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Posts Tagged ‘The Translation Zone’

I was wandering around the ocean of links and more links, when I found a blog called Flabbertech, which announces enthusiastically that “the simultaneous translator is almost a reality”. There is a Star Trek quote and then the blogger asks us what is surely meant to be a rhetorical question:

Have you ever dreamt or even just hoped to be able to communicate with every person in the world without having to know all the languages but simply by speaking your mother tongue?

Honestly, not at all. At the most I have dreamt or hoped to be able to learn thirty or a thousand languages. Mainly because if I didn’t know a specific language, I would be lacking a tool that is essential if one wants to understand the culture speaking it. And the conversation would be somewhat beckettian, I guess. It’s perfectly fine to be a nerd, finer still dreaming about a Star Trek utopia (I had the entire classic series on tape, just for the record, and it would be awesome to have a replicator and get pappardelle with fresh porcini down here in Australia) but when we talk about reality can we please try to keep its complexity in mind?  Too many people still see completely oblivious of the fact that languages are not equivalent and interchangeable codes. I can cope with this, but on the other hand I think it’s sort of my duty to contribute my two cents and try to spread the awareness of what language is, and how the sentence “in the beginning was the word” has quite a literal meaning.

Anyway, let’s not delve into the nature of language and the way it’s inextricably linked to culture, and let’s see: does this thing work? Are we really in Star Trek, and I hadn’t noticed? There’s a video explaining how the widget works:

Images of Captain Kirk aside, it doesn’t really seem that mind-blowing. Watching the video we find out that the program is being tested  in 25 situations American soldiers commonly find themselves in Afghanistan. In the comments, we find out that you need 4-5 seconds to translate 10 words. Basically, it’s nothing amazing. Especially when one thinks of the cost of these projects. Very advanced technology, don’t get me wrong, but – considering the results – was it really necessary? Brian Weiss, part of the evaluation team, says (2 mins 20 secs)

unfortunately there is a shortage of interpreters, a shortage of very reliable interpreters, and machine translation offers a unique tool in the sense that machines don’t get tired, people do.

Meet Captain Obvious. To reply in style, do we dare say that people interpret – in the fullest sense of the word, meaning that they are able to evaluate and give meaning to, say, non-verbal messages – and machines don’t? A flesh-and-bone interpreter will be quicker and much more accurate. Secondly, they could count on their knowledge and understanding of the “other” culture. Finally, they will be able to interact with people using not only these cultural tools, but also that 80% of communication that is non-verbal. Big shots from an intelligence agency should know these are not small details. Or at least, an average citizen whose security is supposedly in their hands would hope so.

Weiss might be right when he says that there is shortage of interpreters, and I guess that very few professionals are ready to move to Afghanistan or Iraq and work on the field. Why not look to the military, then, and invest in training? Many people choose to join the army to be able to study, why not offer incentives to whoever chooses the path of language learning and interpreting?

A little research, and I find out, on Cellular News, that the project, named TRANSTAC, is currently being tested on Pashto, Dari and Iraqi Arabic. One would expect some major breakthrough, but the gist is old news:

All new TRANSTAC systems all work much the same way, says project manager Craig Schlenoff. An English speaker talks into the phone. Automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign language speaker.

Are you kidding me? Firstly, there’s the problem of how reliable speech recognition might be (think of noise, and above all dialects and idiolects). Secondly, judging by the shortcomings of machine translation, I wouldn’t be to sure of that text-to-text part, either. Synthesis is probably the only segment that, bar major disasters, seems to be reliable. Is this stuff really seen as preferrable to the training of flesh-and-bones “war interpreters”?

Apparently so. The problem of bad translation in the theater of war was analysed brilliantly by Emily Apter in The Translation Zone. Where we can see that similar technologies have been around for a while and so far

the results proved to be unreliable, and in the worst cases fatally flawed

Emily Apter’s essay also includes a quote of a New York Times article from 2003, where Edward Luttwak hints to the linguistic side of intelligence gathering:

”To be a case officer you have to be a poet,” he continued. ”You need to romance and seduce. You need to be able to learn Urdu in six months.” Woefully short of language skills, many American intelligence officials, ”can’t even ask for a cup of coffee.”

Great. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of information gathered by an organisation which does not seem to have any idea of how important linguistic competence is. To the point that, instead of implementing new programs and train operatives with an in-depth knowledge of the language and culture of the war zone, they prefer to play Spock & Kirk with unlikely and dreadfully expensive gadgets which will hardly ever replace human intelligence. Looks like a bunch of fluff to me.

