Saturday, October 2, 2010

El Loco

Breakdown of political instability in Ecuador:
1997: President Abdala Bucaram, nicknamed "El Loco" ("the crazy one"), declared mentally unfit to rule after a year in power
The first thing that strikes you is that they've actually bothered to translate 'El Loco' - as if nobody's ever heard Ricky Martin. But fair enough, there's no reason why people should go without handy news-nuggets just because they've been so lucky in other areas of life. But the main thing is, this is yet another clunky BBC translation.

What we've got here is the classic adjectival noun conundrum. Ask a Frenchman, or a German, or a speaker of any other Indo-European language I've ever come across, which socks they're going to wear or something, and they won't have to say "the grey ones". They can just say "the grey". Nor does it have to be that specific situation. It can mean "the grey thing(s)", "the grey person", or anything where the quality the adjective describes is all you actually need to get across. English can't do that, English has to add an extra word - 'one', 'thing', 'bloke' and so on - so English has no choice but to be more specific. Snappiness will be lost, and a nuance has to be added by the translator.

In this case, "the crazy one" not only sounds like a rubbish, rubbish political nickname, it also doesn't sound like a political nickname at all. It sounds like you're trying to explain to a friend which great-uncle you're visiting. Not the creepy one or the reclusive gay one, the crazy one, you know with the butterfly collection. Oddly enough, one of the few contexts where we do use adjectival nouns is historical nicknames. The Great, the Red, the Unready, we're used to it in this context.

So there are two ways this could be tidied up: "Abdala the Mad" - using the adjectival noun, just because we can, or "Abdala the Madman" - using a normal noun instead of an adjective. But neither of these quite capture how neatly this nickname seems to work in Spanish. That's probably just because I know most of my Spanish from westerns and gangster movies though.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bang On

Via the Angry Arab News Service - excellent piece on translating Islam. Highlights:
Massad then focused on the word Islam, and on Orientalists, who attributed various meanings to the word--often without definition or explanation--and switched between meanings within one text. For such scholars, the word Islam could mean the history of various or all Muslim states, a specific individual or scholar, a set of customs and norms, a community, the Quran and the hadith as well as commentaries on both.
This one particularly reminded me of the ambiguity of the terms 'Jew' and 'Jewish', and this next bit is basically what I've been saying/quoting all along:
Massad then discussed the “untranslateable"--the idea that some words are so rooted in a given culture that they cannot be translated. Massad said sometimes the cultural attachment is oversimplified; words like Allah, jihad and hijab, which are generally left in the Arabic, are not tied exclusively to Islamic cultures. Jihad is a common name among Christian Arabs, and is understood to mean “struggle,” according to the professor, who added that Allah means “God” to Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians. The fact that the Prophet Mohamed’s father was named Abdallah, Massad continued, proves the word Allah was part of the Arabic language before Islam.
Especially this:
Here, Massad said, the question becomes about how we think about translation. “Is it about about respect for difference, or about emphasizing difference?”
The key problem here, as I've always, always said, is assuming the words we borrow don't come from a living, working language. Though we only really use Arabic to describe Arabic things, don't forget, Arabs also use it to buy bus tickets and point out untied shoelaces.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Slang Bangers

In case you haven’t heard, across the pond, the DEA is looking for nine translators for African-American Vernacular English/AAVE/Ebonics, saying
Without addressing whether or not it considers Ebonics a true language, the DEA acknowledges that the phenomenon is crippling its ability to understand some of its own secret recordings.
There have been two basic reactions, titters
Yes, it was as wonderfully train wreck-esque as you’d imagine two well-educated, grown men describing what “frontin’” means would be.
and sneers
Ebonics, depending on who you ask, is either a real or a completely imagined thing. Proponents argued that some black people were speaking a whole different language independent of English. Other's argued that augmented or "bastardized" English is not a whole other language. For example, I don't always understand what British people are saying because I don't understand most British slang, but I still agree that British people obviously speak English and I would be able to communicate with a British native without too much difficulty. Slang is slang. Colloquialisms are colloquialisms. But it's all still in English, just with a different accent, different idioms, sayings and affects.
What you notice about both of these is the subtle snobbery – it’s ludicrous to have an academic discussion of the language of the uneducated, and slang, unlike real languages, is unworthy of translation. Black Snob’s disdain even extends as far as anyone even capable of understanding it – more like gangsters than translators
they need you, slang bangers, to tell them what these so-called "Ebonics" spouting linguists are saying.
Motivated Grammar gets it right though:
Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it.
Nonetheless, some comment-monkeys still think, because Ebonics is the language of simpletons, it is simple, and therefore any idiot can translate it with the help of Urban Dictionary:
I remember learning about ebonics in my English class it sounds like tons of coded slang but if you take the time you can surely translate it out
Oddly enough, just as I'd been reading about this, Tracy-Ann Oberman, on The Wright Stuff (Channel Five's showcase for tedious, ill-informed waffle), used 'Ebonics' to refer to the entirely new linguistic phenomenon of words changing. There seems to be this idea at the centre that Ebonics = trendy black slang.

