Translation: the other side of the tapestry

April 30, 2010

As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. Translation is very much like copying paintings. Boris Pasternak

Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable. Edith Grossman

The best thing on translation was said by Cervantes: translation is the other side of a tapestry. Leonardo Sciascia

The original is unfaithful to the translation. Jorge Luis Borges

The translator Edith Grossman has just written a book called Why Translation Matters. Grossman, who was born in Philadelphia in 1936, has made a career translating such luminaries as Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and Ariel Dorfman into English. She has also done a critically acclaimed translation of Don Quijote. I recently heard an interview with Grossman where she talked about her craft. It got me thinking about the importance of this unsung profession.

The definition of translation that I like includes the following steps:

1.         Decoding the meaning of the source text; and

2.         Re-encoding this meaning in the target language.

What makes a good translator? I tend to think you should be both bilingual and bicultural. I like the comment made by the translator Gregory Rabassa when he was translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez into English. He was asked by one dopey reporter if he had enough Spanish to translate the Columbian author. His reply was that the real problem was whether he had enough English. But knowing the two languages is not enough. You also have to know the field of knowledge of the text you are translating.

The status of the translator does not correspond with the difficulty and importance of what they do. Partly this is because a good translator, like a good football referee, should go unnoticed. I once did a course in translation but I have never really made a serious go of it. It seems too much like hard work. I felt I lacked constituency. At times I thought I had really found the perfect choice of words. That was a tremendously satisfying feeling. But at other times it just seemed impossible to render the passage in English.

In translation you have to be constantly making decisions about how you want to render a word, phrase or passage. This will depend on the objective of the translation, as there are many possible goals. A classic example is the case of Bible translation by those missionaries intent on converting local populations. You do not just want a neutral translation you want to inspire them with your evangelical fire. Give us this day our daily bread makes little sense to people living in the Arctic regions, so the missionaries came up with “Give us this day our daily seal.” If you are dubbing a film then you want something that synch with the lips of the actors. You have to sacrifice accuracy. If it is subtitles, brevity is the key – you should be able to fit everything into two lines because this is the maximum that can comfortably be read. And the holy grail of all translators is equivalency- you want to create the same effect that the original had.

What is the future of translation? One area is that of machine translation. Computers are very good at playing chess but their initial attempts were rather crude and often unintentionally funny as translation requires more than just brute force. The theory is that with enough data the computer should be able to make those decisions about word choice that humans have to make. I think that while they make well take a lot of the drudgery out of translation, you will always need that human element. However, in the last few years some major developments in linguistics, computing and artificial intelligence have led to increased optimism about its potential Who knows what will happen in a generation? Automatic translation seems like a daunting challenge but I would always be wary of betting against the boffins at the MIT and their like.

Movie title translations

April 30, 2010

Here are how some famous English language movies were allegedly translated in other countries:

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me – Austin Powers: The Spy Who Treated Me Nicely (Singapore)

Babe – The Happy Dumpling-To-Be Who Talks And Solves Agricultural Problems (China)

 Being John Malkovich –  Malkovich’s Hole (Japan)

Boogie Nights – His Great Device Makes Him Famous (China)

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – If You Leave Me, I Delete You (Italy)

Free Willy –  A Very Powerful Whale Runs To Heaven (China)

Fried Green Tomatoes -The Secret Is In The Sauce (France)

Grease – Vaseline (Argentina)

Home Alone – Mom, I Missed The Plane (France)

Little Miss Sunshine A Family on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Portugal)

Nixon – The Big Liar (China)

Once Upon a Time in the West – The Harmonica Avenger (Finland)

Pretty Woman – I Will Marry a Prostitute to Save Money (China)

The Full Monty – Six Naked Pigs (China)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Two Glorious Scoundrels (Germany)

The Matrix – The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses (France)

This is Spinal Tap  – Help! We’re in the Pop Business (Norway)

My media week 02/05/10

April 30, 2010

Last week I did a piece about archaeology where I mentioned pseudoarchaeology. So I was amused to see a piece in The Daily Mail about an Evangelical Christian Archaeological group, Noah’s Ark Ministries International, who claim to have discovered the remains of Noah’s Ark. As befits this type of enterprise they announce it to the press without any kind of peer review.

I really enjoyed this video by Matt Ridley promoting his new book, The Rational Optimist. The video shows the amazing power of exchange and specialisation.

Readers of this blog will know that I am coser to Adam Smith than Karl Marx. But I like to listen to alternative views. This week at the RSA radical sociologist David Harvey gives his critique of capitalism. I haven’t had the chance to listen to it yet but on the website it claims he will “make the case for a social order that would allow us to live within a different type of system – one that really could be responsible, just, and humane.” I can’t wait to hear it.


April 24, 2010

When I excavate sites and touch things that have lain untouched for centuries, I know why I am an archaeologist.  Janet Spector

The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages. It was, it seems, fatal that a representative of our country loot those objects that the Turks and other barbarians had considered sacred, Sir John Newport a contemporary of Lord Elgin referring to the removal of the famous Marbles from the Parthenon.

An archaeologist is someone whose career lies in ruins. Unknown source

The website defines archaeology as the “systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery. “ However our image of archaeology is influenced by such films as the Indiana Jones saga, The Mummy and Stargate. These movies bear little relation to reality. In fact, the true story of archaeology is much more interesting with a colourful cast of rogues treasure hunters and frauds.

The history of archaeology is absolutely fascinating. The ancient Egyptians engaged in it. In the Renaissance it was typical to look at ancient Roman remains. But things really got going from the 17th century onwards when there was an international race to acquire ancient artefacts. Thomas Howard Earl of Arundel, (1585-1646), was a pioneer in this race, excavating some Roman statues, which with other ancient sculptures that he had picked up, were given to the University of Oxford in 1667 and which are now housed in that city’s Ashmolean Museum. Howard was to become the model for European treasure hunters for the next two to three centuries. My favourite character has to be Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778 – 1824). This Italian certainly chose an unusual career path, working as a circus strongman and an engineer before becoming a prolific explorer of Egyptian antiquities. Well, a more accurate job description would be a tomb robber for the British council in Cairo. When he got bored with that he started working on outdoor projects as well. In three explosive years he would send tons of stuff back to England. The sad truth is that The Great Belzoni would destroy much more than he would ever find. There are so many other interesting characters who I could talk about. These include French scholar Jean-François Champollion who was the man who translated the Rosetta Stone in 1822. And of course there was Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and archaeologist who believed that the origins of a culture could be found in myth and literature. He had his faults but he was not one of those unscrupulous treasure hunters and his work at Troy was  an important milestone.

The origins of modern archaeology were in the mid 19TH century Europe where it developed in the context of the growing geological understanding of the age of the world and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Danish historian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen divided European prehistory into a three ages: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

I could talk more about serious archaeology but frankly pseudoarchaelogy is a lot more fun. I know that real archaeologists get pretty annoyed about these fake practitioners. I know that they have studied for years and they are meticulous. It must be galling to see how fame goes to a bunch of charlatans. But I kind of enjoy these pseudoarchaeologists and their wacky theories about the lost kingdom of Atlantis, the magical powers of the pyramids and the mysteries of Nazca. The big star must surely be Swiss-born Eric Von Däniken. Basically for Däniken it all comes down to extraterrestials. Humans were not capable of building such sites as Stonehenge and the statues of Easter Island. Therefore it must have been aliens. This seems a rather spurious claim and an insult to the efforts of many great civilisations. We should celebrate the wonderful inventiveness and sophistication of these peoples rather than invent such far-fetched theories.

Another fruitful area for this bunk is New Age archaeology. There are distinct variations but one common trait seems to be the idea that ancient cultures possessed special wisdom that we have now lost. If we were somehow able to recover it, then we could heal the world. The Mayas for examples are supposed to have amazing abilities OF prediction. Often there are feminist overtones with the worship of a Great Cosmic Mother/The Goddess/Mother Earth They hark back to this so-called golden period. But I think that their evidence is a bit dodgy. Just because you have female Gods doesn’t mean that these societies were dominated by women. And just as I said in my post about the Greeks we cannot depend on the past for our morality and ethics. These ancient people were humans with all our virtues and vices and trying to project our desires onto them is a futile endeavour.

Archaeology has raised and continues to raise many ethical dilemmas. Surely the most famous of these are the Elgin Marbles, which have graced the British Museum since 1812. One should remember that they were not stolen and were acquired by the Lord from the Turkish rulers of Greece (This part is controversial). They have been well preserved in London and have been enjoyed by billions of visitors. There are thousands of Greek artefacts in museums all over the world. But for Greece the marbles are a national symbol and returning them has become a question of national pride. The question of looting is a serious one. There is a massive international trade in antiquities. This is bad because it deprives humanity of the chance to appreciate these works and if a piece is looted we lose all the context of where it was found. The past matters. It tells us so much about who we are. We have seen that some bad things were done in the past. We have to learn from these errors so we can preserve our heritage.

Lucrepath and other new words

April 24, 2010

Here is a selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:


A person who is pathologically driven to make money.


Journalism that churns out articles based on wire stories and press releases, rather than original reporting.


To recover from a state of confusion or disorganization. The confusion is caused by the security measures which oblige you to take off your shoes etc. So some airports now have Recombobulation Areas where you put your shoes and coat back on and stuff your laptop back in the case.


A person who is interested in and sympathetic to the goals of radical Islam, but who is not a member of a radical group.

misery lit

A memoir or novel that focuses on extreme personal trauma and abuse.


An error made while using the thumbs to type, particularly on a mobile device


A fake or misleading news story designed to further a hidden agenda. [Blend of information and propaganda.]

libel tourist

A person who sues for libel in a foreign country, particularly one that has libel laws favourable to the plaintiff.

My media week 25/04/10

April 24, 2010

In the latest New Yorker, Ken Auletta has an article on the economics of the publishing industry and the competition between the Kindle and the iPad.: Publish or Perish.

In this week’s Thinking Allowed podcast Laurie Taylor talks to Danny Dorling about his new book, which looks at the hidden attitudes that lie behind Britain’s enduring inequalities Taylor also examines the role of nakedness in culture and politics with Angela McRobbie and Philip Carr-Gomm.

In The Guardian Joe Moran looked at Talent shows from Opportunity Knocks to today’s Britain’s Got Talent. A format that seemed dead has been given new lease of life by the red button (interactive TV) and the mobile phone: The parable of the talent show. And I have also been following the Orlando Figes affair. In anonymous reviews at Figes published glowing reviews of his own work while trashing those of opponents. Here is his review of Robert Service’s 2008 work Comrades, a world history of communism:

This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read … it has no insights to make it worth the bother of ploughing through its dreadful prose.”

On the other hand his review The Whisperers which was also published in 2008 is somewhat more positive:

“A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians … it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever.”

Here is the article: Historian Orlando Figes admits posting Amazon reviews that trashed rivals and Robert Service gives his own point of view: The shame of Orlando Figes

I’ll buy almost anything if it’s shiny and made by Apple

April 18, 2010

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Steve Jobs

Without the iPod, the digital music age would have been defined by files and folders instead of songs and albums. Though the medium of music has changed, the iPod experience has kept the spirit of what it means to be a music lover alive. John Mayer, singer-songwriter

It’s so slim Kate Moss uses it to cut her cocaine. Bill Maher on the iPod nano

It is possible that the public will not fall on the iPad, as I did, like lions on an antelope. Perhaps they will find the apps and the iBooks too expensive. Maybe they will wait for more fully featured later models. But for me, my iPad is like a gun lobbyist’s rifle: the only way you will take it from me is to prise it from my cold, dead hands. One melancholy thought occurs as my fingers glide and flow over the surface of this astonishing object: Douglas Adams is not alive to see the closest thing to his Hitchhiker’s Guide that humankind has yet devised. Stephen Fry

This week’s article is about Apple and the title comes from an Onion video I put up a link to a while back – Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop with No Keyboard. First a few facts about Apple. The company, which has over has 35,000 employees and annual sales of $42.91 billion, was established in 1976, becoming a corporation in 1977. It was known as Apple Computer Inc. until 2007, when computer was dropped from the name. The logo has an interesting story. The earliest Apple logo featured Isaac Newton sitting under the tree which helped him develop his theory of gravity.   The company itself had its up and downs but it undoubtedly lost out to the PC. It was the period between 1998 and 2001 that saw Apple’s Renaissance with the iMac, the iBook and of course the iPod. Few could have imagined the success of this last device. And now this year they have brought out the iPad, which they hope will revolutionise the tablet market.

There is no doubt that Apple does a lot of things very well. The designs are wonderfully seductive and their interfaces have set the standard for the industry. They have an obsessive attention to detail and usability. A key figure here is Jonathan Ive, an English designer and the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc, who has been the principal designer of the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The iTunes music store has sold a staggering 10 billion songs and four billion apps have been downloaded since 2008.. And of course Macs do not have viruses, which I have to say is their most tempting characteristic.

But I am not an Apple fan. To paraphrase that quote about American soldiers during WWII they are overhyped, overpriced and over here. They like to portray themselves as the anti-totalitarian option but this seems to be a bit of a pose. I prefer open systems. Apple has their own vision – their operating system the OS X can only be used on the Mac and the iPhone apps are also exclusive. Now the iPad comes without flash. I have a particular phobia about iTunes. I have an mp3 player and I just drag and drop. Why would I want to use Apple’s proprietary software? They go against the ethos of the net.

But what I think is irrelevant. If it works for them, they will be happy. Apple has reinvented itself using two devices that are basically closed, a strategy that had proved unsuccessful in the eighties. Companies are only open when it is convenient for them. The fate of Apple will not be decided by committee or by decree but by the decisions of millions of individual consumers. That is the beauty of a market system. Probably there will be room for different options. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of schadenfreude at the latest story about the iPad being banned from Israel amid concerns that its Wi-Fi signals could disrupt other devices. I am not sure whether there are other reasons behind the ban but it could explain the delay in the international launch. Whatever happens, I don’t think I’ll be getting an Apple product anytime soon. And if you want my Sony e-book you’ll have to prise it from my cold, dead hands.