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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