Do we still need professional translators to subtitle foreign language movies?

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

In the beginning there was light, a little music and subtitles, technically called intertitles. I’m talking the beginning of the 20th century, during the silent era of moviemaking, when an image really spoke a thousand words and intertitles were used sparingly to explain action, and dialogue, and exposition.

And then the talkies came. But while Al Jolson’s voice in ‘The Jazz Singer‘ did away with the need for the intertitle to do all that explaining, The Jazz Singer became the first film to need translating. In fact, it was the first film to officially use foreign language subtitles when it opened in Paris in 1929.

In the 80-plus-years since, subtitling has gone from a necessity to an art.

“People aren’t supposed to notice subtitles, if we’re doing our job properly. The ideal situation is when they aren’t even aware they’re reading subtitles,” says John Miller. Miller makes a living as a subtitler in Paris, where he went to school to learn the art of subtitling. And he’s been at it for 20 years translating French films into English.

“The French call ‘subtitlers’ ‘adapters.’ You do have to adapt it, you can’t just take a literal translation of the screenplay and throw it up on the screen. You would spend the whole time reading it and you wouldn’t be able to watch the film,” Miller says.

People can read an average of 12 characters a second, Miller says. A subtitler has about two seconds to relay everything being said to the audience and within those 24 characters, the subtitler not only has to translate what’s said, but all the complexities of everyday speech: puns, jokes, word play.

Sometimes you get lucky and expressions will easily translate from one language to another. But sometimes, says Miller, an expression gets lost in translation or, worse yet, doesn’t translate into American English at all. This happens all the time. In a recent film that Miller had to work on he had to translate the French expression “tu la boucle”

“Tu la boucle, which means shut-up, also means put your seatbelt on. So I [translated] the British English [expression], what I thought was American English too. ‘Belt up!’ which fits perfectly for both meanings, but it apparently [doesn’t mean the same thing] in American English. So I had to lose the double reference and just end up with “Buckle up!”

While subititling may be an art and a profession, increasingly this art is undergoing another evolution. Just like when sound came and turned moviemaking upsidedown, the digitization of film and TV has upended the subtitling industry. Digital media has allowed people around the world to access more content, more quickly. And more content means more subtitles, right?

Enter VIKI, just one of several online crowd-sourced subtitling platforms. The name VIKI is a mash-up of “video” and “wiki,” as in Wikipedia. And the service acts much like Wikipedia: Subtitlers submit translations for peer review, the crowd evaluates the translations, voting things up and down.

VIKI CEO Razmig Hovaghimian began to appreciate subtitles as a kid. He grew up in Egypt but spent his summers in Lebanon — watching Bollywood movies with his dad.

“Neither one of us speaks Hindi, but we just loved it. I remember the Amitab Bachchan movies,” he recalls.

VIKI licenses TV shows and movies from around the world — from Korean dramas, to Latin American soaps to Japanese Anime — and then puts them online so fans from around the world can subtitle them.

“[Some] 200 languages with over 700 million words translated by fans — for free,” Hovaghimian says.

Just who are these fan subbers doing the work for free? They’re teachers, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers, people like you and me, says Hovaghimian. Including retiree Patricia Pon from San Francisco.

Pon is a Cantonese speaker and the translator of more than 200,000 subtitles. What motivates Pon to do this in their spare time for no money? Simple, she says. She got fed up with bad translations. Bad, as in what she considers racy language. Like, for example, she says she was offended by a subtitle from a recent episode of the Korean Drama, Empress Ki. In the soap, the emperor’s concubine gets pregnant and the subtitle was written in a rather colloquial fashion.

“The tramp got knocked up”

“I don’t think so,” Pon says. She would’ve translated the line as “The consort was pregnant.”

Consort, tramp, concubine — subtitling risks a certain subjectivity. Would a retiree translate a Hong Kong gangster flick the same as a teenager? Does it matter? No, according to Razmig, that’s the beauty of the crowd. Subtitles are vetted and edited by many. And then the content can quickly be consumed by many more. And these rapid translations have led to the globalization of film and TV at hyper-speed in rather unexpected places.

“We had Egyptian movies that were doing great in Dutch. We have Korean movies that are doing phenomenal in Saudi Arabia. It’s actually our number one country for it. And it’s in Arabic subtitles,” Hovaghimian says.

