Thursday, October 09, 2008

2008 Nobel to French Author

Today's New York Times reports that the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is French author J.M.G. Le Clézio. His 1985 novel Le Chercheur d'or was translated into English by Carol Marks, and published this year under the title The Prospector by Boston's own David R. Godine publishers. Boston translation FTW.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Americana in Arabic

Juan Cole, at the Dept. of History at the University of Michigan, is developing a non-profit project to translate classic works of American thought and history into Arabic. Such editions rarely appear; when they do, they are often abridged or not long available before going out of print. A poor distribution system for Arabic books and the scarcity of public libraries compounds the problem, the project website reports. The project authors write:
We have therefore begun a project to translate important books by great Americans and about America into Arabic, and to subsidize their publication so that they can be bought inexpensively. We are also subventing their distribution. We seek funding from the general public as well as from foundations. [...] Among our main goals, which we think are distinctive, is the formation of a large corpus of Americana in Middle Eastern languages, maintaining them in print and available inexpensively, and ensuring continued distribution and availability.
Interested persons may join an e-mail announcement list.

نحن الشعبThe image shown is the cover of a bilingual edition of The Declaration of Independent and the Constitution of the United States, published by the Cato Institute. Many nations have certification standards for translators and intepreters whose work involves legal documents. Who is responsible for translating the foundational texts of government? When we consider the vasty oceans of legal ink spilled by pols, pundits, and attorneys as various interests dispute the compacted meaning of, say, the privacy clause, we have to wonder what standards are in place to ensure that the vagaries of translation don't proliferate constitutional confusions.

Bord na Gaidhlig

The Herald reported a few months back on the resignation of Scotland's Bord na Gaidhlig chief of development, Kenneth Murray. The Bord na Gaidhlig is the Scottish cultural organ charged with the continued life of Gaelic, the native language of the area and on of a family of languages that includes Irish, Welsh, and several more minor – oh, how could they possibly be more minor? – continental tongues. It would be a taxing position for those deeply and fully committed to the language, never mind an outsider in the field as Murray apparently was.

Commissions such as these work to avoid the complete death of a given naturally learned language (learned from being spoken in the home) and to stop it from becoming an inactive language (meaning that it would be known, but only in the way that Latin is now known). According to UNESCO, ten languages die out every year, a recently-arrived-at and alarmingly high rate: 'Europe’s colonial conquests caused a sharp decline in linguistic diversity, eliminating at least 15 per cent of all languages spoken at the time. Over the last 300 years, Europe has lost a dozen, and Australia has only 20 left of the 250 spoken at the end of the 18th century. In Brazil, about 540 (three-quarters of the total) have died out since Portuguese colonization began in 1530.'

Is it a (write it!) disaster that these languages go extinct? Or maybe it is better to ask, what is the implication of their demise for the rest of humanity? There are those who would argue – I might be among them – that greater pluralities of languages allow for a greater variety of conceptions, that implicit in a language is the structure of a culture's conceptual thinking. More practically, we lose what there was of humanity contained in the texts of these languages: historical texts, myths, verse, and what might be called theosophy. This is why translation is so important.