Word for Word: Session 2


Robert Lane Greene

Journalist, author of You Are What You Speak


N. Katherine Hayles

Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Literature, Duke University

Anthony Pym

Director of Postgraduate Programs in Translation, Universitat Rovira i Virgili; Researcher, Monterey Institute of International Studies

Biljana Scott

Senior Lecturer in Political Language and Public Diplomacy, DiploFoundation

Session 2


Robert Lane Greene

We’re off to a thought-provoking start. Biljana makes the point that those connections between words and ideas’ in speakers minds can be called the unsaid. The unsaid is much more than nothing, and can be nearly everything: the things that really don’t need saying are the things that both conversation partners can take for granted because they go so deep. This is why people from different cultures can misunderstand each other despite successful literal translation: in some cultures, for example, an offer of food must be refused several times before a dramatically reluctant show of acceptance. The foreigner who says, “Sure!” on the first offer doesn’t know what his grammar book failed to teach him.

This observation can be usefully extended across levels of analysis; not only do whole languages differ in what can be left unsaid, but so do social groups, dialect groups, and individuals. Spouses and intimate friends can leave many things unsaid indeed. And by contrast, miscommunication or humor can result when speaker and spoken-to have different expectations from the unsaid: “I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired!”

Anthony anticipated this conclusion—that within-language “translation” and interlanguage translation differ mainly in degree, not in kind: “Once you accept that variation operates within a language, there is nothing particularly scandalous about seeing it work in translation across languages.” Translators accept this stoically; they know they could translate anything perfectly, given infinite time and space, but that nobody has either. Perfect communication is so desirable, and yet so elusive, that we once convinced ourselves that it would rival the power of God himself; hence the story of the Tower of Babel and all that.

Perhaps our native languages exert such a hold on our imaginations because we can’t remember a time without them. As Katherine says, we imbibe it with our mothers’ milk. Or even before: newborns recognize the speech patterns of their language compared to others because they learned its rhythms by feeling it through their mothers’ bodies. No wonder it seems so hard to step outside oneself into another language, no matter how fluent you might become. And yet the modern world leaves most of us little choice: few people can now live a life unconfronted by the need for translation, literal and otherwise. As Anthony points out, true translation might not always matter. But we’re also all too familiar with the consequences of getting it wrong, from the comical to the tragic. We can’t avoid each other, so more and more of us need to get our heads around not just translation but how to think about it, including keeping one eyeball on that unsaid that Biljana points to.

Perhaps in our next round we can move from the abstract to the specific—particularly successful translations and particularly illuminating pitfalls. Such examples need not be limited to language-to-language translation, either. Katherine has started us off by talking about the translation from paper to e-reader; I’d be curious to see more in this and other directions.


Anthony Pym

“As technology accelerates cultural exchange . . .” begins our remit. There’s a bit more to it: technology is also accelerating translation, in quite strange ways. Lane rightly asks for specifics, so here is a specific case.

This week I am translating a book with Google Translator Toolkit, which is a free online machine-translation service and translation-memory tool. Here is my next sentence, a machine translation from Catalan:

“In 1898, the area around the cave Morago were very different as they are today, the river banks were is'aprofitaven margins for irrigated using water from the Fangs.”

Pretty rough: plurals and singulars are mixed up, the proper nouns are a mess, and the verb is not recognized. Now I edit this as:

“In 1898, the area around the Morago cave was very different from what it is today: the river banks were terraced and were used for irrigation with water from the Ullals River.”

Why would anyone want to translate this way? Well, it’s actually a bit quicker than translating from scratch; I get a lot of good terminology on-screen instantly; and I don’t have to type so much. Most important, no one will ever have to translate this sentence again: my edited version is not just in my translation memory but in Google’s online Catalan-English database. And since this is statistical machine translation, the more we use the system, the better the output will get, for this sentence and for all sentences using these phrases. Sure, Google gets the fruit of my work, but so do all users, hopefully producing more and better translations to and from Catalan.

This means that free online machine translation is going to improve very rapidly—soon anyone will be able to translate in this way. Translating will be like singing: we can all do it. It will be a participatory, social activity, as it is now for the fans who have translated Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

Of course, just as some people sing better than others, some translate better, and are worth paying for. They will do more than tidy up bad machine translations.

At the time Picasso was living in that Morago cave, at age sixteen, he would go down to the oil mill in the village of Horta, in northeast Spain, where I am now, and eat the following:

"a large slice of toast put into a dish of olive oil so that it became saturated, then with a little salt and garlic—it 'tasted like heaven.'”