VIKI is just one service in an ever-expanding world of crowd-sourced subtitles. While professional subtitler John Miller isn’t worried about being “crowded out” of his profession, he and fellow English-language subtitlers in Paris have felt the squeeze.

“It is a professional job. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have crowd-sourced surgeons or crowd-sourced mechanics. So, while what we do isn’t life or death, it is to the detriment of the films if they’re being done by people who, well, they’re certainly not professionals,” Miller says.

Certainly, Pon and her subbing pals aren’t claiming to be professionals. And the subtitles you’ll be reading at your local art house theatre aren’t the crowdsourced kind — at least not yet.


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The spread of mondegreens should have ended with the Internet — but it hasn’t

Kissing 'the sky' or 'this guy'?

Was Jimi Hendrix kissing ‘the sky’ or ‘this guy’?

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

You may not know what “mondegreen” means, but you definitely have a great mondegreen story — like maybe mishearing the chorus for the Cuban song “Guantanamera” as “One ton tomato. I ate a one ton tomato.”

The word mondegreen was coined in an essay by writer Sylvia Wright in which she described misinterpreting a line from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray.” The actual line was, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the green.”

What did she hear? “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.”

It turns out there are scientific reasons for why it’s so easy to misinterpret songs and poems. The first thing you have to understand is that “when we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination,” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania,

Extracting meaning from sound actually depends on a combination of hearing and hoping.

“There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear,” Liberman explains, but “there’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the expectations in our brain.”

When that piece of sound contains weird metaphors or jarring imagery — or is just plain hard to hear — people tend to translate it into something that makes more sense to them. “And, of course, songs tend to have lyrics that are a little bit unexpected or unusual,” Liberman adds. “It’s what makes songs interesting.”

It’s also what makes mondegreens interesting — often more interesting, or at least way funnier, than the original lyrics themselves. For example: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”

If you need a good mondegreen, you can check out Kiss This Guy, a website dedicated to them. You could also buy the book of mondegreens that hit the bestseller list in Germany.

In some countries, like Russia, mondegreens have even become a genre unto themselves. I talked to Anya Krushelnitskaya, who grew up in Soviet Russia, and I came to feel that a closed society provides the perfect laboratory for studying the spread and mutation of the mondegreen.

“We did have tiny, tiny holes in the Iron Curtain through which the lyrics would come in,” Krushelnitskaya tells me. That process involved somebody well-connected — like the son of a diplomat — selling liner notes they were able to smuggle into the country on the black market.

These lyrics were then disseminated by people who copied them by hand, like an epic game of “Telephone” played in an unfamiliar language. And since western pop circulated on homemade cassette tapes that were dubbed and redubbed — or primitive vinyl records carved out of x-rays — degraded sound quality was another big impediment to figuring out the words. It’s easy to see how mondegreens became the norm, not the exception.

But what may have begun as an honest effort to figure out the lyrics to popular Western songs soon morphed into a vibrant subgenre of soundalikes. For instance, Anya explains, The Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine” became, “Y’ela Margarin” — “She was eating margarine.”

These intentional mondegreens were funny, but they also served as Trojan horses for political commentary. Take another Beatles song, “Yesterday,” which Anya says was sung as the Russian-English mashup:

“Esti Dai (give me some food)

All my roubles seem so far away.”

There are those who believe that Lady Mondegreen has finally been slain by insidious lyrics websites and their cold, efficient databases. The New York Times Magazine bemoaned this scourge, as has The Guardian.

But lyrics sites aren’t slaying mondegreens — they’re spreading them.

“We crowdsourced all our lyrics,” says Shawn Setaro, former editor-in-chief of one of the biggest lyrics sites on the web, Genius. “Anyone could add lyrics, anyone could edit lyrics. They would type and transcribe. And it got to the point where when new popular songs came out, they would be on the site six, seven, eight minutes after they’re released.”

Those first stabs eventually get refined on Genius, but not every lyrics site strives for accuracy. One thing other sites do is solicit lyrics anonymously via email, with no vetting whatsoever. Another thing they do, Setaro tells me, “is just crawl and steal from other lyrics sites. So it becomes this giant circle.”

How does Genius know other sites steal from them? They did an experiment and subtly messed with the lyrics to some of their new songs, just to see if other sites were grabbing them. Sure enough, within hours, several sites had posted Genius’ lyrics — mistakes and all.

