Thursday, September 15, 2016

Translating as Conversion

This post is for theorists. If you don't like theory, highly speculative theory at that, just skip it.

A new article by Brian Mossop, a very experienced professor of translation at Toronto's York University, raises again the question of what is and is not translation (see Mossop 2016 in References below). It makes me think once more about my own concept of it.

In my ongoing quest for the fundamental nature of translating, my 1976 paper The Importance of Natural Translation was the first to postulate that translating is a triple competence:
"All bilinguals can translate. In addition to some competence in two languages L1 and L2, they all possess a third competence, that of translating from L1 to L2 and vice versa."
The 1978 paper Translating as an Innate Skill made a case for the third competence being inherited.

Then in 2009 I suggested that what bilinguals inherit which enables them to translate is not specifically a language competence but some more general ability. I called it conversion; it might have been called transformation (and indeed the transformations of transformational grammar are a good example of it), or substitution, etc., but having used conversion I'll stick with it. My inspiration came from the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov (1926-1976, see References). He devised a model of translating that was valid for both literary and documentary translation, two types that had been considered fundamentally different by the Russian linguists he studied with, as well as for machine translation; but conversion goes much further. As Ludskanov might himself have said - for it was a favourite expression of his - it went to "a higher level of abstraction."

So what is it? Here's a definition.
Conversion is the passage from a mental representation to another that preserves the information and feelings from the former which the converter wishes and has the capability to preserve.
Let's analyse it.

Why mental representation?. Because nothing in our minds is itself. Our little brains aren't big enough to contain even a fragment of the real world. And as for our thoughts and imaginings, they don't float like clouds in our brains. They have to be represented there in code, an encoding structure of neurons. Anyway the information; I'm not so sure about the feelings. Computers provide an analogy; there are no pictures in our computers, only coded digital patterns representing pictures.

Why feelings? Because we remember sensory and emotional feelings, either by themselves or attached to information. So they too have to be represented.

It is the converter, the human whose mind it is, who decides, consciously or unconsciously, what is preserved in the conversion. A typical criterion is perceived importance but there may be other considerations. Much of the original representation may be abandoned. To take an extreme example, the converter who is writing the abstract of an article will be obliged to abandon many of the details in the original. The converter may also add to the original.

Has the capability to preserve: The converter may not have the competence needed in order to preserve some elements of the original. For instance, in converting a verbal description to a drawing, the converter may just not be good at drawing. And there may be other obstacles.

The advantage of the conversion hypothesis over the translation hypothesis is that the former covers all forms of what theorists sometimes call translation (intralingual translation, intersemiotic translation, etc.) and not only what is commonly understood by it, that is to say interlingual translation. And it covers much else, for instance the passage from a visual representation to a musical one; operations that are often called adaptation. By the Occam's razor principle, it's better to assume one competence rather than many.

In interlingual translating, of course, the conversion is from a verbal expression – word, utterance, text – to another verbal expression. The conversion may be direct or it may proceed by conversion first from the source expression to an intermediate representation – imagining what is referred to or described for instance – and from that to the target expression; or both (see the Mossop 2003 reference below).

A subsidiary question is whether conversion is peculiarly human. Some animals may well possess it. But that's another story.

In the absence of empirical proof, both hypotheses, the specific translation one and the general conversion one, are equally possible. As for Occam's razor, "There is little empirical evidence that the world is actually simple or that simple accounts are more likely to be true than complex ones." Indeed nature is profligate. But the way in which my concept of conversion covers all types of what the theorists call translation, and more, is attractive. Perhaps a physical analogue for it will one day be found in the brain.

Brian Mossop. An alternative to 'deverbalization'. 2003.
Click [here] or go to

Brian Mossop. 'Intralingual translation' - a desirable concept? Across Languages and Cultures, vol. 17, no. 1, pp.1-24, 2016. Click [here] or go to

Aleksander Ludskanov. Prevezdat chovekat i machinata [Human and Machine Translation]. Revised edition edited by Elena Paskaleva. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980. In Bulgarian; there are French, German, Italian and Polish translations.

Brian Harris. The importance of natural translation. 1973. Available online at or click [here].

Brian Harris (as Translatology). Essential definitions. Unprofessional Translation, 2009. To retrieve it, enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right.