That's what the Catalan text says. My problem, though, is that when the people around me eat toast this way, they put the garlic on first—you cut the garlic in two and just rub it on the bread. That doesn't work if the toast is already saturated with olive oil. So should I correct the text and improve the recipe? Or condemn a generation of English-speaking would-be Picassos to years of messy oil on their fingers?

As technology allows everyone to translate, professional translation problems will move to questions of what to choose, what to trust, and thus of ethics. It's not a question of reproducing something, or of seeking equivalent experience—it’s about the quality of new cross-cultural experiences.


N. Katherine Hayles

Lane alludes to the Tower of Babel. If it stands for a world in which there is a cacophony of diverse languages, its opposite is the dream of a universal language, whose many schemes have ranged from John Wilkins’s analytical language in the seventeenth century, which aspired to rationalize language by adding standardized prefixes and suffixes, to the famous Esperanto, which began in the late nineteenth century, and beyond. An intriguing chapter in this history is mathematician Warren Weaver’s linking of it with cryptography.

During World War II, Weaver became aware of a cryptographer who intercepted a message written in Turkish. Without knowing in what language the message was written and without knowing a word of Turkish, the cryptographer nevertheless decoded the message correctly. This gave Weaver the idea that cryptography might provide the basis for universal translation. Let us assume, he wrote in a memorandum in 1949, that Chinese is “really” English encoded using cryptographic methods (in other versions, he used Russian, another language fraught with Cold War tensions). Therefore, using the same cryptanalytic techniques that succeeded in breaking the ultra-secret German Enigma codes (and later the Japanese codes) in World War II, could not translation into English from any other language be handled through mechanical cryptanalysis?

Although his proposal was never implemented, one part of it is still intriguing enough to provoke continuing commentary. Weaver sketches a scene in which various people, all housed in towers distant from one another, try to communicate by yelling to each other, with little success. But then he imagines the towers are all connected by a common basement. By going down into the basement, the people find they can communicate without difficulty. Many commentators have noted that Weaver’s towers recall not only the Tower of Babel but also the “Tower of Languages,” as digital media scholar Rita Raley calls it, that is used by networked and programmable machines and includes scripting languages and programming languages such as Java and C++ on down to assembler and, below that, binary code.

Although not a language itself, binary code is probably as close to a universal translator as the world will ever see. Not only does it translate all text written, stored, and transmitted in networked and programmable machines; it also encodes everything from sounds and images to graphics and animation. Through extensive sets of standards set by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), computers with different specifications are able to process and produce binary code, of which every other kind of programming code is a construction. So in a sense, Warren Weaver’s proposal has been realized, not only in its general thrust but also with the vertical imagery he used.

The irony is that while programmable machines everywhere can use this code, very few humans can understand it without translation into higher programming languages. So we are left yelling from our towers and hoping that the computers down in the basement can offer translations good enough for us to understand one another.


Biljana Scott

My instant reaction to Lane’s call for pitfalls and successes in translation is that success depends on achieving one’s aims, and those aims are likely to differ not only across disciplines but also within the same profession, as I hope to illustrate with regard to diplomacy.

One might think that in diplomacy close translations are a priority. And sure enough, a lot of time is spent in international organizations on securing agreed definitions of key terms and on ensuring that these terms are translated “correctly,” or at least with as little ambiguity as possible. One of the main jobs of the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism, for example, is to resolve ambiguities that have provoked dispute. But even though clarity and precision may be central to diplomacy, they are not always essential, or even desirable. Ambiguity has many advantages: it can allow two divergent positions to be reconciled in a single “piece of language,” and as a result it can buy time, prevent loss of face, and prepare the ground for the next round of talks.

An example of translation-related “constructive ambiguity” concerns the Hainan Island incident of April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a piloted Chinese interceptor. The Chinese demanded an apology from the U.S. government that included the word “regret.” But because regret can be interpreted as an admission of responsibility, the U.S. insisted on the word “sorry,” which may or may not entail guilt. In what came to be known as “the letter of the two sorries,” the U.S. stuck to being “very sorry,” both about the loss of the Chinese pilot’s life and about entering Chinese airspace. The Chinese, however, translated the first of these as “sincere regret” (shen biao qian yi), thus capitalizing on the wiggle room provided by translation. The second of these sorries (translated as zhen cheng yi han) is, if not an “illuminating pitfall,” a dark snake pit of impersonal passives and agentless verbs: “We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance.”