So it’s often the initial, uncrowdsourced version — the one fans pound out quickly — that gets picked up and spread around.

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Even when lyrics sites go straight to the source, there’s room for error. This summer, Genius got the lyrics for “No Mediocre,” a song by hip-hop artist T.I., that features Iggy Azalea. They came directly from Azalea’s label, but she later tweeted that they were full of mistakes.

Sometimes fans don’t even believe the artists themselves. Danny Brown, a rapper from Detroit, has lyrics that are particularly prone to misinterpretation because of his wildly stylized vocals. Brown came in to the Genius office in Brooklyn himself to correct all of his lyrics.

But a few days later, Setaro says with a laugh, “his fans had put them back to what the original mishearings were. It was actually as a result of that that we built in a function to lock the pages, so once the artists say, ‘Hey, this is the right way,’ no one can change it.”

Some artists may scoff, some may shrug, and others might simply decide to embrace Lady Mondegreen. Many people claim that Jimi Hendrix even started singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for real once he found out people thought those were the words. You can judge for yourself in the version below, recorded at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

And according to linguists, that’s actually closer to what we’re expecting him to say, anyway. So go on, Jimi — kiss him.


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Remembrance of the Man who Translated Proust

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

It’s not often that a translator has a story as good as the author himself. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s was wild enough to seem like fiction.

Moncrieff was the first person to translate Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic, “Remembrance of Things Past” into English. He was also a poet, a soldier during World War I and a spy in Mussolini’s Italy.

But Moncrieff’s own life was mostly hidden, according to his great great-niece Jean Findlay. She recently published the book “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator.”

“All I really knew about him is that he had translated Proust,” Findlay says. “His life story was really kept hidden from me. Nobody had investigated it very much — mainly because they were ashamed of the fact that he was a homosexual.”
Findlay’s own interest in her great great-uncle began after her mother handed Findlay a suitcase full of his poetry.

“He had a book of poems that he’d kept since adolescence, which were mainly written in pencil,” she says. “A lot of them were first dedicated to a girl, and then dedicated to a boy. A lot of them were erotic and a lot of them were poems which had multi-layers and hidden meanings, and I realized that this was a very complex and exciting person.”

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff was born at the start of the 20th century. “He was a bit of genius: He learned French when three from a Belgian nanny, and then he was a brilliant translator of Latin and Greek at the age of 11,” Findlay says.

He was a voracious reader, going through the entire library at his boarding school. He also began writing and publishing his poems at age 16.

He started working as a translator after returning home from World War I, and even his first translations weren’t anything to scoff at. He translated “La Chanson de Roland,” or “The Song of Roland,” from medieval French, and then went on to translate Beowulf from Old English.

In 1922, he tackled “Swann’s Way” — the first volume of Proust’s epic, “Remembrance of Things Past.”

The translation proved to be a challenge, not the least because of the dense and complicated prose — one page could often be one whole sentence. But, according to Findlay, the manuscript itself was a mess as well.

“The version he was given was a very complicated version, because it had been published during the first World War, when there weren’t very many typesetters,” Findlay explains. “They mixed up a lot of the objects and subjects of the sentences. So very often it was a work on interpretation and guess work.”

Even Moncrieff’s translation of the title, “Remembrance of Things Past,” was also called into question. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

“He thought that that line from Shakespeare contained enough references to cover the ambiguities in the French [“À la recherche du temps perdu”], which is about in search of lost time and wasted time,” Findlay says.

Proust himselt didn’t like Moncrieff’s title: He wanted the translator to put a “To” at the beginning: “To Remembrance of Lost Time.”

“And then [Proust] said, ‘Well my English isn’t that good, so that might not be a good idea,’” Findlay says.

Moncrieff’s translation of Proust went on to be the authoritative version for many years. A new translation wasn’t even published until 2002. That attempt took seven translators and seven years to write. Moncrieff also took seven years to complete the work — in between spying for the British in Mussolini’s Italy as well as translating other authors, like Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Moncrieff’s version went on to influence authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was reading Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and it was so exciting it was almost like a sexual experience,” Findlay says.

She re-read her great great-uncle’s translation while she was working on his biography. “I think he’s better and better the more you read him,” she says.

“You can actually open Proust anywhere in the enormous novel and find something which is utterly poetic and meaning and will take you back into yourself,” Findlay says. “It’s a bit like meditation: It takes time apart. It can make one second an entire chapter.”