PHOTO: Communicator vs. iPhone, by Lee Bennett (Flickr)

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Qualche giorno fa, grazie all’ottimo post di ArabLit, ho trovato un interessante articolo sul Telegraph, l’ennesima recensione di Why Translation Matters di Edith Grossman. Questa volta il recensore è Michael Hofmann.

La posizione di Hofmann è piuttosto critica, non tanto verso le idee di Grossman, quanto nei confronti della forma in cui il libro le esprime. Hofmann fa notare come i migliori pensieri di un traduttore sulla traduzione si troveranno nelle sue traduzioni, e come libri di questo genere troppo spesso finiscano per non avere un pubblico preciso. Non sono per i colleghi traduttori, per i quali si tratta spesso di cose già sentite, e non sono né per “i nemici della traduzione”, né “per il grande pubblico.”

I trucchi da professoressa mettono in imbarazzo la scrittrice: domande retoriche, brandelli di gergo accademico con relativi sproloqui, troppe citazioni di troppe “autorità”, sterili liste in cui si elencano gli attributi delle parole, le caratteristiche dello stile, le glorie degli autori.

Hofmann mette a fuoco un problema reale. Noi traduttori desideriamo continuamente che la gente sia più conscia dell’importanza della nostra arte, ma ci sono troppi casi in cui i nostri sforzi non raggiungono il bersaglio. I traduttori si avventurano spesso in opere di stampo accademico, ma ciò rende molto difficile che il grande pubblico ne sia a conoscenza e legga tali opere, non parliamo poi di capirle. D’altro canto, tuttavia, gli ambienti accademici finora sono stati fondamentalmente incapaci di prendere sul serio la traduzione. Qualche mese fa, un interessante articolo su The Chronicle of Higher Education ha parlato di questo problema, dando anche una piccola buona notizia (il convegno della Modern Language Association del 2009 era incentrato sulla traduzione) :

Proprio come gli editori hanno la spiacevole tendenza a non pensare neppure di stampare il nome del traduttore in copertina – l’idea è che una traduzione si venderebbe meno facilmente – allo stesso modo nelle università si è finora preferito non parlare di traduzione con i candidati in cerca di un posto, di una promozione o di una cattedra. Sembra quasi che la traduzione sia un brutto vizio, come il gioco d’azzardo, che i candidati dovrebbero tenere nascosto anziché pubblicizzare.

Addirittura ti danneggia, il che è sconvolgente se consideriamo che la traduzione è da 3.000 anni il cuore del sapere letterario,” fa notare Esther Allen, assistente professore del dipartimento di lingue moderne e letteratura comparata al Baruch College della City University of New York

Sulla stessa lunghezza d’onda, Martin Riker ha scritto, anche lui in seguito al meeting della MLA:

Nonostante la stragrande maggioranza dei traduttori professionisti si guadagni da vivere insegnando nelle università, una simile devozione non è certo reciproca, dato che gli ambienti universitari, dal canto loro, finora sono stati incapaci di considerare la traduzione una disciplina artistico-intellettuale che merita rispetto.

Sembra che siamo ancora una volta presi in mezzo. Ci ritroviamo nell’ennesima Translation Zone. Temiamo che il lettore medio non capirà le nostre sottigliezze o che semplicemente non gli interesserà sapere cosa sta dietro a una traduzione, a patto che si legga bene. Così ci rivolgiamo ad un esiguo gruppo di persone in grado di capire le minuzie del caso, ma l’immenso sforzo necessario ad entrare e il modo in cui quel mondo funziona non ci aiuterà granché ad ottenere i riconoscimenti per cui lottiamo.

Prendendomi cura di questo blog ho sentito spesso una tensione simile. Come due forze opposte, una delle quali mi tira verso una divulgazione senza fronzoli volta a far capire l’importanza del nostro lavoro e le ragioni per cui dovremmo essere meglio pagati e valorizzati, e l’altra che mi tira verso un approccio più sofisticato, autorevole ed elitista, che quantomeno scimmiotti l’approccio accademico. Quel che trovo interessante è che non sembra sia in grado di arrendermi a nessuno dei due. Non voglio semplicemente parlare sommariamente per esempi, e di certo non voglio risultare ermetico alle orecchie di quei lettori che vorrei invece sensibilizzare.

Ma dopotutto sono sospeso fra i paesi e le culture, fra le lingue e le classi sociali. Tanto vale restare sospeso fra il divulgare ed il filosofeggiare.

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A few days ago, thanks to ArabLit, I found a very interesting article on the Telegraph, a review of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters by Michael Hofmann.