One of the most controversial examples of ambiguity in diplomatic language concerns United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which asks for “the immediate withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”—that is, the 1967 Six-Day War. Does the lack of a definite article “the” and the quantifier “all” before the word “territories” imply, as the Israelis claim, that only some territories are being referred to? The French version, calling for “retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territories occupés,” does have a definite article (“des”), but then the French language requires an article in that position: des territoires occupés. Although this is often cited as an example of constructive ambiguity, it might better qualify as an instance of bad-faith interpretation. Where one party imposes its own unilateral interpretation, bad faith may turn into bad blood.

If success depends on achieving one’s aims, then translations that are linguistically faulty may nevertheless be successful in a diplomatic context where the aim is constructive ambiguity. I concluded my last piece by suggesting that the incongruities and serendipities found in translation are essential to art. They are, I would like to argue here, equally essential to the art of diplomacy.


Elena Iaffa wrote :

It is true that one can find a word or a phrase to translate almost any word, concept, or expression in another language, and when no such word can be found, people "borrow" words from other languages and adopt them as their own (such as Spanish "flamenco," French "croissant," English "computer," etc., etc.). However, what we can not translate is what certain styles of speaking or a particular choice of words implies. It is true that the real challenge is in translating the unspoken. Just like with dinosaur bones: we can re-create the whole skeleton and from there, we can re-create what the creature looked like, but we can not imagine what that creature saw or smelled or the way it interacted with the world. That is why a writer like Zoschenko, a brilliant Russian writer, can be translated into English but can not be understood (to the point where he becomes popular with the general public, not just a few enthusiastic students of the Russian language), because he relied on what his readers would know about his characters from the way his characters spoke (their social class, education, upbringing, etc.). Similarly, would a black rapper, a representative of a subculture, be fully understood when translated into Russian? Could the word "dude" be translated into Russian in such a way as to conjure up a similar image of a laid-back surfer?

And another question: Does it really matter in the modern world where people hunt information first and foremost? I read works in translation because I seek pleasure in learning new things and educating myself, but I certainly do not expect to grasp all the nuances of what it means to be, for example, a Norwegian or Italian. I speak two languages and I find I am two different people, one in Russian and another one in English. English provides a perfect shield from all the extra weight and drama that my native language imposes on me. So, it is really my second language, English, that allows me to be myself (I am a very private person), while the native language demands that I grade each experience on a scale of various degrees of emotional intensity. Therefore, I have a good idea of what I am losing when a literary piece is translated. But yet, it is a chance to catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar place, an unfamiliar life, history and culture, and for that, it is all worth it.
Elena Iaffa posted on 04/13/11
Rosemary Yeoland wrote :

So the translator has to be then perhaps more skilled than the original poet or writer, as he/she is not only thinking in the mother tongue but treading somewhere between two worlds and making subjective choices in his/her creation of a suitable translation?
Rosemary Yeoland posted on 04/13/11
artist / educator TRACEE PICKETT wrote :

Words. In the 1970s, it began with Coke using our beautiful lyrics to songs like: "I'd like to teach the world to sing" and changing them to "I'd like to buy the world a coke." The beliefs that are inherent spiritual values within the original song were then translated from what the artist had intended as a gift and then turned into means to sell a products instead of to reveal or derive any spiritual meaning. It can all be very confusing.

Not only does the meaning of the original lyrics have greater meaning but so did the actual music, which is a form of language expressed.

One can only specify actual translation in some cases to a set time and place as well as surrounded culture I suppose. Though I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss in a public forum.
artist / educator TRACEE PICKETT posted on 04/12/11
Laila Pedro wrote :

Two of the big questions here, that of the "true" translation, and that of the semantic or aesthetic value lost in the process, are beautiful addressed by Walter Benjamin in "The Task of the Translator":

"As translation is a mode of its own, the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet. The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet's work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual effects."

Translations, then, are not merely tools or implements facilitating the transparency of languages, for making them intelligible to each other. In fact, in many ways such a process is the opposite of translation as a creative and intellectual praxis that is charged with the additional responsibility of transforming and representing, in the terms and context of its own language, an aesthetic effect, rather than with effecting a simple etymological explanation.

It's worth noting, also, that translation is not a simple dialogue between two given languages (say French and English), but in fact contains the multiple registers, tones, affects, and implications that a given work contains.
Laila Pedro posted on 04/12/11

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