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How the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped military slang

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)


Here’s a post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

How do you feel about doing armourbarma on the way to Butlins? Or getting a craphat to check for Terry in a jinglytruck?

Unless you’re a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, you’re probably totally confused.

The British Army has a centuries-long tradition of picking up slang terms from the many countries in which it serves, both within the British empire and from other places around the world. And while the British Army lowered the flag at its last base in Afghanistan, the country has left its own mark on British military language and culture.

So in the above example, armourbarma is a method of checking for IEDs; Butlins was the name given to Camp Bastion, the army’s main Afghan base; craphats are members of a rival unit; and a jinglytruck is a highly decorated Afghan vehicle.

And Terry? Terry is short for the enemy — Mr. “Terry” Taliban, of course.

If some of those names sound oddly light-hearted, writer Patrick Hennessy, a former army captain, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. “The British Army has a particular tradition of black humor,” he says. “It’s much easier to fight someone if they are an object of ridicule than if they are an object of fear. The tendency towards something like ‘Terry’ is not intended to humanize the enemy — quite often the opposite.”

Terry has overtones of Jerry, the sarcastic name British soldiers used for German forces during the world wars. Giving a foreign enemy a banal, suburban British name helped Brits — who were similarly, maybe ironically, nicknamed “Tommies” during World War I — psychologically cut their opponents down to size.

Hennessy says he still has a fondness for Terry, at least as a name if not as an adversary. “There’s a famous comedian called Terry Thomas [in Britain] who was a bit of a ridiculous clown,” he explains. “I always loved the fact that the nickname we came up with was more ridiculous than threatening.”

Army jargon still carries the legacy of the British empire with it. Soldiers still refer to washing as “dhobi,” derived from the Hindi word for laundry. Something obtained for free is said to be “bukshee,” meaning “bribe” in Urdu and Hindi.

These words are looked on with pride as a sign of military heritage and history. Hennessy believes that tradition will carry over to include the slang of the Afghan war. “We worked very closely with the Afghan National Army, and a lot of the terms — like kandak for a battalion, or tolai for a company — [have been included],” he says. “I’m sure that in a hundred years time, sergeants on the drill square at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst will still be talking about kandaks to show their historical credibility.”

[Patrick Cox adds: We invited American vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to tell us their favorite slang terms. Listen to the audio above for some of the cleaner responses.

To join The World’s SMS community of veterans, text “RETURN” to 69866]


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Telling real stories in translation


A guest post from Aaron Schachter.

Here’s a dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.

Save for the linguistically-talented few — the late, great Anthony Shadid being among the most renowned — most foreign correspondents work in countries where we don’t know the language, let alone local customs, organizations or personalities.

So “fixers” and interpreters, often the same person, are vital to the work we do. Aside from a passing voice on the radio, you’d likely never know they exist.

I spent eight years reporting from the Middle East with the help of fixers. They translated interviews for me from Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Turkish. But just as importantly, they guided me through cultures that I couldn’t possibly have understood without their help.

Ayub Nuri (pictured above with Aaron Schachter in 2003) was one of the most memorable — and the most fun.

I can’t remember our first meeting for sure, but it must have been in the bustling lobby of Baghdad’s Sheraton hotel. The towering hotel was trendy in the 1980s, but much less so by the time foreign journalists, US military types, NGO workers and dignitaries rolled in after the 2003 invasion. It turned out the hotel had been disowned by the Sheraton chain soon after the 1991 Gulf War — yet it still sported all the logos, including Sheraton placemats in the lobby cafe.

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


Ayub looked to be about 20 years old. He was giggly and impish; I wasn’t in the mood for giggly and impish. It was July in Baghdad, meaning the temperature tops 100 degrees in the shade. I was sweating more or less nonstop, even in my supposedly air-conditioned hotel room.

And I was fairly terrified to be in a war zone.

It was not an auspicious way to begin my six weeks in Iraq.

But the thing about being anxious at work is that it helps to work with someone giggly and impish, especially someone like Ayub, who also possesses an incredible command of history and culture — not to mention a duffel bag full of Agatha Christie novels.

Like the soldiers we often covered, a good amount of journalists’ time in Iraq was spent waiting. Or travelling somewhere to wait. It turns out the novels of Agatha Christie are a good antidote to the boredom.

