Saturday, February 25, 2012

Words vs. Ideas (continued)

This is a continuation of the penultimate post, which please read first.

Brian Mossop understandably rejects evidence from ‘pathological’ subjects like aphasia patients, but here’s an example of pathological translating behaviour that’s very commonplace. It’s typical of what’s produced when there’s interference between the words-> words and the words-> message-> words paths; the interference suggests that both paths are operating simultaneously. So many Non-Expert Translators (including translation school students) make the mistake of translating French librairie or Spanish librería as English library when it should be bookshop/bookstore. It’s not the fault of the dictionaries. Similarly bibliographie translated as bibliography instead of references in a scientific paper by someone who should know better, and so on with many other ‘false friends’. In the case of librairie/library, two of the semantic features, i.e. meaning elements, are correctly understood and transferred: books and place for. It’s only the third feature, selling and buying, that’s derailed. And why so? Because the word form of librairie is simultaneously present while the meaning is being apprehended, and it connects automatically with the closest word form in the target language.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that some translations turn out noticeably literal and other noticeably free. So there has to be some mechanism that selects or tips the balance one way or the other. Mossop says no conclusions about its nature can be drawn in the present state of research.

What's all this got to do with Natural and Native Translators? Well, three decades ago, Canadian educational psycholinguists Merrill Swain (see photo), G. Dumas and Neil Naiman were doing research on seven-year-old children learning French as a second language and getting them to translate (a technique that they called elicited translation). The children were young and inexperienced enough to be classed as Natural Translators; certainly they had been given no instruction in translation. The investigators observed that the children translated in different ways. Some of them followed the original wording closely and others more freely. In this case the translations were very short and there was no opportunity to revise, at least not openly. It suggests that, whatever the mechanism, the verbal vs. deverbalised distinction or the selection/weighting mechanism runs deep and early. Unfortunately the observation hasn't been followed up. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether bilingual children exhibit the same tendencies in translating between two languages as they do when paraphrasing in a single language.

German researcher Wolfgang Lörscher has carried the observations to a later age and more advanced level of translating. His subjects were Native Translators − “advanced foreign language learners” at university level − whom he compared with “professional translators”, presumably Expert Translators. His conclusions:
“Most of the foreign language students take a form-oriented approach in that they produce translations mainly by an exchange of language signs... As a result, Target Language texts are produced which are neither equivalent in sense to the respective Source Language texts nor grammatically or stylistically acceptable texts by themselves.... Professional translators, in contrast, commonly employ sense-oriented procedures. Thus, the shortcomings of translations with serious distortions of sense or violations of norms of TL text production are avoided.”
This characteristic of Lörscher’s professionals may be a result of their training: they had probably been taught, as I was, to “translate the ideas, not the words.” He doesn’t look into it. On the other hand, “most of the foreign language students” implies that there are some who do not. In other words, it’s a matter of tendencies. Which of the two models is closer to reality − a divergence between word-for-word transfer and deverbalisation with reconciliation between them, or simultaneous processing of them both − remains an open question. But what is not in question is that the difference between literal and message-based translating is one of the most fundamental and fascinating for translation research.

Merrill K. Swain (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), G. Dumas and N. Naiman. Alternatives to spontaneous speech: elicited translation and imitation as indicators of second language competence. Working Papers in Bilingualism, 3.68-79, 1974. Available online as ERIC document ED123872.

Brian Mossop (York University, Toronto). An Alternative to 'Deverbalization'. 2003. Click here for the text.

Wolfgang Lörscher (U. of Leipzig). The translation process: methods and problems of its investigation. Meta, 50:2.597-608, 2005. Click here for the text.

Message. The use of message in models of translating is an attempt to deal with inadequacies of the term meaning. The message is the speaker/writer’s intended meaning in that particular instance and including affective elements.

Merrill Swain, pioneer Canadian observer of child translators. She's now a Professor Emeritus in Toronto. Source:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Flash! The Forlì Conference

Registration is now open at ‘early bird’ prices for the First International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation. The venue is Forlì, half an hour by train from Bologna, Italy, and the dates are May 17-19. For more information, click here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Words vs. Ideas

When I started to learn French at school, at age 11, it was by the venerable grammar-translation method. As soon as we could translate sentences, we were told, "Don't translate the words, translate the ideas." I noticed that our teachers and examiners sometimes didn't practice what they preached, but the advice sank in. As if we had to make a choice.