Hofmann’s take is fairly critical, not of the ideas that Grossman puts forward, but certainly of the form she has chosen. He points out how a translator’s best thinking about translation will be in their translations, and how this kind of book too often ends up being aimed at no one in particular. It’s not for fellow translators, and it’s neither for “the enemies of translations” nor “the generality”.

Tricks from the lecturer’s bag let down the writer: rhetorical questions, bits of academic jargon and waffle, too many quotations from too many “authorities,” sterile listings of the attributes of words, the qualities of style, the glories of authors.

Hofmann is onto something, here. We, as translators, often long for people to be more aware of the importance of our craft, but there are too many cases of our attempts backfiring. Translators often venture into academic writing, but this makes it highly unlikely that the general public will even hear about their book and read it, let alone understand it. On the other hand, though, academia has mostly failed to treat translation seriously. A few months ago, a very interesting article on The Chronicle of Higher Education addressed this problem, while also giving good news about minor progress (last year’s Modern Language Association meeting focused on translation) :

Just as publishers have had an unfortunate tendency not to bother putting translators’ names on book jackets—the idea being that translations are harder to sell—so hiring and tenure-and-promotion committees have preferred not to hear about the translation activities of the candidates whose dossiers they review. It’s almost as though translation is a bad habit, like gambling, that candidates should conceal rather than advertise.

“It actively works against you, which is amazing if you consider that for 3,000 years translation has been at the heart of literary scholarship,” says Esther Allen, an assistant professor in the department of modern languages and comparative literature at Baruch College of the City University of New York

Similarly, Martin Riker wrote, around the same time, and also following the MLA’s meeting:

Although the vast majority of professional-grade translators make their living as university professors, such devotion has hardly been reciprocated by academia itself, which traditionally has failed to treat translation as serious professional work or literary translation as a serious intellectual-artistic discipline.

It seems like we’re caught in between, once again. It is yet another Translation Zone we find ourselves in. We fear that the average reader won’t understand our subtleties or just won’t be interested in knowing what’s behind a translation, as long as it reads well. So we turn to a very small group of people who could understand the minutiae of our process, but the great effort needed to get in and the way that world works won’t really serve us to increase awareness and get recognition.

I have felt this tension in this first couple of months of maintaining this blog. Like two opposing pulls, one towards a no-frills popularisation of why a translator’s work is important and should be better paid and valued, and the other towards a more refined, more authoritative, more elitist approach, somewhat mimicking academic writing. What’s interesting is that I can’t seem to surrender to either of them. I don’t want to just talk casually about case studies, and I certainly don’t want to sound obscure to the very public I am trying to reach and make aware.

But then again, I’m in between countries and in between cultures, in between languages and in between social classes. I might as well just stay in between popularising and philosophising.

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Il Professor Robert Dixon, dell’Università di Sydney, sta realizzando un sondaggio sulla traduzione della letteratura australiana, nell’ambito di un progetto chiamato Australian Literature in the Translation Zone. Se vi è capitato di tradurre delle opere australiane, potete partecipare scaricando e completando il questionario, e inviandolo al Professor Robert Dixon all’indirizzo e-mail robert.dixon@sydney.edu.au.

Riporto la prima pagina per darvi un’idea del progetto:

Australian Literature in the Translation Zone Survey

Australian Literature in the Translation Zone is project funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted by Professor Robert Dixon, Professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney, on the translation of Australian literature.

Australian literature is now recognised as part of the larger field of world literature. Central to this expanded field is the role of the translator, so often rendered ‘invisible’, as Lawrence Venuti has observed. Australian writers and Australian literature belong to what Emily Apter calls ‘the translation zone’, which she describes as ‘a broad intellectual topography’ in and between national literatures.

Apter’s ‘translation zone’ is of course a spatial metaphor. But to understand how that space operates we need to populate it with data about the cultural economy of translation. Is there, for example, a single translation zone, or are there as many translation zones beyond Australian literature as there are languages and translators? Beyond English, does the reputation of an Australian book or writer spread from one foreign language to another, or are they siloed, communicating back through the English language and Australia? Is the impact of successive translations cumulative throughout a writer’s oeuvre, or is each translation a new beginning for the translator? How important are paratextual phenomena and events, such as writers’ festivals? How important is the agency of the author and translator in relation to other personnel, including authors’ and publishers’ agents, publishers, editors, and publishers’ scouts, in commissioning translations? Increasingly, it seems that overseas rights and translation contracts are initiated by publishers and their scouts at events such as the Frankfurt and London trade fairs. Are these commercial arrangements similar throughout the world or do they vary from one culture to another? As if confirming Venuti’s claim for the translator’s ‘invisibility’, there is to date no systematic, empirically-informed account of this ‘translation’ zone in Australian literary scholarship. This project aims to answer some of these research questions by populating the metaphor of the ‘translation zone’ with real data.