Ayub helped me understand how greetings are done in Iraq; the proper way to conduct myself in a restaurant — grab table, beeline for the bathroom to wash hands, then eat communally; and about a culture traumatized by life under a despotic ruler. When you have to keep your mouth shut and disguise your feelings for decades, it isn’t natural to open up when a foreign reporter shoves a microphone in your face. Coming from a culture of confession like the US — or Israel, where I was living — there was quite a culture shock.

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Ayub was that he could talk himself into or out of any situation in a half dozen languages, including my native tongue. I don’t think we ever faced grave danger together, but I know that he’s worked with others, including our reporters from The World, where the decisions he made literally meant life or death. I was jealous of his ability.

Once, in the Kurdish area of Iraq where Ayub is from, our car was stuck in a traffic jam. Ayub told the driver to race down the opposite side of the street to get around the cars. It worked, but when we got to the next intersection a traffic cop ran up to the window and started screaming at us.

Instead of apologizing, Ayub started screaming right back. The cop got into our car, and when I asked Ayub where we were headed he said, “to the police station.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed to Ayub, triumphant. “Busted. You’ve finally been caught out. The first time.” Ayub just smiled.

When we got to the police station, the officer got out of the car, waved goodbye and wished us a nice day. “What happened?” I asked.

“I told him the reason we had to drive down the wrong side of the road was because instead of doing his job as a traffic cop, he was sitting on his behind, drinking tea and smoking,” Ayub says. “And I said we’d be perfectly happy to go with him to the police station so I could explain to his superior what an awful cop he is.”

Once again, Ayub had saved the day.

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


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How dialects from Trinidad to Hawaii are expanding the limits of English

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

There are probably as many terms for different kinds of English vernacular as there are vernaculars themselves: pidgin, patois, slang, creole dialect and so on.

But while we usually think of the vernaculars as oral versions of the English language, they’re making their way into the written word as well.

“There’s a really interesting paradox going on, where you’re taking something that’s constantly changing — and that people don’t expect to see written down — and you’re making it codified and setting it down for a wider audience,” says Dohra Ahmad, editor of an anthology of vernacular literature called Rotten English.

M. NourbeSe Philip (pictured above) is one of the authors included in the anthology. She speaks and writes Trinidadian Creole but points out that the process of getting the language on the page is much the same as writing in Standard English.

“You can’t write it exactly as the person speaks it,” she says. “You have to put it through a certain process that conveys the impression that it is being said in the dialect.”

She writes both in dialect and in standard English, with her characters switching back and forth between the Englishes.

“As people from the Caribbean, we inhabit a spectrum of language, and you actually hear it when you go into the cultures,” Philp says. “You can hear somebody code-switching. You might start off saying something in Standard English and midway switch into the dialect or the vernacular.”

Code-switching between patois and standard English can be traced back centuries, to when English and other European languages were brought to the Caribbean, Philip says. But it hasn’t always gotten the respect its pedigree deserves.

“When I grew up [the vernacular] was called ‘bad English,’” she remembers.

Philip wants to be able to use all the resources of the language. “I think young people need to know that when they go for jobs and so on that they have to be able to articulate in a certain way, the Standard English,” she says, arguing they should also be taught to appreciate the vernacular.

“There’s so much energy in it, there’s so much life in it,” Philip says. “If you really can work it on the page, I think it’s incredibly vibrant.”

People often asked who has the right to use a particular vernacular, but Philip is quick to dismiss the question of rules.

“Let’s take the Caribbean: you have Europeans, you have South Asians, you have Africans — people from all backgrounds,” she says. “If they grow up speaking the language and being in touch with the language and can use it, then the reviewer or the people reading [the work] to assess it can’t say, ‘This doesn’t work. This doesn’t seem authentic.’”

The phrase ‘Wha gwan’ (whaa gwaan) means ‘what’s going on’ in Jamaican Patois. The spelling varies but the meaning does not change. (Photo: id-iom)

The phrase ‘Wha gwan’ (whaa gwaan) means ‘what’s going on’ in Jamaican Patois. The spelling varies but the meaning does not change. (Photo: id-iom)

Philip also says being proficient and authentic has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin or origins. She remembers watching a white Canadian comedian in Toronto do a set in Jamaican patois. It was a language that he had picked up from living in a largely Jamaican neighborhood.

“He picked up patois and he had us in stitches,” she says. “He had the intonation and he had it down and that was fine.”

