Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 30, Feast of St. Jerome

Today is the feast of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators. The patron of Professional Expert Translators, that is; because he had to be a multilingual expert for his work on translating the Bible (the so-called Vulgate version), and he was a professional in that he was commissioned to do it by Pope Damasus I. That’s why associations of professional translators around the globe celebrate today as World Translation Day. It’s perhaps ethnocentric to choose the feast of a Christian saint for World Translation Day, but never mind, for he was a great translator. Furthermore, he had definite views about translating and he put them into a long epistle defending them, his Letter to Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating.

The oft-quoted key sentence in the Letter is:
Not only do I admit, but I proclaim at the top of my voice, that in translating from Greek, except from Sacred Scripture, where even the order of the words is of God’s doing, I have not translated word for word, but sense for sense.

People focus now on the last part of the pronouncement (meaning before words) because it supports the popular norm for 'good' translation; but in religious translating "God's doing" is also important. It explains why many Muslims are against any translation at all of the Koran.

Today I reflect, therefore, that we’re commemorating a religious translator. I’ve long been dismayed at the lack of interest shown in this branch of translation by our university professors of translation studies. When they introduce it into their graduate programmes, they usually treat it historically and ignore its continued contemporary vibrancy, which among other things has given us Eugene Nida’s classic Toward a Science of Translating. A great many of them are concerned these days with the cultural causes and effects of literary translation, but don’t they realize that religious translation has had an even greater impact on culture? Why so? Because religion moves the masses.

From my 20 years at the University of Ottawa, I can only recall one thesis on the Bible or any other religious translation – and that was on St. Jerome. We were once approached by the Wycliffe organization of Bible translators to host a summer school for them, and none of my colleagues was interested.

So I think I may return to the topic, because it has connections with Unprofessional Translation. But first, here’s an old Canadian joke.
You have to know that there were, and indeed there still are, many ‘rednecks’ in English Canada who regard the official requirements for the use of French as an intolerable imposition. The more open-minded son of one such man tells his father that times are changing and he’s decided to learn French. “Why in Heaven’s name learn another language?” asks the father. “If English was sufficient for God when he composed the Bible, it ought to be enough for you.”

Well the old man, who was probably a Protestant anyway, certainly didn’t know about Jerome’s Catholic Latin. But the point of the story is, of course, that many people aren’t even aware that the Bible they are reading is a translation – far less that it’s often the translation of a translation. Indeed it’s always a translation of a translation in part: Christ, for example, spoke in Aramaic and his words were translated into Greek and from there to Latin and from Latin to the European vernaculars, and from those to the indigenous languages spoken in the colonies, so on. It may well be the longest of all the chains of ‘relayed’ translations, and there have been important spin-offs from it like the invention of writing systems by missionaries for languages that didn’t have one. Someone might well do a survey of people’s awareness in this respect.

The full Latin text of the Vulgate is available on the web, intercalated with a famous English translation of it, the Douay-Rheims Bible (1582-1610). It’s at http://vulgate.org.

I was introduced to Jerome’s Letter to Pammachius through the English translation made in the 70s by my Ottawa colleague Louis Kelly, who now lives in retirement in Cambridge, England. Unfortunately that translation is not now available, but Kelly discusses the Letter in his book The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, which is on sale at www.amazon.co.uk.

Online there’s another translation of the Letter at http://mb-soft.com/believe/txuc/jerome18.htm.

The Nida classic is:
NIDA, Eugene A. (American Bible Society). Toward a Science of Translating / With special reference to principles and procedures involved in Bible translating. Leiden: Brill, 1964. 331 p.

I see I should have called it International Translation Day not World Translation Day, because that's UNESCO's and FIT's official name for it. Never mind, it's St. Jerome's Day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fan Translating

Dr. Sebnem Susam-Sarajeva of the University of Edinburgh is currently conducting research on fan translations of lyrics.

I think she’s on to something new, and one implication is that the concept of fansubbing (i.e., subtitling of videos by their fans) needs to be broadened to include other media. Hence we require a cover term, perhaps simply fan translating. No doubt it’s a partial synonym of collective translating (see blog posting of Feb. 16, 2009) but in principle I don’t see why it shouldn’t be an individual activity.

