Tag Archives: translation

Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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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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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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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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A brief history of simultaneous interpretation, from the Nuremberg trials to now

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that, too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army.

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them.

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”


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Adam Gidwitz puts the grim back into Grimms’ fairy tales…and adds punk

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… they are some of the best-known stories of our time. But how well do we really know these and other fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm? Probably not well at all, since we have generally read sanitized translations.

Take Snow White, for instance. Snow White’s stepmother — or mother in some versions — tells the huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest. In the 1823 English edition, the huntsman is directed to “lose her.”

In the original German, things are bit different: “I want you to cut out her lungs and her liver, and bring them back to me so that I might boil them in salt — and eat them,” the stepmother commands.

Disney, not surprisingly, opted to use the Anglicized plot — and the rest is history.

The deliberate mistranslations and omissions have flourished ever since, according to Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grim, In a Glass Grimly and The Grimm Conclusion.

Gidwitz’s versions of these stories, such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, draw on the oral origins of the stories, along with Gidwitz’s favorite English translator of the Grimms’ tales: Ralph Mannheim.

“He keeps the lyric quality, as well as all the blood and gore,” says Gidwitz of Mannheim.

Gidwitz tests his versions of stories on kids. “The first time I ever told these stories to children, I was supposed to be a substitute librarian for a day,” he says. He pulled out a copy of the Grimms’ stories and opened it up to one called Faithful Johannes. In it, children get their heads cut off by their parents.

“I thought, ‘Can I read this to second graders?'” Gidwitz remembers. “And I thought, ‘Let’s find out!’”

As he started reading the story aloud, he saw some of the children getting nervous. He started making jokes to calm them down and warning them when a scary moment was coming up. Afterwards, a few kids came up to Gidwitz. He says they were shaking — traumatized. “But one of them pointed her finger in my face and she said, ‘That was good. You should make that into a book,'” he says.

And so he did, using the same formula as his first-ever reading: Adding jokes and preparing the listener for the violent parts — and then including all the gore.

(In the audio of this story, you’ll hear Gidwitz tell his own version of Snow White, complete with references to “punks,” J.C. Penney and Foot Locker)

Gidwitz’s versions of the Brothers Grimm stories have now been translated back to German. “I get a lot of positive feedback from the Germans,” he says. “They like it when Grimms’ tales get recognized.”


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Global leaders speak English, occasionally

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

In the podcast I set Marco a quiz. I play him five current heads of state speaking English. He identified two of them. Go on, you know you can do better…answers at the bottom of the post.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Aaron Schachter.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke at the UN General Assembly last week, he started with this: “At the dawn of the 21st century, we had every reason to be optimistic about the future…” And then he stumbled. But it didn’t matter. He had made his point already.

Just by speaking in English, Gul conveyed his support for the US, says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“When choosing whether to speak in a foreign language … you have to balance symbolism, on the one hand, and the need to be understood on the other,” Singh says. “Speaking to a foreign audience in their own language can be a very powerful gesture of outreach and respect, even if frankly the phrase that you use or the attempt to speak the language is not particularly fluent.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke English every chance he got, with a heavy accent, and pretty basic vocabularly — certainly more basic than when he spoke Hebrew. Many Israeli officials — and Israeli citizens — see speaking English as a sign of their importance on the world stage and their friendship with the US.

But English can send the wrong message for some leaders, and separate them from their people. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks English, but rarely speaks it in public. And never in a diplomatic setting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a charity fundraiser.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” in English at a charity fundraiser.

Phillip Seib, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says sometimes diplomats refuse to speak English out of national pride.

“They have their own language,” Seib says. “Why should they speak someone else’s language? Particularly in developing countries, this is a way to assert themselves. And they just don’t see any reason to conform to others’ linguistic abilities.”

And there can be risk in speaking English. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spent several years earning his Ph.D. in Scotland. And you’d think that if he can understand and speak that English, he could easily speak English to an American TV audience or at the UN.

But when the issues are so nuanced, and the relationship so fragile, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni, Iranian leaders like Rouhani want to play it safe. So they use their native langugage, “just because it is the one in which they’re most forcefully articulate, polished and can have the most sophisticated statements and arguments.”

And there’s an added benefit from using an interpreter. The time waiting for interpretation gives you a few extra seconds to think. And if you’re seen as saying something controversial, you can just blame it on a bad interpretation.


Answers to the quiz on foreign leaders speaking English:

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Manmohan Singh
3. Angela Merkel
4. François Hollande
5. Rafael Correa


Listen above or on iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .

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A Call for English Only at the European Union

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

Here’s a guest post from Brussels-based reporter Don Duncan…

The Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the founding event of what is now the European Union, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of nationalism in Europe. But over a half-century later, walking through any of the EU buildings in Brussels, it feels like nationalism never went away.

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union – at a current cost of $1.4bn per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union.

You might wonder then, when most if not all EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master – English?

“It’s tempting of course, with English you get through everywhere in the whole world,” says Andrea Dahman, head of communications for the Translation Unit of the European Commission. “On the other hand, I’m always saying, if you want to do business you’ve got to speak the language of the client.”

Interpretors of various languages work interpreting a presentation at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

In the EU, in order to speak the “language of the client” – that is the languages of the 27 member states – a long, costly and time-consuming chain of tasks needs to happen.

Once a delegate or bureaucrat delivers a speech in his or her native language, it is then taken up by dozens of interpreters, who simultaneously translate into their respective languages, or tune into the English interpretation and work from that.

Meanwhile, an official release of the speech is produced and this is sent to the translation unit and – again – either directly, or via English, a separate group of text-based translators gets to work.

Within the EU institutions, ideology trumps pragmatism, and the founding ideology of the Union is “Unity in Diversity.” Back in 1957, when there were only six member states and four languages, it was an easy credo to follow. But fast-forward to today and things are not so easy: 27 member states and 23 official languages. It’s costing the EU a lot of money, it’s having a negative impact on its global competitiveness and it will only get more complex as the union continues to enlarge. In July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU, and Croatian the 24th official language.

As the EU gets larger, critics of the multilingual system are becoming more vocal. For Shada Islam director of policy at Brussels think thank Friends of Europe, the process is costly, unproductive, and most of all, unnecessary.

“We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue,” she says. “The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.

While more and more respected public policy organizations are calling for establishing English as the language of the EU, the idea remains politically toxic. English is the language of the most eurosceptic country – the UK. What’s more, France and Germany are very touchy when it comes to having their languages eclipsed by English. Regardless of sentiment, EU officials argue that using any single language wouldn’t be democratic, or in the shared spirit of the union.

“Europeans believe or at least they think they should believe very much in diversity and in inclusion and that everyone is equal,” says Shada Islam of Friends of Europe. “It’s an artificial mental set up, if you like. Everyone is not equal. There are big powers, there’s Germany, there’s France… so we’re not all equal.”

But despite the growing cost and complexity, and the growing skepticism from outside the EU institutions, the Union is holding course and shows no sign of shifting. When Croatian becomes the official language in July, the cost of the union’s commitment to multilingualism will nudge up to an estimated $1.5bn a year.


Patrick Cox adds: Here’s a link to John Crace’s excellent Digested Read podcast that I mentioned in the pod.

Other podcasts on this subject:



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Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.



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Mademoiselle in Song, and Translating Jargon


The French government has turned its back on Mademoiselle, eliminating the title from official forms. Mademoiselle roughly equates to Miss. Though it means unmarried woman, it also implies that said woman is young—25 or younger. And that just doesn’t fit with the times. In fact, it hasn’t for several decades.

French singers love Mademoiselle. Aside from it being rhyme-friendly, the word rolls sweetly off the tongue. Will singers now take the government’s lead and stop using the term?

In a way, they already have. These days, Mademoiselle is often used self-consciously and ironically. Consider Zaza Fournier’s 2009 song Mademoiselle . It’s about a cross-dressing man. In the video, Fournier returns the gender favor, and wears male clothing and a painted mustache.

That’s a far cry from the breezy, if tearful, 20-year-old who struts along some of Paris’ poshest streets as described by Jacqueline François in her 1948 classic Mademoiselle de Paris.

We sample those songs in the pod, and hear from my French-born colleague Adeline Sire, whose two sisters take opposing views of Mademoiselle’s official demise. Adeline has a very funny post on that here (and another post on an overlooked moment at the Oscars here).

Also in this week’s pod:

  • Native speakers of Russian, Vietnamese and Arabic discuss how they translate English language news jargon. As one of them describes it, journalists and politicians like to “hide behind a pyramid of nonsensical words.” And for all your nonsensical word needs may I suggest that you consult the very fine Newswordy site?
  • As Britain’s Sun newspaper faces questions over alleged payments to police officers, we consider the language of tabloid news.
  • Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese clash over language and politics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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