Monday, May 27, 2019

Now that I am 90

Last Saturday, 25 May, was my ninetieth birthday. A good moment for reflection. I want to thank publicly and profoundly all the many people who’ve helped and encouraged me to get this far. I’ve been undeservedly lucky.

To start with, of course, my parents, who bequeathed to me their genes and made sacrifices to get me a sound education. More recently my wife, who has looked after me duiing these recent years of illness, And in between them a long succesion of relatives, friends, colleagues, clients, students and Followers, too many to list in a blog post.

Looking back over my career, I think I made a few minor contributions to translatology (itself a term I introduced into English in the early 70s), and one major discovery. The latter is Natural Translation, which I formulated in 1973 as the translating done in everyday circumstances by bilinguals who’ve had no training for it. It was extended in 1976 to the hypothesis that the human ability to translate is inborn; and later to a developmental model to bridge the gap between natural translators and expert ones. (For more, enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right or click [HERE].) Acceptance of the concept has advanced only slowly in the last 40 years, but some aspects of it are now almost mainstream. Language brokering studies, starting from the USA in the 90s, opened people’s eyes to the vast amount of translating done by children. The NPIT (non-professional translation) conferences and publications of the last decade have helped brush away the cobweb of misunderstanding in the old saying that “because you are bilingual, it doesn’t mean you can translate” (or interpret, for that matter).All around us, NGOs, manga and computer game publishers, Wikipedia and others depend on crowdsourcing their translations. Of course there’s a tradeoff. Mass production and amateurism can rarely matched skilled craftmanship, but it’s a price to pay to get the translations done. (The same can be said for machine translation, the branch of translatology in which I started my career.)

So without more ado I wish you all as long a life as mine and a long career with many discoveries.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

Indigenous Interpreters

Indigenous:: originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native,  eg "the indigenous peoples of Siberia."
Synonyms: native, aboriginal, local.

We’ve had two examples recently of indigenous interpreters on this blog. First the contemporary example of the Nicaraguan Akateko and Q’anjob’al speaker Carmelina, who calls herself a native interpreter (a synonym); and then the historical example of the Aborigene BungareeScroll down a few pages to find those posts. Bungaree was the first ‘Australian’ English interpreter, but he wasn’t the first Australasian one. That distinction surely belongs to Tupaia, who had originally been recruited some thirty years ealier by the British naval officer and explorer Samuel Wallis (1728-1795) and then passed on to James Cook’s expedition. Tupaia was born in the Society Islands near Tahiti. He was a very different character from Bungaree. The latter was a ‘rough diamond’, whereas Tupaia was highly educated and respected in his own culture and became a leading priest for his people. Bungaree was popular with Flinders’ sailors, whereas Cook’s crew found Tupaia too haughty. But both of them contributed qualities that made them invaluable to their European employers beyond their language skills, as often happens with indigenous interpreters. Bungaree saved lives by his courage. In the case of Tupaia,
He was also taught [by his people] how to be a star navigator. His memorized knowledge included island lists, including their size, reef and harbor locations, whether they were inhabited, and if so, the name of the chief and any food produced there. More importantly, his memory would include the bearing of each island, the time to get there, and the succession of stars and islands to follow to get there."
 His employment by Cook was, however, not all plain sailing:
“Tupaia joined [Cook’s ship] Endeavour in July 1769 when it passed his home island of Ra'iatea in the outward voyage from Plymouth. He was welcomed aboard at the insistence of Sir Joseph Banks, the Cook expedition's official botanist, on the basis of his evident skill as a navigator and mapmaker: when asked for details of the region Tupaia drew a chart showing all 130 islands within a 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius and was able to name 74 of them. Banks welcomed the Raiatean's interest in travelling with Endeavour to England where he could be presented as an anthropological curiosity. Australian academic Vanessa Smith has speculated that Banks also envisaged conversation, amusement and possibly a genuine friendship from Tupaia's company during the voyage. As Cook at first refused to allow Tupaia to join the expedition for financial reasons, Banks agreed to be responsible for the Raiatean's welfare and upkeep while on board."
Tupaia was also an artist (see Image), and ten watercolours of his survive as well as the map he drew for CookThough he wasn’t a Maori speaker, his Polynesian language was sufficiently close for him to be able to communicate with the Maori when Cook reached New Zealand, and eventually to become highly respected by them.

On the opposite side of the globe, a few years later, there was the famous case of Sacagawea (aka Sakakawea or Sacajawea), who was pressed into service as interpreter for the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition of 1804-1806. She earned her fame on several counts. First because she was that rarity: an interpreter who has made it into popular history and legend. She did it by her skills, bravery and hardiness; secondly because she was a woman;  and thirdly, but not least, because she was a Native American whose aid was invaluable to the nascent United States. There was a post about her on this blog that you can retrieve by entering sacagawea in the Search box on the right.