Dr. Susam-Sarajeva’s email address is s.susam-sarajeva@ed.ac.uk

She’s slated to talk about ‘Non-professionals translating/interpreting’ on Monday, December 7 at the Centre for Translation & Intercultural Studies of the University of Manchester (Samuel Alexander Building , Room A101, 2-4 p.m.). I think it will be a first for the CTIS, so here's hoping there will be a good attendance.

If anybody has news of other research projects in the fields covered by this blog (namely Natural Translation, Native Translation and Language Brokering), I’ll be happy to post it up.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Louis Hémon

The French international TV channel TV5 Monde often broadcasts Quebec films. We Canadians find it amusing that they sometimes take it on themselves to subtitle the Canadian French dialogue in ‘international’ French, but that could be taken as an example of intralingual translation (translation within the same language).

Last Monday they showed a beautiful Quebec documentary about the life of Louis Hémon: Sur les traces de Louis Hémon, directed by Monique Miguet, 2006.

Louis Hémon, 1880-1913, was a restless young Frenchman who travelled and worked in Canada from 1911 to 1913, and who was moved by his experience there, especially his stay in the Northern Quebec village of Péribonka, to write his masterpiece, the novel Maria Chapdelaine. It has the unusual distinction of being considered a classic of Canadian literature as well as of French literature, in spite of the brevity of Hémon’s stay in Canada. This is because he observed the Catholic rural society and harsh living conditions of the people of Péribonka with ethnographic realism. The result, for French Canadians, is a nostalgic portrait of an almost mythical period of their own history. But Hémon didn’t write for Canadians, he wrote for his own countrymen in terms they would understand and his book was first published in France; and so he became for the French a cultural translator. (Cultural translation does not necessarily require a change of language.)

And not only for the French. There have been nearly 90 editions in other languages, including five in Japanese. (There’s another Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables, that’s very popular with the Japanese thanks to translation, and hundreds of them visit her house on Prince Edward Island every year.)

But the French don’t look at the picture with the same eyes as Canadians. For the French, it illustrates the survival of their own people and culture under harsh conditions in a faraway place. This is reflected in the film adaptations, of which there have been three. The poster for one of them is reproduced in miniature at the head of this posting. It’s for the 1934 version made in France by Julien Duvivier with Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin and Jean-Pierre Aumont – distinguished credits. It’s full of folk songs, but songs that are more typical of France than of Canada. (It also shows Maria picking blueberries in a tree.)

Meanwhile there’s another side to Hémon and translation. It’s that Hémon was himself a translator on and off. Before he went to Canada he had lived for nearly a decade in England, earning his living as contributor to French newspapers. So he learnt English well and even translated a Kipling story. In Canada he was short of money, and for two periods he found paid employment as a translator, not of literature but of commercial correspondence. The first time it was for a pulp and paper mill in Northern Quebec, and the second time for a firm of ironmongers in Montreal. His Montreal translating job equipped him with the typewriter on which he also typed his novel.

The Sur les traces documentary mentions that he obtained both the translation jobs “because he was bilingual”. Perhaps his fluency as a writer of French also helped, but there is no question of any training as a translator. Indeed, where would he have found training in those days? The first ‘professional’ (i.e., Expert) translation course in Canada was at the University of Ottawa in 1936. Hémon was therefore a typical advanced Native Translator. He honed his natural translation ability on French literature and journalism and the examples of translation that he read in Canada, England and France. Although, in those days of grammar-and-translation language courses, he would also have had to do some translation exercises at school, it was translation of a special kind about which I hope to write later. Anyway his work as a language translator was insignificant compared with his role as a cultural translator and as a novelist.

There’s a Louis Hémon page with editions of Maria in both French and English on www.amazon.com.

Both the French text of Maria and the English translation by W. H. Blake (Maria Chapdelaine: a story of French Canada, Toronto, 1921) can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg.