"Ideas, not words." Here's a little example I saw recently:
En España, ya queda prohibido circular a más de 100 km/h.
Word translation (with help from Google Translate): In Spain, it is already forbidden to drive at more than 100 km an hour.
Ideas translation: The Spanish speed limit is now 70 mph.
At the extremes, translating the words leads to word-for-word translations; translating the ideas leads to free translations.

Years later, I came across the distinction again in Theodore Savory's The Art of Translation. Savory gives a list of six choices that translators have to make, and first on the list is:
"A translator must give the words of the original,
A translator must give the ideas of the original."
Again, a choice.

By that time I'd also learnt that the choice may be determined by the type of text or the purpose of the translation. It was none other than St Jerome who famously said (my emphasis),
"When I translate the Greeks, I do not translate word for word, except for the Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery."

So far, pretty elementary. Then the distinction got a boost in contemporary translation theory from the research and writings of an influential teacher, Danica Seleskovitch (for more about her, enter Danica in the Search box on the right). She also coined some new terminology in French. She called translating the words transcodage and translating the meaning interprétation. Her research was based on the notes and think-aloud recollections of Expert Conference Interpreters working in the long consecutive mode. In this mode there is typically a delay of many minutes between speaker and interpretation, during which time the interpreter has to remember what's been said. The interpreters are trained to take notes that act as prompts, and the notes are of made up principally of ideograms between which are inserted only a minimum of words. Consequently the interpreter is prompted for the ideas but can't remember the exact wording of the original. The content of the original is thus said to be deverbalised. She went even further and said that this deverbalised form is the way we store spoken information in long-term memory. As a teacher, she insisted her students deverbalise and avoid literal translations. As if they had a choice.

But one of our best contemporary Canadian writers on translation, Brian Mossop (see photo), who has over 30 years of practical experience as a Professional Translator, opposes, we might even say debunks, the idea that there is a choice.
"This picture is certainly useful for pedagogical purposes,... However pedagogical utility does not imply theoretical value... That is, the mere fact that a theory may be useful does not imply or even suggest that it is true...
"My proposal is that both processes (direct links and meaning-mediated links) occur simultaneously and they do so whenever someone is translating. It is never a case of one or the other.

"At the outset, as the translator begins to hear or read a chunk of ST [source text], he/she starts to interpret ST, that is, arrive at an understanding of its meaning. On the other hand, and at the same time, the translator’s bilingual brain automatically produces TL [target language] lexical and syntactic material based on the incoming SL forms and on the connections (whatever these may be) between TL and SL items in the mental store of language knowledge. I’ll call this activity of the brain Rendering. Rendering occurs beyond all conscious control and cannot be ‘unlearned’. It happens automatically: bilingual brains render just as stomachs digest incoming food."
He does admit that
"In the present state of knowledge about how the brain works, we cannot prove any theory about unconscious brain processes during translation. Still, we can ask whether there are any observations which can provide at least initial plausibility for a view."
And he goes on to give some of the evidence.

To be continued.

Theodore Savory. The Art of Translation, enlarged edition. London: Cape, 1967, 159 pages. Out of print, but available second hand through Amazon.

Michael Marlowe. The literal character of the Vulgate. Bible Research. Click here for the text. The Vulgate is Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible.

Danica Seleskovitch. Langage, langues et mémoire: étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consécutive (Language, Languages and Memory: A Study of Note-taking for Consecutive Interpretation). Paris: Minard, 1975, paperback edition 1998. This is the canonical version, but there's an English summary in:
D. Seleskovitch. Language and memory: a study of note-taking in consecutive interpretation. In F. Pöchhacker and M. Shlesinger (eds.), Interpreting Studies Reader, London & New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 121-129.

Brian Mossop. An Alternative to 'Deverbalization'. 2003. Click here for the text.

