Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Example of the Wet Floor Sign

Wet Floor!
The Spanish text on a janitorial sign, "Cuidado piso mojado," rhymes elegantly. However, the English version "Caution: Wet Floor" preserves neither the rhyme nor the rhythm. Why should one linguistic cohort enjoy tightly crafted service messages, while English-speakers have to make do with flat, literal admonitions?

Editor Matthew Kelsey suggests as an alternative: "Caution, we're washin'."

The moral of the story: don't be afraid to ask if it could be done better.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Polizzotti at Harvard Co-op

From a notice circulated on the AGNI mailing list:
Mark Polizzotti will read from his new translation of Marguerite Duras' "Yann Andrea Steiner," published this year by Archipelago Books, at 7 p.m., this Thursday, November 30th, at the Harvard Coop, Cambridge.

Dedicated to Duras' companion with whom she spent the last decade of her life, "Yann Andrea Steiner" is a haunting dance between two parallel stories of love and solitude: the love between Duras and the young Yann Andrea and a seaside romance observed--or imagined--by the the narrator between a camp counselor and an orphaned camper, a Holocaust survivor.

Polizzotti has translated the work of Jean Echenoz, Gustave Flaubert, Andre Breton, Christian Oster, in addition to Duras' novel, "Writing" in 1998, and he is currently director of publications at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He will be available for question and answer after the reading.
Duras and her screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour were of central importance in the birth of French New Wave cinema.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Charters & Tranströmer: Translations and Versions

In the preface to his 1975 translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s lovely long poem “Baltics”, Samuel Charters shares two points with the reader that I think greatly deserve to be shared with a wider readership. The first, that the Swedish language distinguishes two types of translation where conventional English gives only a single name to both kinds of rendering, will ring true to any translator who has had to protect the integrity of the original work while making of it a worthwhile experience in the target language.

The second point follows from the happy fact that Charters and Tranströmer are both alive, and good friends. When faced with a thorny question of nuance, they could push their chairs away from table and walk out of doors, so as to find the exact object about which the poem was concerned. The translator and the poet standing in a salt-rimed meadow, confirming with conversation and finger-pointing just exactly what was meant by this word in this line. As exciting as the search for the right sense can be, I have to confess: that manner of ‘gathering the meaning’ is so much more attractive than thumbing through the pages of a dictionary. I can think of a few Pusteblumies who would be abundantly grateful for the privilege of joining Apollinaire on a crepuscular tour of Paris, for the chance to ask the poet to point out just the moment of dawn the line “Soleil cou coupé” was intended to capture. Charters writes:
There are two words in Swedish to describe a rendering of a poem from one language into another. One is oversättning, which means “translation”, and the other is tolkning, which is close to the English word “version”. In English the distinction is often blurred, and there is particularly a tendency to describe unrhymed renderings of rhymed poetry as translations, when they are actually versions. In Swedish, however, the distinctions are usually kept, and this is an oversättning: a translation. With some poems a great deal of the original can be lost in a translation, but with a poem like Baltics; unrhymed, rhythmically rather free, and in a contemporary idiom, it is possible to come fairly close to the original; especially since Swedish and English share a large root vocabulary, and there are many points where grammatical forms are similar. What is most obviously different is the sound of the English, which is a softer language with a rounding at the edges from the romance languages that helped form it. Swedish has a harder sound, more abrupt, and this tone is difficult to bring across.

As with most Swedish writers, English is a second language for Tomas, and we worked closely together on every aspect of the translation. At troublesome points he was often the best judge of how well the Swedish and the English reflected each other. Also he and his family made my family feel welcome on the island off the Swedish coast that figures so often in the poem, and the long summer days with them there gave me a feeling of the poem I couldn’t have gotten in any other way. In a very immediate sense, if we were trying to decide if the translation of a word should be something like either “bay” or “channel” we walked down to the shore to look at what he was describing. We worked out as many problems on afternoon walks as we did at the kitchen table in the evenings with notes and dictionaries.
I recommend Tranströmer (as much from my own reading as from the received recommendations of Robert Bly, Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass). His latest book is newly available on Amazon. From Maureen McLane of The Poetry Foundation:
Tomas Tranströmer is one of Sweden’s most lauded poets, with a massive international reputation as well. In The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, an often surreal dream logic moves us from archipelagos to the sea, and from family to world history, as in his long poem “Baltics.” Tranströmer’s poems are often located on thresholds or borders, bespeaking incomplete yet promised arrivals, as his book titles suggest—Secrets on the Way, The Half-Finished Heaven. Sleep and winter are native zones to him; windows, seas, mountains, painters, music, and geography recur. This work offers intense, visionary transformation: “[t]he lake is a window into the earth” in which “[d]ozens of dialects of green” appear.
Here, from Charters’ translation, are two (non-consecutive) segments of Part IV of “Baltics”. If you think they are fine as I do, hop on over to Amazon UK or other friendly source and dig up the paperback copy. If you are truly desperate to read the rest, let me know and I shall provision you with a copy of the book… but beware the charity of a fellow addict. The verse:

Our Worldwide Readership

In the short while since we’ve begun posting to this blog, we’ve had readers from all over the United States, as well as from Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Singapore, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. It’s exciting to realize that we’ve participating in a conversation about literary creativity with people from all over the globe. But let’s not make this a one-sided chat. If you’ve got a relevant news item or link to share, or would like to respond to a post you’ve read here on Boston Translation, please accept our invitation to make yourself heard, either through a comment or by sending us an email at pusteblume.translations@gmail.com. We’ll be glad to add your contribution as a new top-level post. We look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Jonson on the Translator's Pen

The following anecdote is taken from the Isaac Disraeli's widely admired multi-volume Curiosities of Literature, a compilation of observations on a life of book-loving, -collecting, and -making, edited by his son Benjamin, the future Prime Minister. In that collection, this entry appeared under the heading “Ben Jonson on Translation.” My gratitude to the good work of the Project Gutenberg volunteer community for providing the text.
I have discovered a poem by this great poet, which has escaped the researches of all his editors. Prefixed to a translation, translation is the theme; with us an unvalued art, because our translators have usually been the jobbers of booksellers; but no inglorious one among our French and Italian rivals. In this poem, if the reader's ear be guided by the compressed sense of the massive lines, he may feel a rhythm which, should they be read like our modern metre, he will find wanting; here the fulness of the thoughts forms their own cadences. The mind is musical as well as the ear. One verse running into another, and the sense often closing in the middle of a line, is the Club of Hercules; Dryden sometimes succeeded in it, Churchill abused it, and Cowper attempted to revive it. Great force of thought only can wield this verse.

On the AUTHOR, WORKE, and TRANSLATOR, prefixed to the translation of Mateo Alemans's Spanish Rogue, 1623.

   Who tracks this author's or translator's pen
   Shall finde, that either hath read bookes, and men:
   To say but one were single. Then it chimes,
   When the old words doe strike on the new times,
   As in this Spanish Proteus; who, though writ
   But in one tongue, was formed with the world's wit:
   And hath the noblest marke of a good booke,
   That an ill man dares not securely looke
   Upon it, but will loath, or let it passe,
   As a deformed face doth a true glasse.
   Such bookes deserve translators of like coate
   As was the genius wherewith they were wrote;
   And this hath met that one, that may be stil'd
   More than the foster-father of this child;
   For though Spaine gave him his first ayre and vogue
   He would be call'd, henceforth, the English rogue,
   But that hee's too well suted, in a cloth
   Finer than was his Spanish, if my oath
   Will be receiv'd in court; if not, would I
   Had cloath'd him so! Here's all I can supply
   To your desert who have done it, friend! And this
   Faire aemulation, and no envy is;
   When you behold me wish myselfe, the man
   That would have done, that, which you only can!

The translator of Guzman was James Mabbe, which he disguised under the Spanish pseudonym of Diego Puede-ser; Diego for James, and Puede-ser for Mabbe or May-be! He translated, with the same spirit as his Guzman, Celestina, or the Spanish Bawd, that singular tragi-comedy,—a version still more remarkable. He had resided a considerable time in Spain, and was a perfect master of both languages,—a rare talent in a translator; and the consequence is, that he is a translator of genius.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Translation industry boomin'

From "Found in translation: Global business demands, broadening foreign contacts and multicultural concerns in social services have created a growing market for translators and interpreters," in the October 31st issue of the Sacramento Bee:
In 2004, the last year that federal statistics were available, about 31,000 individuals in the United States were listed as translators and interpreters in schools, health care, courts, airlines, telecommunication and other fields.
This is just the most recent in a wave of articles all of which recognize that in an increasingly interconnected world, those with multilingual abilities are going to be in high demand. There is money to be made; the article cites a going rate $16.30/hr for freelance work, a sufficiently high wage to keep up with the costs of living even in some of the more cosmopolitan areas of the country, those in which the market for translation services is going to continue to rise. But how will this demand continue to be met? Will the financial planners of the American school system cease to view foreign language instruction as auxiliary to learning, rather than an essential component of a complete education? Will vocational training schools proliferate, or will departments of comparative literature on campuses across the country more urgently remind their propsective students that jobs are waiting for graduates? I don't think anyone is expecting machine translation to advance so far in the next five years as to stem the current growth in this industry, so this is a question that is going to remain pertinent.

