • Genders: Some languages assign gender according to the word (Hebrew, Arabic, most European languages), some according to the thing (English) and some not at all (Farsi, Finnish). Some don’t even order it by sex (Navajo). While gender is largely grammatical and apolitical, think about whether you would call a tomcat ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ and who might use which for a transsexual.
  • Food: Different countries eat different things. Even without the Americans we British can’t even agree what’s a ‘pie’ and what’s a ‘pudding’. Other countries don’t chop their foodstuffs up the same way we do, so don’t expect a direct translation every time.
This is a non-exhaustive list and I’ll keep adding to it as the experiment goes on.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Cheating Example 3: Dein Reich komme, dein Wille geschehe

Cross-posted from my own blog examining part of this article on British gulags in Kenya. This is cheating slightly as I do speak German, but this is an all too common pitfall, and using my experiences with one foreign language to apply principles to others is going to be a fundamental part of this blog.
Yet in Britain today, there is a blood-encrusted blank spot about Empire. On the reality show The Apprentice, the contestants recently had to pick a name for their team, and they said they weanted “something that represented the best of British” – so they settled on “Empire.” Nobody objected. Imagine young Germans blithely naming a team “Reich”: it’s unthinkable, because they have had to study what their fathers and grandfathers did, and expunge these barbarous instincts from their national DNA.
Hari is right that no German team would call themselves 'Reich'. But the main reason for this is that it sounds rubbish in German, as Germans are not nearly as prone to snappy names and titles. In fact, when Germans translate Hollywood film titles, they often have the full English title, with a lengthy German subtitle, for example 'Der Fluch: The Grudge'.

And he's made a typical anglophone mistake with this German word. The word 'Reich' is not quite so appalling to German speakers as it is to English speakers with German A-Level. For a start, 'reich' also means 'rich', so "Die Reichen" might be just the sort of thing a group of German yuppie twats would call themselves. Secondly, the word 'Reich' has a lot of variants. In second year at Uni, I got corrected for my use of the phrase "das Zweite Reich" - the second Reich. It's called the 'Kaiserreich' in German. As you might expect, only the Nazis numbered their predecessors one and two. Also, if you scroll down to the bottom of the list, you'll see us: 'Vereinigtes Königreich' - United King-reich. What you don't see on that list is our 'Weltreich' - the World-reich on which the sun never set. You even had the öster-reich-isches Kaiser-reich until 1918. And although 'Reich' does have slightly negative connotations, these are not so clear cut. Germans can't just refer to 'das Reich' in history as, as everyone who's ever picked up a history book knows, they've had three.

This is quite a common problem with lendwords. Germans have it too - whereas we have one word 'network', they have the German word 'das Netzwerk' and the fashionable slice of irritating business jargon 'das Network'. The latter refers solely to the irritatingly fashionable business practice of 'networking', meaning Germans can say just 'Ich habe ein gutes Network' where an English speaker might have to clarify, or use an alternative such as 'contacts' or 'connections'. This goes both ways, but with the weight of history's most hated regime on its shoulders. I remember an American colleague of mine, before I moved to Germany, wondering how the 'Deutsche Volksbank' could even consider using such a Nazi word as 'Volk' in their name. All I could say was that for Germans, the word is as normal as 'the people', and even more so, since they use it where we would use 'folk', for example 'Volksmusik'. And it's all part of our silly practice of taking German words from one specific era, using them solely in that context until they become short-hand for its ideology (often adding umlauts for good measure), then assuming we can just plug them back into German and they'll mean the same thing. And of course, until you've heard, read, written and spoken the word 'Reich' and its variants a few dozen times in German-language contexts, you won't even notice yourself doing it.

However, what's also interesting is the linguistic relationship between 'Reich' and 'Raj'. So he's not quite so out in the end perhaps. But how do we know Hari was talking out of his arse with that 'Reich' comparison?

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Famous Example 2: Holocausting Palestine

What exactly did Matan Vilnai threaten the Palestinians with a bigger one of? Ynet says a “Holocaust”, the BBC is more cautious: it gives the Hebrew word and explains it. But what is a “Shoah”? Even without the BBC’s help, you should still be suspicious of the word “Holocaust”. Firstly, we are talking a word of immense cultural significance, and one that naturally has very different significance to Jews and non-Jews. Whatever word it is may be impossible to translate reliably. Secondly, we are dealing with a Greek lendword, which you would not generally expect Hebrew, Arabic or other languages without Christian roots to use as much. So, as a non-Hebrew speaker, before you even click on the BBC link you should expect to see an entirely unknown word, probably ending in ‘h’ and full of ‘sh’s and unpronounceable things at the back of the throat. Thirdly, did he threaten “a” holocaust or “the” Holocaust? Many languages, such as Russian or Japanese, do not use ‘a’ or ‘the’. A subtle distinction, but is it one Vilnai or the translator added? Finally, ‘Holocaust’ is a very general word used for a very specific event – you can have nuclear holocaust, cannibal holocaust, zombie holocaust, but take away the adjectives, add a capital and you have a very real event. Expect other languages to do similarly, which means there may be alternative connotations and alternative usages.

This turns out to be the case – the BBC tells us that the Hebrew
שואה shoah
means “catastrophe”. (Although there is also the word ‘Churban Europa’, or ‘European destruction’ and actually coined earlier in Yiddish). ‘Catastrophe’ is a fairly everyday word. So expect its non-genocidal connotations to be more common. But how serious a catastrophe? Motorway pile-up serious? Or red wine on a white dress serious? I don’t know. The only way I can think of of finding out is to see what the reaction in the English-language Israeli press is. Haaretz only seems to mention it in passing, and the Jerusalem Post treats him as an indiscrete, Duke of Edinburgh figure. From this we can conclude one of two things. Either
  1. the Israeli press, even left-wing publications like Haaretz, is so murderously callous towards Palestinians and has such little perspective on its own history that it thinks almost nothing of threats of genocide in Hitler’s own words, or
  2. it’s not such a powerful word, being closer to ‘catastrophe’ and therefore more mundane in its associations, and Vilnai is just a cretin who needs to be kept away from sensitive situations at all times.