Another English translation, with the title Maria Chapdelaine, a romance of French Canada, was published in Montreal, also in 1921, the same year as the original appeared in book form in Paris. (It had previously been published as a serial in a Paris newspaper.) Therefore the interest of translators and publishers in producing an English version was immediate. Notice that both translators (or perhaps their publishers) thought it advisable to expand the title to attract English Canadian readers, with the Montreal title slightly the more informative. For English Canadians, French Canadian society was an object of curiosity, a different country within their country. The Montreal translation was by Sir Andrew Macphail, a noted professor of medicine and a soldier as well as man of letters, and it was enhanced with illustrations by Suzor-Coté.

A DVD of the 1934 film is available from several French internet vendors.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How a Three-Year-Old Translates digitized

Correspondence has been delayed at my end by my having to go through the learning curve of a new computer. It’s one of the new generation of ‘netbooks’, half the size and footprint with twice the power of my five-year-old laptop, and with a real seven hours of battery life. I had a computer this size 20 years ago, a NEC UltraLite, but its screen was blue and white, it had no hard disk (just a small flash memory) and it was pre-Windows. I’m discovering the pros and cons of netbooks, but this is not the place to discuss them. Switching to another computer provides a good example of the human power of conversion that I talked about in my posting of 25 July under Innateness. If I’d bought a full-size laptop, I’d have had to do even more switching because they all come now with Vista fatware whereas this netbook still uses good old XP. Even so, I haven’t been able to avoid new editions of Windows Explorer and Word, neither of which IMHO is worth the changeover from the previous versions.

In the meantime, the digitization of ‘How a Three-Year-Old Translates’ (1980) has been completed, and so it is available from me free on request. This is the companion paper to ‘Translation as an Innate Skill’, but it’s much less known because it was published in Singapore, where I happened to be teaching at the time, and for the same reason it’s always been hard to find. Yet it’s no less important. ‘Innate Skill’ has been criticized as being “anecdotal”, which is unfair to the serious longtitudinal studies by Ronjat and Leopold on which much of it is based; but anyhow the same criticism can’t be leveled at ‘Three-Year-Old’, which distils a mass of carefully recorded experimental data gathered from a single bilingual subject over a short period.

In future, the two papers will be supplied together. If I’ve already promised you a copy of ‘Three-Year-Old’, you’ll get it this week.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More on Language Brokering in the USA

Latest addition to the Bibliography of Natural Translation:

ORELLANA, Marjorie Faulstich (UCLA). Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language and Culture. (Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies.) Piscataway NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 224 p.

“Skilled in two vernaculars, children shoulder basic and more complicated verbal exchanges for non-English speaking adults. Readers hear, through children’s own words, what it means be ‘in the middle’ or the ‘keys to communication’ that adults otherwise would lack. Drawing from ethnographic data and research in
three immigrant communities, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s study expands the definition of child labor by assessing children’s roles as translators as part of a cost equation in an era of global restructuring and considers how sociocultural learning and development is shaped as a result of children’s contributions as translators.” – Publisher
Descriptors: culture brokering, language brokering, adolescents, children, English, Spanish, USA
A paperback edition has appeared this year at $23.00 instead of $68.00 for the hardcover edition. Amazing what two pieces of cardboard can cost. The Table of Contents and some sample pages can be viewed at http://www.amazon.com/. I haven’t yet found out what is meant by “a cost equation in an era of global restructuring.”

Prof. Orellana is one of the leading researchers of Language Brokering. The Hispanic communities in the United States are full of it. There were already two publications by her and her colleagues in the Bibliography. At present she is on research leave from UCLA, so we may look forward to more.

A lighter side to Fraudulent Translation

For a good laugh, take a look at British comedienne Catherine Tate’s hilarious ‘Seven-Language Interpreter’ (2003). It’s on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/). Search there for “seven-language interpreter“.

Watch the mesmerized look on the faces of her clients as she spouts her seven varieties of gobbledegoook at them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fraudulent Translators

I’m a Gemini, an auspicious sign for translators. Geminis have a dual personality. On the one hand I observe the inevitability of Natural Translation and preach awareness of its usefulness. On the other hand, I’m a member of two associations of Professional Expert Translators. I don’t consider my two personas incompatible: there’s a time and a place for everything.