Later in the nineteenth century, indigenous interpreters became institutionalised by government pay in the American west. Thus we read in Dee Brown’s  tragic book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee:
“Most Indian leaders spoke freely and candidly in councils with white officials, and as they became more sophisticated in such matters during the 1870’s and 1880’s, they demanded the right to choose their own interpreters and recorders... Millions of their words are preserved in official records. Even when the meetings were in remote parts of the West, someone usually was available to write down the speeches, and because of the slowness of the [consecutive] translation process, much of what was said could be recorded in longhand. Interpreters quite often were half-bloods who knew spoken languages but seldom could read or write. Like most oral peoples they and the Indians depended upon imagery to express their thoughts, so that the English translations were filled with graphic similes and metaphors of the natural world. If an eloquent Indian had a poor interpreter, his words might be transformed to flat prose, but a good interpreter could make a poor speaker sound poetic.”

Tupaia, Bungaree and Carmina represent three phases in imdigenous interpreting: respectively the exploratory, the colonial and today’s migratory. I myself took part in some training for colonial indigenous Indian and Inuit interpreters in the Northwest Territories of Canada; but for the most part indigenous interpreters don’t receive training. One reason is the difficulty of finding teachers who know their languages. It’s basically the uncommonness of their languages that makes them indispensable.

Tupaia (navigator). Wikipedia, 2019.

Samuel Wallis. Wikipedia, 2019.

Dee Brown. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. 1970.


A Maori man and Joseph Banks exchanging a crayfish for a piece of cloth, drawing by Tupaia, c.1769. Source: Wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Eighteen TED Translators

Back in 2011 there was a post on this blog about the volunteers who translate articles for Wikipedia and about the research being done on them by Julie McDonough Dolmaya of York University in Toronto. To retrieve it, enter julie in the Search box on the right. Now there's another ‘knowledge distribution’ organization that depends on crowedsourcing its translations. It’s TED. “TED Conferences LLC (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization that posts talks online for free distribution under the slogan ‘ideas worth spreading.’”  There’s a link between the two groups in that the level of discourse in their texts is roughly the same; that is to say, serious and often scientific without being extremely academic. It requires expert translators who can satisfy critical editors and readers.

Interesting translator information is available about the 2019 TED Conference, which was held in Vancouver this month (see Source below). It’s unusual for organizations to provide so much data about their translators but TED obviously believes in their importance. It musters 33,527 translators, who together have done 145,577 translations into 116 languages. Imagine what this would cost if TED had to pay for it! TED doesn’t say, however, whether it also uses machine translation.

The translators
According to TED itself, “TED Translators are a global community of volunteers who subtitle TED Talks.” They should be fluently bilingual in both source and target languages. They should be especially fluent in the transcription language (i.e., the language in which the talks are transcribed for written distribution in the original language). They. should be knowledgeable about subtitling best practices. They have available a free online subtitling tool called Amara to subtitle talks and collaborate with other volunteers. Note that a translator training or qualification is not a requirement; although, as we shall see, many of them do have one.

For TED2019 there were supposed to be 18 translators, though I’m ashamed to say three of them were refused Canadian visas.. Let’s divide them into two groups.

a)  Professional Expert
Karin Valles (Mexico). A professional freelance translator. Born and raised in Ensenada, Mexico. Her passion for languages led her to study translation at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), where she developed a keen interest in multimedia translation. 

Carolina Aguirre (Brazil).  Translator and subtitler. Lives in São Paulo. Has had an intense interest in languages – particularly English – from an early age, but it wasn’t until she discovered TED and TED Translators that she realized her passion for translating and subtitling too. This discovery also inspired her to switch her profession from law to full-time translation, and she says she’s much more satisfied by her current work. 

Tatiana Lebedeva (Russia). Born in Ekaterinburg. Now lives in Prague, where she studies English literature and linguistics, teaches English as a foreign language and works as a freelance translator.

Moe Shoji (Japan). PhD student. Originally from Japan but has lived in Sheffield, England, for the last seven years while studyng for her PhD in theatre and performance studies. Has an MA in the same field, in addition to degrees in both French and English literature. Teaches Japanese. Says that translating is “very much intertwined with my PhD studies – so much so that my first submitted thesis contains this acknowledgment: ‘I would also like to say thanks to TED Translators, which has been a productive procrastination for me to engage with whenever I find myself in a writing cul-de-sac.’” Thus her prolific output as a TED Translator. Aside from studying and translating, she is an aspiring literary translator.

Silvia Allone (Italy). Sales manager and translator.  Lives in Milan. Has an MA in foreign languages and literatures (English and French) from the University of Milan. Currently a sales manager for several Italian and multinational companies, and also works as a freelance translator. About her experience with TED Translators, she says, “TED Translators has made me realize how amazing and rewarding it is to help spread powerful and inspiring ideas to people all across the world who don’t speak a second language – particularly since I strongly believe that communication brings people together more than anything else.”