Source: 123RF

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hiroshima and Translation

It's now more than half a century since the horror of the first atomic bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima. But it's just 50 years today since the classic book about it, John Hersey's Hiroshima, was published as a long article in The New Yorker. Both events have a connection with translation.

First the bombing. This connection is well known to historians of the Second World War. It concerns the English translation of a single Japanese word in the Japanese government's reply to the ultimatum sent to it from the Allies convened at Potsdam (the Potsdam Proclamation). The ultimatum threatened Japan with "prompt and utter destruction" if it did not surrender unconditionally, and the word in question in the reply was mokusatsu. Unfortunately it's polysemic. It's derived from the word for silence. It can mean to take no notice of; treat with silent contempt; ignore by keeping silent; but also to remain in a wise and masterly inactivity, ie (in the context) withhold comment for the moment.The meaning chosen by the Allied translators and the media was the former one; but quite likely the Japanese prime minister Kantaro Suzuki meant the latter one. Faced with what appeared to be an outright rejection, American President Truman ordered the bombing. It's been described as "the worst translation mistake in history" and it's been argued over ever since. My own opinion is that whichever was the correct translation, Truman would have gone ahead anyway in order to save American lives and impress the other Allies, not least Stalin. He says in his memoirs:
"Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used."
The second connection is, on the contrary, little known. Today. 31 August 2016,
"70 years will have passed since the publication of a magazine story hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written, Headlined simply Hiroshima, the 30,000-word article by John Hersey [in The New Yorker] had a massive impact, revealing the full impact of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation,"
Hersey's approach, which he probably picked up from reading Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey during his journey to Japan, was to relate his story through the eyes of six of the survivors. One of them was the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Methodist Church in Hiroshima. On the morning of the bombing he
"had been helping a friend move some stuff to a house in the suburbs for safekeeping (since Hiroshima itself was in constant threat of being bombed)... While they were out there they saw a bright flash of light. Knowing that something bad had happened, and being far enough from the city that they had time to react, the two men dove for shelter before the concussion from the blast could reach them.
"When they were able to emerge from hiding, Mr. Tanimoto kicked into rescue mode immediately. After helping some passersby, he surveyed the damage in the city from a hill. Instead of running as far from the disaster as he could… he ran toward the city, where he ran around tirelessly helping those who were injured or stranded."
Inevitably he was affected by radiation sickness, but he survived and became one of the people known as hibakusha in Japanese.

By November 1946, Hiroshima was published in book form. It was translated quickly into many languages and a braille edition was released. In its book format it has never been out of print since. One translation lagged, however: the Japanese one.
"In Japan, Gen Douglas MacArthur - the supreme commander of occupying forces, who effectively governed Japan until 1948 - had strictly prohibited dissemination of any reports on the consequences of the bombings. Copies of the book, and the relevant edition of The New Yorker, were banned until 1949,"
When the Japanese translation did come out, it was by a Native Translator, none other than the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto. He had become fluent in English during his training as a minister in Atlanta, USA. However, by a technique that is fairly common in literary translating, his text was revised by a professional target-language author. He didn't publish any other translations but wrote other books on religious topics and he became well known as an advocate for victims of the bombing, and he appeared in that role on American television. The annual Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize is named after him. His translation of Hiroshima is surely one of the most poignant translations ever by a Native Translator.

For an explanation of the term Narive Translator, enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right.

Mokusatsu: one word, two lessons. National Security Agency, 2016. or click [here].

Harry S. Truman. Memoirs. Volume One: Year of Decisions. or click [here].

How John Hersey's Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb. BBC News, 22 August 2016. or click [here].

John Hersey. Hiroshima. Translated by Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto and Kin'ichi Ishikawa. Tokyo: Hosei Daigaku Shuppankyoku, 1949. There are a few copies left in libraries: consult WorldCat. (Revision of a Native Translator by an established writer is done not only to ensure the quality of the target text but also to put a well-known name on the cover as well as an unknown one.)

Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Wikipedia, 2016.

Shmoop Editorial Team. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Shmoop, 2016. or click [here].

