Wednesday, 19 December 2012

That Time of Year

This is the time of year when the wheels of translation turn ever more slowly. The winter solstice beckons, as do warm firesides, mulled wine or whatever else takes your fancy. 

It is almost the time the French refer to as ‘la trève des confiseurs’ (the confectioners’ truce); the time between Christmas and New Year when all is still and people are caught in the suspended animation of digestion.

It is time to give you all our best wishes for a peaceful Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2013.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Twittersphere - on the importance of respect for others

In the Twittersphere and elsewhere people seem to be unaware that much of what is published is seen by everyone. The word ‘publish’ is of course significant. It means that information is made public, and can therefore be seen by all.

If you tweet or publish it is therefore important that you use language which is at the very least polite, intelligible to all, in keeping with the subject, not liable to cause hurt or offence.

Many forget this. They sound off at the slightest provocation. There then ensues a slanging match which would be funny if it were not embarrassing, or perhaps even disturbing.

Communication operates in two directions and being civil certainly helps. So when someone asks you a question, do not reply with a rude ‘Whats your xxxxxxx problem?’. Try ‘Would you mind explaining please?’ or something to that effect.

Respectful and polite forms of address oil the cogs of human relationships, and make true communication easier and more agreeable.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Translation: good for business

It is refreshing to learn that the Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov employs a team of translators to translate the up to 300 pages of reports, analysis and news items he reads per day in order to keep abreast of developments in the markets he is involved in (Financial Times 17th November). 

The deadlines must be tight, but no doubt the people doing the work do not mind in the least.

This is someone who chooses not to rely on some approximation to a translation obtained online, and wants to know the exact meaning of the written information on which he bases critical decisions.

Realizing that a good translation makes good business is what we, as translators, need to do. We also need to ensure that our customers and prospective customers know this as well.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Language Gambling

News from the gambling group Betfair (Financial Times 10th November 2012) which is parting company with its UK director and laying off staff, beginning with 50 translators.

The explanation is a shift in strategy which will see the company reduce the number of languages available on its websites in Asia, Eastern Europe and Nordics. This is in order to focus on countries that are “more strategically attractive”.

I am not much of a gambler and will not be patronising this platform any time soon, but it is always a pity to see a cut in the number of language versions offered by any company. The world will be a much poorer place if the only languages available are English and perhaps Mandarin.

Diversity is a luxury we cannot afford to be without.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Janus Face

Continuing the backwards and forwards reflections, a look at how different cultures or languages look at the passage of time.

We English speakers tend to look ahead, as we progress into the future, and commonly look forward to (usually pleasant) things happening. In the French language this looking forward does not take place. Instead, one waits in anticipation, or impatiently or for the pleasure of seeing something develop.

In other cultures you cannot look into the future at all. The future is seen as something unknowable into which one is reversing, blind. You can only look back on what has already happened.

And what should we make of Janus the Roman deity of beginnings and endings, who looked both forwards and backwards?

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Forward or Back ?

Now that the clocks have gone back and winter is nearly upon us we need a handy expression to help us to remember which way the clocks go:

Spring forward, Fall back.

In French:

En octobre on recule les aiguilles, en avril on les avance.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Repetition, Deviation, Hesitation

You only realize how speech is really just a jumble of ideas at random, transformed into sound waves, when you do audio translation.
Repetition, deviation, hesitation; all the cardinal sins of the BBC Radio 4 word game ‘Just a Minute’ are there in abundance. The average speaker would not get many points or be allowed to speak continuously for one minute very often.
You are constantly tempted to improve the text, to have the speaker use much more elegant or concise expressions, but you can’t because the transcription must be done verbatim. So you just leave it there for all to see on the page. It’s not very pretty sometimes.
But you do at least get an impression of how ideas seem to form differently in different languages, or at least in a different order. English usually gets to the heart of the matter pretty quickly, whereas with French or German you often sit there twiddling your thumbs until the speaker finally reaches his or her point.
Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme did not know he was speaking in prose, until he was told so by some charlatan, but he was right in fact. 
People do not usually speak in prose, but more in stream of consciousness mode, after all.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Translating English into English

Some assorted euphemisms and their translation:

‘winemaker’s vintage’ = rotten grapes or no grapes, how do you make wine with that ?

‘challenging (market) conditions’ = no one is buying our products, or the company is about to go bust

‘we face significant headwinds’ = the company can’t make any money, is about to go bust

‘complete confidence’ - when the Prime Minister declares “I have complete confidence in X “ = he or she will ‘resign’ over the weekend

'he or she reflected on his or her situation and chose to resign' = they were sacked

‘we will work with all stakeholders going forward’ = we will ignore what you say and carry on regardless

The English language is rich with such expressions. If you have your own favourites please let us know.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Beware of the Cat

Couldn’t resist reproducing this (Comment by Clive Cookson - Financial Times) here.

‘Anyone who has used Google’s translation service to turn a foreign language web page into English will know how much help it still needs.

To test it, I requested an English translation of the French Wikipedia entry for chat (cat). Here is part of the response:

“It also means more familiarly by the cat pussy and pussy by pussy. This term, dating back from 1560, comes from mine, popular name of the cat in Gallo-Romance. This word is the origin of the expression ‘at the crack of dawn’, which means ‘good morning’.”

Admittedly, Google can do much better with its more specialised machine translation services. But even the most advanced technology for understanding, generating or translating human language by computer lags far behind the forecasts of AI (artificial intelligence) pioneers 30 or 40 years ago...’

So caveat emptor, or should it be cave canem or is that felis ?

Monday, 24 September 2012

Franglais and Intense Driving Sensations

Matt Prior in Autocar (12th September 2012) reviews a new, more powerful version of the Peugeot RCZ remarking ‘it will offer “intense driving sensations”, according to the Franglais’.

This highlights one of the main differences between French and English.

English is a language which is Germanic in origin but which over time has acquired much vocabulary from romance languages, particularly French.

French has remained first and foremost a latin-based language with a few borrowings from elsewhere. ‘Calanque’ (inlet or creek) from the Visigoth ‘kalanka’ has always stuck in my mind. 

Many French nautical terms come from the language of the Vikings, who settled in Normandy and from whom William 1st (The Conqueror) was descended. Ironically he would have spoken Norman French.

This allows English to benefit from many different registers thanks to this choice of vocabulary.

We are all aware of the difference between mutton (Fr. mouton) and sheep, or pork (Fr. porc) and pig reflecting the cultural and class differences between Norman and Saxon following the Conquest.

The English speaker can neatly switch from perceived ‘earthy’ terms of Saxon or Germanic origin to Latin based expressions, which seem to be either more impersonal or more verbose in tone.

The French speaker cannot help but using latinate expressions and may sound verbose or overly elegant to the anglophone ear, even when being extremely earthy.

So the “intense driving sensations” offered by this car might be translated into English as ‘belting drive’...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Outside the Box

Extract from a recent article by Sam Taylor in the FT on the art of translation.

‘What you are translating is never simply a series of signs or letters on a page but a set of unspoken assumptions and can’t translate a have to think laterally. Which is how the British leader Zebigbos becomes Mykingdomforanos’ (in Astérix)’.

Ah yes, translation is often thinking laterally, thinking outside the box. Now that is very difficult to translate into French. In fact French thinking is likely to be anything but lateral or outside the proverbial.

How would you translate it ? ‘Sortir des sentiers battus’, ‘sortir du cadre’ ?

As you can see the French seems to see this as leaving the road or breaking out of a frame (cadre), a type of transgression. 

The English (by which I mean English language) mind sees it as a brilliant solution to difficult puzzle.

This is now languages somehow manage to see the world differently.

Monday, 10 September 2012

On the difficulty of translating Mallarmé

A review by Ian Thomson in the FT 25th August 2012 of a new translation by Peter Manson of Mallarmé’s poetry reminded me of my own attempts to come to grips with this most innovative of poets. It took place in a dissertation on Un coup de dés which was part of my degree course many years ago.

It all seems so simple - ‘La chair est triste et j’ai lu tous les livres’ is translated by ‘The flesh is sad and I’ve read all the books’.

‘Un coup de dés’ (title of his most mind-blowing poem) is translated by ‘A dice-throw’. 

This could have been rendered by ‘a throw of the dice’ but of course this implies that some person or agent is throwing the dice, whereas the translator has chosen dice-throw because of its more disembodied impersonal feel. 

After all chance is just that, a random phenomenon, for which no one or no thing is responsible.

But of course the main feature of this particular work is its typography.

The words seem to fly off the page in some great primeval explosion, in which  language is rendered meaningless and becomes the robotic utterance of mere words.

Here Mallarmé seems to have intuited the paradox of a world in which order and chaos are hand in hand, one threatening to overwhelm the other, but never quite succeeding.

Not really translatable. You either appreciate this train of thought or not.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Back to School

In France this is the period of ‘la rentrée’, which is literally ‘the return’.

A return from where or what, you might ask ?

The return in question is a return to business as usual after a spell of inactivity due to holidays, or in the case of a star of stage and screen, after a period out of the limelight, or in the case of politicians, after a recess.

Usually the word is used in conjunction with ‘des classes’, or ‘...politique’, and it is an important time in France where people often do take several weeks off in July-August, and life does seem to slow down 

In times gone by, France used to almost close completely in August, with the whole country gone to the beach or the family house in the country. This is not so much the case now, but the end of the holiday period is still a big deal.

Our August Bank Holiday by contrast seems pitifully short.

Monday, 27 August 2012

La Canicule

Yes, it has been hot recently , with temperatures in London moving above 30 degrees celsius for the first time this year.

People here generally take this in their stride and many positively welcome the heat, which makes a change in a country where the norm is often cool rainy days.

We use various words in English to describe hot weather, one of which is ‘heatwave’, which seems particularly evocative.

In French one can speak of ‘la canicule’. This particular term has different connotations especially since 2003 and this year with temperatures rising above 40 degrees in large parts of the country.

‘La canicule’ evokes heat that is so intense as to be actually dangerous, particularly for more vulnerable people. The French authorities both national and local have put in place a great network of help for older people in particular to keep them safe from the effects of the current high temperatures.

A strange word, it comes from the latin ‘canicula’ little dog (female), a nickname given to the star Sirius, which rises at the same time as the Sun between the 24 July and 24th August and whose influence was thought in Antiquity to be behind the frequent hot spells, not to say heatwaves, often experienced around this time.

In English it can be translated by the expression ‘dog days’ corresponding to the summer rising and setting of Sirius.

Linguistic differences in wine description

This week, a few thoughts from the world of wine description.

We often tend to find the same descriptors being used again and again in wine tasting notes. The terms used are often related to the smell and taste of fruits, flowers, spices and other aromas which the experienced taster (or more accurately perhaps, smeller) may be able to detect in the wine being tasted.

The WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Systematic Approach to tasting lists around one hundred aroma and flavour characteristics useful in describing the particular organoleptic profile of a wine.

Tasters however often resort to a type of shorthand to rapidly give a succinct indication in their tasting notes of how a wine will taste to the average consumer and some flavours or aromas will be encountered more often. This will often vary according to the origin, national or linguistic, of the author.

In English-speaking circles there is often mention of ‘blueberries’ or ‘blackberries’; whereas the French will often plump for ‘cassis’ (blackcurrant). Floral aromas will often be described as being of ‘elderflower’ by anglophones whereas ‘acacia’ will often be used by French-speakers.

This is typical of the way different languages will divide up the visible and invisible universe in order to describe it. This goes for colour and sound as well as for taste and smell. One man’s yellow is another man’s brown or red. Yet the actual colour is the same.  

Translation, therefore, can also be a game of taste and smell and finding appropriate ways of accurately communicating the equivalent perception in the other language.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Fashion Statement

I was asked last week to translate some text containing the French word ‘marinière’.

Now you would imagine that there is some simple equivalent English word for this but nothing could be further from the truth.

You often find this word in recipes such as moules marinière which refers to mussels cooked with wine, cream, parsley etc. So far so good.

But it is also a garment worn by sailors in north western France originally but which has now become a fashion item featuring navy and white stripes. Of course being a fashion item it might not be navy and white, it might be sleeveless, long-sleeved, butterfly-sleeved or any other combination.

How to translate this ? You could try sailor shirt, sailor top, French sailor shirt, Breton sailor shirt, or even marinière.

So it’s not that easy, and without seeing the actual garment referred to in the text, the generic sailor shirt will probably have to do.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Does Let your Body Drive translate ?

Interesting comments by Steve Cropley in Autocar magazine (4th July 2012) on Peugeot’s latest TV advertising campaign for the new Peugeot 208. ‘Their ‘Let Your Body Drive’ campaign for the car - which implies that it’s somehow desirable to remove one’s brain from the equation if one is to enjoy driving - sets a new record in risibleness (sic)..I’m prepared to accept that the thing might work better in French, if it’s a translation. But if this is original work in English, it is truly terrible.’

I think Steve is a bit scathing. Of course we are often treated to excellent advertising in this country, so he may have a good point. It does seem that the campaign was developed simultaneously for all markets and simply translated (unless the English came first, which is possible). 

Whether ‘Let your body drive’ is the best rendition of ‘Votre corps reprend le pouvoir’ or ‘Laissez conduire votre corps’ (the same slogan in French language versions) is open to debate. From a cultural standpoint I think Steve is correct that the whole concept might work better in French and in more Latin environments as a whole.

Translation is much more complicated a task than it first seems, and it is not simply a matter of getting the words right. One needs to ask oneself if it works, and if the target audience will understand it.

SFO (Serious Fraud Office) in bad translation fiasco

SFO (Serious Fraud Office) in bad translation fiasco

The SFO (or Serious Farce Office if you are a Private Eye Reader) was involved in an embarrassing loss of face recently as related in Private Eye No 1314. The case the SFO had been hoping to make against the Tchenguiz brothers as part of their investigation into the collapse of Kaupthing (the Icelandic bank) might not now be brought because of errors in SFO evidence. One mistake was ‘the result of a poor translation of internal emails’.

It is not yet known how much this mistake and others might cost, but let us say that it will be millions.

No need to mention what the moral of this sorry tale might be...

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Google translations - are they any good ?

It is interesting to use Google translations as a matter of curiosity and see how they fare.

They can amble along quite nicely and translate quite competently until something throws them. 

As long as the context is very straightforward and factual (the cat is under the table) all is well. 

But whenever the context changes or becomes more specific, as happens in the real world, you may end up with gibberish.

So while the Google algorithms are brilliant and produce quite good translations you need to have a human being read them and make sure things have been correctly translated, in context, with the precise vocabulary and terminology of that particular context.

To sum up:  use Google or any other automat up to a point. But have the results proof read. 

This is an expense which really isn’t.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Is translation worth it ?

I was fascinated by Ryan Opaz’ ( discussion on ‘Winery websites: the good, the bad and the ugly’ at the LIWF (London International Wine Fair) last May.

Ryan gave a great list of do-s and don’t-s for website owners. With a few simple rules a website can be an effective means of communication and not an expensive mistake.

Translating a website is not a given and should only be done if you really need it. This should mean that you spend time and effort to get it right. It also means that you should keep the translated bits as up to date as the rest of your content.

As we were reminded Google likes content and sites which update. This means you will be noticed, and this may help you get that lucrative distribution contract you have been looking for.

I would always spend a few more euros on getting my stuff well translated and having up to date content. It will always be worth it in the end.

Back to normal

Week of 13th August

The Games are over. Thank you London. We did not mess it up ! Now back to everyday life.

Prepositional verbs or phrasal verbs. I am sure many visitors to London have been left perplexed by this peculiar form of English. These expressions take the form of a verb used in conjunction with a preposition to create a new verb with a particular meaning.

Take for example break : break up, break down, break off, break in, break out. Here we have five different meanings starting with one single verb. They cannot be translated literally, at the risk of producing gibberish.

Correctly using this type of construction is the sign of someone who has mastered English. One should however be cautious in their use.

A young man who came to London to learn English was keen to try out his new knowledge of prepositional verbs. As the day’s classes came to an end he offered to give one of his female classmates a lift home, with a breezy ‘Can I throw you down someplace ?’.