There's way more to it than that though. It’s got a whole different set of grammar, which isn’t unheard of with English dialects: Americans use the past simple with ‘yet’ where British people could only get away with present perfect, and with different regional dialects the verb ‘to be’ conjugates differently. AAVE grammar’s a bit more drastic though, test yourself:
Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:
(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.
The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future.
Yay grammar!

So here’s your language-geek speculation titbit: the whole Kanye West “Imma let you finish but...” thing, I reckon is probably politer to AAVE speakers than it is to non-speakers. Standard English organises the future by strength of intention, and doesn’t really have this way of conveying “this won’t take long” through grammar. Doesn’t make Kanye any less of a helmet, but still.

By the way, did anyone mention that scene in Airplane!?

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Wish She'd Bloody Mentioned Having a Friend

A civilised lesbian's conundrum with the concept of facebook wives reminded me of an immensely disappointing confusion I had learning German.

Basically I fancied this Austrian girl to bits. Took me a while to realise that, every time a female German speaker says "mein Freund" (as opposed to "ein Freund von mir"), she doesn't mean "my friend [male]". She means "my boyfriend". Quite annoyed when I clocked that one, I can tell you. These things tend to work both ways, though, and teaching English to Germans, I gradually discovered they would say "a friend from me" rather than just "my friend". This was when they were men talking about men they got on with. Girls talking about girls, it would always be "a girlfriend from me", or else "my girlfriend", in the baffling American finger-wagging sense.

This is a whole new set of distinctions to learn with each language: we don't distinguish the platonic word by gender, they don't distinguish the masculine or feminine word by whether or not they've snogged. And when Germans use English words, they tend to use them in rather German ways. So a German website "friendscout24", though it uses "friend", which would be an emphatically fully-clothed relationship in English, has obvious connotations of romance for Germans.

This stuff is weird. And I've not even thought about how it must go once you chuck in homosexual relationships. In fact, the entire language of boyfriends and girlfriends is euphemistic to the extreme. Firstly, it's more than just a boy or girl (or lady or gentleman, once you reach a certain age) that you're friends with. Then you've got 'relationship', which is also stupid. I've had a relationship with every student I've ever taught. I was their teacher and they were my student. 'Dating' is even worse, and 'sleeping with' and even 'shagging' are just as incomplete. So no wonder it's just as weird and confusing in other languages.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Yadda Yadda Allah Allah

Thanks Marie Dhumières. Thanks a lot. I might as well hang up my monotran hat. The gist is this:
I couldn't help thinking that, when translated literally into English, these expressions make Arabs sound very religious – or even like fundamentalists – in the eyes of those who have a tendency to jump to quick conclusions.
Putting Arabs in our shoes, we get this:
In English, we say "God damn it", "God bless you", "Jesus Christ", which would sound very strange if they were to be translated literally into another language. So next time you hear in the news or in a movie an Arabic guy saying "Praise be to God," remember he may just be saying "Great, the electricity is back."

What's odd about this though, is that she flits between 'God' and 'Allah' as the translation. Thing is, you see, 'Allah' and 'الله‎' don't mean the same thing. When Arabs say it, they mean 'God' (usually, but apparently not always, the Muslim version). When English-speakers say it, we mean a specifically Muslim God, distinct from the usual Big Man.

This is fairly common with Arabic as far as I can see: we say both 'hajj' and 'pilgrimmage', 'verse' and 'sura', 'holy war' and 'jihad' (we'll also say 'martyr' and 'jihadi' from time to time if we're idiots). Obviously, Arabs don't have that dilemma. Every time we choose between the two, we also choose whether to present the word as general or specific, anglophone or Muslim, ours or theirs. And that's rarely a simple, clear-cut choice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Shoot the Who?

Thank you, thank you Guardian. When the story broke about the song 'Shoot the Boer', I was momentarily confused. Why were South African farmers, who can't all be Afrikaners, so intimidated by it?

Then I remembered. The word 'Boer' just comes from 'farmer'. "Shoot the Boer" refers to the victims' job and status, at least as much as their ethnicity. The Today Programme, where I'm getting most of my news at the moment, didn't think it necessary to explain this. Luckily the Guardian did. A couple of the gnomes on the BBC Have Your Say thread seem to be taking it to mean "shoot the south african of Dutch ancestry", and I'd put this as much down to lack of explanation by the BBC as to HYS's world-beating idiocy.

Whereas in Afrikaans, 'Boer' can be both 'farmer' and 'Afrikaner' (though I'd be interested to know the differences in usage), in English, it's an unambiguous ethnonym. Ethnonyms have to come from somewhere. 'Arab' is to do with nomads, Hebrew is either 'crossing over' or, like Roman, named after a founder. A lot of African, Pacific and South American countries' names recall discovery or exploitation of resources. But if you don't know the language in which they were named, or if nobody uses that word any more, then it's only natural to assume the word refers only to ethnicity.