Masoud Motamedifar (Iran). Translator and coordinator from Bam. MA in both translation studies and business management, and currently works as a translator and an office coordinator at a holding company in Iran. His passion for learning and sharing insightful knowledge and content is what led him to join TED Translators. “I wholeheartedly believe that translating and spreading powerful ideas as far and wide as possible can effect substantive change in the world”. Enjoys traveling and immersing himself in different cultures.

b)  NPIT translators
Seongje Hwang (South Korea). Software engineer. After studying computer engineering at university, he began his career as a financial technology developer and, propelled by his fascination with cutting-edge technologies, utilized TED Talks to school himself on such advancements. He also cultivated a deep interest in TED Talks which address sociocultural issues. He joined the TED Translator community in order to share far and wide the talks that inspire him, as well as to discover talks that animate his fellow translators.

Talia Breuer (Iarael). Born and raised in Haifa. Currently manages a team at a startup enterprise that’s working to implement a sharing economy in the country.

Bianca-Ionidia Mirea. PhD student. Originally from Romania, she has spent much of the last decade living, studying and working in various parts of the world, including China, India and the UK. She credits her time in these three countries especially for introducing her to an array of new ways of thinking and living.  She recently completed her MA in human resources management from Leeds University Business School, and she's about to begin pursuing her PhD in the study of the emergence of new forms of work in the digital economy.

Ly Nguyên (Vietnam). Born and raised in Vietnam. Currently finishing her studies in architecture at Hanoi Architectural University. In addition to her fascination for the aesthetics of words in both the design and calligraphy mediums, she “loves languages and translation.”

Jinchuan Ge (China). From eastern China. Now a student in economics and commerce at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He’s been both a TED Translator and involved with various TED and TEDx conferences for more than five years. Has also studied abroad in the USA at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Urjoshi Sinha (India). Currently a PhD student in computer science and a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa State University. Her research is in software engineering. She cites her dedication to minimizing impediments to the free dissemination of knowledge as one of the key factors that inspired her to join TED Translators.

Frank Zegarra (Peru). Electronics engineer. Born and raised in Lima. Holds a degree in oil and gas engineering Is currently a process safety manager for pipeline transportation for an oil and gas company. His TED Translators epiphany occurred after he watched his first TED Talk, Pranav Mistry’s The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology: “It was then when I realized how amazing it is to have free access to such stimulating information, as well as the importance of transmitting these ideas to as large of an audience as possible, regardless of borders, customs or beliefs,” he says. “And so I began volunteering with TED Translators.”

Tanja Daib (Germany). PhD student in computer science. Schooled in her home country, Relocated to Argentina for a year to teach German, then moved to Edinburgh for a BA in cognitive science. Now lives in London, where she’s studying for her PhD. JJoined TED Translators in 2012 to “help make TED content more widely accessible, and to have a productive way of procrastinating.”

Jules Daunay (France). Technology developer. Born and raised in Brittany, currently resides in Paris and works as a technology developer for a startup enterprise focused on creating innovative open-source development tools. Has also lived in Moscow, where he attended Moscow State University. In addition, earned master’s degrees in Paris from both Sciences Po and the Sorbonne. His passion for technology is matched by his deep interest in other cultures, and he attributes this combination to his decision to join TED Translators. “I love being part of a global community in which I can introduce extraordinary new ideas to French speakers around the world.”

Sameeha Atout (Palestine). From Nablus, BSc in medical analysis, and currently works as an embryologist. She plans to pursue a degree in the field of genetics research. A staunch believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s maxim “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and she credits these words for her decision to join TED Translators. “I always try to take any opportunity I can to change our world for the better,” Sameeha says. “When I discovered TED Translators, I realized I’d found an excellent way to put Gandhi’s words into action: I could help spread important ideas and knowledge across languages and borders, while at the same time increasing the amount Arabic content available online.”

Saba Rezaie (Iran). BSc in physics from the University of Tehran, Lives in New York.  She initially moved to New York to earn her master’s degrees in both economics and business administration; afterward, She began her current job as a data analyst at a financial institution. As a bilingual speaker and a fervent believer in education and the free exchange of knowledge, she’s found a natural home at TED Translators.

Grigor Janikyan (Armenia). Youth activist. Born and raised in Armenia. BA in management from the French University in Armenia. In 2015 he founded United Youth Union, an Armenia-based “non-profit organization committed to youth development and empowerment.”

The most striking feature of these translators is their enthusiasm and idealism; they have a missionary zeal. In this respect they are comparable to the church interpreters who have been mentioned many times on this blog, though they serve a differenct god, Minerva. Also remarkable is their level of education; they almost all have university degrees, which explains why they possess the cognitive competence to deal with TED translations. They come from very widespread and varied countries and cultures, but.most of them have travelled widely and that has probably diminished the mental differences.

On the face of it, there is no significant difference between the competence and output of the Expert and the NPIT translators, though that's a question which calls for further research.

Meet the TED translators attending TED 2019.  Click [HERE] or go to