Tag Archives: David Bellos

What do the words mutton, sheep and robot have in common? Translation!

Photo: andrea via Flickr

Photo: andrea via Flickr


Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki.

Two translators on a ship are talking.

“Can you swim?” asks one

“No” says the other, “but I can shout for help in nine languages.”

Okay, not the best joke, and even though translation won’t exactly save you from drowning it is something that is all around us and that impacts our lives in many ways.

11431000Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring what translation is all about in a series we’re calling “In Other Words.”

If you go by what’s in the Bible, we’ve been in need of translators since the Tower of Babel. And this need has given rise to a whole host of interesting ideas — both real and fictitious — of how to better communicate with one another.

Remember the Babel fish? That small, leech-like fish that you stick in your ear and instantly translates any language. If only, Douglas Adam’s invention from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did exist.

“Is that a fish in your ear? Well no, it’s not, it’s a translator,” said David Bellows translator and author of Is that a Fish in your Ear? “There’s something going on that is very clever but it’s not magic.”

Oral translation or interpreting is as old as language itself. Humans have always spoken different languages and there’s always been a need for a middle man or a go-between. However scholars have actually pinpointed a starting point for written translation.

Writing arose around 5000 years ago but it wasn’t until about 2500 years ago that anything like a translation came into existence. The two first examples of translation occurred right around the same period.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, a community of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then a Greek speaking city, translated the Torah into Greek. That translated text is called the Septuagint.

“There are lots of myths and legends surrounding it but there are no surviving texts of the Old Testament that are older than the Greek translation,” Bellos said.

There are different accounts of how this translation came to be, according to Bellos. In one story Ptolemy II, adding to the great Library of Alexandria, sought to collect every known book in the world and commissioned a translation of the holy book of the Jews.

Another story is that the Jews of Alexandria had lost touch with the language of the bible and actually needed the bible translated into Greek.

“A bit like American Jews now,” said Bellos, “not very many American Jews really can read the Torah in biblical Hebrew.”

Meanwhile within a few decades of the creation of the Septuagint, across the Mediterranean in the southern part of Italy, a Greek-speaking slave, Livius Andronicus, was commissioned to translate Homer’s Odyssey from Greek to Latin, launching, according to Bellos, the classical tradition.

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

“In a way you could say that translating of Homer is the beginning of an invention of the literature of Latin,” Bellos said.

So, Hebrew was translated into Greek, Greek into Latin, but what impact has translation had on English?

“English was made by translation — translation from Latin and above all translation from French,” Bellos explained.

A huge number of words came into English in the mash-up of the French the Normans spoke and the Anglo-Saxon the people spoke.

“And so English often has two words for the same things — one of French origin and one of Saxon origin, like, for example, sheep and mutton,” Bellos said. “Sheep is what the peasants looked after and mutton is what the masters ate.”

Mutton is the French word and sheep is the Germanic, or Saxon.

“We’re constantly translating between these two as we speak English and navigate the different registers of language that are more or less French depending on how high or low the register is,” Bellos said.

An example of one word that came to English purely through the translation of literature is “robot.” “Robot” is actually a Czech word and it came into English in the 1930s through the translations of the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s science fiction novels and plays. The word “robot” actually means “worker” in Czech.

Besides being a linguist, Bellos has been a longtime translator of French literature. And while he doesn’t quite believe that translation is a calling, the relationship between a translator and an author is a special one. For one, unlike the reader, a translator can’t skip over the boring parts of a book. A translator becomes intimately familiar with every single word.

“In a way the translator of a new book knows that book better than anybody else and that’s a great privilege and a great pleasure,” Bellos said.


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Translators past, present and future, a new Iliad, and Greek humor

Would a human or a machine be better at translating the above line from a song (should you wish do instant translation at a karaoke bar)? Are machine translators making human translators redundant?

No, according to the American Translators Association. It’s true there’s a wow factor in a point-and-shoot translator app like Word Lens or the statistical analysis approach of  Google Translate. Many of use these and other machine-based translators. But human translators are doing just fine too. At least that’s the word from ATA spokesman Kevin Hendzel. He told me the industry grew 15% in 2009 and 13% in 2010.  Not so surprising when you think about it: American troops are still in Afghanistan. The US government’s 17 intelligence agencies are still listening in to people all over the world. American businesses are still expanding into new global markets.

And some people even translate books. David Bellos does that. He has translated, among other novels, Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi   “Life: A User’s Manual”), a book once considered untranslatable.  Bellos is also the author of the recently published Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

Bellos’ book has been a hit with reviewers (see here, here and here). No wonder. With all those reasons (global marketing, espionage, immigration) why translators are needed now more than ever, it follows that we should question more closely what translation is, what it does, and what it misses. I don’t know if translations of novels and poems have improved over time, each translator shaving his or her own microsecond off some previous world record, but in one small way it’s a shame: it may discourage us from reading books in their original languages. But that’s a minor worry, certainly not an argument against good translations.