You can help in compiling this data about Australian literature in translation by completing the enclosed survey.

Professor Robert Dixon FAHA

Professor of Australian Literature

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Professor Robert Dixon, from the University of Sydney, is conducting a survey about Australian literature in translation, as part of a project called Australian Literature in the Translation Zone. If you are a translator of Australian literature, you can participate by downloading this questionnaire, filling it in and sending it back to him at robert.dixon@sydney.edu.au.

Here is a brief introduction to the project:

Australian Literature in the Translation Zone Survey

Australian Literature in the Translation Zone is project funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted by Professor Robert Dixon, Professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney, on the translation of Australian literature.

Australian literature is now recognised as part of the larger field of world literature. Central to this expanded field is the role of the translator, so often rendered ‘invisible’, as Lawrence Venuti has observed. Australian writers and Australian literature belong to what Emily Apter calls ‘the translation zone’, which she describes as ‘a broad intellectual topography’ in and between national literatures.

Apter’s ‘translation zone’ is of course a spatial metaphor. But to understand how that space operates we need to populate it with data about the cultural economy of translation. Is there, for example, a single translation zone, or are there as many translation zones beyond Australian literature as there are languages and translators? Beyond English, does the reputation of an Australian book or writer spread from one foreign language to another, or are they siloed, communicating back through the English language and Australia? Is the impact of successive translations cumulative throughout a writer’s oeuvre, or is each translation a new beginning for the translator? How important are paratextual phenomena and events, such as writers’ festivals? How important is the agency of the author and translator in relation to other personnel, including authors’ and publishers’ agents, publishers, editors, and publishers’ scouts, in commissioning translations? Increasingly, it seems that overseas rights and translation contracts are initiated by publishers and their scouts at events such as the Frankfurt and London trade fairs. Are these commercial arrangements similar throughout the world or do they vary from one culture to another? As if confirming Venuti’s claim for the translator’s ‘invisibility’, there is to date no systematic, empirically-informed account of this ‘translation’ zone in Australian literary scholarship. This project aims to answer some of these research questions by populating the metaphor of the ‘translation zone’ with real data.

You can help in compiling this data about Australian literature in translation by completing the enclosed survey.

Professor Robert Dixon FAHA

Professor of Australian Literature

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Nel numero di maggio/giugno di Foreign Policy, Edith Grossman analizza le “inspiegabili reticenze” a pubblicare opere tradotte che caratterizzano le grandi case editrici dei paesi anglofoni, nonostante il successo commerciale ottenuto da molti autori tradotti. Riporto e traduco al volo un paio di passaggi:

Le statistiche sono sconvolgenti, per l’era della cosiddetta globalizzazione: negli Stati Uniti e nel Regno Unito, le traduzioni costituiscono soltanto il 2-3 per cento dei libri pubblicati ogni anno, mentre in America Latina e in Europa Occidentale la percentuale sfiora il 35 per cento. Horace Engdahl, all’epoca segretario dell’Accademia Svedese, nel 2008 rimproverò gli Stati Uniti per il loro provincialismo letterario: “Gli americani sono troppo isolati, troppo insulari. Non traducono abbastanza e non prendono realmente parte al grande dialogo della letteratura.

Ed è vero che l’influenza culturale della letteratura americana nell’ultimo secolo fa pensare ad un “monologo”, un’operazione a senso unico che, sebbene venga spesso vista come “culturalmente imperialista”, non è necessariamente vantaggiosa per il mondo anglofono, al di là delle somme relativamente modeste ricavate dalla vendita dei diritti all’estero. Non è vantaggiosa perché, mentre il resto del mondo riesce a bilanciare la letteratura tradotta e la propria, espandendo così i propri orizzonti culturali – chiunque può capire come e perché il Texas e New York siano due mondi separati, o quanto siano diversi l’inglese medio e l’americano medio – il mondo anglosassone spesso si ritrova incapace di comprendere le altre culture, e in modo particolare le diverse sfumature all’interno di esse.