Kiyoshi Tanimoto on the American TV program This Is Your Life, 1955.
Source: Christian Greco,

Friday, August 19, 2016

Infant Translators: the Salamanca Twins

In the collection quoted from in the preceding post there is another article that deserves to be saved from drowning in the flood of literature about translation that sweeps past us these days, It's by a team of linguistic researchers, Esther Álvarez de la Fuente and Raquel Fernández Fuertes, of the Language Acquisition Lab at the University of Valladolid, Spain. The data for it was harvested from a pair of English/Spanish bilingual twins at the old university city of Salamanca, not far from Valladolid. (It's unusual to have twins as subjects, but Esther and Raquel don't follow up that aspect of the situation.) The data was videotaped and is deposited in a computerised corpus, the FerFulice Corpus, which is incorporated in the CHILDES database.

The article analyses the spontaneous and elicited translating in the speech of the boys, named Simon and Leo, from the age of 1 year 11 months to 6 years 3months; an impressive total of 178 sessions were video-recorded at regular intervals. Their mother was American, their father Spanish. Each parent always spoke to the children in her or his or own language, following the OPOL (one parent one language) principle for avoiding confusion between languages. The recordings were made in natural settings while the boys were engaged in normal play activities.

For the analysis, a matrix of variables devised by Esther was used (and modified slightly here): COMPLETENESS (complete, incomplete, null), STIMULUS (requested, spontaneous), DIRECTION (towards English, towards Spanish), ORIGIN (self-translation, translating what was said by others, situational), MAPPING BETWEEN LANGUAGES (equivalent with communicative function, equivalent without communicative function, expanded, reduced). Other researchers may care to use it. What is very desirable is to arrive at a commonly accepted set of variables in order to facilitate comparison between studies.

So let's look at some examples.
1) Mother: Can you say water?
Mother, holding up the cup of water: What is this?
Leo, reaching for the cup: Ahi! [There!]
Mother: Water?
Leo: Agua.
(Age 1 year 2 months)
This was remarkably young, indeed before the age of speaking in sentences; but it replicates Jules Ronjat's observation made a hundred years ago (see References) that his son Louis composed French/German bilingual word pairs at that age. Obviously the situation helped in the present case.
2) Simon, trying to get his toy to make a noise: Está loto [a mispronunciation of roto].
Mother, not paying attention to Simon: How about…?
Simon: B(r)eak mommy b(r)eak.
(Age 2 years 3 months)
Now he was at the stage both of sentences and of communicative intent. Still remarkably young. Furthermore he differentiates between his languages and understands the language need of his interlocutor.
But not all the children's translation attempts are successful. That would be too good to be true. Thus:
3) Mother, pointing to an elephant: Look, look, show me that animal.
Mother: What's it called?
Leo: Elefante [Spanish for elephant].
Mother: Can you say that in English?
Leo, with a trace of tears in his voice: No, elefante.
(Age 2 years 7 months)
There are several things to note in this example. First that Leo's translating – like all Natural Translation – is limited by his proficiency in the two languages. Natural Translators don't use dictionaries. Secondly that he wants to translate and feels frustrated at not being able to do so. And thirdly that his mother doesn't ask him to translate (a word that was probably not yet in his vocabulary) but to say it in English.

Without a doubt this study ranks in importance, by its length and thoroughness, with the earlier studies by Harris, Swain and others right back to Ronjat. (For more about them, enter their names in the Search box on the right.) It's one of only a handful of such studies.

One final piece of good news is that you no longer need to fork out 50 euros to buy the book in which the article appears, because Esther has posted a collection of that and other related articles in the invaluable repository and you can download free them by clicking here or from Some of the articles are in English some in Spanish.

The children involved in child language brokering are usually of school age and socialised beyond the family. For much younger translators who are still confined to the family, like the ones cited above, I propose infant translator. Hence the title of this post.

Esther Álvarez de la Fuente and Raquel Fernández Fuertes. How two English/Spanish children translate: in search of bilingual competence through natural interpretation. In M.A. Jiménez Ivars and M.J. Blasco Mayor (eds.), Interpreting Brian Harris: Recent Developments in Translatology, Bern, Lang, 2012, pp. 95-116.

The address of the Language Acquisition Lab is\uvalal.