That said, a high-profile terrorist trial with international observers and reporters is, in my view and surely yours, no place for any kind of translator but the Professional Expert. Too much is at stake, and the lawyers are waiting to pounce in public on any uncertainty. It came therefore as a shock to read the following in the Indian press yesterday about the current trial in Mumbai (Bombay) of the alleged only surviving terrorist from the attack there last year.
In an embarrassment for the Mumbai Police in the 26/11 terror attack trial, a prosecution witness presented in court today as the translator of a note in Arabic allegedly left by the Lashkar-e-Toiba attackers, which said the attack was a pointer towards war, was found to have no knowledge of the Arabic script.
On Wednesday, Inspector Prakash Bhoite, who had investigated the attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, had told the court that police had found two unexploded bombs near the hotel during the attack and one of them contained a note which said “Ammar Askari”.
A translator used by the police translated it as “Yeh jang ki aur ishara hai” or “This is a pointer to war”. The 10 Lashkar attackers and those named as fugitives have been accused of waging war against the country in the chargesheet.
On Thursday, Mukhtar Pirzade, the translator, testified in court and confirmed he had translated the note given to him by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch. An insurance agent in Bhiwandi, Pirzade is regularly used as a translator by the police [and presumably paid for it as a Professional Translator – BH].
But his testimony did not stand when he was cross-examined by Abbas Kazmi, the state-appointed lawyer for Ajmal Kasab, the lone attacker captured alive. Kazmi, who has lived in Saudi Arabia for a decade and knows Arabic, spoke a line in the language and asked Pirzade what it meant. When Pirzade said he could not figure it out, Kazmi translated it himself and said it meant “Where are you now?” Pirzade responded by saying that he did not know to read or write Arabic but could only understand it and that he had got the words in the alleged Lashkar note translated by a friend.
Kazmi also contested the translation and said that Ammar Askari was the first and second name of a person…

Not surprisingly, the judge upbraided the police. The truth is, Pirzade is an Urdu not an Arabic translator. (Urdu and Arabic use almost the same script.)
The reaction of the police chief was not reassuring.

“The words are Arabic, that is why we took the help of an Urdu translator. It is up to the translator to refer to any source he wants for translation. In any case, this issue does not have any bearing on our case,” he told The Indian Express.

The incident reminds me of something I was told by a Toronto lawyer in the 80s. He was of Polish descent and spoke Polish. Once he found himself in court representing a Polish client who could speak no English. So a court interpreter was called in. It took only a few moments for the lawyer to realize that the interpreter’s Polish was rudimentary and quite inadequate for the task. Rather than risk the delay of an adjournment, he took over the interpreting himself (something that would be disallowed today). Afterwards he asked the court official why that interpreter had been assigned to the trial. He was told that the man, who was Russian, had claimed he could interpret all the Slavic languages, and the naive court administration had taken him at his word.

I propose a term for Professional Translation or Interpretation passed off by people who know they aren’t really competent to do it: Fraudulent Translation.

Source: Mustafa Plummer. Can’t read Arabic, admits man who ‘translated’ 26/11 note. Expressindia, Sept. 11, 2009.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Death in Afghanistan

If you read the press today, whether paper or electronic, you’ll have certainly seen one of the many reports about the dramatic commando rescue of American journalist Stephen Farrell in northern Afghanistan – and the death of his Afghan “translator” (i.e., interpreter) in the shoot-out.

The interpreter’s name was Sultan Munadi. Here’s how the New York Times recounts his end:
Mr. Farrell said as he and Mr. Munadi ran outside, he heard voices. “There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices.”
At the end of a wall, Mr. Farrell said Mr. Munadi went forward, shouting: “Journalist! Journalist!” but dropped in a hail of bullets… He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.”

The death of yet another unsung hero of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the interpreters and ‘fixers’ without whom NATO and the Americans and the journalists who report on them couldn’t operate. They number in the hundreds now. But what makes Sultan Munadi’s death particularly poignant is that only a few days ago he’d published an article in the NYT under his own by-line explaining why he’d gone back from Germany to his country as an act of patriotism (http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/hell-no-i-wont-go/).

Another NYT journalist with whom Sultan had worked, David Rohde, had this to say of him:
Mr. Rohde, who worked with Mr. Munadi in Afghanistan, called him “an extraordinary journalist, colleague and human being. He represented the best of Afghanistan. It was an honor to work with him.”