The reaction of Vilnai himself confirms the second. He tries to backtrack. He says that he didn’t mean genocide. Imagine this in English. Nobody, not even Prince Phillip, could threaten an entire people with a “Holocaust” and put it down to poor choice of words. Some might argue you could get away with it in a hot-house of hate like Israel, but even if that were the case, could you still survive on the world stage? Nobody would even try. From this we have learned that, as one would expect, in Israel the language of the Holocaust works in a rather different way to in Europe, and we’ve also gleaned a new, slightly untranslatable Hebrew word and the vital knowledge that we should treat it carefully if we don’t want to look like an arse.

Interestingly enough, ‘catastrophe’ is one of the ways
النكبة al-nakba
is translated. Could Vilnai have been ineptly referencing that “catastrophe” instead of the Nazi “catastrophe”? Let’s have a look. Go to the Wikipedia linked above. Go to ‘languages’ and click on ‘עברית’. That’s Hebrew for ‘Hebrew’, as you can tell from here. Ignore the article and look at the title. You’ve got a translation into Hebrew written by a native speaker. This is a good trick with wikipedia. But you probably don’t understand any of the funny Hebrew squiggles. No problem. Just google ‘Hebrew alphabet’. Lots of Jews are keen to help you. So that first one is a ‘h’, the next one is an ‘n’, then we’ve got a ‘k’, a ‘b’ and a ‘h’. So it looks like we’re dealing with ‘nkbh’. But, even though Israelis say
הנכבה ha-nakba
as well, I imagine they’re taught in school or from the papers that it means ‘catastrophe’/‘shoah’. So that could still be a factor. Or it might not. Who knows?

So why can’t we trust this ‘Holocaust’ story and what did we learn?

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Famous Example 1: Wiping Israel

Plenty of stuff's already been written on the famous Ahmadinejad/Israel/map quote, but I want to have a look at the mainstream translation itself: Now, I have no idea what
بايد از صفحه روزگار محو شود
actually means, but I can get a lot of information from the phrase that first hit the headlines:
Israel must be wiped off the map
Now, you should see immediately one thing to be wary of: the idiom. Persians probably don’t say “wiped off the map”. As far as I know, which admittedly is not that far, nobody says it except us English speakers. One idiom has become another. The Guardian article, in fact, uses two, later upgrading it to “off the face of the earth”. Next, notice the victim: Israel. Names of countries are constantly used to mean all kinds of things: the geographical entity, the historical power, the government or its representatives, the people, or the vague set of interests. Countries are a very common synecdoche. “Israel” could mean any of those things, and more besides, given as its “people” can be and has been used to mean both its citizens and the entirety of world Jewry. And without context, we have no way of knowing which one Ahmadinejad wanted to do whatever it was he wanted to do to. This otherwise brilliant article, for example, and I’m sure there are others, doesn’t hesitate to tell us in no uncertain terms exactly what Ahmadinejad meant, despite having no more idea than anyone else.

We can also have a look at a direct translation: This article makes some interesting points, particularly that we can actually recognise one word – ‘regime’ – and immediately debunk claims that he is threatening the population.
"The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.
Firstly, it’s vague. Secondly, ‘this regime’ sounds awkward in English. This implies a bad or hasty translation, even in a word-for-word job. Articles and limiting words work very differently in different languages – Slavic languages barely use them, for example Czech gets by on ‘this’, ‘one’ and ‘some’. French and Arabic stick ‘le/la/les’ and ‘al-’ in front of everything. Clumsy articles should set off alarm bells.

Thirdly, ‘must’ also sounds a little unnatural. It’s not a common word in spoken English and this again implies a clumsy or difficult translation. Modal verbs also vary a lot more between languages than you would expect. The German ‘müssen’ covers ‘must’, ‘have to’ ‘need to’ ‘definitely’, ‘necessarily’ and others, ‘sollen’ covers ‘have to’ ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’. We can’t be sure whether Ahmadinejad was using ‘must’ to stress necessity or inevitability. ‘Must’ in English can cover both.

Finally ‘vanish’ is an intransitive verb, whereas ‘wipe’ is transitive. This makes it particularly tricky – the lines between intransitive, reflexive and passive verbs are surprisingly different and surprisingly narrow in many languages. For example French, German and Czech all say "I shower me/myself" and not just "I shower". In many languages some intransitive verbs are formed as reflexives and reflexives can be used as passives and in Spanish, reflexives are the only way to form passives. In Hebrew they are also one and the same. He could have said ‘vanish’ or he could have said ‘be made to vanish’ or he could have said ‘cause itself to vanish’. I don’t know how this works in Farsi. What we do know though, is that he was using very, very vague terms to describe Israel and we should think twice before putting words in his mouth.

We also now know some instant Farsi: ‘Rezhim’ means ‘regime’, it turns out. But foreign lendwords often mean different things – remember the first time your French teacher told you off for using ‘actuellement’ or ‘contrôler’ wrong? Does ‘rezhim’ mean the same thing in Farsi as ‘regime’ does in English? I don’t know, ask an Iranian. But I do know I’ve often been lazy with false friends at times, and at others I’ve found myself frustrated that the English equivalent, while basically meaning the same thing, has subtly different connotations or usages.

So what parts of this phrase can’t we trust?

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