Jules Ronjat. Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue [Language development in a bilingual child]. In French. Paris: Champion, 1913. 155 p. Available online by clicking here or at

Left: Esther Álvarez de la Fuente. Right: Raquel Fernández Fuertes.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Child Culture Brokering

In 2012 some well-wishers of mine at the Jaime I University in Castellón, Spain, put together a collection of articles related to my work on Natural Translation (see Reference below). The one that still stands out in my mind is Nigel Hall and Zhiyan Guo's Child language and cultural brokering. For several reasons, of which the main one is the concept of child culture brokering (CCB), which it introduces as an extension to the more familiar child language brokering (CLB). CLB, for any of you who don't already know it, is the interpreting that children of immigrants do between the new communities around them and members of their own families and friends who aren't yet fluent in the new language. Hall and Zhiyan enrich CLB with observations that show how such children not only convey language but also social mores. This is of course important for adaptation to a new life.

(Note that Hall and Guo were at Manchester Metropolitan University, not the University of Manchester, from where most of the Mancunian publications about translation emanate. This may help explain their originality. Hall is an authority on childhood literacy. It is noteworthy too that their data comes from England and not from the USA, which is where most of the research on CLB has been done.)

The story that they tell to illustrate their point is one that did something research papers rarely do for me: it made me laugh, Well anyway, chuckle. It's the tale of a Chinese couple from Taiwan who come to live in England with their little girl and who get caught up in the ritual of children's birthday parties, something unknown in Taiwan. The girl and her mother are faced with many new decisions: what to wear, what to give as a present, etc. But it is the child who is in contact with the English community through her school and has constantly to inform and instruct the mother. With the result that it is the child, as in most CLB situations too, who runs the show.
"The cultural impact of the children's behaviour at an accommodative level was that the parents' views and beliefs about childhood were constantly being challenged In many respects everyday living it was like living on a frontier between Chinese notions of civilized child/parent relationships and British children's autonomy and freedom. Many things the children said or did, things that they had adsorbed unquestioningly from their school and peer communities, created dissonance and discomfort for their parents."
Fortunately there was a happy ending.
"The parents were very sensitive to their children's need to fit in to the school and peer community, and the result was that there was considerable compromise on the part of the parents."
And the story ends with a father saying, "If I go back to Taiwan I would start having birthday parties for my children."

And Hall and Guo's conclusion:
"We may have put less attention on language to give more attention to these children's other mediating behaviours, but like Harris we believe in the importance of studying people in their everyday lives, and there is nothing more fascinating and informative than the everyday lives of children."
Child culture brokering is a virtually untilled field that cries out for more investigation.

Nigel Hall and Zhiyan Guo. Child language and cultural brokering. In M. A. Jiménez Ivars and M. J. Blasco Mayor (eds.), Interpreting Brian Harris: Recent Developments in Translatology, Berne, Lang, 2012, pp. 51-75. Available through Amazon.

Source: Bricks 4 Kidz. Spot the Chinese kid.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Long-time Followers know that my second major interest after Natural Translation is Machine Translation. An apparent contradiction, but I have explained elsewhere how this came about many years ago and led me to become a member of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics or ICCL. (For more, enter ICCL in the Search box on the right.)

The ICCL sponsors the biennial COLING conferences in a different part of the world each time. The last COLING took place in Dublin in 2014. The upcoming COLING is scheduled to take place in Osaka, Japan, from December 11 to 16 of this year.

The latest news is that a record number of papers have been submitted: more than 1,100. Of these, 93 are specifically about MT; and many that are listed in other categories are relevant to it; for example speech recognition, which is now linked to translation in systems like Skype. So if you're passionate about MT and ways to improve it, Osaka in December is the place to be.

It's a tradition of COLING that one day of the conference is taken off for an excursion to help participants get to know each other. This time the excursion will be to Nara.

The website for COLING Osaka is at or click here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Witness: Nadia Comaneci's Perfect 10

I don't normally talk about my professional interpreting career on this blog, but today merits an exception. It's the anniversary, the 40th anniversary, of what for me was an unforgettable moment. And paradoxically it happened to me because at that very moment I was not interpreting.

It came about this way. In the summer of 1976 I was recruited to the large team of 60-odd conference interpreters who serviced the multitude of press conferences, committee meetings, etc., that accompanied the Montreal Olympic Games just as they always surround the Olympics. The public isn't aware how much of these activities goes on. I consider it was the high point of my career as an interpreter. I got the job because I had previously done work as a freelance interpreter for the Canadian government, I moved for a month into one of the apartments that were provided for us at great expense in Montreal and commuted most days between morning press conferences in the city and the afternoon equestrian events at Bromont, Quebec.