Il problema ovviamente, è l’approccio generale di tutta una cultura, e questo particolare problema ha avuto conseguenze anche catastrofiche – pensiamo all’approccio culturalmente ottuso dell’amministrazione Bush sul piano internazionale, per fare un esempio ovvio. Le conseguenze più estreme vengono brillantemente riassunte da Emily Apter in uno dei saggi pubblicati in The Translation Zone, nel quale l’autrice fa notare come, alla vigilia dell’invasione dell’Iraq, l’esercito americano

“contasse sull’aiuto dei traduttori automatici per qualsiasi cosa, dall’interrogare i prigionieri al localizzare depositi di armi chimiche.”

e sottolineando che

“La posta in gioco, nel caso di una traduzione errata, è altissima, giacché in un teatro di guerra l’errore di una di queste macchine può facilmente portare alla morte sotto il “fuoco amico” o all’individuazione di un bersaglio errato.”

Apter cita un passaggio particolarmente interessante tratto da Asia Times (11/11/2003) :
“In termini di competenze linguistiche e culturali gli Stati Uniti posseggono ad oggi quel che potrebbe essere il più scadente servizio clandestino che una grande potenza abbia mai avuto nel corso della storia.”
E anche Grossman, ovviamente, non manca di considerare il quadro d’insieme, andando ben oltre i semplici rimproveri ad un pubblico culturalmente pigro, e dicendo che:

Potrebbe anche essere che nel migliore dei mondi possibili – quello antecedente alla costruzione della Torre di Babele – tutti gli esseri umani fossero in grado di comunicare fra loro e che il ruolo dei traduttori fosse letteralmente impensabile. Ma viviamo in un mondo il cui bagaglio linguistico, già in calo, conta all’incirca seimila idiomi, un mondo in cui l’isolazionismo e il nazionalismo sfrenato sono in aumento, e ci sono paesi che stanno iniziando a costruire muri non soltanto metaforici intorno a sè stessi. Non credo di esagerare il problema quando dico che la traduzione può essere, per i lettori come per gli scrittori, uno delle soluzioni per andare oltre un minaccioso brusio di lingue incomprensibili e di frontiere chiuse, per raggiungere la comprensione reciproca. Non si tratta di una possibilità che possiamo ignorare senza conseguenze.

Difficile commentare o aggiungere qualcosa ad un’analisi tanto lucida, per cui vi suggerisco di leggere l’intero articolo qui.

Foto: Rob Purdie

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On the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, Edith Grossman writes that major publishers in the English-speaking world are “inexplicably resistant” to translated material, despite the commercial success that many translated writers have experienced.

The statistics are shocking in this age of so-called globalization: In the United States and Britain, only 2 to 3 percent of books published each year are translations, compared with almost 35 percent in Latin America and Western Europe. Horace Engdahl, then the secretary of the Swedish Academy, chided the United States in 2008 for its literary parochialism: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

It is true that the cultural influence of American literature in the last century looks like a sort of “monologue”, a one-way street that, despite being often seen as culturally imperialistic , it’s not necessarily beneficial to the English-speaking world, besides the relatively small sums earned with the sale of foreign rights. It’s not beneficial because, as the rest of the world balances translated and homegrown literature, thus broadening its cultural horizon – anyone can understand why and how Texas and New York are two worlds apart, or how the average British is different to the average American – the English-speaking world often finds itself at a loss when it comes to understanding other cultures, and especially the nuances within them.

The problem, obviously, is the general approach of a culture as whole, and this particular problem has had its share of catastrophic results – think of the culturally insensitive approach of the Bush administration on the international stage, to quote an obvious example. The most extreme consequences are summed up by Emily Apter in an essay published in The Translation Zone, where she notes how the U.S. military, at the eve of the invasion of Iraq, were

“counting on computerized language translators to help with everything from interrogating prisoners to locating chemical weapons caches.”

noting that

“The stakes of mistranslation are deadly, for in the theater of war a machinic error can easily cause death by “friendly fire” or misguided enemy targets.”

One particularly interesting quote was from Asia Times (11/11/2003) :
“In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity the US today commands what may be the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history.”
And Grossman too addresses the “big picture”, going beyond the simple chastising of lazy readers and saying that:

It may well be that in the best of all possible worlds — the one that predates the construction of the Tower of Babel — all humans were able to communicate with all other humans and the function of translators was quite literally unthinkable. But here we are in a world whose shrinking store of languages comes to roughly 6,000, a world where isolationism and rampaging nationalism are on the rise and countries are beginning to erect actual as well as metaphorical walls around themselves. I do not believe I am overstating the case when I say that translation can be, for readers as well as writers, one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into mutual comprehension. It is not a possibility we can safely turn our backs on.

It’s hard to comment on or add anything to such a lucid analysis, so I’ll just suggest that you read the whole article here.

Photo: Rob Purdie

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