I'm particularly interested in considering whether there is a distinction to be made between professional (service) translation, and literary translation. An analogy might be drawn to the relationship between commercial copywriter and literary writer. Whence literary creativity, in the working of legal documents, medical transcripts, or business records from one language to another? Is there a perceptible difference between those who identify with professional work, and those who see themselves as working in a literary mode? A rivalry, a bias? This is a question more well-suited for a sociologist, but one which deserves answering if the translation industry becomes sufficiently strong to begin demanding reasonable compensation for the translation of foreign literature into English.

In the Bee article, reporter Darrell Smith asks Argentina-born Monica Nainsztein, owner of Sacramento firm Spanish Media Translations, about her work composing subtitles for studio films:
"I grew up watching movies in Argentina saying, 'Hey, that's not what they said.'" [....] "You're helping people understand. You're connecting cultures, informing people," Nainsztein said. "And showing your family your work on screen? That's priceless."
I am aware of at least once collegiate study abroad program, that for Boston University in Madrid, that offers a course in which students are assigned to writer Spanish subtitles for Hollywood films. That is, to me, a terrific assignment, in which students are confronted literary, commercial, and practical constraints. All this, and the requirement that they produce output that is instantly understood by an audience having only moments to read the text. If someone knows where the topic of the translation of cinematic subtitles is discussed, I'd be glad to read more about it. It's a topic I think we should explore in a future issue of the print journal. Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Biblical Translation Superbattles

David Plotz of Slate magazine has hit upon a great many interesting topics in his quixotic quest to blog the Bible, but his most recent report on progress takes us to an issue of particular relevance. Regarding a dispute over translations of Judges 7:5-7:
This is baffling. In my NRSV, the ones who kneel put their hands to their mouths and are disqualified. But in the NIV, the ones who kneel don't put their hands to their mouths. Rather, the lappers put their hands to their mouths. (The King James Bible and the English Standard Version, incidentally, agree with the NIV.) Is there a superb scholar of biblical Hebrew out there who can explain why these translations contradict each other? Is it, as I fear, a mistake by the NRSV translators?
So we see, it pays to take the trouble to know what the source language says. Translation resolves all conflicts. Translation saves the world. </bias>

Not to be neglected in this article is the author's admission that he failed to properly highlight the discrepancy between the NRSV version of Eglon's death in the Book of Judges, and that found on the King James Bible. When Ehud, son of Gera, jams a knife into Elgon's gut, is it dirt that's ejected, or dung? It's the sort of question careers are built upon. </snicker>

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Machine Translation and Multilingual Search

If Google vertical markets director Jeff Levick isn’t exactly sounding a clarion call for translation technology, he should be. From Andy Atkins-Krüger of Multilingual-Search.com:
Jeff pointed to the fact that there are twice as many Chinese speakers in the world as English – not all the world speaks English. And there are great information resources in Chinese and Arabic, he said.
Recognizing the need for increased development of translation tools is a far cry from indicating the direction Google’s research and development team is going to take as they augment their current search tools. It’s quite that the demand for multilingual search is going to be an engine for translation research – one which Google in particular is well-placed to direct, and to benefit from.

Let’s imagine that I’m an Internet user in need of information about eels. It could happen. I’m a practiced searchologist, so I vary my queries: ‘edible fish’, ‘conger’, etc. But if I don’t know the Portuguese word for eels, no variety of English-language concepts and synonyms is going to call up all the Portuguese –language content pertaining to the prominence of that slimy fish in that nation’s cuisine. Imagine if my English-language search query could generate results drawn from all online content, without regard to the language of composition. Since a page-indexing bot doesn’t know it’s Mandarin from its Catalan, this not a technically difficult feat. Web indexing software is blind to meaning; the search string a user inputs is utterly meaningless to the search engine, since search is a matching operation and not a comprehending one. The first steps might be the compilation of cross-referenced databases in which potential search terms in the input language are related to corresponding terms in other languages. Imagine if the search engine algorithm could automatically convert my search string into multiple searches in different languages… simultaneously scouring the Web for references to gia cam, poulet, ayam muda, and chicken, returning results posted online in Vietnamese, French, Malay, and English. The search engine operator has greatly expanded the breadth of their search results as well as the size of their potential user population, and the user benefits by gaining access to a wider swatch of the world’s available information.