While there may not be rules as to who can write or speak or joke in the vernacular, the language is part of people’s cultural heritage. Jamaican patois, for example, is a rich resource and part of the Jamaican culture. “I wouldn’t say it belongs to them, I’d say they own it,” Philip says.

“And remember, I have to say that this is a legacy that comes from a deep historical trauma of people not being allowed to use their own languages and then weren’t being taught the best way to use those European languages,” Philip says. “I think it’s a marvelous resource that those ancestors were able to wrest out of something that was so tragic.”


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Is there such thing as an untranslatable word?

Photo illustration by Augie Schwer/Flickr

Photo illustration by Augie Schwer/Flickr

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Quick — what does the French word “chouette” mean?

If you flipped open the dictionary and took a look, you’d say it means a type of owl, and it literally does. But the French use it much more frequently to describe something that is cute, neat, nice or friendly — or even terrific or fantastic.

It all depends on the moment, and that means the French will probably know what someone meant when he said “chouette” way before you did. That’s why you might call the word untranslatable.

Or is it? Is anything really untranslatable? Michael Wood doesn’t think so.

Courtesy Princeton University Press

Courtesy Princeton University Press

“[Untranslatable] is a very contested term,” Wood said, “But there’s one thing to be clear about: nothing is untranslatable.”

Wood is a professor of English at Princeton, and, more importantly for this discussion, he’s one of the editors of the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

Translation is not an art of perfection, Wood said — it’s not copying. Translating just means rendering something in one language that began in another language. There’s always some way to do that.

“But there is a sense, with many words, that when you’ve translated them, you just feel you haven’t done the job even when you’ve done the best job you could,” Wood said.

So untranslatable, according to Wood, doesn’t mean you can’t make someone understand a word in another language at all. It’s rather that nagging feeling that you’re missing something interesting when you try to explain its meaning.

Appropriately enough, the editor of the dictionary’s French version, Barbara Cassin, has a different way to describe “untranslatable:” A word with so much nuance, so many meanings, that you can’t stop translating it in your efforts to get it just right.

Wood uses “fair” as an example of an “untranslatable” English word: “’Fair’ and ‘fairness’ is pretty much untranslatable. There’s no equivalent in German, Spanish, French or any language that I know.”

A French philosopher did take a stab at it in the dictionary, but sure enough… “She sort of thinks of being fair is just getting things right and doing things by the book,” Wood said, “whereas my idea is that sometimes, to be fair, you’d have to not do things by the book. It’s not just equality or justice, it seems to me to be something a little more mysterious and intuitive.”

The Dictionary of Untranslatables was itself written in French before being translated into many languages — and then finally English.

“The French book was written, in a way, against English. It was meant to defend the multiplicity of European languages against the invasion of Global English taking over the whole world,” Wood explained. “There was an interesting paradox in putting the thing into English, when in fact English was the thing that it didn’t want to be.”

The question of untranslatability isn’t just academic, Wood adds. Deeming certain words and concepts from certain cultures as “untranslatable” runs the risk of stereotyping these cultures and the people who speak those languages.

“The danger is that, at some point, the specificity will be some kind of essence, some stereotype — that every French person will be impeccably French, and every Englishman impeccably English,” Wood said.

Wood’s favorite word from the dictionary is the Spanish term “desengaño,” which roughly translated into English means to be disenchanted or disillusioned. The French have a similar term: “illusion.”

“English speakers are such pragmatic folks that to be ‘disillusioned’ is to be deprived of your illusions — and [that’s] a good thing, too, because now you know the truth,” Wood said. But while the the basic meaning of the word can be easily translated into English, the terms have much deeper significance in Spanish and French

“In every Romance language, the notion of being undeceived also means ‘disappointment,’ as if you didn’t really want to be undeceived,” Wood explains.

A perfect example is the title of Honoré de Balzac’s novel, “Illusions Perdues,” or “Lost Illusions” in English. “You would think that a title like ‘Lost Illusions’ would mean ‘OK, good, now we’ve wised up,’” Wood said. “But, actually, that title is full of regret. It’s as if we wanted to keep our illusions.”

“Illusion” and more than 400 other terms from around the world are detailed in the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

“Find a word you’re interested in and track out the word,” Wood said, “like a maze, like a labyrinth, follow the signs and maybe you’ll come out — and maybe you’ll be lost in there forever.”


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