But at the very start of the games, just before the opening ceremony, we interpreters discovered a serious mistake had been made. Everyone on the staff of the games was issued with an identity tag to wear around their neck; it bore their photo, their name and their function. You had to show it to get to work. No tag, no admission. However, the people in charge had forgotten to prepare tags for the interpreters. Panic! In desperation, the official responsible issued an order: "We have press tags left over. Issue them all press tags." And then he was so busy that he forgot to ask for them back.

The unintended result was that the interpreters could get into the press enclosure at any event merely by flashing their identity tags. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

One evening, back from Bromont with no interpreting to do until the following morning, I walked up St Catherine Street to the Montreal Forum. The Forum is usually Montreal's premier ice hockey arena, vast, but it had been taken over for the Olympics. That evening it was hosting the gymnastics. I flashed my tag and eased myself into the front row of the press enclosure.

I had arrived just in time to witness history in the making. Between the spotlights and the camera flashes, and from a distance of barely 30 metres, I saw dainty, diminutive, precise, untrembling Nadia Comaneci, 14 years old, make her perfect score of 10. The first perfect score in Olympic gymnastics. As we onlookers stopped chattering, she, as she says in her BBC interview, was thinking only of what she had to do next. Her event barely occupied a quarter of the floor space but it was the corner nearest to where I was standing. I was there too when, to the initial bewilderment of the reporters and the crowd, the board flashed up 1.00 because it hadn't been designed to display 10.00.

Simon Watts, et al. The first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10. BBC Witness, 20 July 2016, or click here. This revealing video interview shows Nadia in childhood and as she is today – still graceful.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Young Interpreters and Roma Children

Followers of this blog are familiar with the Young Interpreters movement in UK schools. If you aren't, enter emtas in the Search box on the right. EMTAS channels the abilities of school children to act as language brokers for immigrant fellow pupils. The June issue of the YI Newsletter brings the usual cheery reports of success and expansion. Pupils at Hylands School in Chelmsford, which has just joined, express their feelings:
"I feel happy that I am a Young Interpreter as I can help out people who are struggling with English and who look lost around the school. - Paige, year 11.
"I think being a Young Interpreter is about putting the EAL student first and not myself. I am very excited about joining the Young Interpreters because I will meet new people and help them to understand what it is like to be at Hylands. Also I am a little nervous because I have never done this before. My mum says I would be excellent for this because I am a natural carer for others and will help in any way possible. - Mia, year 7.
And so on. Notice that these children see themselves as more than just language conduits, and such empathy is perhaps typical of Natural Interpreters. Our Followers are familiar with such sentiments. However, this issue of the newsletter also contains what for me anyway was a surprise, and I urge you to look at it via the link provided or by clicking here. It is that among the dozens of nationalities in Hampshire schools there are now Roma children. Do you know who the Roma are? EMTAS answers the question, insisting that they are not Gypsies.
"Most Roma families prefer to identify themselves by their country of origin, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania being the most common ones. They do this because of their fear of discrimination and prejudice.
"The linking of 'Gypsy' and 'Roma' in adscription documents is an unhelpful pairing as many Roma do not want to be allied with Gypsies. Their adscription as 'White Other' (WOTH) or 'Any Other Ethnic Group' (OOTH) means that Roma children in Hampshire schools do not receive support for their Roma background and all the cultural barriers to learning…. We need to be aware that many of these children will have no formal experience of schooling or a very interrupted education. Many find it difficult to settle in one area and are at risk of becoming 'lost in the system' because of their relatively high mobility. We should also be aware that our Roma communities are themselves diverse in terms of language, culture and religion (they may be Roman Catholic or Muslim, quite different from our indigenous Traveller groups)…
"Roma do not regard themselves as Gypsies and do not like to be classified as Gypsies although many of their customs are similar. European Roma call their language Romanes and UK Gypsies call theirs Romani. Whilst English Romani and European Romanes have vocabulary in common, the grammatical structures used may vary considerably and the languages are not necessarily mutually intelligible.
"It should be noted that although many of Hampshire's Gypsies and Travellers have a predilection for living in caravans and mobile homes, many Roma… have always lived in housing,"

Roma community development worker Alexandra Bahor who is working with Roma children in the Lodge Lane area of Liverpool on an arts project in a bid to promote cultural cohesion in the neighbourhood.
Source: Liverpool Echo