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.