Intercultural Studies Group, Braga

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two Translation Preparatory Schools for Children

A book about language that’s popular at the moment is David Bellos’ Is That A Fish in Your Ear?. Bellos himself is an Expert Translator of French literature besides being director of Princeton University’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. He knows a lot about the history and practice of translation; the book is erudite, though what one reviewer describes as “a bouillabaisse”. I learnt from it, and especially something about training children in preparation for becoming interpreter-translators. It's well known among translation historians that in the late 17th century, Louis XIV’s enterprising minister Colbert founded a language school for such children in Paris. It was called the École des Jeunes de Langue (School of Young Linguists) and was housed in a Jesuit college, later the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. What I learnt from Bellos, however, was that there was an even earlier school of the same kind in Venice. It was known as the Scuola dei Giovani di Lingua and it was founded on February 21, 1551 because
“The traumatic outcomes of Venice’s wars with the [Turkish] sultans made it clear to its rulers that in the Ottoman case the city would have to rely chiefly on diplomatic and political means rather than offensive military efforts to maintain and defend its position in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Whereas the motivation for the French was trade relations, one of Colbert’s priorities, and part of the expenses were paid by the Marseilles Chamber of Commerce.

Thus both the French and the Venetians needed translator-interpreters for their dealings with the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and both nations decided to start training them from school age. The similarity between the names of the schools suggests that the French may have been inspired by the Venetians; the French pupils were also known as Enfants de langue (Language Children), which says something about their age. The working languages of the Ottomans were Turkish and Arabic, but the bureaucracy also needed Persian. The French consistently gave initial language teaching in Paris, and then sent suitable graduates in their teens for on-the-job training in Istanbul (aka Constantinople in those days).
“The reports, translations and copies of their source texts that the Student Dragomans had to send periodically to Paris grew into a collection of contemporary documents that remains extremely useful for oriental philology.”
The Venetians started their Professional careers as assistants to the baili, the Venetian diplomats stationed in Constantinople, and were housed in the diplomats’ residence while still students.

The Venetians wavered in their method; for part of the time all their teaching was done in Constantinople, but at periods they too followed the same pattern as the French. At both schools, the intake was mainly of children from the families of men (always men!) who were themselves established dragomans, as the official translator-interpreters were called. As such, the boys were probably bilingual to some extent from the start. The Venetian school had its ups and downs for three centuries and disappeared with the Republic of Venice. The Paris school was reestablished after the French Revolution and continued into the 19th century, but its function was absorbed into a university level School of Oriental Languages, which still flourishes as the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures (INALCO). So INALCO can lay claim to being the oldest still operating school of translators in the world.

The training at the Venetian school initially lasted five years, but in 1623 it was increased to seven. The students began “very young”. One question these extraordinary schools raise is the age at which it is possible to start preparing the ground for youngsters to become Expert Translators, and multilingual at that. Note that neither the French nor the Venetians gave translator training as such before adolescence, but they did language teaching while the boys’ minds were still ‘plastic’. Furthermore, it was in the era of teaching languages by the grammar-translation method.

David Bellos. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? UK: Particular Books / USA: Faber and Faber, 2011.

Léon Vaïsse, Essai sur l'histoire de la philologie orientale en France, Paris, 1884. An extract is reproduced as Jeunes de langues, interprètes au Levant (‘Jeunes de langues’, interpreters in the Levant) in Turquie-culture / Türk kültürü, in French only, at this link. It’s a good one-page history.

We know quite a lot about the Scuola di Giovani di Lingua thanks to the research and writings of Italian orientalist Francesca Lucchetta, for example:

F. Lucchetta, La scuola dei ‘giovani di lingua’ veneti nei secoli XVI e XVII (The school of Venetian ‘giovani di lingua’ in the 16th and 17th centuries). Quaderni di Studi Arabi, No. 7 (1989), pp. 19-40. For the English abstract, click on this link.

Her other articles can be traced through the author index of the Quaderni by clicking here. There are English abstracts.

Dragoman: For more about dragomans, enter the term in the Search box on the right.

Venice in the seventeenth century, a Belgian tapestry. Source: