Monthly Archives: April 2010

An American family, an Indonesian tribe, an oral language and its first book

In 1973 Sue (pictured) and Peter Westrum and their baby went to live among an indigenous tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. They had been dispatched by Wycliffe Bible Translators (check out my interview with Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson)  to learn the Berik language, develop a script for it, and then translate the Bible into Berik. They spent more than 20 years there. It was a time of great transformation for the Berik people, their beliefs and their language.

This week’s pod is entirely given over to a conversation I had with Sue Westrum. It includes two astounding pieces of archive tape recorded in New Guinea by her husband Peter.  The first is the Westrums’ first meeting with the Berik people who lived essentially in the jungle, in several villages a few dozen miles upriver of a modern Indonesian port town.  The second recording is of Berik singing and drumming: one night a large number of them gathered unnanounced outside the Westrums’ makeshift home, and they just started playing and chanting. In both cases, the Westrums weren’t sure how to respond, though they sensed that these were friendly gestures.

Over time, the Westrums learned the Berik language. They also began teaching some of the Berik about the Bible, with a view to selecting some of the best students to help them translate it into Berik. The Westrums — and Wycliffe Bible Translators — insist that they are not Christian missionaries, that their role as translators is different. And in some cases  the roles can be kept separate. But perhaps not in this case. The Berik had animist beliefs and had been barely been exposed to other religions. It’s difficult to imagine how language classes focused on the Bible would not sometimes morph into Bible study and discussions of belief. Certainly, during the time that the Westrums lived among them, many Berik converted to Christianity.

There are so many aspects of Berik language and culture that are different from American English that the process of translating the Bible was painstakingly slow. One small example: for the Berik, the emotional center of a person is his gut — something between the heart and the soul in western thinking. The Wycliffe method is to translate words, ideas and messages in ways that speak to the target audience.  But there are, presumably, doctrinal limits as to how far a translator of the Bible can stray. (True, this hasn’t stopped some Bible translators in the past from veering radically and quite imaginatively from the original).

Eventually, the Bible was translated into Berik– the very first book (aside from education and nutrition booklets) to be published in what had been an oral language: a cause for celebration among those who wish to spread Christianity, but far from that among those who argue against such cultural and linguistic intervention in fragile indigenous societies. I barely get into this debate in this particular podcast, but I feel duty-bound to do so at some point in the future.

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Google’s humanoid translator, accent phobia, and misleading job titles

In this podcast, our monthly top-five roundup of language stories:

5. Why Google Translate rules (and why human translators shouldn’t feel threatened.)  Google, as we’ve come to expect by now, does things differently. And that includes translation. We tend to think of translators as human or robotic. Google Translate combines the best of both. Which is why its translations can be poetic — yes poetic — as well as accurate. Of course, it’s still not difficult to outwit Google Translate, and make it fail. But with each new iteration, it’s getting better. However, it’ll only continue to improve so long as humans keep translating stuff (because Google Translate uses online human translations as its source material). Also, one day, Google may need to clarify that its translation tool,  however ubiquitous and accurate it becomes,  is no substitute for learning a foreign language. Humans live and thrive — and love and make money — by communicating  with each other. And they do that most effectively with their mouths, tongues and vocal chords.

4. Over-egging the job title pudding. The BBC reported that a weight-loss company recently advertized for a Product Testing Associate.  This job would consist of eating an extra 400 calories a day, as well as popping a few of the company’s Proactol pills. That got a bunch of readers of the online BBC article to relate their own favorite misleading job titles:  modality manager (translation: nurse, not to be confused with mortality manager); coordinator of interpretative teaching (tour guide); welcoming agent and telephone intermediary (receptionist); and field force agent (tax collector).  All of a sudden, I’m thinking my job title — language podcast host — isn’t  grand or pretentious enough. So henceforth, I will be known as a digitized philology presentation practitioner.

3. Accent discrimination. As a native English speaker with Brit accent (it’s drifted into the Atlantic after 20+ years in the United States) I think I’ve experienced positive accent discrimination.  Many Americans have told me they’ll  believe anything a Brit tells them — a good, if dangerous, thing for a reporter to hear. However, there are plenty of examples of the other type of discrimination. The latest concerns a US-based native French speaker who’s a senior partner in a global consulting firm. She speaks of being dis-invited to meetings with American clients, because of the fear that her accent would put them off.

2. The rise of Hindi (and English). My Big Show colleague Rhitu Chatterjee told me about an old friend of hers. He was born and raised in New Dehli by a Marathi-speaking mother and a Telugu-speaking father.  Because of the language divide, the languages of the household were Hindi and English; Rhitu’s friend neither spoke nor understood the native tongues of either of his parents. That story writ large is the linguistic story of modern India — multilingual marriages, migration to big cities, a big generational shift to Hindi and English. English has now eclipsed Bengali as the the second-most popular language in India, according to recent census analysis, and Hindi continues to dominate.

1. New French words to replace English invaders. The Académie française (pictured) is the jealous protector of all things French: it determines what can and cannot be said and written, even if people often ignore its pronouncements.  Often, the Académie finds itself with no alternative but to make up new words, usually when the hoi polloi are using one of those nasty English words (like podcasting).  Some officially coined terms stick (logiciel, meaning software); others don’t (frimousse, meaning smiley). Authorities have now taken a new tack: they have turned to the people themselves. Citizens sent in their suggestions for words to replace Anglicisms such as buzz and newsletter. A committee decided which to adopt.

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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

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