Related post/pod:  check out this earlier podcast on translating poetry.  For many poets, words are less prominent than sound and rhythm.  The translator must echo that.

Also in the pod, a discussion of just what exactly Madeline Miller’s new novel, The Song of Achilles owes to Homer’s The IliadThe Song of Achilles could be considered a translation only in the loosest sense of the word (more here on other Iliads, including the new translation by Stephen Mitchell). Miller’s novel draws from Homer’s plot. It also draws from other classical texts, and from Miller’s own imagination. Traditionalists may think she’s nicking the good bits from Homer, then sexing them up (which she does with gusto) for a modern audience. Others may view it as an illuminating re-imagination of an ancienct epic.

Finally this week, a mode of speech that’s always tough to translate: humor. Not only that. Under the spotlight here is Greek humor. And we’re not talking Aristophanes. This is modern-day Greek humor, based on Greece’s increasingly precarious economic situation. Greeks aren’t tickling too many foreigners’ funny bones at the moment. But judging by the jokes, the message to outsiders seems to be “If you think Greek politicians are double-crossing and corrupt, just try living in the same country with them.”

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Slipping in out of foreign tongues with Yang Ying and Sherard Cowper-Coles

Yang Ying (Photo: Yang Ying/MySpace)

In the pod this week, Yang Ying’s polyglottish music. And Sherard Cowper-Coles’ polyglottish diplomacy.

Music as Language

Yang Ying grew up in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people deemed enemies of communism were forced to work as manual laborers.

That happened to Yang’s father, who ended up working in a coal mine.

He thought his daughter might escape that fate if he taught her to play an instrument-well enough to enter an elite music academy.

And so she learned to play the traditional two-string erhu. She studied under her father’s tutelage for several hours a day. Because the family’s apartment was so small, and the walls so thin, she would practice the erhu in the park.

The hard work paid off. Yang won a national competition playing a famous piece of music called River of Tears.

Her success led to a place at a music conservatory in Beijing. From there she became a soloist with the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble. She performed for countless foreign dignitaries on their visits to China, including American presidents.

“I played for Ford, Carter and for Nixon,” Yang says. “I remember three. I probably performed for more.”

More important to Yang though, were her tours of China, where she learned about the country’s regional differences, the music and the dialects. The many dialects of Chinese “really had an effect on the music.”

But while Yang was being exposed to new sounds, she still had to perform the same old stuff.

As an erhu soloist with a renowned national ensemble, “you probably only play two, three, four repertoires your whole life.” Yang says it tired her out. “And I really wanted to do something new.”

It was the late 1980s. China was opening up. Yang started going to rock concerts put on by the US Embassy. Clubs were opening, bands were forming. She taught herself the bass guitar. She said it was like learning a new language.

Yang founded Cobra, China’s first-ever all female rock band. She knew that she was breaking several taboos at once, and that many people would disapprove.

Yang says her father was “not very happy.” And other classical musicians, “thought I was crazy.”

Yang tried to infuse some of Cobra’s songs with traditional elements. She even re-imagined a traditional folk song as a rock anthem.

That spirit of anything-goes fusion ultimately moved Yang in another direction. She emigrated to the United States, and began studying jazz. She recognized common elements between jazz and Chinese folk music. Both rely on improvisation, and make the instrument sound “as if it’s singing, like the human voice.”

She started playing the erhu with an American jazz group.

Today, that has brought her back to China, where she and her group are performing at the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival.

Should diplomats learn the languages of the countries they’re assigned to?

Diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says yes. But, he adds, be careful not to  overreach.

Cowper-Coles tells two stories of foreign language overreaching.

The Hebrew Overreach

When he was the British Ambassador to Israel, Cowper-Coles liked to try out the Hebrew that he had learned.  So once,  in a restaurant, he ordered (he thought) chicken breast. He did this, logically enough, by combining the  Hebrew words for chicken and breast.  But to the native Hebrew ears of the restaurant’s staff, the dish he had actually requested was not one they had ever before served: a woman’s breast on a chicken.

The French Overreach

Cowper-Coles also tells a story about Tony Blair. Blair “had learned his French in a bar outside Paris” between high school and college. So it wasn’t perfect.

Fast forward several decades. Blair, as Prime Minister, was hosting his French opposite number Lionel Jospin. After a “drinky” lunch,  Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.”  (Roughly:  “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

At least that’s the way Cowper-Coles tells it.

Also in the pod this week:  teaching in two languages in Massachusetts, where bilingual education is banned. And Pakistan’s Sindh province is introducing mandatory Chinese for schoolkids aged ten and older.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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