The really pressing question then, is, if the song does incite hatred, then who of? For some reason "inciting racial hatred" has a ring to it that "inciting professional hatred" does not, but it seems to me the song, if anything at all, will produce a mix of the two rather than just the one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Slay/Kill/Slaughter the Jews

Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon got heckled at the Oxford Union. One heckle was in Arabic. Something along the lines of
IdhbaH al-Yahud
Ayalon's on-the-spot translation was
Slay the Jews
while the heckler himself later claimed he'd said
‘Khaybar, O Jews, we will win'. This is in classical, Qur'anic Arabic and I doubt that apart from picking up on the word ‘Jew', that even the Arabic speakers in the room would have understood the phrase.
Putting aside the fact that this is probably a fairly dodgy sentiment as well, this is quite a tricky story.

The main problem is, as a previous Zionist-heckling incident will show, heckles can be pretty difficult to make out. Also, I'm not sure how reliable Danny Ayalon is as a translator. Firstly, there's his command of Arabic. I know they have to do it at school in Israel, but how long did he do it for and how much has he forgotten? I don't know either way, but the fact that his MK profile lists his languages as "English, Spanish" isn't promising. Secondly, how are his translation skills? Again, no idea either way.

These are the practical issues. Politics comes into it too. How much can he be trusted to give a neutral translation? I sincerely doubt he's just making stuff up, or that he'd plotted to yell "That means kill the Jews!" the moment he heard Arabic. But Israelis are a jumpy lot, when it comes to how they think the rest of the world sees them*. He's also a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, and you generally don't join far-right Nationalist parties these days without believing some fairly fruity stuff about The Muslims and what they want to do to the rest of us. I'm guessing Danny Ayalon is fairly convinced that Muslims, Palestinians and their allies hate Jews literally to death, and that this is at the forefront of his mind when he's dealing with them. He might not have planned to translate "Slay the Jews!", but he'd probably foreseen it coming up.

More to the point, if his Arabic is as patchy as we assume, you have to wonder where he learned it. You probably don't have classes on anti-Semitic heckles at Israeli secondary schools. But it's amazing how much Arabic you can learn just by reading anti-Islamic blogs. Dhimmi, jihad, hudna, kuffar, idhbaH al-yahud, fitna, they crop up a lot. And as deputy foreign minister of Israel and as someone worried about Arabs, he probably reads a lot of articles about anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. I imagine he comes across "Slay the Jews!" in Arabic a lot. Obscure classical phrases less so. Even if he'd never had a single lesson of Arabic in his life, he might well recognise that phrase and others like it. So it's quite possible, and quite understandable, that if he heard "something-baa al-yahud" he'd assume "idhbah" and not "khaybar".

Of course, it's early days. I wasn't there. On the video, the man seems to be shouting in English (apparently he's a war criminal like Milosevic and will be tried as such) and I didn't hear anything to do with al-yahud. So it seems a bit weird that all the reports I've read are trusting an off-the-cuff translation done amid lots of shouting over what the guy actually claims to have said.

*Lord knows where a country full of Jews would get such a persecution complex.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Our hero is cornered*.
Well Sergeant, looks like you're outnumbered for once. I know it's exaggerating bringing all these men, but you never know, huh?

I've heard a lot of Germans make this mistake. Where we have 'exaggerate' and 'overdo' Germans only have 'übertreiben', which means both to do and to say more than is necessary or true. I'm guessing Chinese is the same. Not sure what to make of "we're going to make you into mashed banana" though.

* In a children's playground. Our hero, by the way, is Jackie Chan. Whatever you're imagining, it's better.**
** Yeah I'm critiquing the translation in 80's Hong Kong cinema. No I didn't find shooting fish in a barrel too challenging. Shut up.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In the Labor Camp

Unfortunate Historical Connotation of the Day:
Kahane speaks of expelling Arabs, but he has not expelled a single one. Those who did expel Arabs are precisely those who belong today to the Labor camp. They expelled hundreds of thousands, without any pussyfooting, including during the Six Day War from the Golan Heights. And nobody said a word then.

At first I wondered about Hebrew using two words for 'Labour': 'עבודה'/'avoda' for the modern Labour party, but also, back when Israel was just a twinkle in Herzl's eye, 'פועלי'/'po'ale' for Labour Zionism. I had a play with wikipedia though, and 'עבודה'/'avoda' is right there. So it must be something to do with this 'in a camp' political idiom. Do they have that in Hebrew? Putting the other half of 'labour camp', 'מחנה'/'machanah' into English wikipedia, leads you to a Zionist summer camp in Montreal, so it's also not a case of the 'camp' in 'Labour camp' being a different word to the normal one. It looks like either a bog-standard case of a translator not thinking through the potential connotations, or a bog-standard case of a politician failing to think before opening his gob.