As an interpreter who worked regularly with the NYT and other news organizations, Sultan was a Professional Translator but not an Expert Translator. He had an advanced Western university education, but not in translation. It seems that, like pretty well all the interpreters in his line of work, he fell into it because he was bilingual in English and a local language. They start out as Natural Translators and quickly become Native Translators. They need a lot of courage.

I hope to write more about this kind of liaison interpreter in the future. A Canadian friend, Roy Thomas, who was a major in the Canadian Armed Forces at the time, was put in charge of the UN team of interpreters at Sarajevo in an earlier conflict; and he was so appalled at the way the UN abandoned them afterwards that he campaigned for them when he got home.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another fictional Natural Translator

The following is the latest entry in my Bibliography of Natural Translation.
BRONDOLO, Jean-Marc and Hélène Couturier (screenwriters). Aller simple. Film for television. France: 7e Apache Productions, 2006. 90 minutes. Actors: Rafaela Garretón (as Anita, the nine-year-old girl who interprets) et al.

“On her death bed [a man’s] mother asks him to bring her ashes to his father, who abandoned his family to go to Chile many years ago. He goes to Chile and runs into a woman and her daughter on the run from an abusive stepfamily. The girl is really the little angel in the story and she is so beautiful and smart. The man always speaks in French but the woman always answers in Spanish. Only the little girl speaks both in French and Spanish.” (‘amarct-2’ on Internet Movie Database)
This film was made for TV and apparently not distributed through other media. I chanced upon it one midnight on a French TV channel.

There isn’t much background information given about Anita, but there’s no suggestion she had been required to translate before or had been exposed to translation. So on that basis she can be classed as a Natural Translator. Of course, it’s fiction and it represents how the screenwriters imagined her; but to them it must have seemed plausible that the child would spontaneously translate, given the situation in which they placed her.

The translation is motivated by the urgent need to provide communication, but note that it’s not a case of Language Brokering, since there is no immigrant family involved.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Natural Translation has lost a friend

Wallace Lambert, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, died last week. The news reached Valencia on Sunday and has left me feeling very sad. He was 86, but he was still active and his death from pneumonia came as a surprise. He had been a friend for many years and was on the consultative committee for the conference that will be held in Spain this coming November to mark my 80th birthday. Indeed he had many friends, because he was a very warm-hearted man with a wry sense of humour and a sharp, open mind.

If you are into research on bilingualism, you will already know something about his groundbreaking work but perhaps not about his background. He was an American of Canadian lineage, with a French wife. Consequently his children grew up as balanced bilinguals from infancy and by education. McGill University, where he taught for decades, was an English-speaking university in the midst of a city and a region where the majority spoke French – circumstances that inspired his interest in bilingualism and provided a fertile setting for pursuing it.

His controlled study with Elizabeth Peal published in 1962, ‘The relation of bilingualism to intelligence’, was a milestone in research into the cognitive effects of knowing two languages, because it challenged earlier studies claiming that the acquiring of two languages resulted in cognitive defects. They found no such shortcomings. On the contrary, French/English bilinguals in Montreal scored ahead of monolinguals in both verbal and nonverbal measures of intelligence. Bilinguals had a more “diversified structure of intelligence.” Bilingual children showed “greater cognitive flexibility”: they recognized the arbitrariness of words and their referents. These findings were confirmed by later research in several other countries besides Canada and had an impact on education policies.

He recognized the importance of translating and interpreting as bilingual activities, and so I came to know him when he early on took an interest in Natural Translation. By coincidence, he was one of the leading speakers at the same 1977 symposium in Venice at which ‘Translation as an innate skill’ (see August 15 posting on this blog) was first presented as a conference paper. Soon afterwards he invited me to take part in his weekly seminar for his graduate students at McGill, which was a great encouragement to me.

He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.



E. Peal and W. E. Lambert. The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs, 76:27.1-23, 1962. There is a good summary at

W. E. Lambert. Psychological Approaches to Bilingualism, Translation and Interpretation. In D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, New York and London, Plenum Press, 1978, pp. 131-143.