Of course, a search result in Vietnamese might not be immediately helpful for the English-speaking user. Hence the role multilingual search plays in instigating development of machine translation tools. If my search for chicken returns a Vietnamese-language page as the top result, I know that the information is desirable… that’s the job of the search engine itself, to return the most relevant results. But I can’t read it. If the search engine operator wants to attract and keep users, it’s going to be interested in adding a machine translation function to its page results. Google currently offers this option, but there is tremendous room for improvement.

John Dvorak is equally dissatisfied with current online translation services. Writing for PC Magazine:
…if computers can play a credible world-class game of chess, then they should be able to translate complex sentences written in the world’s major languages. … Exactly what’s the hang-up? … The computer revolution began a half-century ago. We should have been able to solve this problem by now.
The rules of language translation are orders of magnitude more complex than chess; it’s rather misleading to point to the success of chess-playing programs as evidence that “private industry can’t seem to manage” the resolve needed to provide reliable machine translation. Setting that small confusion aside, it’s easy to sympathize with Dvorak’s complaint that research toward improved machine translation has been under-funded. Not Systran, or Babelfish, or WorldLingo is yet capable of producing reliable idiomatic translation. It’s a difficult problem, and progress is being made all the time. But maybe we should look for a silver lining in the otherwise inconvenient lag between demand for and delivery of machine translation. The persistence of problems in even the best machine translators keeps the pressure on for foreign language study… users still can’t relax, and need to have a sufficient competence in the source language to be able to vet their translation results. This is a point lost on Dvorak, whose French “has been in decline since 1973.” While I’m personally eager for a time when I’ll be more easily able to browse foreign language content online, I can’t rally behind a critic who couldn’t be bothered to keep his own skills up to par. Let’s not be so complacent as to advocate machine translation without also pushing the case for multilingualism. Damn monoglots.

A quick recap: since an increasing portion of information online is in a language other than that of the user, multilingual capacities in both search and machine translation are increasingly in demand. Search is uncomprehending, and therefore the easier problem to tackle, but the better multilingual search becomes, the greater the demand for machine translation. The two functions are inextricably linked, and interdependent. Google is well-placed to capitalize on the market potential of superior translation services… how exciting if its corporate leadership were to recognize that translation is a natural companion to its book Library, Database, Scholar, and Search initiatives! To name just one benefit, the working literary translator would have an immensely easier time of identifying resources for his or her work; just as the eel enthusiast would finally be immediately directed to webpages of eel aficionados based in Portugal. Sunny days ahead.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dalkey Archive Finds a New Home

The Dalkey Archive Press is saying goodbye to Illinois State University, its home since 1992, and relocating to the University of Rochester. There, the publisher will continue to print world literature in translation, making more widely available the work of authors including Tadeusz Konwicki, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Shiva Rahbaran. From The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/1/2006:
In its new home, Dalkey Archive will continue to publish 24 to 30 books a year as well as the Review of Contemporary Fiction and the literary journal CONTEXT
John O'Brien, Dalkey Archive's director, told the Chronicle that the Press has been talking to University administrators about establishing a national center for translation at Rochester. Considering the fine reputation that the Press has earned since its founding in 1984, and the breadth and intelligence of its perpetually-available catalogue, O'Brien's ambition has a credible future. The Dalkey plan, however, would not be to found the first-ever such center. The National Translation Center at the University of Texas Austin was an impressively effective institution during its lifetime. Its journal, Delos, was edited by a who's-who list including Arrowsmith, Auden, Botsford, and Shattuck, led by the estimable D.S. Carne-Ross. (How so many of these were relocated ensemble to Boston University is surely an interesting story.)

Dalkey Archive has managed to be commercially feasible and academically respectable; let us hope its future program can combine engagement with world culture, scholarly rigor, and stylistic nuance, as did its predecessor.